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Speech delivered to SDLP Annual Conference by Deputy Leader, Seamus Mallon, 13 November 1998

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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Speech delivered to the SDLP Annual Conference on its opening night by the party's deputy leader, Mr Seamus Mallon, 13 November 1998.

"It is with a sense of great pride and of responsibility that I address you tonight. I have never felt more pride in our party in its 28 years of creating Irish history. Never has its electoral support been higher.

I have never felt more pride in our leader John Hume; the worldwide acclaim for his Nobel Peace Prize shows the extent of his achievement in mobilising international support and interest in our cause.

I have never felt more pride in our achievement as a party. Many people contributed crucially to the Good Friday agreement and we salute them tonight: Mo Mowlam, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Senator Mitchell, President Clinton. But let us not forget that it was our party which developed the ideas and principles that make up the agreement - purely democratic means, partnership in government, referenda North and South, the three strand approach. Our philosophy developed over 28 years of struggle has been set out in an internationally-binding and internationally-acclaimed agreement and ratified by overwhelming majorities, North and South.

The people's imperative

Chairman, our responsibility now as a party, and my particular responsibility, as Deputy First Minister, is to make the agreement work. The implementation of the agreement is the people's imperative. There was the instruction they gave us on May 22nd. We ignore that imperative and democracy itself is imperilled. The SDLP will use all its resources, all its skills, all its experience, all its moral force to protect and implement the agreement. We will not allow it to be misrepresented, to be set aside, or to be used as a party political football.

We have been given something rarely afforded to society - the chance to begin again. Direct Rule is coming to an end. Now it is our turn. We have to do better, we have to move from criticism to construction, from claiming rights to taking responsibility. The SDLP is ready. It is our turn to set the vision, to determine the strategy, to allocate the resources, and to answer to the electorate. There is hard work to be done by every elected representative, by every local councillor and by every member of every branch. If we work together as a party I know we can make the breakthrough over the next four years to becoming not just the largest party in voting terms in Northern Ireland but also in representation.

It is time to roll up the sleeves. Time to deliver. Time to deliver - for all parties - on the objectives and obligations set out in the agreement - on human rights, on equality, on reconciliation, on victims, on linguistic diversity, on targeting social needs, on regional and economic strategies. We will transform the economic and social face of our country. And when I say our country I don't just mean Northern Ireland, I mean our country, Ireland. The North-South Council - an integral part of the agreement - will deliver real benefits for both parts of the island. Irish nationalists like myself have waited a long time for the day when they could sit down and take decisions with their fellow countrymen in such shared institutions. That day has come.

The new politics beckons

The old politics of Northern Ireland - of confrontation, of pushing on for victory, of dominance, of disregarding the legitimate wishes and concerns of others - were dealt a death blow by the agreement. The new politics beckon. At their heart is the requirement that all key decisions must be taken on a cross-community basis. The tackling of sectarian divisions becomes central to the whole political process. In the new politics those who cannot reach out and take on board the other community are doomed to failure. It will be a hard lesson for some.

SDLP priorities for government

The new politics is based on an historic and comprehensive accord on the constitutional issue. Settling that issue allows us to transform politics. We can now bring to government the full force of our social, democratic and labour values, the values which throughout Europe are receiving a tide of electoral support, in Britain, in France, in Germany. We know what we have to do.

We have to create jobs. In parts of Northern ireland, such as Strabane which has 18 per cent male unemployment action is urgently needed. We have to create more jobs and distribute them more evenly. I am proud of what has been achieved in recent years here in Newry. Let us build on it and other success stories.

We have to tackle the weaknesses of our education and training system. One in five of our workforce has no formal qualification. Unless we take action they will be the jobless of the future. We need to break the cycle of deprivation whereby children from disadvantaged homes fail in school and then on the labour market.

We need to build a new regional economy capable of attracting inward investment.

We need to promote a more inclusive society, building on the local development groups which have been the source of so much strength and support during our darkest days.

We need to transform and modernise our public service. There are for example over 140 unelected quangos directing our affairs. Whatever role they had under direct rule there is no need for them in the new dispensation.

