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Speech by Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson to the Institute of Irish Studies, Liverpool, 4 February 2000

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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Speech by the Secretary of State Peter Mandelson, to the Institute of Irish Studies in Liverpool, 4 February 2000

Harold Wilson said a week is a long time in politics. I have learned since becoming Secretary of State that some weeks never end. And others, like deadlines, just become extended.

I was struck recently by the observation of another elder statesman, about the Northern Ireland peace process. At one of many difficult moments he made a speech in Northern Ireland in which he said:

I realise full well that we are asking much of the parties of the Assembly to work together in the interests of the whole community in Northern Ireland.

But I must tell you quite frankly that, having taken the necessary steps to enable a resumption of the political life of Northern Ireland, the people of Britain will not understand any reluctance to take full advantage of it.'

I was struck, not because of the words he used, but because this was Edward Heath, speaking in August 1973, as he struggled to create a power-sharing executive for Northern Ireland.

That Executive was duly set up after intensive negotiations at Sunningdale in December 1973, but despite the best efforts of its members, it collapsed in May 1974 in the face of widespread unionist opposition.

The intervening years have been cruel. Since the day that Sunningdale fell apart 2259 men, women and children have been killed in the troubles. Many thousands more have been injured. And countless people have lost family and friends and lost all hope of any respite. All the result of political failure.

For many, memories of 1974 are still fresh. These are anxious days. I recognise the widespread concern that this process is beginning to falter. The people of Northern Ireland like the Good Friday Agreement, they are proud of their Executive. They like having local voices in charge of local affairs and they want that to continue.

It is our duty to make it work, and all those who signed up to the Agreement.

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, my Irish colleagues and I are doing everything in our power to find a way through these difficulties.

But, if there are no clear changes for the better to give confidence that decommissioning will happen, I will put on hold the operation of the institutions in seven days' time.

In all this uncertainty, nobody wants to be reminded of Seamus Mallon's comment that the Good Friday Agreement is 'Sunningdale for slow learners'.

So the question I want to consider today is: is history repeating itself? Are we about to squander yet another golden chance to end forever the conflict in Northern Ireland?

The 1973 accord was the best deal possible at the time, agreed as it was against a backdrop of terrorist violence and mass loyalist dissent.

And it is true that much of what was agreed late in 1973 was reflected in the settlement of May 1998

  • an Executive made up of unionist and nationalist politicians
  • a North-South dimension
  • no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of the people living there.

But, a generation later, those same principles now underpin a very different Agreement. A broader, deeper, fairer Agreement.

While the 1974 Executive included both unionist and nationalist representatives, as well as a member of the Alliance Party, it did not involve republican ministers and it did not include Unionist dissenters.

Indeed, the DUP were not even invited to the negotiations from which it emerged.

The Good Friday Agreement was hammered out by political parties of all sizes and all beliefs. Some chose not to contribute, but none can say that they were not given the chance.

And the Executive that it conceived is truly representative. It recognises that everyone who has been a party to the conflict must be a party to its resolution.

It recognises that nationalists and republicans have, historically, felt alienated from the state. And that will only change if we change the very structure of the state.

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 that government.

It gave all sides of the political debate institutions in which they could all place their trust.

This Executive includes two DUP members, whose opposition to the entire process has not stopped them reaping the rewards.

And I welcome their contribution - as Ministers if not party politicians - because we can only achieve political stability if all sides can claim some ownership of the government that serves them.

The 1973 accord acknowledged the importance of the 'Irish dimension' and took some steps - notably the setting up of a Council of Ireland - to strengthening Irish involvement in Northern Ireland.

Now, we no longer think in terms of an 'Irish dimension', to be tacked on to internal Northern Ireland policies. The Irish Government and the Irish people have played a crucial role in bringing the peace process this far.

We share the same, unselfish interest. And, when needs be, our two Governments will continue to act together in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.

But the Good Friday Agreement sends ripples far beyond the shores and borders of Northern Ireland. For it has created a whole new network of institutional links throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Gone is the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In its place we have a framework for enhanced practical co-operation across these islands.

A framework that allows us to share what we have in common but respects what makes us different. A framework that disperses the rewards of peace throughout the regions.

The constitutional bottom line was the same in 1973 as it is today: that the future of Northern Ireland should only be decided by, or with the agreement of, the people of Northern Ireland.

What was an agreed principle in 1973 was set in stone by the Good Friday Agreement, with changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution and parallel British constitutional changes including the repeal of the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

But the Good Friday Agreement does more than create the constitutional architecture of a new Northern Ireland.

Because it builds respect for rights and the principle of fairness into the very fibre of the new constitution.

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.

It has given us reforms in the way that Northern Ireland is policed. To correct the extreme religious imbalance which means that there is only one Catholic for every nine Protestants in the service.

To equip the police to meet the challenges of peace with the same courage and determination that distinguished them in times of conflict.

And it has the potential, if only we allow it, to redefine the relationship between the people of Northern Ireland and their government.

Northern Ireland has rich traditions across its community.

