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Speech by Peter Hain to the Macgill Summer School, Glenties, County Donegal, (16 July 2006)

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Text: Peter Hain ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Peter Hain, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to the Macgill Summer School, Glenties, County Donegal, (16 July 2006)


"It is an immense pleasure to be in Donegal this evening in honour of a great Irish legend, John Hume. I doubt Northern Ireland would be enjoying the peace, stability and prosperity we have now were it not for John Hume's vision, his tenacity and above all his courage.

Courage was also commemorated two weeks ago when I visited the Somme for the 90th anniversary of that horrific carnage. Nearly a century on, standing in a re-dug trench of the Ulster soldiers at Thiepval, it was mind numbing trying to comprehend the waste of life and scale of suffering - graphically described, of course, by Patrick MacGill himself.

Within Northern Ireland, the huge sacrifice of the men of the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme - 5,500 casualties in just one day - is deeply rooted in the culture and politics of unionism. But I have also followed with keen interest the debate in the Republic over the appropriate way to remember both the Somme and the Easter Rising of the same year.

Not surprisingly, the further we are from those events the easier it becomes to disentangle them from recent history, and the more objectively we can view their historical significance. The contribution of men from the whole island of Ireland in the First World War is now widely recognised. Historians have begun to explore the social and economic impact of the loss of life across this island. The numbers are staggering: over 200,000 men - perhaps 20 per cent of the adult male population - fought on the Western Front, Gallipoli and elsewhere. The 16th Irish Division alone lost well over 4,000 men at the Somme.

There can hardly have been a family, North or South, which was not affected; we have contemporary accounts of the trauma within communities as thousands of telegrams were delivered in the days following the battle, announcing the deaths of loved ones.

The motivation of these men was diverse. Some fought for the promise of Home Rule, others from loyalty to the Crown. Others - perhaps even the majority - joined up out of economic necessity. But what united them was ultimately far, far greater than what divided them. That is a lesson which we are still helping each other to learn on this island of Ireland.

Nor is it unique to the Irish experience. A few miles from the battlefields where the Ulster and Irish Divisions fought is Delville Wood, where there is a memorial to the South African brigade, and where my great uncle was badly wounded. As you can imagine, the role of South Africans fighting for the British Empire is overlaid by the legacy of apartheid and the separate roles of black and white soldiers - blacks being denied the right to carry guns for example, even on the front line. It took a leader of Nelson Mandela's vision and moral courage to acknowledge the shared suffering and sacrifice of South African soldiers - black and white - on the Western Front.

The commemoration this year at Islandbridge attended by President McAleese, and the presence of the Irish Government through Education Minister, Mary Hanafin, at the Somme are very welcome developments in the same vein. The Taoiseach's personal interest in this has also been very significant - some years ago he recognised the bravery of Irish soldiers in the British army as 'part of the shared experience and history of the Irish and British peoples': a point at which we should come together rather than being forced apart.

I mention the Somme, and the understanding of what unites rather than divides, because a shared future has been a central theme of my first year as Secretary of State. As you know, it is a job in which there is no shortage of history lessons. Everyone has a view of the past - at least one view of the past I have only too often discovered and nearly everyone wishes it had been different. Far too many people and politicians are so rooted in the past that they are unable or unwilling to look to the future.

I have tried to focus minds on what should unite politicians across Northern Ireland in facing up to the future. In pointing to the fierce forces of globalisation - for example low cost economic competition from India and China - and why Northern Ireland needs radical economic, educational and social reform to meet these challenges, some think I have been deliberately using shock tactics. I've even been accused by some unionists of acting 'like a Viceroy': an odd comparison for someone reared in anti colonialism and the struggle against apartheid.

But I make no apology for telling it straight. The time has long gone when Northern Ireland politicians could act as if the world could be stopped whilst they sorted out their differences. It most emphatically cannot. Western economies need to have highly skilled and flexible workforces if they are to compete with increasingly highly educated but very significantly lower paid workforces in Asia. The challenge from these rapidly emerging economic powers will not be met if politicians and community leaders in Northern Ireland are mired in ancient differences.

