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Speech by Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson to the Institue of Management in Dublin, 9 March 2000

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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Speech by Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson to the Institue of Management in Dublin, 9 March 2000

Suspension was a step that I took with great sadness. I think I know something about the pain of losing ministerial office.

I learnt an important lesson from my experience and it is not something I would wish on anyone else. And I was proud of the part the British government had played, alongside the Irish government and Senator Mitchell, in getting the institutions up and running.

We were proud to be able to say that this executive was inclusive. That is what made it fair, accountable and truly democratic.

It would be none of those things without nationalists and republicans. And it would have been none of those things without unionists either, it cannot function without the active commitment of both Northern Ireland's traditions.

I understand why the new institutions were, in the eyes of many nationalists and republicans, the first institutions of government for Northern Ireland that could claim any legitimacy, the first that they could truly call their own.

Their anger, their sense of loss now that they have been suspended - briefly, I hope - underlines the success of the Good Friday Agreement in building a genuine consensus across the community.

And for that reason I want to see the institutions back in business as soon as possible.

But we cannot revive the institutions until we know that unionists as well as nationalists will participate in them. It was always understood that implementation of the Good Friday agreement was, for the political parties, voluntary. But it was equally understood that we had to move forward on all aspects at the same time.

It is unrealistic to expect either side to proceed without confidence that their actions will be reciprocated.

We must rebuild that confidence and re-establish that consensus on a firmer footing than before. We must regain the trust of all sides that, in working in partnership to resolve our differences, they have everything to gain and nothing to fear.

We are now in a process. Over the coming weeks the two governments will hold bilateral and round-table meetings with the parties, with a view to reviving the institutions at the earliest possible date.

In this the British and Irish governments share an unselfish interest. The past two years have been the high-water mark in relations between our two governments.

Our partnership, and the strength we have drawn from it, has been the rock on which this process has been built.

Now, together with the political parties, we must rededicate ourselves to the principles which brought us the Good Friday agreement.

  • We acknowledge that substantial differences continue to exist between the two traditions in Northern Ireland. But those differences can be accommodated and respected.
  • All aspirations, as long as they are peacefully expressed, are equally legitimate and should be accorded parity of esteem.
  • We have a shared objective. To end the generations of violence, conflict and suffering. To move forward in consensus and to share equally amongst all the people of Northern Ireland the very real rewards of peace.
  • Political stability is best achieved in the absence of violence, but an unbreakable peace can only be built in the context of fair, inclusive and functioning political institutions.

Decommissioning remains an essential part of the peace process. All of the political parties, Sinn Fein included, recognise its importance to the process. We will not have long-term stability in Northern Ireland while stockpiles of weapons and armed paramilitaries remain in existence. But we now face a familiar conundrum.

Unionists say there must be certainty about decommissioning before they will participate in the institutions. Republicans say that certainty about decommissioning can only be achieved when the political institutions have been functioning for some time. There are good arguments for both positions. No one is saying they will never share power. No one is saying they will never put the arms permanently beyond use.

The trouble is the two positions are mutually exclusive. The end result, as we have seen to our cost, is not guns and government, but no guns and no government. It is reasonable to ask, in this situation, whether we risk the one becoming an obstacle, rather than a stepping stone, to the other.

The integrity of positions on both sides is easy to preserve. They can just maintain some sort of Mexican stand-off. But the inevitable consequence of this devolution-decommissioning stalemate is political instability, thus threatening the very peace which everyone wants to preserve. I have little doubt that if politics are now allowed to work in Northern Ireland, further instability and the risk of violence will result. I do not want to see the consequences of this having to bring both sides to their senses.

Suspension is not an end in itself. The only way forward is through agreement - agreement between unionists, nationalists and republicans.

That requires all sides to examine their positions. To see whether in holding to the integrity of a particular position they do not risk losing a far greater good - peace, stability and political inclusion for all in Northern Ireland.

