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Speech by Tony Blair to the Royal Agricultural Society Belfast, 14 May 1998

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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Speech delivered by the Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair, to the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society at the Balmoral showgrounds in Belfast, 14 May 1998

"Almost exactly a year ago, I came to Balmoral to deliver my first speech on Northern Ireland after becoming Prime Minister. It seems a long time ago. There was no IRA ceasefire, and serious violence was continuing. The talks seemed hopelessly bogged down. The parties and communities looked, in some ways, further apart than ever. If anyone had told me then that, one year later, we would have the outlines of a political settlement in place and be awaiting the results of a referendum, I am afraid I would have dismissed him as a wild-eyed optimist.

The change in the situation since then is truly astonishing.

We have ceasefires in place from all the major paramilitary groups and violence has been hugely reduced. We still have small extremist groups to deal with, but deal with them we will.

The principle of consent, which I described last year as at the heart of my approach, is now the foundation stone of the document agreed on Good Friday and accepted by all, including Sinn Féin. That is a fundamental shift in the political landscape, which some are in danger of underestimating.

If the vote is Yes, the ability to govern itself will be returned to Northern Ireland after 30 years, in a new assembly in which all can participate with confidence.

The agreement sets out a new agenda for fairness and equality in Northern Ireland, and a sensible and practical approach to NorthSouth co-operation.

I said last year that I sought a settlement which could command the support of nationalists and unionists alike. I believe that is what is now on offer. I hope that everyone will look at the balance of the settlement and conclude that it represents a fair way forward to a better future.

I also said last year that I valued the Union. I repeat that to you today. And from now on the future of Northern Ireland rests with the principle of consent. At the same time, we are offering new ways for the nationalist community to find and express their identity, and to ensure fairness and equality to all.

You will all make up your own minds about the agreement. It is your decision. But I honestly believe that to say Yes is to say yes to hope, to peace, to stability, and to prosperity. A No vote is to turn your back on the future.

Some of those arguing for a No vote would say no to almost anything. I understand their views but I cannot reach them by persuasion or rational argument. And they offer no alternative. Others have reasonable and understandable concerns about the agreement. I want today to address myself to them above all.

The focus of discussion during the campaign has not, interestingly, been so much the constitutional and institutional structures, which have caused so much difficulty in the past. Most people can see that there is a balance there which can be made to work - and which will collapse if both sides do not want to make it work in a balanced way.

But people have other concerns. For example there have been alarming stories about the future of the RUC. They are just that - stories. In a changed, peaceful context, more normal policing should become possible. But noone appreciates more than I do the sacrifices the RUC have made over the years. There is no question of disbanding them or creating a situation where paramilitaries take over local policing.

Let me also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the efforts of Northern Ireland prison officers over long, difficult and dangerous years, during which so many have been killed and injured. They have done a magnificent job in circumstances unparalleled elsewhere in the world. I shall be meeting some of them shortly. If we can achieve stable and lasting peace, there will obviously be a period of change ahead. But those concerned can be sure that they will be treated fairly, sympathetically and generously.

There are other issues which are very hard to accept for many, particularly the many victims of violence, whose suffering we must never forget - for example the possibility of terrorist prisoners being released early or parties linked to paramilitary groups taking up office in the proposed Northern Ireland Executive. Many people have raised those concerns with me in passionate terms. I believe they deserve a full answer.

The concerns were of course anticipated and the agreement contains safeguards:

any use or threat of violence is completely incompatible with the principle of consent; the pledge of office for members of the new assembly will contain a clear commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful means; the assembly, on a cross-community vote, can remove officeholders in whom it does not have confidence because of failure to meet their responsibilities, including those set out in the Pledge of Office;

the only prisoners whose cases can even be considered by the Independent Review Commission are those belonging to organisations which are observing a total and unequivocal ceasefire, each prisoner's case will be reviewed individually, and those released will only be out on licence, subject to recall; all the parties have now committed themselves to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations - decommissioning is to be completed within two years of the referendum;

regular reviews of the implementation of the settlement, by the two governments and the parties, are envisaged. These provide an opportunity to ensure that parties are not picking only those parts of the settlement that they like.

These safeguards are vital. We will make them stick. But the truth is that great emotions are involved and people are still not convinced, even if they want to vote Yes. The problem is: I believe that most people would be ready to accept even the hardest parts of the agreement if they had genuine confidence that the paramilitaries were really ready to give up violence for good. I welcome Sinn Féin's endorsement of the agreement and all that it implies. This is a historic shift. But after the experiences of the last 30 years, and some recent statements about no decommissioning, it is hardly surprising that for many, that confidence is simply not there.

So how can we be sure that acceptance of the agreement by these parties will mean an end to violence and a genuine commitment to exclusively peaceful means, when we know that for example Sinn Féin and the IRA remain inextricably linked, as the weekend's events graphically illustrated?