Nor will an economy which has to fund those differences be sustainable in the long term. The costs of division in Northern Ireland are staggering in almost every sector. In education, for example, there are now 50,000 empty school places in Northern Ireland (rising to 80,000 by 2015) - out of a school population of 333,000. This means a monumental waste of resources: teachers in the wrong places, empty class rooms, scores of small schools which are not viable. Two segregated primary schools in a village and doomed to closure where a merger might be viable and produce higher standards where separately they cannot. Secondary schools with inadequate facilities where a rational school estate with integrated or shared facilities could produce high quality. No society can support this situation, least of all Northern Ireland, with its high skill standards at the top, dismal ones lower down and appalling ones at the bottom. The educational future of Northern Ireland must be shared and focused on what unites, or divided it will be bleak.

The same applies to the economy. Quite simply - and as Northern Ireland business readily agrees - the economy as it is currently structured is not sustainable. A weak private sector and a huge, heavily subsidised - and until now unreformed - public sector, means two things: radical reform within Northern Ireland and much more extensive north south cooperation. Radical reform to cut stifling bureaucracy: seven councils with real powers devolved, each with a strong revenue base, boundaries co-terminus with policing and health, and a swingeing cull of the quangos. Radical reform to raise more local finance: through water charges, higher rates and a police precept, all to bring Northern Ireland more into line with charges across the rest of the UK which have until now been more than double. Radical reforms also to promote competitiveness, encourage entrepreneurship and strengthen the private sector.

And deeper North South co-operation which is practical rather than constitutional. The island of Ireland is a small place. As it looks out west across the Atlantic and east towards the mighty, galloping economies of Asia, it should increasingly operate in unison rather than in division. A shared economic strategy for investment and for clusters of excellence in new sectors. A common approach to the North West, for the regeneration of Derry and Donegal. A single energy market and a united policy to boost renewable energy. Patients crossing the border to get treatment where it makes medical sense to do so. Free cross border public transport for pensioners right across the island. These and many more: the triumph of commonsense over history, of cooperation over division. A shared future for the whole of Ireland and not just for north of the border.

And, yes, a shared future for policing too - a subject of immediate importance to political progress in Northern Ireland.

Policing should unite us. I understand, of course, why it has been a source of division in Northern Ireland in the past. But looking to the future, a society which cannot agree on its policing and criminal justice arrangements cannot meet the challenges of social cohesion, still less tackle serious and organised crime. If we are to succeed in putting the last pieces of the Good Friday Agreement jigsaw in place then we need to extend support for policing right across the community, including in republican areas.

I want to take seriously the republican movement's reservations about policing and to deal with them directly. It is in everyone's interests that we work together to overcome them.

They seem to me to fall into two categories. First, republicans continue to question the practical details of the reform of policing and its completion. When Chris Patten published his report in 1999, Irish historians could perhaps understand why Sinn Fein reserved judgement while the recommendations were translated into legislation. That process was tortuous but once the legislation was complete, and the process of implementation was underway, the Irish Government, the SDLP, the Catholic Church and broad nationalist opinion shifted towards supporting the change process. They knew that it was indeed a process rather than a state of perfection, but realised that their support was essential to achieving the very improvements that nationalists wanted to see.

They opted to be part of the change and part of the future of policing. In the case of John Hume's SDLP, they led from the front and took the political risk of supporting the Patten governance arrangements for policing by joining the Policing Board.

Since that time the PSNI has gone through one of the greatest change programmes of any public organisation in Europe. It is the most highly-regulated, inspected and independently monitored police service anywhere. The Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, has independent powers of investigation which are unparalleled and certainly greater than anything in Britain or here in Ireland. The commitment and personal integrity of Hugh Orde and of Nuala have been very significant factors in building public confidence across the community.

Of course, there will always be a need for further reassurance, particularly where the legacy of the Troubles is concerned, and steps are being taken to address the past. But I think republicans recognise that people in both communities have seen the huge scale of change for themselves and welcome the arrival of a new style of community policing across Northern Ireland. Any outstanding issues of real concern should be discussed: the PSNI and the Government are ready to take part in a mature and sustained dialogue with the Sinn Fein leadership this autumn on any outstanding concerns about the change programme. There is no reason to delay this engagement on practical issues.

But I recognise that republican reservations about policing go deeper than practicalities. The experience of republican communities, the history of physical force republicanism, and the basic constitutional aspirations of the republican movement, make support for the policing institutions of Northern Ireland genuinely problematic. I do not underestimate those difficulties and, yet again, the burden of history behind them. Nor do I underestimate the centrality for republicans of the transfer of powers on policing and criminal justice to the Assembly.

