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Speech by Mark Durkan, then leader of the SDLP, to the McGill Summer School, County Donegal, 22 July 2004

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Text: Mark Durkan ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

How Is Nortern Ireland To Be Governed?

Speech by Mark Durkan, then leader of the SDLP,
to the McGill Summer School, County Donegal, 22 July 2004


The people of Ireland, North and South, have already indicated how we want to be governed. We gave our support in the referendum to inclusive institutions that would be allowed to function and flourish in a climate free from paramilitary activity. That was what the Agreement envisaged and the people endorsed. More than six years after the referendum, it is an indictment of those who continue to defy the people of Ireland - particularly Sinn Fein and unionist leaders - that we have neither the stability of the institutions nor the end of paramilitary activity that the Agreement requires.

The institutions have been in the current suspension for over twenty one months now - soon longer than it took to negotiate the Agreement in the first place. We all know why they are suspended. The real question is: what are the parties going to do to end suspension? Not just to get the institutions up and running again, but to make the most of the platform for change they give us. As we approach the September talks, which are supposed to be about delivering restoration, the signs are already there that Sinn Fein and the DUP are playing everyone else for fools. Instead of preparing to take responsibility for making a breakthrough, both parties appear to be preparing to absolve themselves of responsibility for yet another breakdown.

If a deal is cobbled together with the help of the governments and probably even without direct dialogue, what prospects will it offer the rest of us? The DUP and Sinn Fein are at best united by their love of power and their hatred for each other. The only deal the DUP wants is one that will permit them to deal with nationalists as little as possible in the future. For evidence of this, we need only look at how they are proposing the First and Deputy First Minister should be elected. Not jointly to a joint office by a cross-community vote, but separately to separate offices by separate votes from each community voting bloc.

Sinn Fein seem willing to go along with such an accommodation of avoidance instead of the accommodation of partnership the Agreement envisaged. The deal that both these parties will go for would be a carve-up between them rather than inclusive power-sharing. Back to back, not face to face. Each party cementing their own status as top dogs in their own communities, but doing very little to address the problems facing all our communities. The shape of proposals for re-structuring local government emerging from the Review of Public Administration will be cynically recruited into this carve-up scenario to give this new take on the Ďseparation of powersí doctrine a geo-sectarian shape. This would be used to blur the power of regional government in order to fudge the dilution of power-sharing in that regional government.

This is not what people voted for when they mandated the parties to deliver the Agreement. It must not be what we settle for now. We need to get the institutions back in place, not just so that politicians can get back to sharing the corridors of power, but so that we can get back to the job of building a society where children can share the playgrounds and people can share in the new prosperity of economic growth and social inclusion. Opting for divided power and indulging divisive agendas would serve to undermine not just the Agreement now, but the prospects generations to come should have to fulfil its promise in the future.

Implementing the full Agreement together will provide the necessary stability and engender confidence in each other and among the public to move forward together. Not just restoring those aspects of the Agreement we had before suspension. But implementing it all as we have never yet had. Including its provisions for a North South Parliamentary Forum. An all-Ireland Charter of Rights. And real action to support victims and survivors of the troubles.

Rather than minimising the partnership ethic, we need to expand it. Heightening, widening and deepening partnership means moving beyond the structured political partnership of the institutions. For the SDLP, for instance, it means incorporating the social partners - business, trade unions and the community & voluntary sector - in devising and delivering a five year Programme for Government. This would borrow from the successful example of the South and allow us to graduate from the mixture of short-termism and tokenism which weakened the annual Programme for Government rounds which we had. This is only one of a number of SDLP ideas to overhaul the workings and improve the performance of the Agreementís institutions. The DUP claim a lot for accountability, efficiency, transparency and effectiveness. The SDLP has a variety of proposals in the Review and elsewhere to ensure and enhance all of these. We would also provide for greater collectivity. This is how we can best serve the people who gave the Agreement a mandate that we must remember is bigger than the mandate of any one party.

The SDLP respects and defends the Agreement because we respect and defend the democracy with which it was so decisively endorsed. But there is a clear distinction between what derives directly from the Agreement and what was legislated in the Northern Ireland Act to cover a myriad of structural, legal, procedural and technical gaps. While we will not re-negotiate the Agreementís primary precepts and principles, we can distinguish between its fixtures, fittings and furniture and its essential architecture. It has never been the SDLP position that nothing that flows from the Agreement can ever be modified, adjusted or improved in any way. As the strongest advocates of the Agreement, we are also the strongest advocates of greater accountability and efficiency in its institutions and workings.

The DUP have also been trying to wrap the banner of stability around themselves. But their starting point for stability is to ditch the very agreement that was so emphatically endorsed by the people of the North and the people of the South, with a mandate greater than either unionism or nationalism can claim.

The Agreement allows everyone to pursue their constitutional preference, while at the same time providing essential guarantees and protections for all. In the context of constitutional change, the Agreement, with all its guarantees and protections, must endure. In spite of the DUPís attempts to put the question of Irish unity off the table for a generation, it is clear that if a majority of people in the North vote for a United Ireland, then there will be a United Ireland. The SDLP is equally clear that in that United Ireland, the Agreement must endure. Inclusive institutions in the North will stand. The British Irish structures will continue. The equality guarantees and human rights protections will continue. Not only will this approach serve to reassure those who have concerns about the viability or desirability of change, North and South, it will also put the Agreementís ethos of sharing and partnership at the very heart of Irish political life where it belongs.

The people of Ireland endorsed democratic power-sharing institutions in the referendum. We saw them work well during devolution and we believe they can be made work even better. We want the parties to get them back up and running again as soon as possible and for good. Instead of further undermining this clear democratic will, the parties must step up to the mark."


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