In particular, how do we test it, judge it, assess it to be real? It is here that people feel that sentiments or intentions are not enough.

People want to know that if these parties are going to benefit from proposals in the Agreement such as accelerated prisoner releases and Ministerial posts, their commitment to democratic non-violent means must be established, in an objective, meaningful and verifiable way. Those who have used the twin tactics of ballot box and the gun must make a clear choice. There can be no fudge between democracy and terror.

The agreement is what has to be implemented, in all its parts. In clarifying whether the terms and spirit of the agreement are being met and whether violence has genuinely been given up for good, there are a range of factors to take into account:

first and foremost, a clear and unequivocal commitment that there is an end to violence for good on the part of republicans and loyalists alike, and that the socalled war is finished, done with, gone; that, as the Agreement says, non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means are the only means to be used;

that, again as the agreement expressly states, the ceasefires are indeed complete and unequivocal: an end to bombings, killings and beatings, claimed or unclaimed; an end to targeting and procurement of weapons; progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures actively directing and promoting violence; full co-operation with the Independent Commission on decommissioning, to implement the provisions of the agreement; and no other organisations being deliberately used as proxies for violence.

These factors provide evidence upon which to base an overall judgment - a judgment which will necessarily become more rigorous over time. What is more, I have decided that they must be given legislative expression directly and plainly in the legislation to come before Parliament in the coming weeks and months.

We are not setting new preconditions or barriers. On the contrary we want as many people as possible to use the agreement as their bridge across to an exclusively democratic path. We will encourage them to take this path. But it is surely reasonable that there should be confidence-building measures from these organisations after all the suffering they have inflicted on the people of Northern Ireland. And we also have a responsibility to provide protection against abuse of the democratic process, and its benefits, by those not genuinely committed to it.

I said last year that Northern Ireland had a bright future if we could only get the politics right and get the gun out of the picture. We stand on the verge of achieving that.

And it will open the way for Northern Ireland at last to exploit to the full the advantages we all know it has: a highly qualified workforce; huge attractions to inward investment; enormous tourist potential; and a potential quality of life higher than anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

The economic measures for Northern Ireland Gordon Brown announced the other day were not in any way conditional on a Yes vote in the referendum. Northern Ireland deserves our economic help whatever it decides. But the point is that the new investments he announced can only generate their full effects in the context of a peaceful and stable future for Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that there is a well of economic goodwill and potential inward investment out there just waiting for the right opportunity and the right conditions. Let us turn that prospect into a reality.

Before I conclude, let me add a particular word on agriculture, since I suspect many of you may just be interested. It is no accident that I am back here at Balmoral one year on from my first major speech. I know the importance of this event in the agriculture calendar and it is after all difficult to exaggerate the importance of this industry to Northern Ireland as a whole.

I recognise that the industry is going through difficult times. Agriculture as a whole faces a period of transition and the need to restructure in order to guarantee competitiveness must be faced. The quality and reputation of Northern Ireland's industry provides the best possible basis for this. But we are prepared to give help where help is needed, which is why before Christmas we announced an aid package for the livestock sector worth £14 million and earlier this year lifted charges that would have cost the industry £3 million.

The biggest challenge has always been to get the beef ban lifted. You know how unjustified it is, for Northern Ireland of all places. We have put a huge effort into persuading others of this and, at last, we are on the brink of real results. The Certified Herds Scheme for Northern Ireland has been agreed and we are working with the Commission towards the aim of starting the scheme at the beginning of June. Nor will we stop there. I am pushing hard for the wider Date Based Scheme to be proposed by the Commission shortly.

I know that customers in a number of countries, the Netherlands in particular, are already interested in placing orders for Northern Ireland beef. Also, Government is in dialogue with the authorities in South Africa and we have had an encouraging reaction so far. I can assure you that we intend to play a full role in supporting the export drive. The report of the Red Meat Strategy Group will be presented to Northern Ireland Ministers next week, but we have already decided, as announced by Gordon Brown on Tuesday, to make available £2 million to support the overseas marketing campaign. We will make the bulk of this available quickly and will review the allocation over the course of the next year when we can assess how things are developing.

I am pleased to be able to announce also that an additional £1 million will be made available for Marketing and Processing grants this year, with a further £6 million over the next three years. This will assist the competitiveness of a crucial part of the production chain which will bring benefits to the supply sector of the industry.

I recognise that the Ulster Farmers' Union has raised a range of other issues with Mo Mowlam. They have not been overlooked and Mo will be looking further at the needs of the industry.

One of the things that has consistently stuck me most about Northern Ireland has been meeting young people from both sides of the community - their hope, their optimism, their desire for a better future than the generation before them. That is what has driven me on even through the dark times over the last year - and there have been some. I believe the chance is now there to give these wonderful young people the opportunity they deserve to build together a different life and a different community. So my heartfelt plea to you all is - please give them that chance."

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