Forum for Cities in Transition: Promoting reconciliation through resilience
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Theresa Villiers addresses the Forum's annual gathering on the challenges facing NI today and how peace can be built in a divided society.
It’s a pleasure to be able to join you this morning at the fifth annual Forum for Cities in Transition.
It’s inspiring to see so many people from across the world coming together here to promote peace and reconciliation.
And I’m grateful for this opportunity to speak about the UK Government’s perspective on the political process in Northern Ireland.
I’m also delighted that Minister Sherlock is here today to give the Irish Government’s view on a process in which it has played such a valued role.
It’s now just over 16 years since the historic Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
There can be no doubt that that Agreement and its successors at St Andrews and Hillsborough have transformed life in Northern Ireland for the better.
Of course there have been bumps along the road but the coalition led by the DUP and Sinn Fein has been sustained since devolution was restored in May 2007.
That’s the longest period of unbroken devolved government here since the ‘60s.
That’s a significant achievement, particularly when one considers that Stormont’s coalition consists of parties who were not only deadly enemies for many years, but who also have very contrasting view on many of the key constitutional, economic and social issues.
Despite that, the parties have demonstrated over the last 7 years that they are capable of working together for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland.
But survival is not an end in itself.
Any government has to show it can deliver effectively and the Northern Ireland Executive can point to a number of significant achievements.
For example, Belfast is now one of the most popular cities on in the UK for attracting foreign investment.
This is in no small part due to its highly educated workforce, competitive cost base a first class quality of life and the fact that both the UK Government and the Stormont Executive are committed to backing business.
Claimant count unemployment has fallen for 21 months in a row employment is up, driven by the private sector which has created over 16,000 new employee jobs here in the past year alone.
And this year Northern Ireland is predicted to grow faster than most major developed economies across the world.
On a range of issues the Government and the Executive are more closely engaged than ever before.
That was demonstrated through the economic pact we signed in June last year, reflecting our joint determination to ensure we do all we can to expand the private sector, as well as building a genuinely shared society.
And that commitment to Northern Ireland was backed up in tangible form by the Prime Minister’s decision to bring the G8 to County Fermanagh.
He followed that up with a G8 themed investment conference where he made a powerful sales pitch for Northern Ireland as a great place in which to invest and do business.
We have a buoyant and growing arts and creative industry sector, with the world’s most popular TV programme ‘Game of Thrones’ filmed here.
And in hosting the Giro D’Italia cycle race, Northern Ireland was able to show off its stunning scenery to a huge global audience.
All this would have been unthinkable before the peace process successfully delivered the political settlement here.
We have also witnessed a transformation in relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, confirmed by the historic visits of Her Majesty The Queen to the Republic in 2011 and of President Higgins to the UK in April this year.
So Northern Ireland has made great progress and there is much of which people here should be proud.
We should never under estimate how far we have come, but neither should we under estimate how far we still need to go. Because it is increasingly clear that there remain a number of unresolved issues that continue to hold Northern Ireland back and prevent it from achieving its true potential.
Let me be clear. Along with our colleagues in Dublin, this Government will always be there to help Northern Ireland’s political leaders find a way forward to resolve difficult issues.
But the principal responsibility rests Northern Ireland’s political leaders to get on with the job of making devolution work and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.
That has to include settling ongoing disputes around budgets and welfare reform, the failure to deal with which is now casting uncertainty over the financial sustainability of the institutions.
And it must also include progress on the divisive questions around flags, parading and the past, which are particularly destabilising and damaging to the political relationships which are so essential to enable the devolved institutions to function as they should.
First, the budget and welfare reform.
Like governments everywhere, the Executive needs a long term plan to balance the books and live within its means.
The most urgent priority is to set a budget for 2015-16 a draft of which needs to be agreed by the end of the month. But the Executive also needs to deal with long term pressures on spending which if they go unchecked threaten to devastate its finances in the years to come.
One of these long term pressures is the welfare system.
And I want to emphasise that this Government’s approach to welfare is not driven solely by the need to make the system more affordable, vital though that is.
We are also strongly motivated by the pressing need to remedy the defects in the system we inherited. A system which in far too many cases it fails the very people it is designed to help, trapping them on benefits, penalising them if they went out to work and leaving them in poverty.
At the heart of our reforms is the principle that work should always pay and that no one should be better off staying at home on benefits than they would be by going out to work.
We believe the best way to lift people out of poverty is to support them into work. And that provides the moral underpinning of the reforms we are implementing in Great Britain.
As yet the NI Executive parties have failed to agree to make similar changes to the NI welfare system, with some arguing that a special case should be made for Northern Ireland.
But in my view, the levels of worklessness and poverty here actually means that welfare reform is more, rather than less, of a necessity for Northern Ireland.
That said the Government has already agreed a number of flexibilities to reflect Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances.
That includes measures which would broadly retain the spare room subsidy, reflecting the nature of the NI housing stock and the difficulty in moving between neighbourhoods.
But the Government is clear that this is as far as we can go.
There will be no extra money to subsidise Northern Ireland in retaining a more expensive welfare system than the rest of the UK.
