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Statement by Peter Hain on the St Andrews Talks, (16 October 2006)

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Text: British Government ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Statement by Peter Hain, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on the St Andrews Talks, House of Commons, (16 October 2006)


"Mr Speaker, with permission, I wish to make a statement on political progress in Northern Ireland.

Between 11th and 13th of October in St Andrews both British and Irish Governments engaged intensively, late into the night and from early morning, with the Northern Ireland political parties.  That we were able to defy the sceptics and cynics, and secure the St Andrews Agreement, opens the way to a new dawn for democracy in Northern Ireland. A new democracy based - for the very first time in Northern Ireland's tangled history - on the twin foundations of the rule of law and power sharing. Without question, it may come to be seen as a pivotal moment in Irish history.

These two foundations stand together or fall together: on the one hand, unequivocal support for the police and unequivocal support for the rule of law; on the other an absolute commitment by all the parties to share power in a restored Northern Ireland Executive. Delivery on both these foundations was absent from the Good Friday Agreement; now it is in prospect. That is a measure of what was achieved at St Andrews: arguably the fulfilment of the hopes expressed on Good Friday eight years ago. The Agreement has been placed in the Library and is available in the Vote Office.

All the parties at St Andrews were crystal clear on one point at least: that in May Parliament had legislated for closure, one way or the other, on the political process.

Four years since the Executive and Assembly last sat, there had been set in statute a clear endpoint - of 24 November - by which the political parties would agree to locally accountable government for the people they represent, bringing Direct Rule to an end. The alternative, as I have made clear, is that the Assembly would dissolve. And, incidentally, were the parties to unravel St Andrews at any stage in the coming weeks and months, dissolution would follow as night follows day, and both Governments would move on to formulate Plan B. There is not a choice between St Andrews and something else; there is only a choice between St Andrews and dissolution.

Since the House set the 24th November deadline in statute, there have been important indicators that the context within which political development can take place has been changing, changing fundamentally, changing for the better, and - I personally believe - changing for good.

Northern Ireland had the best parading season for four decades, with not a soldier on the streets on 12th July: something unthinkable just a year ago when 115 live rounds were fired by loyalist paramilitaries at police and soldiers during the Whiterock parade. This year Whiterock passed off peacefully, following a cross community dialogue.

Loyalist leaders have given me assurances that, as the IRA have done, they will now work to ensure an end to their paramilitarism and criminality.

Last week, for the first time ever, the Leader of the DUP, the right Honourable Member for North Antrim, met the Catholic Primate of Ireland, Archbishop Brady.

Over the summer, the Preparation for Government Committee, with all the parties face to face in the room, did important and constructive work on a range of issues central to the good governance of Northern Ireland.

And above all there has been further compelling evidence that IRA violence has indeed ended, a judgement confirmed decisively on 4th October in the report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which also confirmed in paragraph 2.17 that: "The leadership has maintained a firm stance against the involvement of members in criminality, although this does not mean that criminal activity by all members has stopped. The leadership's stance has included public statements and internal directions; investigating incidents of breach of the policy; the expulsion of some members; and emphasising the importance of ensuring that business affairs are conducted in a legitimate manner".

Mr Speaker, the Government firmly believes that the circumstances are now right to see a permanent political settlement in Northern Ireland, with the restoration and the full and effective operation of the political institutions.

Anyone with experience of the political process in Northern Ireland will know that it is never easy, that the negotiations are always tortuous and tough, and that there is always a danger of things unravelling.

St Andrews, like Good Friday, was no exception. But the harder the negotiations, the more likely it is that any agreement that comes out of them will stick.

There were two main issues to be resolved at St Andrews if we were to achieve restoration of the power-sharing Executive: the need for support for policing and the rule of law across the whole community which would enable, in due course, the safe devolution of policing and justice to the Assembly, and changes to the operation of the Good Friday Agreement's institutions.

On support for policing I want to spell out to the House what that means, by quoting from paragraph 6 of the St Andrews agreement.

It means fully endorsing the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

It means actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas.

It means playing a full and active role in all the policing and justice institutions, including the Policing Board.

For many years now, all in this House have joined the Government in demanding support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland from every part of the community. My Honourable Friend the Member for Foyle and his SDLP colleagues, John Hume especially, have shown courageous leadership in making that a reality. With one in five - rising to one in three - of PSNI officers now Catholics, and the Service deploying with local consent right across Northern Ireland, including South Armagh, policing has been transformed.

