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Statement by Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson in Washington, 23 February 2000

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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Statement by Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson in Washington, 23 February 2000

My message today is this: now that we are getting over the shock of recent events, the name calling must subside and the blame game put to one side.

Everyone - every party and every political leader - has a responsibility to find a solution to the continuing impasse. Every one who is part of the conflict must contribute to its resolution. No more heads in the sand, no more walking away, no more laying down the law, no more sulking.

From now on, the test of everyone's commitment will not be how powerfully they articulate their own tribal politics, but how constructively they seek to accommodate others' fears and needs.

History will be unforgiving of those who spare any effort to find a way through..

My first visit to the United States as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, little more than two months ago, came at a time of great optimism and achievement.

The Mitchell review had ended successfully. The new institutions had just been established.

An Executive with local Ministers with local accents and deep local knowledge, with the power to take decisions that affected the daily lives of local people.

Strong North/South and East/West institutions, with the capacity to create a mature set of relationships between Britain and Ireland, and within the island of Ireland.

But we know that, however deep our reserves of hope and determination, the road to peace is long and difficult.

From tentative, exploratory beginnings, this process has developed, sometimes in almost imperceptible steps; sometimes in bold, dramatic strides.

We cannot hope to chart a course out of 30 years of violence and alienation without setbacks along the way.

And we have just hit another of those obstacles.

Just over a week ago I was forced to suspend the operation of Northern Ireland's new Assembly and government.

It was a step that I did not want to have to take. A step that we and the Irish Government did everything in our power to avert.

I want to concentrate this morning on two questions. Why did it happen? And how can we get back on course.

The Good Friday Agreement stands or falls as a whole. Republicans, nationalists and unionists have to work together if it is to succeed. All need their confidence-building measures.

They all have to show the same commitment to the process and faith in each other, otherwise the necessary consensus weakens and the institutions cannot be sustained.

Call it a veto if you like. But it is the reality. I cannot force anyone to take part. They must be persuaded to make voluntary acts, including unionists into the Executive and republicans into decommissioning.

At the conclusion of George Mitchell's review of the peace process in November, the Ulster Unionist Party agreed to enter government with Sinn Fein before any weapons had been handed over. Without a clear statement that the war is over, it was agreed that politics should begin to work

There were no guarantees about decommissioning. But there was a clear, shared understanding that the setting up of the institutions created the conditions in which decommissioning could happen and that it should start, in Mitchell's words, "as soon as possible". That Sinn Fein would work with the others to bring it about. And that without substantive progress on decommissioning the Unionists could not remain in Government beyond the end of January.

For David Trimble, entering government on these terms was a difficult and courageous move. Remember, this is a man who had previously insisted on guns before government. Many in his party, including some who supported the Good Friday Agreement, balked at what they saw as a leap in the dark.

At the end of January, General John de Chastelain reported that there had been no concrete progress towards decommissioning. He is entirely independent. He tells it as it is. The truth was stark and the necessary cross-community confidence was seeping away.

We bought some time by giving the unionists the confidence that, if suspension proved inevitable, the necessary legislation would be in place.

For little under a fortnight, we created breathing space so that the Irish Government in particular could work hard to find a way through. Lest there be any doubt, I emphasise that they did so with our full support and encouragement. They were indefatigable, and I pay tribute to their efforts.

Despite the fact that we had created this window, it was clear to everyone that the confidence necessary to keep the institutions in being would not continue beyond a week last Friday - 11 February.

On that very day, there was a significant shift in position by the, IRA. They began to address the question of whether decommissioning would happen, but not how or when. The full extent of the shift only became apparent in a report from General de Chastelain an hour and a half after I had taken the decision to suspend the institutions. With more time to clarify what the IRA intended, and build on it, it might have been possible to give unionists the confidence to continue with the Executive.

But by then, all confidence had gone. Unionists felt they were running on empty. The choice was between suspension and collapse, which was no choice at all. I acted with a heavy heart, to save the institutions, not to destroy them.

