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Speech by John Reid, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Belfast, 22 October 2001

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Research: Martin Melaugh
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Speech by John Reid, Secretary of State, to the Society of Editors
Belfast, 22 October 2001

"It is an honour to be here today. We are here to celebrate the vital role of a free press in a healthy democratic society. A role that we in Government may not always like, but we certainly always value.

In particular I want to pay tribute to your President - Ed Curran - and to the Belfast Telegraph. It has been a steadfast supporter of the peace process - which is not to say that they have not made life singularly uncomfortable for me and my ministerial colleagues at various points over the months and years.

Under Ed's leadership the Belfast Telegraph has been grounded in all that is best about Northern Ireland journalism - accuracy, fairness and scrupulous impartiality. And it is not alone.

When I arrived in Northern Ireland one of my first priorities was to establish a relationship with the press. To be honest I don't know what you were expecting. One paper had me down as a "tough-talking, chain-smoking former Communist", another as a "genial guitar-strummer". I thought: make up your minds.

When I began to meet journalists I realised they weren't interested in categorising me, my student affiliations or my smoking habits. They were interested in what I had to say and what I planned to do in Northern Ireland.

There was a seriousness that I have rarely encountered before.

Too often journalists and commentators live ivory-towered lives; papers wield influence without responsibility. In Northern Ireland I found a deeper recognition of the power of the press. And a corresponding sense of responsibility. Journalists here don't just write about Northern Ireland. They live it.

They want peace; they want fairness and equality; they want a lasting settlement. And they are prepared to use their influence to achieve it.

For politicians and journalists in Northern Ireland the stakes are higher - both politically and personally.

One man exemplifies the power of the press.

Most of us only put our credibility on the line when we go to work in the mornings.

But Martin O'Hagan's investigations struck such fear into the criminal underbelly of Northern Ireland, those cowards felt they had to silence him.

So today is also a time to reflect. To reflect that shining a light into murky worlds takes courage and brings danger. To remember that there are still elements for whom a free and probing press is a threat. A threat to be countered with intimidation - and worse.

I spoke to Jim McDowell hours after Martin's murder. And I visited the Sunday World's offices in Dublin on Friday. What struck me on both occasions - besides the shock and grief of his colleagues - was their determination to continue Martin's work.

Not to yield to threats or intimidation. And to continue to bring to light the dark underworld that Martin relentlessly exposed.

We in Government are also determined that Martin's work lives on. We too will be tireless in our pursuit of racketeers, gangsters and terrorists.

And here we can work together. At the Labour Party Conference three weeks ago I announced that we will legislate to criminalise manifestations of hatred, whether based on racism or based on sectarianism.

Sectarian hatred is a cancer eating at the heart of Northern Ireland. It deepens the very divisions our peace process is intended to heal. It undermines the enormous strides that we have made in recent years.

It is an echo of the dark ages. In fact it is an insult to the peoples of the Dark Ages to associate them with the kind of scum who threw pipe bombs at two young girls last night.

We can legislate to combat hate crime. But we cannot legislate to change people's minds. You have the power to challenge people's tribal assumptions. You can empower the silent majority to express its support for peace and democracy; its hatred of ugly sectarianism.

Because our job is not done until Northern Ireland is at ease with itself.

I know many of you here are seasoned hacks, who have seen agreements and accords, settlements and Secretaries of State come and go.

And many people will have seen the events of the last week and written off this peace process as yet another heroic failure.

We have never before had such a comprehensive settlement nor such potential for lasting peace and stability.

I am under no illusions about the size of the task ahead or of the heavy price of failure.

But I am not about to give victory to the wreckers. I am not about to see this deal, so overwhelmingly endorsed by the people north and south, fall by the wayside.

On Friday I met Brian Cowen to agree the way forward. We believe we have enough material to work with: David Trimble has said that, with movement from republicans, the UUP resignations would not have been necessary.

Martin McGuinness has said that, if it were up to him, he'd sort out decommissioning tomorrow.

So there is common ground. Now we need to build on it - and urgently.

To do so will take courage on all sides. It will mean facing real challenges.

I do not underestimate the difficulties for paramilitary groups in resolving the issue of arms. Nor do I underestimate the significance of the steps they have already taken. They are being asked to enter a new historical dynamic.

So I want to say to the paramilitaries:

"If you are able to do what the people of Northern Ireland want so desperately - to put arms beyond use and to take politics onto a new plain - then I believe you will not find the response from this Government, from the Irish Government, the American administration and the whole international community, to be grudging or ungenerous.

Those of us who support the Good Friday Agreenment passionately will be allowed to press forward with its implementation.

"But if you cannot make the final transition to democratic means then I believe the same international community and, more importantly, the people of Ireland, north and south, will simply not understand why."

Freeing the logjam which has held back the implementation of the Belfast Agreement is our task for the coming days. I cannot promise anything except that we will be urging all sides to reach out, negotiate and accommodate to save devolved government and to build the best possible social and political culture for all the people of Northern Ireland.

But your task is to have a useful and enjoyable conference and I wish you all the best."

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