Like many people of my generation who grew up in England, my early perceptions of Northern Ireland were heavily conditioned by news reports of a country ravaged by its divisions. Yet now, across the world, that same country is held up as a beacon of hope as proof that courageous men and women can put their differences aside to overcome violence and mistrust.
What you have achieved is truly remarkable. And for those of us who came into politics because of its transformative power, because we do not believe you must accept the world as you find it, it is a huge inspiration.
Fifteen years ago few would have predicted that all the main parties in Northern Ireland would be sharing power together. Yet we have seen that differing traditions and beliefs need not impede good government which, I must say, comes as a relief.
This evening, I would like to set out, briefly, the approach to Northern Ireland you can expect from the new coalition government in Westminster. In terms of the political situation, the security situation, and the economy too.
But first, let me pay tribute to the Joint Working Group chaired by the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Willie Hay, and Seamus Kirk, Ceann Comhairle of Dail Éireann. I know they have put a great deal of work into making this conference happen.
Bringing parliamentarians together in this way to discuss the possible establishment of a North South Parliamentary Forum is, I believe, something from which only good can come.
Northern Ireland is currently enjoying an exceptional period of stability. That is thanks to the political process. Thanks to strong and enlightened leadership across the whole community and thanks to the continuing implementation of the agreements, which the new government emphatically supports.
We do not take that stability for granted. We know that there will be bumps and scrapes in the future, as relationships are tested within the devolved administration, and with the governments in Dublin and London. But we are confident that the political maturity that presently governs these relationships has the potential to endure.
So, we will seek to work with you - closely and openly - and I hope our early engagement demonstrates that intent. I know, for example, that the Chancellor and the Secretary of State had a very constructive meeting with the First and Deputy Ministers last week. We will continue to work closely with all parts of the community to create the stable, peaceful, and prosperous Northern Ireland we all want to see.
So, in a political context, we very much view our role as helping sustain the successful processes and institutions that are already in place. Part of that, of course, is standing against those who aim to damage those processes and institutions.
Just days ago, in Londonderry, we were reminded of the need for continued vigilance against threats to Northern Ireland’s security.
And I want to be unequivocal: the new government will not waver in our condemnation of those who attempt to drag Northern Ireland back to its darker days and we will play our part in bringing them to justice. We take the question of resources very seriously and we are strongly committed to the terms of the financial agreement that accompanied the devolution of policing and justice. Not only have we stood by the £800m package agreed by the previous government but we have also gone further, providing over £12m from the Reserve this year.
Our position is clear: these individuals will not succeed in turning back the clock.
The communities they believe they represent have rejected violence. These communities have learnt the hard way that hate doesn’t build a single home. It doesn’t create a single job. It doesn’t make a single neighbourhood safe. These armed groups have no popular support. They don’t have a single elected councillor.
Those who try to disrupt the peace will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
They are nothing more than criminals and thugs.
I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the co-operation of the Garda Siochana. I know that Chief Constable Matt Baggott is in regular contact with Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy. A close relationship between the Garda and the PSNI and between the British and Irish Governments will continue to be hugely important.
Lasting security is, of course, interwoven with lasting prosperity. Our greatest weapon against those who peddle fear is hope, especially in deterring young people from violence.
But we will only give them that hope by taking action to ensure the UK’s future - their future - is not weighed down by debt. Decisive action to pay down the UK’s towering budget deficit, thereby avoiding decades of debt, higher interest rates, and fewer jobs.
This government will not duck the difficult decisions. Later this month the Spending Review will be published. And as we return our economy to health, all of the regions and nations in the UK will need to play their part. But, unlike previous governments, we do understand that not all areas are the same.
Some are more vulnerable than others. So we recognise anxieties here in Northern Ireland, concerns which derive particularly from the local economy’s longstanding overreliance on the public sector. And our ambition is for a private sector-led recovery, which can sustain growth over the long-term.
Clearly, much of the responsibility for that falls to the devolved administration.
But there are levers we in Westminster can pull. Right now the Treasury is working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Secretary of State to identify ways to help rebalance the local economy, including examining potential mechanisms for changing the corporation tax rate and looking at ways of turning Northern Ireland into an enterprise zone. That paper will be published and consulted on later in the year.
And steps we are taking across the UK will help encourage the entrepreneurialism we need here in Northern Ireland. For example, tax reforms that will help incentivise work. Over 600,000 basic rate taxpayers in Northern Ireland will benefit from the increase in the personal allowance. The Budget announcement on regional National Insurance contributions exemption for new businesses will benefit over 15,000 businesses in Northern Ireland. The Government’s welfare reforms will help people back into work.
I should add that the new government is very mindful of the need to resolve the serious hardship faced by members of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. The Ministerial working group has been restored under the Chairmanship of the Secretary of State. And we are working intensively to find a fair and just resolution.
And we know we must find it very soon.
So, to finish as I began, my message from the new government is this:
We are determined to get the balance right, respecting Northern Ireland’s political arrangements, standing up for its security, supporting its prosperity.
If history teaches us anything it is that we cannot underestimate the importance of our personal relationships, of our openness towards each other and our trust in one another. So I am looking forward to the rest of our evening together and I look forward to working with you all.”