Equally Government recognises, and I think republicans too should appreciate, the sheer depth of hurt amongst the unionist community, and the police themselves, about the past, and the suspicions about republican involvement in policing that arise from that hurt. Given the violence and pain of the last 30 years, that should not come as a surprise, nor should it be lightly dismissed. A visit to the RUC GC memorial garden, which I made not long before I visited the Somme, is a graphic reminder of the scale of sacrifice and suffering which took place. That is why republicans need to help allay those concerns and dispel suspicions that they are somehow ambivalent about the rule of law itself, as opposed to the political prism through which they have traditionally viewed rule of law 'by the Brits'.

The only way to address the experience of policing in republican areas is to begin a process of building trust between the police and republican communities on the ground. The PSNI want to engage in this dialogue - indeed, increasingly are doing so, not least in County Derry and in South Armagh - and I hope that increasingly Sinn Fein will promote that. The approach of senior Sinn Fein figures in dealing with the PSNI over recent parades and their very significant efforts to bring about a peaceful summer on the streets has been encouraging.

No-one expects the wounds of the past to be healed instantly. But it takes two sides to build trust. What everyone agrees is that these communities desperately need a police service to engage with: they need to be able to deal with serious crime, with rape, assault and burglary. Only the PSNI can deliver this service, and they can only deliver it in partnership with the community.

The world has changed. The commitments made by the IRA in July 2005 and delivered over the past year mean that a vacuum has opened up in communities which can only be filled by a policing service. Normalisation has brought with it the contemporary problems of normal societies: drunken yobbery on a Saturday night, anti social behaviour, 'joy riding', car crime and so on. And local residents are demanding action which can only come from the police.

There is simply no viable alternative. Community Based Restorative Justice has generated a lot of heat. It has a place, and has potential for the future, as the experience of other countries has shown. But it can never be a substitute for the criminal justice system let alone for a police service. And everyone must agree that where it operates, it must be within the rule of law and with full police cooperation.

But the heart of the problem is, of course, constitutional. Given the history of the republican movement and its legitimate political aspirations, recognised in the Good Friday Agreement, it is not unreasonable that Sinn Fein should see a link between its official support for the institution of the Policing Board and devolution of policing and criminal justice. Both stem from the Agreement to which republicans and nationalists committed themselves. It is not entirely surprising that republicans hesitate at officially endorsing the tripartite governance arrangements for policing while I, as a British Secretary of State, occupy one part of that structure in place of a Northern Ireland Executive Minister. They argue strongly that the transfer of policing and criminal justice is central to them and that Patten and the Agreement envisaged this. That I understand. But equally, if the devolution point can be satisfied, republican support for the PSNI becomes as constitutionally logical as support for the Garda.

While we work to resolve the issue of devolution, I would strongly urge the republican leadership to draw a distinction between 'constitutional' endorsement of the structures of policing, and support for the practical service of policing in the community. There should be no part of Northern Ireland where people are not actively encouraged to report crimes to the police so that they can take action. There should be no community where elected representatives do not routinely talk to PSNI officers. Sinn Fein Councillors refusing to talk to PSNI officers makes as much sense as DUP MLAs refusing to talk to Sinn Fein representatives. That is to say, it makes no sense. We need to move beyond this kind of politics-of-the-past if Northern Ireland is to move forward.

The reluctance of Sinn Fein to support the work of the PSNI is damaging both to the wider political process, to the interests of republicans themselves, and to their voters. Once the legislation providing for the devolution of policing and justice receives Royal Assent (as we hope) in the next two weeks, we need to see a step-change in efforts by all parties to resolve the issue of policing. Everyone - including unionists - has a responsibility to engage in the dialogue necessary to bring this about.

Reluctance in this area allows the minority of unionists who will always look for reasons not to enter a power-sharing Executive to portray Sinn Fein as hostile to law and order itself. It allows them to argue that this reluctance stems from IRA involvement in criminality, even though the IMC has made it clear that 'the IRA continues to seek to stop criminal activity by its members and to prevent them from engaging in it'.

