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'It's Time for Reality', Open Letter by Peter Hain, Belfast News Letter, (31 July 2006)

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

'It's Time for Reality', Open Letter by Peter Hain, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in the Belfast News Letter, (31 July 2006)


"Unionism has every right to be confident: confident in its place in the United Kingdom with the principle of consent secured by the Agreement, confident in its culture and confident in its politics and its politicians.

It also needs to be smart.

In politics, as elsewhere, timing is all.

November is the time for unionism to seize the initiative and it will get so much more by engaging and mainstreaming all parties in accountable, democratic politics in the Assembly and the Executive than it will by staying on the sidelines denying itself its rightful role in the Government of Northern Ireland.

And crucially it will get its hands on the levers of power.

I accept that in the past we were over-optimistic about the pace of transition within the republican movement and that led to understandable suspicion on the part of unionists.

That is why we set up the Independent Monitoring Commission.

It is the IMC that tells us that the IRA is living up to its commitments: just read the last Report with an open mind.

Unionism wants to see more movement. But the real danger for unionism is if what was seen in the past to be justifiable concern and suspicion becomes a paralysing refusal to accept that their opponents are capable of change and are part of the body politic.

There will be a real problem for unionism if the IMC reports in October that the IRA has done what it said it would, following on from the quietest parades season since the 1960s and where Sinn Fein is seen to be co-operating more with the police at street level and still there is no political settlement.

And the consequences of failure by 24 November will be serious.

I am often told that unionism does not respond to threats. Quite right. Neither do I.

But unionism should recognise political reality.

As the Prime Minster said in Armagh in April, having worked with the Irish government and with the parties for nearly 10 years on this, there will be nothing more that the governments can do.

And the political focus in the Republic will switch elsewhere at the turn of the year.

Devolution will go into deep freeze and, frankly, I cannot see the circumstances in which it will be revived in the foreseeable future.

There will be no joint authority with the Irish government but north/south and east/west co-operation will deepen.

Direct Rule will continue.

MLAs will lose their place as representatives of the people and while Ministers will, of course, continue to deal with MPs on constituency matters, the democratic deficit will be massive.

The real loss will not be the salaries and allowances.

It will be the loss of a generation of local politicians who will be seen by the public to have failed.

I will continue to implement the reform agenda because it is the right way to take Northern Ireland forward.

There is general agreement that issues on the economy, education, infrastructure and administration need to be addressed.

I want them to be addressed by those with a local mandate and they can be.

The next few months will involve difficult decisions for unionism.

It will mean engaging with people with whom most unionists would rather not.

But, as the summer has shown, we are genuinely in a different place.

The prize is that local politicians will be able to decide local matters whether it is on education or rural planning or industrial de-rating or a host of other issues I currently have to deal with.

The future of Northern Ireland will be in local hands and that is as it should be.

Establishing locally accountable, democratic structures of government is not about what I want, or Tony Blair wants or Bertie Ahern wants.

It is about giving the people of Northern Ireland what they want and what they deserve.

And if this opportunity is taken, unionism's confidence in its politicians will be well rewarded."


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