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Speech by Secretary of State Peter Mandelson to the Annual Conference of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, 20 November 1999

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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Speech by the Secretary of State Peter Mandelson to the Annual Conference of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, 20 November 1999

Thank you for inviting me here today.

Some of you I'm sure think that my predecessor would have had a more natural affinity with the Women's Coalition. But you rightly pride yourselves on being a broad church, which welcomes equally every man, woman and Prince of Darkness. So I am delighted to be here.

This week Northern Ireland's politicians have laid the foundations for peace.

George Mitchell's patience and determination have been the rock on which this process was built. He put responsibility where it belongs: in the hands of local politicians. He knew that only they could unlock the impasse. He trusted them and they repaid that trust.

Without him I would not be able to tell you today: the Good Friday Agreement is in business.

A week is a very long time in Northern Ireland politics.

On Monday George Mitchell expressed 'growing confidence' that the logjam could be broken and the Good Friday Agreement could be implemented in full.

On Tuesday the politicians proved him right.

Their positive statements and the understanding that they showed of each other's positions gave to the people of Northern Ireland the best hope they have yet had of a lasting settlement and a permanent peace.

They gave George Mitchell enough confidence to say on Thursday 'devolution should take effect, then the Executive should meet, and then the paramilitary groups should appoint their authorised representatives, all on the same day, in that order'.

We can now map out the precise steps that will deliver the twin prizes of devolution and decommissioning:

  • I will convene a meeting of the Assembly on 29 November to run d'Hondt, nominating Ministers;
  • once Ministers have been nominated the Devolution Order will be laid before Parliament on 30 November, with devolution taking place on 2 December;
  • alongside the Irish government we will bring into effect the British-Irish Agreement.

These steps will demand trust from both sides. But with my own eyes I have seen trust grow and flourish over the last weeks. It will take patience and understanding but those are the precise qualities that have brought us where we are today.

There will be times when compromise is needed again but that is the stuff of modern, democratic politics the world over.

And I believe this deal will work because it is the best possible solution for the people of Northern Ireland - all the people of Northern Ireland.

Since the foundation of Northern Ireland unionists have been seeking assurance that they will control their destiny. This week it is in their sights.

In his negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement and his tireless efforts to make it work, David Trimble has brought unionism closer to its cherished goal than any other leader of his party ever could.

The challenge of government will ask new questions of unionism. David Trimble has prepared his party to answer them.

Sharing power with Republicans and Nationalists will demand flexibility and self-belief in equal measure. David Trimble has equipped his party with those very qualities.

The appearance on the political stage of Gerry Adams has happened alongside the astonishing political progress of recent years. This is no coincidence.

He had the vision to recognise that his community was best served by being represented at the heart of an inclusive democracy. He had the will and courage to turn that vision into reality.

It is easy to see this process as being only about Ulster Unionist and Sinn Fein. Sure, the positions they represent have dominated the headlines. But Northern Ireland's political landscape is more richly textured than the headlines suggest.

The SDLP has been a constant thread running through the peace process. The foundations of the Good Friday Agreement - an unshakeable commitment. to rights and equality - has always been at the heart of SDLP thinking. Fairness has no more eloquent advocates than John Hume and Seamus Mallon.

The smaller political parties have all made quiet but telling contributions. They have supported the main parties when support was needed; they have persuaded, cajoled and harried those parties when they appeared to hang back.

They spoke with tolerance and reason when both were in short supply.

And it is an honour to address today the party that has most symbolised that contribution.

What we have seen over the past few weeks has been a gentle remoulding of the political landscape.

Quietly, old enemies have left their fortresses and begun to seek the ground that you have long occupied. Step by step they have begun to forge the sort of trust that you have long known is the very lifeblood of mature, democratic politics.

You have always believed that politics must transcend the old dogmas that blocked progress for so long. Your politics is not about nationalist against unionist, Catholic against Protestant.

It is about respect against intolerance; it is about democracy against tyranny; it is about peace against violence.

It is about making a real, palpable difference to people's everyday lives.

If I wasn't speaking to this audience I might almost say the mountain is coming to Mohammed.

The peace we have is not perfect. Far too often the morning news tells us of another paramilitary assault or another arson attack. Drumcree remains a festering wound.

I sometimes hear this described as low-level violence.

It is not low-level to the people who live in daily fear and it is not low level to me.

It offends every principle of justice. It diminishes us all.

And this is why your work, so important in the run-up to a settlement will remain as important afterwards.

Because we must all seek to harness the spirit of political progress we have seen. And we must be still more ambitious.

What we must pursue is nothing short of a new civic society. A society that celebrates all that is best of the two traditions and drives out the worst. A society that respects its diversity but is united in protecting everyone's rights.

We now have a realistic chance to enter 'a new era of respect and tolerance of cultural difference and expression'. Not my words but David Trimble's.

It is now in our power to 'put behind us the failures, the tragedy and the suffering of the past'. Not my words, but those of Sinn Fein.

This is the time of greatest hope for Northern Ireland.

Because we are beginning - just beginning - to see the outline of a new Northern Ireland.

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