The North has taken huge steps towards delivering the peaceful and just society dreamed of by the civil rights movement, President Mary McAleese said today.
She also called on unionist and republican political leaders to continue to build on the achievements of the Good Friday and St Andrews political agreements.
At a conference in Derry to mark the civil rights campaign of the 1960s, she recalled the impact of anti-Catholic discrimination.
Mrs McAleese recalled how those demanding reform were inspired by the black civil rights campaign in the US led by Martin Luther King.
"The early champions of cvil rights came from right across the traditional religious and political divide," said McAleese.
"They believed that only when Northern Ireland and indeed Ireland, was freed from the politics of sectarianism would its truest and best potential be revealed.
"They believed in non-violence, in peaceful protest, in the politics of persuasion."
"Today the institutions and structures of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements and the framework of human rights legislation which underpins them, provide a sound basis for that equality of citizenship and for relationships of mutual respect and good neighbourliness within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between Ireland and Britain."
The President said perseverance could anchor that progress.
"We know the cost of failure for it is long since written on the tombstones of the dead and the hearts of the injured, the bereaved and the despairing," she added.
McAleese noted that in a speech in Washington last year, First Minister Peter Robinson quoted America's civil war history to note that: "A house divided against itself, cannot stand".
McAleese said: "Though to some it did not appear so, back in 1968 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was about the business of ending wasteful sectarian divisions that had made Northern Ireland a house divided against itself."
The President wished Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness well in their work to secure a new future.
McAleese said: "When we consider the extent of change already achieved, of sacrifices and compromises made on all sides, we take courage and hope."