I am delighted to be able to attend my first British-Irish Association Conference. Ever since its formation in 1972 the BIA has played a valuable role in bringing together key politicians, academics, journalists and others to debate relationships across the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
You have made a significant contribution to the progress made in Northern Ireland over the past two decades. And today you continue to set the agenda on how we can build on those achievements and move Northern Ireland forward. So I would like to warmly congratulate your outgoing chairman, Paul Bew on his outstanding work and wish his successor, Hugh MacNeill well in his new role.
It is also great that Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore will be attending the conference. The UK Government very much values the excellent working relationship between London and Dublin and the Tánaiste has played a key role in delivering that.
One of the key themes of your conference this weekend is how, 15 years on from the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland can keep a steady footing. And it’s on that issue that I’d like to reflect in my comments this evening.
I was born around the same time as the so-called ‘troubles’ erupted in the late 60s. So for the first 30 or so years of my life, like most people I mainly associated Northern Ireland with instability, sectarian strife and terrorist bombs.
The issues of identity and belonging that gave rise to those troubles seemed completely intractable. So I pay tribute to all those here who played a part in delivering the settlement agreed on Good Friday 1998.
Along with its successors at St Andrews in 2006 and Hillsborough in 2010, the Belfast Agreement has helped to bring about a degree of peace and political stability not seen for nearly half a century.
Of course the Agreements are not perfect. They contained elements that many people found difficult to swallow. But there can be no doubt that they have changed life in Northern Ireland for the better in a fundamental way. 15 years on, that is something we should neither undervalue nor take for granted.
For our part, the coalition government at Westminster will continue to stand faithfully by the agreements and the institutions they have established. We believe that this is a settlement that must work and deliver across the whole community.
Yet for all the hard-won stability, there is no doubt that there are key issues that are far from settled in Northern Ireland.
The controversy over flying the union flag and around parades demonstrates the deep divisions which remain in some parts of society. That said, nothing can excuse lawless behaviour of the kind we saw on the streets of Belfast in July. Rioting is not a recreational activity; it’s a serious crime that can lead to substantial prison sentences.
Street violence is not a cost free option. It damages Northern Ireland as we seek to compete in the global race for investment and jobs. It places an intolerable burden on the police who demonstrate incredible bravery in upholding the rule of law. And it ruins the life prospects of those who engage in it by landing them with a criminal record.
And of course rioting is completely counter-productive to any cause that its participants claim to espouse. We stand four-square for the rule of law, whether it is under attack from so-called loyalists or dissident republicans. So I pay tribute once again to the work of the PSNI and An Garda Síochána whose unprecedented level of co-operation is saving lives in Northern Ireland.
Yet at the same time it is right that both the government and the Executive seek to address the issues that can feed this kind of disorder. That’s why both administrations are determined to make progress on tackling the causes of sectarian division and building a stronger economy. Both are vitally important if we are to keep Northern Ireland on a steady footing.
Taking the economy first, in recent weeks there have been some tentative signs that the Northern Ireland economy is beginning to mend. Unemployment has fallen for 6 months in a row and is now back below the UK average.
Data published last month by Ulster Bank showed business activity returning to growth for the first time since the financial crash of 2007. There are also indications that the housing market is beginning to stabilise.
The Government recognises that things are still very tough, and there is a long way to go before we fix the broken economy.
The economy is still far too dependent on public spending. The property crash has left many businesses with a heavy burden of debt. And the recovery is still slower in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK.
So in June, the Prime Minister and I, along with the First and deputy First Minister launched a substantial package aimed at boosting the private sector and rebalancing the economy.
The truth is we don’t have as many resources as might have been available in times past, but we rifled through every locker in Whitehall to see what more could be done to help Northern Ireland grow its private sector.
So we’ve secured an additional £42 million in UK funding for the PEACE IV and a £154 million top-up for EU structural funds.
The package also includes £100m in additional borrowing powers for the Executive and measures to boost lending to businesses.
The government’s highly successful start-up loans scheme is now open for business in Northern Ireland as one of the first elements of the economic package to get off the ground.
A joint £20 million investment plan for research and development projects in Northern Ireland is proposed, with a particular focus on aerospace.
We’re working on a visa waiver pilot to encourage visitors to the Republic of Ireland to visit Northern Ireland.
And an agreement has been reached on a mechanism for taking forward the devolution of corporation tax before the 2015 general election, if the government decides to devolve these powers.
Crucially we have also managed to retain Northern Ireland’s assisted areas status coverage that’s helped the Executive to create over 3,000 jobs in NI in recent months.
All of this represents a substantial body of work and it will see the Executive and the government cooperating more closely together than ever before on our shared goal of equipping Northern Ireland to compete successfully in the global race for investment and jobs.
Moving on to the second means of moving Northern Ireland forward, building a more cohesive society, virtually all the relevant policy responsibilities fall within the remit of the Northern Ireland Executive
But making progress on this is still a key priority for the government which is why it’s featured in nearly every conversation I’ve had with the First and deputy First Ministers since taking office.
The publication the Executive’s document Together: Building a United Community met a mixed reaction. Certainly, the real test will come with efforts to see its proposals actually delivered. But the publication of an ambitious programme to tackle division and build a stronger society in itself represents a genuine and welcome step after long months of deadlock, and I congratulate the First and deputy First Minister for finding a way to move things forward.
I have also warmly welcomed the establishment of the cross party working group on parading, flags and the past that will begin its work later this month under the chairmanship of Richard Haass. While the government is not directly represented on this group we are very supportive of it and are keen to engage constructively with its work. For a number of reasons, we have a direct interest in the outcome of this process.
