The primary focus of this document is on the direct exploitation of the Internet by the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation to more effectively discharge its own terms of reference. However, the implications of the Internet go much wider than this.
Firstly, I suggest that the Forum, by the mere fact of embracing and exploiting these technologies, would immediately project a new image of Ireland onto the world stage: an image of a young, educated population, with the enthusiasm, understanding and interest to use technology as a tool in their attempt to create a better world.
Secondly, it should be clear that the potential advantages which I have cited for the use of the Internet by the Forum could equally be applied to other aspects of public life in Ireland. Indeed, the Internet is already being actively used to foster communication and co-operation between people throughout the island. For example, there is a Web publication site (The Irish Law Page), and discussion group, dedicated to the discussion of the legal systems in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The membership of this group is naturally derived largely from Ireland and Great Britain, but also has a very large participation from North America, and smaller groups from Australia and a variety of other locations worldwide.
However, such activities are, for the moment, fragmentary. I suggest that barriers of mistrust between the peoples of the island could be significantly reduced if the governments of both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and indeed, the various political parties and other interest groups, were to commit themselves to a new era of open discussion and dissemination of information. The Internet makes such openness technically possible in ways that could not be realistically considered before; but that possibility must be grasped, particularly by the Governments and their agencies. This means both by using the Internet, and by promoting access to it. The American Government has already demonstrated the potential for this sort of development, with rapid electronic publication of everything from Supreme Court Judgements to economic forecasts and indicators; and American political parties are exploiting the power of the Internet for direct and personal communication - for bringing government back to the people. The British Government has recently embarked on a major experimental initiative to make a wide range of public service information available on the Internet. I suggest that a positive use of the Internet by the Forum could provide an important further catalyst in encouraging these developments.
Thirdly, widespread access to to the Internet could have very unique and profound effects in Irish education. The Internet is already being used, particularly in North America, to foster contact and interaction between children from widely separated geographical and cultural backgrounds. Conversely, a common criticism of education in Ireland, particularly at the primary level, is that it fosters and enforces the historical divisions of culture and tradition on the island. Fully integrated schooling may be an ultimate solution to this, but faces very strong opposition for a variety of reasons, and is unlikely to be realised in the immediate future. However, even within the existing educational structures, Internet technology offers a real and tangible possibility for direct, personal communication, interaction and co-operation between children from all traditions. This is something that has, until now, been subject to immense obstacles, both physical and social - obstacles which have often been so deeply entrenched that they are perceived as part of the very fabric of society, and not even open to discussion (let alone change). Of course, the provision of these facilities in schools would require investment - but investment on a very small scale compared to the potential benefits!
Finally, and perhaps even more importantly, the Forum has been charged to "explore ways in which new approaches can be developed to serve economic interests common to both parts of Ireland" . In traditional economic terms Ireland has been severely disadvantaged, lacking mineral resources, and being geographically isolated. However, these traditional disadvantages are precisely those which need no longer operate in the newly emerging information industries. Ireland is already active in promoting itself as a location for such industry; but this could be substantially improved, particularly by an aggressive programme to promote and use the Internet for commercial purposes. Already, many American companies are relying on Internet technology for marketing, for distributing technical data, for providing customer support, and even for distributing product development across globally separated sites. I suggest that there is a window of opportunity for Ireland, North and South, but that this window may be open for only a short period. It is vital that co-ordinated actions be taken now to take advantage of it.