My position is clear: we must resolve the issue of decommissioning one way or another within the terms of the Good Friday agreement. There can be no re-negotiation.

It is - for nationalists, republicans and unionists - the fairest, most complete settlement that we will ever achieve.

We must implement it and we must implement it in full.

The agreement does not commit Northern Ireland to the union for all time any more than it is a staging-post to a united Ireland. Instead it places that decision in the hands of the people - people of Northern Ireland.

It has given us a new Human Rights Commission and an Equality Commission to underline our most cherished aspiration: to guarantee that there are no longer any second class citizens in Northern Ireland.

There is still work to be done. But these commissions are here to stay regardless of whether the institutions are in operation.

And, although I passionately believe that local people have the answers to local problems, as long as I am Secretary of State I will do all I can to advance rights and equality.

And I am committed to carrying through the broad reforms of the RUC that I announced in January. To end the unacceptable religious imbalance. To create a force that young Catholic men and women will join and serve in with pride. A service that other nations will look to as a model of excellence.

And we are committed to returning to normal security arrangements as soon as the threat level allows. Much has already been done, including the closure or demolition of 26 Army bases since the ceasefires, the reduction of Army patrolling to about 30 per cent of the level at April 1998 and the withdrawal of over 3,000 troops from Northern Ireland.

We hope to see further steps taken as time goes on, but these can only be taken in the light of the security situation. There can be no question of accepting a spurious equivalence with the paramilitaries arms or 'trading' security in some sort of a political marketplace.

We will not play politics with peoples' lives say more than you would here.

Media attention understandably focuses on the threat from dissident republicans at present.

But during 1999 troops resumed patrolling to combat the threat of dissident loyalist activity, in several areas at the request of local nationalists.

To take just one example - the operation leading to arrests of dissident loyalists in the Antrim area - has led to a marked reduction in the dissident loyalist threat over recent months.

It is easy not to notice just how effective police action has been against loyalist violence over the years. While the clear up rate for republican murders lies at around 28 per cent over the troubles, in the case of loyalist murders, the figure is over 49 per cent.

And I do not need to tell this audience about the economic effects of political progress.

Today's unprecedented level of north-south co-operation is one of the pillars of Northern Ireland's economic life. Our trade and tourism links are healthy, but we will not stop there. Ever more companies from Ireland are investing in the north, and we must make it ever more attractive.

Northern Ireland stands on the verge of joining the first rank of dynamic, European economies. But time and again businessmen and women tell us that the one factor that would make all the difference is devolution.

We cannot stand alone. And we cannot afford to stand still.

In recent weeks I have been a victim of what i have heard described as the 'blame-thrower' effect.

When, in January, I announced my decisions on the Patten report I was the toast of many nationalists. When, in February, I was forced to suspend the operation of the institutions I was demonised by the same people.

I have veered between villain and hero with equal speed in unionist eyes depending on the decisions I have taken. Of course, when people accuse me of being one-sided they mean that I have chosen not to accept their point of view.

That is not mature politics. I am not interested in being one side or other's hero or villain. I am not playing 'good-cop, bad-cop'.

The Good Friday agreement ushered in a new era of consensus and co-operation. It ended the barren politics of 'green' and 'orange' and set in its place a single principle: the common good and equal respect for both traditions.

I want to see a Northern Ireland that belongs to all its people. A Northern Ireland whose institutions command the confidence and trust of all its people.

A society in which everybody plays a full and active part. And in return there is no exclusion, there is no intolerance. In that way we will really be addressing the causes of the conflicts of the past. And building for ourselves an unbreakable peace which is the only context in which this vision can be realised.

I believe that this, my vision, is shared by all the political parties who brokered the Good Friday agreement. The weeks ahead will further drain their powers of patience and accommodation.

Everyone has to stretch. Everyone has to take a few more risks.

But the prize is worth the effort. And together we can make our shared vision the foundation stone of a new Northern Ireland in a peaceful and prosperous island of Ireland.

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