The most obvious reason is that we want these talks to be successful because that would improve life for people in Northern Ireland, strengthen the economy and make it easier to combat the threat from dissident republicans. But it’s also worth remembering that parading and some elements of the rules on flags are currently matters for Westminster. So if changes are proposed by the Haass group, they would need the support of the government if they are to be implemented.
Likewise, while not necessarily requiring legislation, it is likely that any proposals to deal with the past would, at least in part, fall to the government for implementation.
So it’s the subject of the past that I would like to spend the remainder of my speech this evening.
I am sure that no one here would doubt that the legacy of the troubles has a continuing impact in modern Northern Ireland. I see that when I meet victims of terrorism or those who believe that the security forces operated outside the law. It’s impossible not to be moved by harrowing stories from families who lost loved ones, often in the most brutal of circumstances.
A range of initiatives are underway regarding the past, a number of which I have had the honour to visit. In addition to a host of local and oral history projects across Northern Ireland, there are outstanding initiatives like the CAIN archive at the University of Ulster, the renowned collection at the Linen Hall Library and the wealth of historical material held by the BBC and UTV. Other projects such as the Warrington Peace Centre and the Wave Trauma Centre also do invaluable work. As a consequence, Northern Ireland’s troubles are one of the most comprehensively recorded and documented periods in history.
For its part the government is moving from the 30 year rule to a 20 year rule for the release of state papers, though the release of any information into the public domain will always have to be done in a way that is sensitive to the Article 2 rights of all parties.
We’re also working with the Irish government on the decade of centenaries beginning last year with the Ulster Covenant and continuing next August with the outbreak of the Great War. We believe that these centenaries can provide an opportunity to reflect on events in our shared history which have profoundly different meaning for those from different traditions.
We also continue to support the valuable work being done in the devolved sphere, for example by the Police Ombudsman, the Historical Enquiries Team and the Victims’ Commissioner.
And of course the government has been fully prepared to apologise where the state has failed to uphold the highest standards of conduct, as we did in the cases of Bloody Sunday, Claudy and the murder of Patrick Finucane.
So the allegation that “nothing’s happening on the past” isn’t true. But of course there is no so-called over-arching ‘process’ on the past and little consensus on what that should be. I’ve found that in the range of discussions I’ve had on this subject, as did my predecessor Owen Paterson, as did the last government in the 12 year period during which they grappled with this issue.
So we should all welcome the opportunity for the Haass working group to bring a fresh perspective. I’ve no intention of pre-empting the Group’s discussions, but I’m mindful of the following. Any mechanisms for dealing with the past needs to be fully consistent with maintaining the integrity of the rule of law. They must have regard to the fiscal position in which the UK government finds itself as a result of the deficit. And as our manifesto set out and the Prime Minister re-iterated in his statement on Bloody Sunday, we will never put those who uphold the law on the same footing as those who seek to destroy it. For us, politically motivated violence from whatever side was never justified and we will not be party to attempts to re-write history by legitimising terrorism.
I’d also like to mention public inquiries.
Any request to establish a new inquiry has to be carefully considered on its own merits. But this government has always been very clear on its reservations about the use of public inquiries to deal with the past. It isn’t just about the length and cost of inquiries, though the final sums can be quite staggering. Public inquiries are by no means a guaranteed route in all cases to establishing the truth.
For example, the Billy Wright Inquiry was unable to establish how the weapons that killed him entered Europe’s most high security prison, the question right at the heart of what the inquiry was all about.
And of course it would be impossible for every victim of the troubles that claimed over 3,500 lives to have a public inquiry. So they are by their nature selective, and can provoke very divided views in Northern Ireland.
But in conclusion, whatever the outcome of the Haass process I hope there will be a thread running through all work on the past which ensures that its underlying purpose is always to play a constructive part in wider efforts to heal social division, build mutual respect and understanding and move Northern Ireland forward towards a better future.
And it is vital that the Haass work takes place alongside real progress on other crucial issues on reconciliation and social cohesion and on the economy. Richard Haass and his group have an immensely difficult task ahead of them. Whether they will succeed is something we can’t yet know for certain.
So over the coming weeks and months it is critical that we see progress both on the economic package and the shared society proposals from the First and deputy First Minister. There is much that we can work on even while issues like the past and parading remain to be resolved.
As ever, the ability of the political leadership of Northern Ireland to work together collaboratively across political boundaries will play a key part in determining whether the changes needed to rebalance the economy and heal social divisions are delivered.
This summer we have seen some depressing scenes in Northern Ireland. And the government takes them very seriously, as do our partners in the Republic of Ireland and the United States.
But this summer has also witnessed the best of Northern Ireland. That was evident when the Prime Minister brought the G8 Summit to Lough Erne. Sunny Fermanagh played host to the most peaceful G8 ever and even the protesters commented on the warmth of the welcome they received.
In addition, Derry-Londonderry’s UK City of Culture programme has been an outstanding success with the all-Ireland Fleadh the biggest event yet.
And the World Police and Fire Games saw spectators from all community backgrounds cheering on PSNI teams with enthusiasm. Given the history of policing in Northern Ireland, that support is something that would have been very hard to imagine only a few years ago.
All of these represent the new Northern Ireland - one that’s confident, forward looking, that’s a great place to live, work, visit and do business. That’s the kind of Northern Ireland we’re determined to build. And that’s what will keep Northern Ireland on the right footing.