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Statement by Tony Blair on the recalling of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Armagh, (6 April 2006)



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Text: Tony Blair ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Statement by Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, on the recalling of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Armagh, (6 April 2006)

 

"So the moment comes, as we always knew it would, for the ultimate decision. On Tuesday, we had a reminder of the past: an horrific, bloody murder. It represented all we have sought to escape from, these past nine years.

Today we have the possibility of deciding, over the next nine months, to make the future work.

Go back to the core of this issue for a moment - and it's never wise to prolong this in the politics of Northern Ireland - recall the history. We are here in the island of Ireland that has been riven by strife between British and Irish for centuries.

In the early part of the last century, it was eventually partitioned. The larger part became the Republic of Ireland. The rest stayed part of the UK. But the struggle continued within that part: one tradition wanting a united Ireland; the other to remain in the UK; one predominately Catholic; the other predominately Protestant.

For decades up to 1998, the issue was marked by conflict, often of the most brutal kind. Politics here in Northern Ireland were divided not on the basis of ordinary political philosophy but on the core issue. Perpetual attempts were made to break out of this constraint but none with lasting success. The brutality continued.

Why did we manage to reach agreement in April 1998 on a basis to settle the struggle? Of course, there were acts of courageous political leadership. Of course, painstaking negotiation, often creatively deployed, allowed us to unravel knots of discord. Of course, the advent of new Governments and the pressure of the world to grasp resolution, played their part.

But what determined it, was something different and more profound. The people understood the futility of the status quo. They looked at the world around them, changing rapidly as the millennium drew to a close and realised that they were in danger of being left behind; that the way this struggle was being conducted was indeed brutal and bloody but most of all, it was unbearably old-fashioned, out of date, pointless. No-one was ever going to "win". "Winning" in the sense of the Unionists driven by bombs and terror into a united Ireland; or in the case of Republican and Nationalist sentiment cowed into accepting partition: was simply never going to happen.

The people, without necessarily articulating it in quite this way, understood it and empowered the politicians to move forward.

The basis of the GFA was actually one of mutual respect for a difference of view. Each tradition accepted the other had a right to think and feel differently. One had a right to believe in a united Ireland; the other to believe in the United Kingdom. Both had legitimacy. But neither could be pursued without the consent of the people, freely given.

The idea was then to make politics take the strain of resolving the issues of concern to the people in Northern Ireland within that framework of mutually acknowledged difference.

The GFA was a massive achievement. If it was na´ve ever to think that, by it, all could be resolved with relative ease, then it is fair to say that perhaps only naivety could have emboldened us to aim so high; and without such ambition, we would have achieved nothing.

What has happened subsequently is an object lesson in all conflict resolution. I have dealt with all sides now for almost a decade. The problem is that agreements such as the GFA can provide procedures, mechanisms and laws. What they can't do is enforce a belief in the other's good faith. That can't be forced. It can only come through genuine conviction.

Essentially, in the eight years since the GFA, that has been the issue. Of course it has manifested itself in endless wrangles over the procedures, mechanisms and laws. But the true problem has been that each side has believed in its own good faith but doubted that of the other. Naturally, most of the time, everyone has doubted the good faith of the Governments!

So unionism has often thought that republicanism was adopting a series of tactics in the name of peace; but its strategy was in reality still one of physical violence to circumvent the principle of consent. Republicanism believed it was making the most mighty moves to set aside the past and that unionism was only interested in peace not equality, and without equality there could be no proper peace.

Each side wanted certainty before moving. Each side's uncertainty of the other's certainty led to more uncertainty.

In October 2002, I asked for acts of completion. The ambiguity had to end.

Negotiation followed negotiation, the most recent intensive bout in December 2004. But then came the Northern Bank robbery and the McCartney murder, and uncertainty again set in. In July last year, the IRA announced its armed struggle was at an end. That was a move of huge significance. However, those earlier events still cast their pall. But now I feel, after months of desultory discussion, there is a renewed willingness to break the deadlock uncertainty has imposed.

How can this now be done? How can we make the ultimate decision?

We have today set out a framework beginning with the recall of the Assembly on 15 May; but running up to November of this year for the ultimate decision to be made. At that point we close the chapter or close the book.

The details are set out in the joint statement.

But once again, it won't be the details that settle this. This is a framework that only works if the parties choose to use it for proof of good faith, not to themselves and their own community but to the community of the other.

Unionism has to show Republican and Nationalist sentiment that it is serious about its commitment to share power; serious about equality; and serious about its recognition that republicanism has indeed changed and its leadership taken real and verifiable risks for peace. When, as will happen, dissident elements opposed to all we jointly seek to achieve, try to disrupt by the methods of the past, Unionism must play its part, in refusing to give those elements a veto over democracy.

Republicanism has to address the unionist community in a way that recognises that though of course there may be those within Unionism that hanker after the old days, the mainstream of Unionism is very clear: it is worried that violence is still in the culture of Republicanism and will re-assert itself, but does indeed want to put the past behind it and share power if it can be convinced it is doing so on a shared basis of democratic belief. So when the law is broken, then Republicans should play their part in bringing those who break it to account and support the police in doing so.

Above all, this is a moment to let the process be governed not by suspicion but by the faith that the other does want this to succeed. I don't say suspicions will not still be there. Just don't let them prevail, to the exclusion of the basic truth: people do want this to work.

In Northern Ireland over the coming years, crucial decisions will be taken on the economy, health, schools, local government. Is it not more sensible that they are taken by the directly elected representatives of the people those decisions will affect, not by Direct Rule?

The IMC will continue its work. It has said unequivocally that the IRA no longer poses a terrorist threat. That must be recognised for the vast leap forward it is. But there are real issues about criminality and normal policing, accepted as legitimate on all sides, with criminals pursued whatever their political allegiances, would go a long way towards convincing people that culture and attitude had changed decisively.

There is ample scope to find agreement if that is what people want. But be in no doubt. At the conclusion of this period, we either resolve to go forward on the basis of mature democracy or we call time on this and seek another way to go. Two things must be understood. There can be no room for compromise or ambiguity on the commitment only to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Political argument is the only means of persuasion. That was set out clearly in the Belfast Harbour speech and remains.

On the other hand, however, there can be no way forward that does not recognise the legitimate aspiration of nationalists and republicans for a united Ireland; and give expression to it, through partnership, North and South.

In other words, the essence of the GFA, is valid. The question is: do the political parties in Northern Ireland lead its implementation or do the two governments, perforce have to step into the breach? Stasis is not an option. The option is whether the dynamic is driven by a hale and healthy democratic mandate derived from the people or by a necessarily more rigid will imposed from outside. We, the two Governments, can't exercise that option. Only the people and parties in Northern Ireland can.

So the coming months will see a decision taken. One concluding thought: If it was a sense of the futility of the past and a desire to be part of the future, that has taken us this far; reflect please on how much more relevant that sense and that desire is today. Look at Britain and Ireland. Today, we are allies. Today we engage in common purpose in a new Europe. Today our rivalry is found in a healthy competition for which economy is more vibrant. Today there is a confidence and vitality in our relationship that has enabled us, after almost 70 or 80 years of mistrust, to work together to carry this process forward. And do so not as surrogate leaders of warring tribes, but as friends.

Today also Northern Ireland has seen more peace, stability and progress than was ever imaginable 10 years ago. Getting to here has taken many painful decisions. But in any process there is always the ultimate decision. It is yours to take.

You, the leaders here, have a far harder task than us. You have lived with the past, not just contemplated it. But now you and the people you represent have the power to decide. I ask you to use it wisely."

 


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