Much more importantly, the vast majority of fair-minded unionists who would like to see devolution returned, cannot understand this reluctance to be associated with the institutions of law and order. Whatever allowances they may make for the painful history of Northern Ireland, unionists - and many nationalists - are simply puzzled at the prospect of Sinn Fein Ministers in an Executive being unable to endorse the practical activities of the PSNI in fighting crime and keeping the community safe. There are plenty of sophisticated political and historical answers - doubtless eminently suitable to a summer school debate, but none are as powerfully troubling as that question in the minds of people across Northern Ireland.

In short, holding back from being part of policing now, and in shaping its future, has meant that the historic IRA statement of a year ago and the equally historic subsequent act of decommissioning have not yet had the full impact they should in the wider community. The perception of Sinn Fein's position on policing acts as a brake on the massive political progress which republicans have done so much to promote. Ironically, it also becomes an obstacle to the implementation of devolution of policing and justice which republicans see as essential to their constitutional position on policing and which is a key part of the Good Friday Agreement.

I remain optimistic that we can set out a path for resolving the issue of policing in the timescale recently published by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. That optimism is based on the fact that the Good Friday Agreement holds the key. The genius of that Agreement was that it effectively removed the constitutional issue from policing. It allowed nationalists and unionists to pursue their constitutional aspirations through peaceful and democratic means, but, in the meantime, constructed a new arrangement for policing which all could support irrespective of their political goals.

Young Catholics have seen this and grasped the opportunity to be part of the new beginning: thousands have applied to join the PSNI in the past few years. Catholic membership of the police has jumped to over 20 per cent and is well on track to meet Patten's 30 per cent target by 2010. I hope that in time all young people from republican areas will be actively encouraged to join them.  

The gap between republicans of goodwill who want to take positive steps on policing and unionists of goodwill who want to acknowledge them is not wide.

As we approach the anniversary of the IRA statement and look back at the progress made, there is a responsibility on all of us involved in the political process not to lose momentum in the final and, I believe, inevitable path towards the restoration of power-sharing government.

This week has seen, for the first time since 1970, the 12th of July demonstrations take place - without the army on the streets of Belfast. Of course strong feelings on all sides remain. And, of course, there still had to be a significant security presence, but what nobody can deny is that progress has been made in handling our differences in a peaceful way - and that is a credit to all involved: police, community leaders and politicians.

But as that new Northern Ireland emerges politicians have to be careful that they do not get caught up in the old arguments when the reality and the grain of public opinion has moved on.

The balance we all have to achieve in the next few months is how, without denying people's genuine historical and current concerns, we acknowledge that reality has indeed moved on - whether in terms of policing, or, indeed, the IRA - and that, therefore, politics has to move on too, and not be caught in what the public may see as dated and arcane arguments.

Everyone - unionists and republicans, nationalists and loyalists - will be faced with difficult moments of decision in the autumn.  We will do all we can to encourage those who want to move forward (and in this respect I want to welcome the efforts of those in the loyalist community who are trying to lead their areas into a new future).

In approaching these decisions, I hope they will be guided by two thoughts. First, a clear focus on what unites rather than what divides. Second, a vision of the future, well represented by the young people from Ballymena schools who met with the Prime Minister and Taoiseach at Stormont a few weeks ago. They are the generation who will need and want the benefits of devolution, of self-government and of social cohesion if they are to face the huge global challenges of the new century. They will not agree on everything, but they are already talking to each other and establishing common ground. They have a natural sense of the future and natural ability to leave the past behind. In that, as so often, young people may be ahead of their parents.

Let us hope that Northern Ireland's politicians catch up with them. There is not much time left. Not just the four months to the November 24th deadline for restoration of devolved government. But not much time left for Northern Ireland's parties to decide, either to lead the way to a world class Northern Ireland, or remain impotent and paralysed in the face of globalisation, with no answers and no policies. Not much time for Northern Ireland's people to find out whether their politicians are trapped in old hatreds, or up to new challenges of making Northern Ireland world class.

I have been told by some that the deadline set by the Governments is not realistic. But the truth is that four months is easily enough if the political will exists to reach agreement. If the political will is not there, then no amount of extra time will help. That is why the Government's attachment to the 24th November is real and fixed: it is simply a reflection of the reality which is obvious to the vast majority of the public in Northern Ireland.

But I know Northern Ireland's politicians and I believe that they are up for this challenge. I believe they can reach agreement on devolution, on policing and on the relatively small number of issues which remain. I believe they want to accept the mandate of their electorate to face up to the future. By November, you and I will know whether this confidence was well placed."


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