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Speech by Peter Hain to the Labour Party Annual Conference, Manchester, (28 September 2006)

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

Speech by Peter Hain, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales, to the Labour Party Annual Conference, Manchester G-Mex Centre, (28 September 2006)


"A hundred years ago, devolution was the dream of our first parliamentary leader and first ever Welsh MP, Keir Hardie. Seven years ago our Labour government delivered on that dream for the people of Wales. And I was proud to stand at the head of that campaign.

But this year, as Secretary of State for Wales, I am prouder still that, along with my Deputy Nick Ainger, we have taken through a new Government of Wales Act that has settled the constitutional argument in Wales for generations to come, with new powers for the Assembly from next year and the prospect of full law making powers in the future if the people of Wales agree.

Labour is the party that believes in devolving, not centralising power. Because we believe that power is best placed in the hands of the people. Because we accept that Whitehall doesn’t always know best.

Our commitment to more devolution in Wales has killed Plaid Cymru’s separatist fantasy and ensured it is Labour that is the party that defends the Union.

And what an extraordinary sight to see the Tories become the party that puts that unity at risk - puts it on a life support machine if they ever came to power - by promising to make MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland second class, and causing constitutional chaos. That can only lead in one direction - towards the door marked ‘EXIT’ from the United Kingdom.

Because when Welsh and Scottish voters discover that their elected MPs are denied the right to vote as equals with English MPs in the Commons, they will feel second class too.

So let there be no doubt that we stand solid as a Labour Party for the fundamental principle that each MP elected to Parliament is equal, and we will defend that principle to the end.

So as we face a tough test next May in elections to the Welsh Assembly, our message is clear to the voters of Wales: do not put at risk all the prosperity and success achieved under Labour government in Wales and Labour government in Westminster by allowing what will be a Tory-led opposition to beat us.

People in Wales have rumbled David Cameron. He boasts that he gets renewable electricity at his London house, but in Wales he denounces the turbines which generate it as "giant bird-blenders"!

This is a man who, when he’s in Wales, says he "wants to make devolution work", but when he’s in London ensured his was the only party to vote against the Government of Wales Bill - even Ian Paisley’s DUP voted for it!

And we must expose the Lib Dems’ hypocrisy - left of us in Labour seats; right of us in their Tory targets. Public spending hikes, yet massive income tax cuts. Axing the New Deal, Child Trust Funds and freezing the Minimum Wage, yet posturing on poverty. And privatising the Post Office: our Labour government - your Labour government - was elected on a manifesto that opposed Post Office privatisation and we will fight it all the way.

Labour votes lent to the Liberals let in around 30 Tory MPs in at the last election. A vote for the Lib Dems or Plaid at the Assembly elections could mean waking up to a Tory-led coalition on 4th May.

The Welsh election will be a bare knuckle fight with the Tories. Let’s work with Rhodri to make sure we win that fight and ensure Labour wins an Assembly third-term next May.

And this is an even more critical time for Northern Ireland.

Barely a year before our Labour government first took power, at peak shopping time on Father's Day, a 3,000lb IRA bomb exploded here in Manchester, injuring more than 200 people and causing chaos, panic and misery. It’s hard now to imagine the utter devastation to this city centre, costing over £700m to rebuild.

It’s hard to imagine today because of the huge progress our Government has delivered in Northern Ireland. Progress that proved so illusive to our predecessors.

The IRA’s armed campaign over and their decommissioning complete. Army watchtowers and bases being dismantled. A security situation that is improving every day. No soldiers on the streets of Belfast to help maintain order during the 12th July parades, for the first time in nearly 40 years.

But despite the huge progress we have made, the Legislative Assembly and Executive have remained suspended for almost four years.

By November 24th, less than two months from now, the political parties in Northern Ireland - and the DUP in particular, face an historic decision. A choice between the past and the future. To do the jobs they were elected to do. To exercise their mandates as Assembly Members and take responsibility for governing Northern Ireland through a power-sharing Executive. Or to allow the possibility of locally accountable devolved Government slip away.