We will tackle these vital issues as practical down-to-earth politicians who will not lose touch with the people. Jules Feiffer wrote: "I used to think I was poor. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy. I was deprived. Then they told me that underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still don't have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary."

Strong North-South bodies are vital

Now let me say something more about North-South bodies.

When I met President Vaclav Havel last month, the coincidence of Havel's painful political journey from the Prague uprising of 1968 and the path of the SDLP from the Civil Rights marches in the same year through to the present day struck me. And it was not just the parallel of timeframe, there was also a more profound parallel of utter adherence to the political path of consent and dialogue, defiant of all other means and methods.

Thirty years is a long time to wait, and one can be forgiven for wanting to "nudge history forward" as Havel puts it. But if we cannot nudge it forward, neither can we permit history to be nudged backwards to the days before 1968, the days of O'Neill and Lemass. The scope of cross-Borders matters considered in their January 1965 Belfast meeting is worth recalling - tourism, health, trade, electricity, agriculture.

At Sunningdale in 1973, the agreement for North/South development again included all those items in the O'Neill-Lemass list, i.e., tourism, health, trade, electricity, agriculture - and added environment, natural resources, fisheries, roads and transport, sport, culture and the arts.

Does anyone believe, after all that has happened, with the creation of an inclusive executive, the recognition of the full equality of the Irish identity and the establishment of a North-South Ministerial Council that we would ever settle for less than what was on offer in 1965?

How could we when we also reflect on the momentous changes brought about in Europe?

The year of Sunningdale, 1973, was also Ireland's first year, North and South, of membership in the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was then called. Twenty-five years later, in a European Union with a single market, and common policies in every aspect of socio-economic life, is it realistic to set the boundaries of co-operation at anything less than agreed in 1973 or even 1965?

Does anyone doubt that a tourism body covering the entire island would bring more tourists here?

Does anyone doubt that an inward investment body for the entire island would attract more investment to the North?

Does anyone doubt that a shared approach to European programmes would strengthen our negotiating hand in Brussels?

Does anyone doubt that the North would benefit from linking up with the most successful economy in Europe in this decade?

How do we tackle the high levels of unemployment in places like Strabane and south Armagh, if we do not have strong crossBorder economic programmes?

Are we to say No to the further social and economic integration of this island, while Europe, as we speak, integrates further?

Are we to tolerate a situation where, according to CBI and IBEC, "cross-Border trade on the island remains well below that between comparable EU neighbour states?"

Support and inspiration from Europe

Our peace process, our agreement, has been inspired by the massive, permanent and very mature peace process which is the European Union. I was moved during our recent visit to Brussels when President Santer traced his commitment to Europe to his own personal history - seeing his country invaded and his father being led away by the Nazis. Europe, he explained, was there to ensure the end of the generational call to arms.

I was very impressed by the interest, solidarity and support shown us and by the sense of ownership that Europe has of the agreement. When John Hume and I met the Prime Minister earlier this year we asked him for his support in our effort to obtain special structural fund arrangements for Northern Ireland. I am confident of his goodwill and that of the European Commission in this matter.

We have an opportunity to build anew for the next generation, to favour change, imagination, vigour, growth, to nurture the artistic and creative talent of our people.

After almost 30 years of violent confrontation, bitter division and untold suffering we stand on the threshold of a new way of life based on a new political dispensation.

The agreement gives us a unique opportunity to write a new script for a new beginning as we move with all of our people into a new millennium; the chance to begin again, limited only by what we have already agreed, is given to few generations. History will rightly damn us if we fail to seize the moment.

SDLP - custodians of the agreement

When I think of the potential of the agreement and of the potential of our party in government I feel the deepest sense of frustration that so little progress has been made since June. Valuable months have been wasted on the confrontation about decommissioning. Progress has been prevented on the creation of the new departmental structures, the NorthSouth Council of Ministers the British-Irish Council and the Civic Forum. The daily round of accusation and counter-accusation has debilitated and distracted the entire political process while poisoning the inter-party relationships which are essential for a viable partnership administration. Much of it springs from internal tensions within both unionism and Sinn Féin. Each has made the integrity of the agreement and the creation of its institutions secondary to party political unity and subservient to the most negative voices within their rank and file.

