Building on the Belfast Agreement: Economy and Society
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
15 years on, the Secretary of State reflects on progress made since the Belfast Agreement and considers what more needs to be done to achieve a fully peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.
I’d like to thank you all for coming this morning. It’s also a great pleasure to welcome An Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore.
British-Irish relations are probably better now than they ever have been and I am pleased to say that the Tanaiste and I work closely together on a number of important issues relating to Northern Ireland. I’m sure I can speak for both of us in welcoming the fact that we have so many young people with us today representing the generation that has grown up since the political settlement changed Northern Ireland forever.
Earlier this month, we marked the fifteenth anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, or the Good Friday Agreement as some prefer to call it. The anniversary gave us the opportunity to reflect on the many successes delivered by the Agreement and its successors at St Andrews in 2006 and Hillsborough in 2010. A chance to remind ourselves how far we’ve come since the days when terrorism was an almost daily fact of life and claimed victims in every corner of Northern Ireland.
We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to those in successive British, Irish and US governments who were crucial to driving the peace process forward. And we owe that debt in even greater measure to those in Northern Ireland’s political leadership who showed outstanding courage and leadership in making the difficult compromises needed to reach a deal.
They proved that even resentments and concerns dating back hundreds of years can be resolved if you’re prepared to sit round a table and talk to one another.
Few would say the settlement was perfect but it’s rightly recognised as a powerful example of how democracy can triumph over terror.
The Agreement settled the age old constitutional questions on the basis of consent. It’s delivered inclusive power-sharing institutions that reflect the diversity of modern Northern Ireland and established common sense arrangements to enable North and South to work together on matters of mutual interest.
Above all, the Belfast Agreement and its successor saw the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and an end to the terrorist campaigns of violence that had blighted life Northern Ireland for 30 years.
That means we now have the opportunity to move politics forward away from the politics of identity to the politics of delivery. The stability achieved through the Agreements provides the space for politics here to focus on the issues that impact on every day life in Northern Ireland in the same way they do across the rest of the UK, things like schools, jobs, pensions, and the environment.
So this month’s 15th anniversary should prompt us to look towards the future and consider what we should be striving to achieve over the next fifteen years.
The history of this island has often seen periods when many young people feel they have to go overseas to fulfil their aspirations and find the career opportunities they wanted and sadly Northern Ireland has had experience of that. Well this is a Government that backs aspiration.
We’re on the side of people who want to work hard and get on in life.
So of course a key priority is fixing the economy and in so doing ensure there are more job opportunities right here in Northern Ireland for today’s young people.
That’s why we’re so determined to deal with the legacy of debt from years when the Government spent more than the country could afford and left us with the largest deficit in our peacetime history. So we’re bringing down the deficit and that’s kept interest rates at record lows.
We’re reducing business taxes and cracking down on abusive tax avoidance by big business. We’re taking the lowest paid out of tax altogether and investing in science, technology and research to equip our country to compete in the global race.
At the same time we’ve continued to provide high levels of financial support to the Executive.
£900 million has been added to the Executive’s budget since the 2010 spending review and public spending per head in Northern Ireland continues to be 20 per cent above the UK average.
But we need a stronger private sector, which is why the Government is working with the Northern Ireland Executive on our shared goal of re-balancing the economy. To achieve that we must have an economy that rewards hard work, promotes enterprise and values wealth creation.
If we fail to create a competitive environment for business, then wealth creators and entrepreneurs will simply go elsewhere. We’re in a global race and only those economies that are dynamic and flexible will succeed.
Many economic responsibilities now rest with the Executive and I applaud the efforts they have made on the economy, particularly on inward investment.
From phenomenal success in the aerospace industry, through to bringing the Iron Throne and the seven kingdoms of Westeros to Harland and Wolff’s old paint hall in Belfast - Northern Ireland continues to punch above its weight on attracting high quality investment from around the world.
But reviving the economy isn’t enough.
We also need to build a more cohesive society if the hopes and aspirations envisaged by the Belfast Agreement are to be fully realised.
As I go round Northern Ireland I see many great examples of projects which bring people together from different backgrounds. Yet despite that work, there are still deep seated divisions in parts of Northern Ireland society.
Whenever sectarian tensions spill over into street violence that’s distressing and disruptive for those living in the areas affected which are often the most economically disadvantaged in Northern Ireland. And this kind of lawlessness also sends a negative message round the world that does real damage to Northern Ireland’s reputation and its ability to compete.
And it is depressing that some of those involved in disorder and sectarianism weren’t even born when the first ceasefires occurred and the peace process started in earnest. That confirms beyond doubt that the passing of time won’t be sufficient on its own to bridge long-standing sectarian divides.
Looking ahead we will need a sustained effort to build a society based on mutual respect for all citizens, regardless of their community background. A society that’s free from the blight of sectarianism, intimidation and paramilitary violence and where the rule of law is paramount. And a society that says it’s not where you come from that matters, but where you’re going and what you can contribute.
Policies to develop better community relations rightly are the responsibility of the Executive. But the Government has always said that we stand ready to do what we can to help. The Prime Minister takes a personal interest in these matters.
One of the reasons he decided to bring the G8 leaders to Fermanagh was because he wanted to show off to the world what a great place Northern Ireland is and how much it has to offer.
And following the meeting between the Prime Minister and the First and deputy First Ministers in March, I’m working with the Executive on a substantial new economic package, alongside measures to build a more cohesive and stable society. This package is in addition to the support Northern Ireland already receives from the UK Government.
So we’re considering issues like how to make enterprise zones a more attractive option. We’re also looking at how to improve access to bank finance and how we can give the Executive further help in taking forward infrastructure projects. And the Executive is looking at developing economic and social measures, including work on a shared future.
It’s a two way street - the greater the Executive’s ambition, the more the UK Government will be able to do to help. This is about partnership and co-operation and I’m optimistic about the chances of achieving a good outcome for Northern Ireland.
So in conclusion, let’s never forget the effort, courage and leadership that went into bringing Northern Ireland to where it is today. But let’s also recognise that there is vital work still to be done to build a stronger economy and a shared society.
The 19th century saw Ulster flourish as Victorian engineering and technology changed the world forever, with Belfast becoming a by-word for enterprise and innovation. With the peace and stability the Belfast Agreement has brought, there is no reason why Northern Ireland can’t once again become a vibrant economic success story.
But there is an urgent need for progress towards reconciliation, mutual understanding and mutual trust.
We should all consider ourselves custodians of the Agreement the stability it has brought should never be taken for granted. We all have an enduring responsibility to the people of these islands to make the devolved settlement work for the benefit of everyone, so that we can secure a stable, prosperous and peaceful Northern Ireland for the young people of today and for future generations.
And don’t doubt the determination of the UK Government to work in partnership with the Executive and with the Irish Government to achieve that goal that we all so strongly support.