Northern Ireland has seen many deadlines. Seen many come. Seen many go. But this one we’ve put in law. Because the process cannot be allowed to become an end in itself. People in Northern Ireland are sick and tired of having their very own political ‘groundhog day’ - and it’s time it came to an end.

But let me be clear. If the deadline passes without agreement to restore an inclusive power sharing Executive, the consequences are serious. Assembly Members will no longer be paid, they will have to make their staff redundant. Party funding will be stopped immediately. Stormont will shut down.

Even more serious, if there is no deal by the 24th, the Assembly will be dissolved the following week. And that is a real moment of truth for Northern Ireland’s politicians - because they all know that the opportunity to try again may not come around for years.

With my deputy David Hanson and Ministerial team, Maria Eagle, Paul Goggins, David Cairns and Lord Jeff Rooker, we will continue to govern Northern Ireland as direct rule Ministers, taking the decisions local politicians are unable to. And doing so in close cooperation with Dublin within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Yet if that deadline is met there will be the historic prize of locking in permanent peace and democratic politics for the first time ever. Nationalists and Unionists, Republicans and Loyalists side by side in a shared future.

And that hard won historic prize will have been secured thanks to the personal dedication and tireless effort of one man: our Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

But in advance of devolution being restored, our Ministerial team are getting on with the job of delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.

Thanks to Gordon Brown’s exceptional management of our economy - and his insistence that we must massively increase spending in education and health, Northern Ireland has been able to share the fruits of that economic success and public investment. And enabled us to start rolling out Labour policies to Northern Ireland such as Sure Start, breakfast and after school clubs - policies to support hard working families and ensure children have the best start in life.

And we’re driving forward radical reforms in Northern Ireland.

We are reinvigorating local government - with extra powers and spending responsibilities. Because devolution of power must not stop at a national level. And because councillors know best how to serve their local communities.

We’re introducing a fairer system of local taxation, based on the real value of your property - with a generous system of reliefs for those on low income.

We’re introducing a fair system of charges for water in Northern Ireland based on income and the value of your home, because water and energy poverty is a growing challenge.

Then there is the greatest challenge facing the world today - climate change, which threatens the very future of humankind.

In Northern Ireland we are playing our part: massively increasing public investment in renewable energy; supporting the development of new marine current technology to take advantage of the strength of the tides in Northern Ireland; providing 100 per cent grants towards home micro-generation (such as solar panels and wind turbines) for those on low incomes; and insisting that all new buildings - from hospitals to factories to homes - all new buildings should have renewable energy designed in.

Labour values being implemented in Northern Ireland to protect the environment.

And Labour values for equal opportunities in education too.

We are reforming a Northern Ireland’s antiquated, unfair schools system which forced every child aged 11 to sit a test to determine their future. A test which opened a door to opportunities for a few, but closed those life chances off from too many. I’ve just taken through legislation to not only scrap the 11+ but to abolish academic selection completely across Northern Ireland.

Devolving more power to local government. Boosting renewable energy. Ensuring children’s life chances are not set by an academic test aged only 11.

Labour policies for the future of Northern Ireland.

But don’t take my word for it.

I’d like to introduce someone who has been an inspiration to me, as have so many of the people I’ve met across Northern Ireland. The Head teacher at Edenbrooke Primary School on the Shankill in Belfast: Betty Orr. That’s what your Labour government has achieved in Northern Ireland.

But always remember - we can only put our values into practice by being in government. Only make a difference. Only change history. Only change lives and bring new hope - only by being in Government.

That is why we won in 1997 and 2001 and 2005 - to make a difference. We will not be forgiven if we squander the opportunity to win next time or allow the Tories back in, losing maybe for a generation the chance to implement in government our Labour values of social justice, equality and human rights.

So, united as a movement, we must face the year ahead with confidence in our values.

With tough elections, especially in Wales and Scotland, and our determination to restore devolution in Northern Ireland, we stand proud on our record of devolving power.

And we will continue to devolve power. Continue to fight to give power back to the people. Because for us empowering our citizens isn't just another policy: it's the very purpose of our movement."

Thank you conference."


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