In doing so they have put party before agreement; they have ranked their own sectoral interests before the wider needs of the whole community; they have made the vindication of unionism and republicanism their priority, above and beyond their greater responsibility to all of our people.

It is a classic reworking of the old confrontational politics - my party right or wrong.

It cannot be allowed to continue. The political process which has been mandated by referendum and by election cannot be held to ransom on one issue, however important that issue may appear to be.

Time for decisions

Patience and willingness to make space within which other parties can move from their absolutist public positions should not be interpreted as a lack of resolution to implement the Good Friday agreement in its entirety and with the urgency which peace and political stability demand.

The SDLP as the major nationalist party, and I, as Deputy First Minister, have shown that patience in abundance. While others have publicly wrangled we have worked on detailed proposals on departmental structures, and the North-South Ministerial Council.

We have discussed these in detail with the British government, the Irish Government, the other political parties and the relevant government officials North and South.

The situation now requires that definite decisions about these crucial structures are made and formalised no later than the end of this month. Only on this basis and time-scale can the legislation which must be passed in Dáil Éireann and in Westminster to set up the Executive Committee of the Assembly and the NorthSouth implementation bodies be completed in time to allow for devolution in February.

Addressing unionist and Sinn Féin fears

Let no one misunderstand or underestimate our sense of urgency or our determination to implement the agreement nothing more and nothing less. To listen to some unionist spokesmen you would believe that there was a paragraph in the agreement which required decommissioning to begin before Sinn Féin acceded to the executive. There isn't. To listen to some Sinn Féin spokesmen you would believe there was no paragraph on decommissioning at all. There is. How have we arrived at this impasse? In my view beneath this public posturing and political bartering there are fundamental fears among both unionists and republicans which have not been fully articulated and which need to be addressed.

For many unionists there is the fear that Sinn Féin seeks to pocket the maximum sectoral advantage from the agreement - membership of the Executive; prisoner releases; changes in policing; criminal law reform; demilitarisation; new equality legislation - and then will fail to honour their decommissioning obligations under the agreement within the specified two-year period.

Solemn guarantees from the SDLP

I believe that this will not occur - and that it is not intended. But no one should have any doubt that if it did happen the SDLP would rigorously enforce the terms of the agreement and remove from office those who had so blatantly dishonoured their obligations.

Similarly, there is a fear among Sinn Féin supporters that whatever they do unionists will up the ante by contriving new demands and conditions to exclude them from executive office. Again, I believe that this is an unfounded fear - that it will not happen and that it is not intended.

If, however, it was misguidedly attempted neither our party nor I, as Deputy First Minister would confer any compliance, support or credibility on such a blatant contravention of the agreement.

These solemn guarantees are intended to give both unionists and Sinn Féin the confidence necessary to face down their fears and move to the fulfilment of their obligations under the agreement. It goes without saying that these fears and suspicions should also be addressed directly by the UUP and the Sinn Féin leadership in a mutual confidence-building exercise.

We will not allow anyone to play political games with an agreement that we all pledged in good faith to "work to ensure the success of each and every one of its arrangements" - neither will we permit the enormous potential of the agreement to be lost to satisfy the party political interests of any one party.

We stand by the agreement

It is simply unacceptable that the UUP and Sinn Féin try to tilt the agreement to make it either prounionist or pro-republican rather than accept it as an historic compromise. The SDLP is not for recruitment to either side - we stand by the agreement, nothing less, nothing more. We stand with those who are committed to working the agreement in its entirety; we stand opposed to those who would try to tilt the agreement in one direction or the other.

A new beginning

The agreement's integrity derives its force, its authority from the very compromise that some parties would now seek to undo. It will not be undone.

This is the message that I hope will go out from the 28th conference of this great party. We will face down, as we have done for the last 28 years, those who are standing in the way of a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning. Our time and our opportunity has come."

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