Speech by Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson to the British Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, 14 February 2000
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Speech by the Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson to the British Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, 14 February 2000
I first want to wish the BIIPB a happy 10th birthday. I am only sorry that it takes place in something some way short of a party atmosphere, despite all that we have to celebrate ten years on from your founding.
During this time, the island of Ireland has become a safer, more harmonious and prosperous place. Ireland in the North has a transformed security situation. Ireland in the South has acquired a modern economic brand image. The potential for both is huge and I have a deep sense of personal commitment to entrenching Ireland's security and prosperity, North and South.
We owe nothing less to the people we represent and serve.
It was, therefore, with a heavy heart that on Friday I took a step I had hoped would not prove to be necessary and suspended temporarily the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement.
I hope that the suspension will be short. I intend it to be. But it was, even so, a move that the British and Irish Governments, in constant touch with the political parties, pulled out all the stops to avert.
If we had found any way of securing enough confidence for the institutions to continue we would have taken it.
The bedrock of the Good Friday Agreement is cross-community support. Without a consensus across the political spectrum, its institutions cannot be sustained. It is not a matter of taking one side or the other. The only side that I am on is that of the Agreement as a whole and the interests of both traditions invested in it.
Decommissioning is not a unionist or a British fixation.
The statements of John Hume and Seamus Mallon confirm that, as do the calls made by President Clinton and Senator Kennedy.
Nor is it an issue only in the minds of politicians. It has been called for by Protestant and Catholic, from all corners of Ireland, north and south. That it must happen is agreed by leader-writers from the Newsletter to the Irish News to the Boston Globe. And I do not just mean republican decommissioning. The onus is on every paramilitary to dispose of their illegally held arms for politics to work properly.
Such was the overwhelming desire for progress that Bishop Heggarty was prepared to help personally and I commend his bold initiative.
It was, and remains, a crucial part of building consensus, a signal that paramilitaries - from all sides - were committed to playing their part in building a new, peaceful Northern Ireland.
On Friday, there was one very positive development. After I had signed the Order suspending the institutions, we received a report from General John de Chastelain's decommissioning commission.
The Commission reported that the IRA had indicated the context in which they would initiate a comprehensive process to put arms beyond use. In the Commission's view, this held out the real prospect of an agreement which would enable it to fulfil the substance of its mandate.
I do not for a moment underestimate the significance of this. If it means what it appears to mean, it may be the first sign that the IRA are , after all, prepared to give up their arms.
We need to find out what the context is in which the IRA says it will put arms beyond use. Brian Cowen and I intend to follow this up urgently, first by exploring with General de Chastelain what lies behind Friday's report. But, in the situation we faced on Friday, it was too unspecific and it came too late. It provides the basis for answering Seamus Mallon's "whether" question, but not his "when" question or "how".
Had it come earlier, we could have sought, and possibly received, greater clarity. But, as it was, with the institutions on the point of collapse, I had no choice but to act as I did - as I said I would - under the review provisions of the Agreement.
Some have said that I acted in breach of the Good Friday Agreement. On the contrary, I acted to save the Agreement as the two governments said they would in the conclusions of the Mitchell accord. The consensus necessary for the institutions to continue simply did not exist.
Though convinced that this step was the right one, it was with great sadness that I took it.
The institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement have proved to be the most effective, most democratic form of government that Northern Ireland has ever known. I rejoice in the fact that there are no longer strangers, no more outsiders from Northern Ireland's administration.
Northern Ireland finally had a truly representative Executive, with members drawn from all the major pro-agreement parties and including two of its opponents. It underlines that there are not second class citizens in Northern Ireland any more.
It had local Ministers, with local accents and deep local knowledge. With the power to make decisions that affect the daily lives of local people.
And each and every one of those Ministers, regardless of political affiliation, have fulfilled our highest expectations: that they are the right people to govern Northern Ireland. Government of Northern Ireland from outside Northern Ireland is inferior to inclusive self government of Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement created a framework of north-south institutions for practical co-operation between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This means greater co-operation and better services not just for Northern Ireland but for the whole island of Ireland.
And East-West arrangements that will broaden and deepen relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom and throughout the United Kingdom.
Sadly these, too, are now on hold. But not indefinitely.
I do not want direct rule to continue for a moment longer than necessary. That's why the talks that Brian Cowen and I are initiating with the parties today are so urgent.