But no-one here will now underestimate how significant it will be if the republican movement can accept and endorse the agreement drawn up at St Andrews. Based on last week's discussions, I am confident that they will do so, and that this will make for a decisive and irrevocable break from a past of violence and criminality. It will give absolute confidence in an authentically new Northern Ireland of hope and peace and the rule of law.

I believe that, when this active support for policing and criminal justice is seen to be delivered, then there will be sufficient community confidence for the Assembly, in line with the St Andrews Agreement, to request the devolution of justice and policing from the British Government by May 2008. It is very important to acknowledge, however, that devolution of policing is already very substantially down the road. Following the Patten Report, Direct Rule Ministers relinquished matters of real importance. The PSNI has been accountable for five years to the Policing Board (comprising local elected and independent representatives); to the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman; and to District Policing Partnerships. The remaining devolution of policing and justice is largely institutional, focussing more on the courts and the administration of justice, than on operational policing which in the past has been so controversial to nationalists and republican communities.

And although Nationalists and Republicans had major concerns over the primacy of national security being vested in the Security Service, St Andrews makes clear in Annex E that there is full accountability for all domestic operational security matters, because these will be exclusively undertaken, not by MI5, but by the PSNI which is of course itself fully accountable in Northern Ireland, including those of its officers who may be secondees to MI5. We stand ready moreover to develop procedures and establish protocols on MI5's activities, to provide any reassurances necessary on accountability.

Mr Speaker, taking Northern Ireland out of a divided past and into a shared future can be done only on the basis of agreement on fundamental principles:

  • the principle of consent;
  • the commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means;
  • sharing power within a stable inclusive partnership government;
  • equality and human rights for all;
  • mutually beneficial relationships developed between North and South and within these islands.

Those are the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement and they will always remain the bedrock and foundation of the political settlement in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement, however, allowed for changes to be made to the operation of the institutions to make them more responsive and effective, and, following discussion with all the parties, we have made an assessment of these in Annex A.

The Government will introduce legislation to enact appropriate changes and other aspects of the St Andrews Agreement before the statutory November deadline, once the parties have formally endorsed the terms of the agreement and agreed on that basis to restore the power-sharing institutions.

We have now set out a clear timetable for restoration.

Tomorrow, a new Programme for Government Committee will begin regular meetings at Stormont to agree priorities for the new Executive.

Crucially, parties will for the first time together be represented at leadership level on that Committee, as on the existing Preparation for Government Committee.

We have asked the parties to consult on the St Andrews Agreement and to respond by 10 November, to allow time for final drafting of the Bill to take through the House.

Once this happens, and on the basis that the St Andrews Agreement is endorsed, the Assembly will meet to nominate the First and Deputy First Minister on November 24, the deadline for a deal.

Mr Speaker, I do not have to spell out to the House the great significance of these nominations, the more so given those who are likely to be nominated: the Leader of the DUP and Sinn Fein's Chief Negotiator.

I pay tribute to the Right Honourable Member for North Antrim. Like anyone who understands something of the history of Northern Ireland, I realise that this is not an easy step for him or for his party.

In January, there will be a report from the Independent Monitoring Commission.

In March the electorate will have the opportunity to endorse the St Andrews Agreement either through an election in Northern Ireland or through a referendum. We will listen to the views of all the parties before making a decision on the most appropriate way of consulting the electorate and legislating accordingly.

Either way, the people will speak.

On 14 March, prospective members of the Executive will be named by their party leaders.

On 26 March, power will be devolved and d’Hondt will be run.

This is an ambitious programme and there is still work to be done.

But Mr. Speaker I do not think that Northern Ireland has been at this point before.

It is a tribute to my Right Honourable Friend, the Prime Minister, to the Taoiseach, to both British and Irish officials who have worked tirelessly over so many years that we are at this point. Their energy, time and patient attention to the detail of the issue has been unprecedented.

But above all it is a tribute to all the political parties in Northern Ireland - all of them - who have shown courage and leadership, and taken risks for peace and political progress.

They have shown that there can be accommodation and agreement without sacrificing either principle or integrity.

Friday 13 October was a good day for Northern Ireland. It has the potential to be greater still, to be the foundation stone of a new Northern Ireland, based exclusively on the principles of peace, justice, democracy and equality. Whatever the difficulties that lie ahead, I trust that none of those who took part in the talks at St Andrews last week will lose sight of that great prize."


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