So once again I am strongly urging Northern Ireland’s leaders to get this resolved once and for all.
But the problems with the Executive’s budget are not solely related to welfare.
As the Finance Minister has said, there are ‘other emerging and inescapable pressures’.
These now need to be urgently addressed by all 5 parties in the Stormont Executive.
Northern Ireland continues to be generously supported by the Exchequer. Public spending per head is 27% higher than in England; the highest in UK.
Moreover, Barnett consequentials over the last 4 years mean that the NIE is now actually receiving more in block grant funding than was originally envisaged when they set their budget.
Taking on board those consequential payments, the actual reduction in the block grant over this spending review period has only been around 1% a year.
But even though the Northern Ireland Executive has not faced the same squeeze that many other parts of the public sector have had to contend with, their budget pressures now mean that it is more important than ever to cut the running costs of government.
That means looking again at the shape, size and efficiency of the public sector here, just as we have in Whitehall, and just as governments the world over have had to do in response to the age of austerity.
Last year, the UK Government saved taxpayers £14.3 billion, compared to 2010, through efficiency measures such as:
- a smaller civil service with reformed conditions
- a 56% reduction in spending on consultants and agency staff
- abolition of a third of all quangos
- reduction in the Government’s property portfolio by over 2 million square metres
- and an award winning digital offer, with a major switch to digital services and a world leading transparency programme.
This shows that with determination, it is possible to deliver more for less and focus resources on the front line services we all value so much.
And it’s now time for the Northern Ireland Executive to start driving through the kind of efficiency programmes if they are to have any hope of mitigating real damage to front line public services.
But it’s not just the budget and welfare reform that are holding us back.
We also urgently need to tackle the divisive questions around flags, parades and the past which can so often embitter community relations and damage the political relationships which are crucial to making the devolved institutions work.
Disputes over these 3 issues are consuming ever increasing amounts of time and resources, particularly where they spill out on to the streets with demonstrations and public disorder.
The cost of policing the nightly protest at Ardoyne is now estimated to be in excess of £12 million.
I fully appreciate how very difficult these issues are, the roots of some of them date back centuries, but we are now at a point where dealing with the legacy of the past has become a crushing weight on our already overburdened criminal justice system
We’re see increasing numbers of inquests, judicial reviews, Freedom of Information requests, and the list continues to grow daily
Last year the Criminal Justice Inspectorate reported that Troubles related work was imposing a cost on the criminal justice system in excess of £30 million per annum. In the next 5 years the cost is estimated to exceed £187 million.
More recently the Chief Constable has reported on the strains being placed on the Police Service of Northern Ireland in trying to deal with historic cases and the new requirements they bring for review, re-investigation and disclosure.
So there are potentially huge benefits for Northern Ireland if an agreed way forward way can be found on the three so-called Haass issues.
Crucially, this would provide an opportunity to develop a more balanced, transparent and accountable approach to dealing with the past. An approach which has safeguards built in to ensure that whatever structures are agreed anchor their work around the principle of objectivity, fairness and accuracy and cannot be hijacked by any one side. And an approach which puts the interests of victims at its heart.
As I talk to many people from across Northern Ireland and I am conscious that there is a growing groundswell of opinion that we need to find a way to deal with these issues.
Even if a complete resolution eludes us there is still every chance we can put together a pragmatic accommodation that takes some of the tension out of these issues and stops them from time and again destabilising the politics of Northern Ireland.
As I have said, the answers have to come from Northern Ireland’s political leadership.
But the UK Government can and does have a role and we are doing all we can to see real change delivered to secure a shared future for Northern Ireland.
That’s why I recently announced the Government’s realistic assessment that the time had now come for a new round of cross-party talks to be convened, to break the current deadlock and to seek a way forward on the outstanding issues.
Those talks began on 16th October. I’m pleased to report that they have got off to a largely positive start with all the parties taking part and taking the process seriously.
And of course it is right that there’s a place at the table for the Irish Government on issues for which they have responsibility and in accordance with the long established three stranded approach.
Both the UK and Irish Governments have pledged their full support to the new process and we have agreed that report on progress will be prepared no later than 28 November.
In conclusion, I’d like to close my remarks today by referring to a conversation I have a few weeks ago with someone involved in efforts to the Middle East conflict.
He told me about a visit to Northern Ireland which he’d found inspiring, not just because peace had been achieved, but because he met people working on a daily basis on maintaining and cherishing and continuing that peace.
He said that it made peace more tangible, more real, and more achievable to see the dedication and effort needed to sustain it and make it work.
Northern Ireland’s peace process has rightly been hailed around the world as a striking success.
It was achieved because its elected representatives have been prepared to show courageous leadership make brave decisions to find a way forward.
But there is more to be done.
As the broadly based campaign launched a week or so ago said loud and clear, the people of this very special place out here on the far western edge of Europe want their politicians to “Make it work”.
They want Northern Ireland’s leaders to find a way past the blockages that are holding us back and to show once again that they can achieve what looks almost impossible.
I hope they will rise to that challenge in the days ahead.