In the last 72 hours, some harsh words have been spoken. That is perhaps not surprising. Huge issues are at stake. And yes, at times, there are differences of emphasis between us.
There is a keen sense of loss, which extends beyond Northern Ireland and beyond these islands, among all those who support the Agreement and want it to succeed.
But this process has worked best when we have all worked together, while honestly recognising the difference between us.
I appeal to all the parties to work with the Irish Government and ourselves, without reservation or precondition, to create the conditions needed to reactivate Northern Ireland's devolved government. To seek the necessary clarity. To move forward together.
Any less wholehearted approach will not be understood or forgiven by the people of Northern Ireland.
They take pride and delight in the huge progress which has been made in recent years.
Ceasefires well established.
A peace which is still not perfect, but is infinitely better than what went before. And I do not underestimate the courage and effort it has taken on all sides for that to be achieved.
A remarkably settled consensus about the constitutional questions that have dogged the last thirty years.
The emergence of new institutions in which both traditions play a full part.
The pursuit of an active agenda on rights and equality.
This is not an agenda of "political correctness". I am no fan of gesture politics. But the generosity of spirit and imagination on all sides that have got us this far must not fail us now.
Taking the necessary final steps - and risks - on the way means each side understanding the mindset of the other.
It means, in particular, republicans understanding better why unionists are reluctant to join in government without more definitive progress on the arms issue. Why the fact that the guns are silent, welcome as it is, is not enough.
And all of us understanding better why arms have the almost totemic significance they have for those who hold them.
Above all, it means the avoidance of any suggestion of surrender or climbdown on either side.
There will be dissidents on both sides who do not want us to succeed. But we should not be afraid of the men and women whose gaze is firmly backwards, whose justification is some eccentric notion that nations can be built on violence and intimidation and cite a spurious analysis of history in support.
Or equally, those who refuse to admit that change is either possible or desirable. Those who prefer the certainties of past conflict to the uncertainties of future reconciliation.
They have not deterred us in the past and they never will.
That's why I am committed, as I was before devolution, to good government in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, irrespective of their tradition or political allegiance.
That's why I propose to continue to advance the programmes of positive reform that flow from the Good Friday Agreement.
Because the Good Friday Agreement envisaged not just a new constitution, but fundamental changes to the political and social fabric of Northern Ireland.
The Agreement has given Northern Ireland some of the most sophisticated rights and equality arrangements in the world.
But rights cannot simply be tacked on to the systems and institutions of government - we must actively seek new and imaginative ways to encourage respect for rights and equality in every area of public life. Everywhere from employment to policing and parades - all areas that must advance regardless of the state of political progress.
I have faced calls to suspend the implementation of the Patten report on policing while the institutions are on hold.
This is just not possible. In the words of the Chief Constable 'the vast bulk of the recommendations are simply about good and effective policing'.
Policing is not a partisan issue to be traded as if it were part of some political scoresheet and it must not be used to give comfort to any political party. I have not done that to date and I am not going to start now, however much I respect the right of any politician to express their view on the subject.
I know the passions that reform of the RUC arouses, particularly the prospect of a new name and changed badge. I have heard at first hand, many times, the harrowing stories of how these symbols have come to mean so much to so many people in the RUC family who experienced tragedy.
But a nine to one religious imbalance cannot be allowed to continue. A police service that is not representative of the society it serves cannot hope to be fully effective. It cannot hope to draw support and strength from all parts of the community.
We must not rest until all the pillars of the state command the same respect, inspire the same sense of ownership across the community in Northern Ireland. Until the state and its agencies truly are representative of and responsive to the society it serves.
So much, though, has changed already in a positive direction in Northern Ireland. And you in the BIIPB have seen at close quarters the great advances that the last ten years have brought. From terrible violence, political instability and little hope of anything better.
I am determined to work harder still to build confidence in the Good Friday Agreement and to create the conditions for the swift return of devolved government.
And I will do all I can to encourage the incremental shifts that have brought ceasefires, then the Good Friday Agreement, then devolution.
The shifts that will one day secure truly democratic government and an unbreakable peace in Northern Ireland.
Those are our goals. And we need each other - indeed, unionists need nationalists who need republicans who need unionists - to achieve those goals. That recognition was the mainspring of the Good Friday Agreement. It remains so. It is what will carry us forward.
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