As Prime Minister I am deeply committed to doing the best for Northern Ireland. That is why just under a year ago I signed an economic pact with the Northern Ireland Executive and brought the G8 Summit to Co Fermanagh. The G8 highlighted to the world a modern Northern Ireland that’s a great place to visit, invest and do business. As a result of the economic pact, the government and the Executive are working more closely than ever before to boost the private sector and bring more jobs here.
There are clear signs that our long term economic plan for recovery is bringing benefits here in Northern Ireland. The unemployment claimant count has fallen for 15 months in a row. Business confidence is rising, with over 10,000 new jobs created in the private sector in the past year alone. Outside of London, Northern Ireland is the leading region in the UK for inward investment.
I am also aware that the recession here was deeper than in other parts of the UK and the recovery is not yet as strong. We’re doing what we can to help, for example by cutting income tax for over 600,000 people in Northern Ireland, freezing fuel duty and reducing business taxes. And later this year I’ll take the decision on whether to devolve corporation tax powers to the Executive.
But if we are going to build a genuinely shared and more prosperous Northern Ireland that can win in the global race then it is also essential that we tackle the legacies of our divided past. We have seen how disputes over parading and flags can result in appalling and unjustifiable public disorder that places a huge burden on the police. As the so-called ‘on-the-runs’ controversy demonstrated, the past has the capacity to poison the political atmosphere and create a political impasse. That makes taking decisions on a range of important issues for Northern Ireland much harder to achieve. And of course we should never forget the pain that endures for the families of victims. We owe it to them finally to deal with these issues in a way that may help heal those wounds.
Politicians and people in Northern Ireland should not underestimate the importance I attach to reaching agreement on these issues. I know that a large amount of good work was done at the end of last year by the Northern Ireland parties under the chairmanship of Richard Haass. Unfortunately, they did not quite make it over the line. But I now believe, with elections out of the way, there is a pressing need for a renewed push by Northern Ireland’s politicians to finish the job. The coming weeks before the parading season reaches its height will be crucial. So I am urging all the party leaders to seize this opportunity by getting down to the serious business of finding a way forward, through an intensive process to deliver an agreement.
I understand the concerns of those who fear that new structures, particularly on the past, could lead to a one-sided re-writing of history in which the sole focus is on the British state and its agencies. I have always said that no government I lead will ever be party to that. In fact I believe that an agreement on the past provides an opportunity to ensure that any new structures are balanced, accountable and transparent, not one-sided or partisan. It would also be a chance to ensure that victims are placed at the centre of any process.
The benefits of an agreement on flags, parading and the past could potentially be huge. It would send out a powerful message globally about how Northern Ireland’s leaders can work together to resolve contentious and divisive issues - a clear sign that politics in Northern Ireland is maturing. And it would free up politicians at Stormont to focus on other pressing matters such as strengthening the economy and building a shared future.
So over the coming weeks, the UK government will continue to be fully engaged in supporting, encouraging and facilitating progress. Solutions cannot be imposed from outside. Agreement, if it’s going to stick, has to come from Northern Ireland’s elected leadership. But the Secretary of State and I will do whatever we can to push that along. We know too that the US and Irish governments also enthusiastically support efforts to find an agreed way forward.
The prize on offer is great - a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland putting its divided past behind it and in which people of all traditions live and work together to build a genuinely shared future for everyone. Now is the time to grasp the opportunity to make real progress to achieving that end.