I understand entirely why republicans and nationalists are angry. David Trimble's inability to keep going beyond de Chastelain's negative January report has been presented as an ultimatum to republicans. But in the circumstances we had no alternative but to act as we did. If we had given Trimble no option but to resign or, worse, be forced out by his party, I believe we would never have recovered. The pro-agreement position amongst Unionists would have crumbled.

Remember, decommissioning is not a British or unionist pre-occupation. They have come from all sides of the community - from nationalists, from church leaders - Catholic and Protestant alike - and from all parts of the island of Ireland.

They understand why unionism, having jumped first and entered the Executive, needed to see some kind of reciprocation.

So, where do we go from here?

The first thing we have to do is to draw a line under recent events.

To pick up the pieces and channel our energies into resolving the difficulties which led to suspension and reviving the institutions on an even firmer footing than before. That is the challenge of the next few weeks.

Picking up the pieces requires a clear understanding of why the question of arms is so important for unionists and so difficult for republicans.

Unionists need to know that the war is over, and will not believe that it is truly over until they hear it and see real signs that the IRA no longer wishes to use its arms and intends to put them permanently beyond use. I frankly do not think we can or should get round that desire for a demonstrable act that there is no going back to the days of violence.

For its part, the IRA does not want to be seen to act under duress. I understand that. That is why I have consistently made clear that decommissioning is about good faith and good will. Not about surrender, far less humiliation.

Just as unionists need confidence that IRA arms are genuinely never going to be used again, so nationalists and republicans need confidence that, over time, there will be a scaling down of the security profile as the ceasefires take root.

We have already done a good deal to normalise the security presence.

 26 Army bases and installations closed or demolished. Military patrols down by two thirds. Fewer service personnel on operational duties in Northern Ireland than at any time since 1970.

And, a month or so ago, I published a policy paper explaining how we intend to scale down further as the threat allows.

I can and will go further, if politics is working and as the real security threat, including from dissidents, allows me to do so. Progress on decommissioning is in itself an ingredient in assessing that threat.

Nor should anyone doubt my own personal conviction - amid the conflicting pressures, fears and suspicions - that we will find a way of re-activating the institutions and getting the Executive back on track.

This is a task for both Governments and the parties, not just those with paramilitary links, although they have a special responsibility.

The late shift in the IRA's position as reported by de Chastelain was an encouraging start, on which we might now build.

And we have to do so quickly. One of the lessons of the past is if we do not keep moving forward, we run the risk of stalling completely. In the coming weeks, I will bend every sinew in that effort.

Everyone has stretched in the past. They will now have to stretch a bit more.

The Good Friday Agreement gave nationalists and republicans an equal stake in the government of Northern Ireland and an equal status in the eyes of the government. And there is no going back on that. Never again will there be outsiders from government. There will be no more second class citizens in Northern Ireland.

The Agreement also builds respect for rights and the principle of fairness into the very fibre of public life. We will not reverse this.

It has given us a new Human Rights Commission and an Equality Commission to give Northern Ireland the sort of rights-based society that other countries will look to as a model of excellence. This will remain.

It has given us reform of the way Northern Ireland is policed. To correct the extreme religious imbalance which means that there is only one Catholic for every eleven Protestants in the service. This will continue to move forward.

The euphoria of devolution late last year is still fresh in people's minds. And we have already glimpsed the rich potential of the Good Friday Agreement. We have seen real optimism on people's faces. We have seen unemployment falling; investors' confidence growing.

We have seen young people, finally believing that they have a peaceful, prosperous future in Northern Ireland. They are forging a new relationship with their homeland in which they will be Northern Ireland's leaders, not its exiles.

For them we will never go back. We will never hand Northern Ireland over to the wreckers, whose politics is obstruction and refusal, whose reflex is always to say 'no'.

Shortly before George Mitchell left Belfast in November to return to the United States, he summed up what had made his review work. He reported the words of one of the talks participants, who said that over long hours of discussion and negotiation, in corridors, meeting rooms and over shared meals, 'trust crept in'.

There are no easy fixes. But together we can find our way back onto the path forwards. And together we can restore and consolidate the trust of republicans, nationalists and unionists in the Good Friday Agreement and in each other.

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