Keynote Speech by Mr. Tony Blair at Stranmillis University College Belfast, 15 June 1999
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Keynote speech by the Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair at Stranmillis University College, Belfast, Tuesday 15 June 1999.
"This is an anxious time. The people of Northern Ireland face a crisis they do not want, do not deserve and is not of their making. It is right that the alarm bells are ringing.
But we should remember how far we've come.
People on both sides say to me constantly: what has the Good Friday Agreement delivered? Nothing has changed, they say.
I want you to reflect on that. Has nothing really changed? Yes there are acts of violence by thugs on both sides. But the cease-fires are in place; fewer soldiers on the streets; fewer roadblocks; ordinary life returning to our streets and homes; new investment and economic development all around us.
Republicans and Unionists sitting down together to talk.
There is a political process.
There is an Agreement.
British/Irish relations transformed, in a way not seen since partition.
People say this Agreement will collapse like all the rest. But 1974 and 1992 were different.
This has resolved the key constitutional issues: agreement on consent, changes to the Irish constitution; replacement for the Anglo-Irish Agreement, - agreement on an Assembly, North/South bodies and a British Irish Council. And it is a genuinely inclusive process.
This is a million miles further than we've ever been.
Then people say: the other side are purely cynical. It's all manoeuvring. "It's all a tactic to get into the Executive whilst the IRA retain violence. " Or "It's all a tactic to stop us sitting in the Executive and if we overcome this hurdle, they'll think of another." I hear the same phrase, the same words, the same attacks from every party to the peace process, just varied in who they apply to.
So people say: nothing's changed. It's all going to collapse. The other side, but not me are totally cynical.
And I am saying to people: it's all rubbish. Things have changed. I have no doubt at all that people who supported the Agreement want it to work. And if it collapses it is because we all lacked the courage and vision to make it work. The Good Friday Agreement is the one chance Northern. Ireland has got, I know it. You know it.
Those opposed to it have never had an alternative; don't have one now, and never will have one. And that's because - and I'm going to be blunt - they prefer Northern Ireland the way it was. It was simpler. No-one had to make hard choices. No-one had to listen to talk of betrayal from their own supporters. No-one had to speak to people they didn't like. We all just stayed in our little boxes and attacked the others. And Northern Ireland became a symbol for outdated religious conflict.
The Good Friday Agreement saw Northern Ireland for the first time in decades seen as a symbol of hope round the whole world.
So: are we now going to throw it all away and let men of violence dictate the agenda again?
We have resolved the key constitutional issues. But one issue remains- It revolves round the question of trust. Without trust, there can be no political settlement. And there is distrust on all sides. The Republicans fear the Unionists are not and will not be serious about letting them into the democratic process. They think Unionists are trying to re-write the Good Friday Agreement. The Unionists believe the Republicans or a significant section of them are addicted to violence as a tactic.
Unionism must share power with the Nationalist and Republican community. There can no longer be a Northern Ireland based on other than the principles of justice, fairness and equality and recognition that sectarianism is a thing of the past. Many Republicans do not believe that Unionism will share power with them. Unionists must prove them wrong.
I believe David Trimble is sincere in his desire to make this all work. And I say to those who attack him within Unionism: he has taken the hard road. And he has more integrity doing so than those who undermine him without the faintest clue as to a strategy to put in place of his.
Republicans must accept that decommissioning can be got through, but it cannot be got round, Whatever the history, once the previous government raised it in 1995, it was always clear decommissioning would take on a special significance. It may irritate some people that it is so. But it is a fact of life. It is important to spell out why this is so. It is not because people are blind to the inadequacy of decommissioning as a total solution to violence. It isn't. It is simply that if, after all this time. Republicans were still simply to refuse to countenance decommissioning under any circumstances at all, to many Unionists the legitimate question is why? It is because they just won't bow to Unionist demands; or is it, in a more sinister way, because they want to retain violence as an option?
People need to know that if they are going to sit down in government with other people, those other people are fully committed to peaceful means and exclusively so.
So: how do we resolve it? The only way is: we must return to the Good Friday Agreement. That is the binding agreement. That makes the position clear. Decommissioning is not a prior pre-condition of the Executive. But it is plainly part of the process. All parties are obliged to help bring it about. No-one will believe that a party with a close connection with a paramilitary group could not bring about decommissioning.
And if they cannot bring it about why can they not make it clear that they believe decommissioning should happen? And condemn those who fail to bring it about?
We need politicians from both sides to move forward together. To put aside the past and implement the Agreement, All of the Agreement. We all need to accept that the war is over; and that the days of religious conflict with one group seeking supremacy over another are over too.
Right across Northern Ireland there are local authorities and district partnerships where the politicians from all sides work together successfully. Surely in the new Executive we can manage to do the same?
Politicians in Northern Ireland need to take responsibility for this process- It is no good saying they will leave it to the two Governments. As British Prime Minister you get used to everyone blaming you for not doing this or that. But in the end our role can only be to help. To devote time and energy and resources. The final choices lie here. In Northern Ireland.
And that choice includes you the people of Northern Ireland. That is why I appeal to you. the people of Northern Ireland, to urge your politicians on both sides of the divide to be flexible, to show imagination.
Another shadow hangs over us: the appalling, unacceptable situation in Drumcree. People in other parts of the world find it difficult to understand what this dispute is about. A march once a year that takes ten minutes to pass but causes ten months of stand-off. The poisoning of community relations. Violence and murder. Today I meet the residents and the Orange Order to push a process that I hope will lead to a settlement. If we are to bring about real reconciliation here in Northern Ireland, then we must remove this running sore
It has to be settled by mutual agreement now so that the people of Portadown and people right across Northern Ireland can get on with their normal lives. This is not and cannot be linked to the Good Friday Agreement. But the contribution a settlement could make to the confidence on all sides in peace, is unmistakable.
It is now more than a year since the Good Friday Agreement. More than a year since the referendum in which the overwhelming majority of people, north and south, voted for that Agreement. And opinion polls suggest it is as popular today as it was then.
And yet that Agreement has not yet been implemented, despite over a year of talks and negotiations.
That is why Bertie Ahern and I have set a deadline of 30 June, by which time the Agreement must be implemented. I want people to understand that I am serious about this deadline. Either on 1 July we will move this process forward or we will have to look for another way forward.
Two weeks after I was elected Prime Minister, in 1997 on 16th May, I came to Northern Ireland and delivered a speech In it, I said this:
"I feel the most profound humility at the trust put in me, and with it, an equally profound sense of responsibility. I feel it, perhaps especially, about Northern Ireland. This is not a party political game or even a serious debate about serious run-of-the-mill issues. It is about life and death for people here. An end to violence and there are people, young men and women particularly, who will live and raise families and die in peace. Without it, they will die prematurely and in bloodshed.
It is a responsibility that weighs not just upon the mind, but the soul"
I still feel that responsibility. I meant every word of that speech. Help me now to fulfil it."
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