Too often these traditions have had their image sullied by the aggressive demands of a few for rights that cut across the rights of the many.

But I believe that at their best these traditions make Northern Ireland what it is - a vibrant, creative society capable of great tolerance and inclusivity.

I want to build on, not suppress these traditions. I want to see a society which celebrates its diversity. A society in which Orange and Gaelic can live side by side in mutual respect, as keen to protect each other's rights as their own.

A society at ease with itself does not demand unfettered freedoms or rights without responsibilities. For what value have rights if they are only conferred on people we agree with?

I want to see a Northern Ireland with two self-assured traditions but one body of citizens.

Because it is united by shared language, shared values and shared land, with bonds that are strong enough to encompass diversity of religion, of politics and of custom.

Equally, a healthy, cohesive society is a collection of individuals linked by a shared, respected established order.

As long as that order is imposed from outside Northern Ireland, no matter how well meaning the Government - or how skilled the Secretary of State! - that vision will elude us.

That's why the Good Friday Agreement set the parameters for a new order. Because only with self-government can the values and identities of the state truly reflect the values and identities of society.

This is why I am convinced that the collapse of power sharing in 1974 does not foreshadow the demise of the Good Friday Agreement in 2000.

We have not been here before.

The Good Friday Agreement is more robust than Sunningdale. Its institutions are more inclusive, more democratic. Its roots in the community go deeper.

We have never before had such a comprehensive settlement nor such potential for lasting peace and stability.

Because we have learned the lessons of Sunningdale.

I know, the politicians know and, most important of all, the people of Northern Ireland know that the different basis makes this the best formula we will ever devise.

They know, too, that if they throw this chance away it will take another generation before they can claw back the benefits we have so nearly secured.

Just imagine it.

Another 30 years.

30 more years of sectarian division; 30 years of direct rule; 30 years of high unemployment, low investment and sympathy, but not respect, in the eyes of the world.

And the Agreement that would emerge from that lost generation would be, give or take the odd dot and comma, exactly the same as the one we have today.

Only the wounds will be deeper; the trust harder to build and the people more cynical than ever about the capacity of their politicians to represent them.

Nobody will be in a stronger position than they are now. Just more anguished, more exhausted and more defeated.

I can understand if you are slightly puzzled that, today of all days, you should hear this hymn to the Good Friday Agreement.

Why, you may well ask, if the Good Friday Agreement really is the blueprint for a better future in Northern Ireland, is the peace process in such apparent jeopardy?

And why insist on decommissioning if it brings down a fair and effective government?

The answer is that the Good Friday Agreement asked everybody to make an investment, to show commitment to the process and faith in each other.

It recognised that we could not move into the future until we broke from the past.

And that, for many people, was the hardest thing of all. It meant the release of paramilitary prisoners, some of whom had committed the most unspeakable crimes.

It meant setting aside generations of often violent hostility and sharing power with old enemies.

It meant reform of some of the pillars of Northern Ireland life - the RUC and the criminal justice system - to equip them for the demands of peace, not conflict.

And it means decommissioning. To underwrite with actions the paramilitaries' stated commitment to peace.

And even at this late, late hour it is within the paramilitaries' power to demonstrate clearly that they are dedicated to this process. To prove to us that the Bill to pause the institutions is not necessary.

I appreciate the difficulties that this causes. There are many, I know, in the republican movement who are passing from one era of strategy and organisation to the next but have not yet reached the logical conclusion of their actions. I know the passions that an attempt to force decommissioning arouses.

I am not naïve. Surrendering long fought and hard-line political ground is one thing. Appearing to be forced to surrender all together is quite another. That's why decommissioning is a voluntary contribution to the process of building trust. But it is also necessary in order to move forward.

During the multi-party talks of 1998, every point of this Agreement was studied in detail then weighed in the round. The result is a finely tuned but hard-won compromise.

Every provision, every word, is there for a reason. Any unilateral change of detail or emphasis, no matter how small, would throw it out of balance.

Everyone who brokered the Agreement understood this. Unless someone is proposing to re-negotiate it, it is this deal that has to be implemented, this deal and all of it.

So if we are to get through the coming period, if we are to keep the peace process on track, then we must guard jealously the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement and maintain the confidence of all parties in its scrupulous fairness.

I am under no illusions about the size of the task ahead or of the heavy price of failure.

These are difficult times but I can assure you that I am not about to give the upper hand to the political dinosaurs who have consistently opposed peace and progress, who thrive on conflict and misery.

Northern Ireland's proud traditions grew up in adversity - as they saw it - to protect their way of life, to express their traditions without fear of attack.

They did not live in fear and isolation, did not suffer dreadful losses of friends and family only to flinch now that we are in sight of peace.

I have more faith in the people of Northern Ireland than that. Their will, their spirit, their history demands that we make this Agreement work.

The 20th Century was steeped in blood, across the globe and in this small corner of it. It showed, cruelly and indiscriminately, the destructive potential of coercive power.

This Century will conclusively prove its limits.

And I am convinced that history will add Northern Ireland to the roll of nations which proved that force - political or paramilitary - can never supplant democracy.

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