Speech

Moving politics forward

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Theresa Villiers addresses church leaders on moving Northern Ireland away from the politics of identity to focus on the politics of delivery

It’s a great pleasure to be with you this morning and I’d like to thank Rev Donald Watts for organising and Rev Rob Craig for hosting this event.

Today I want to look at how we might move politics forward in Northern Ireland.

I know that the churches continue to have a key role in healing divisions, promoting reconciliation and helping to build the shared future that we all want to see.

And on behalf of the UK government I’d like to express my appreciation for all that you do for our community here in Northern Ireland.

It’s now nearly 20 years since the first ceasefires and just over 16 years since the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement.

That agreement - along with its successors at St Andrews and Hillsborough - has helped transform politics here.

And today we’re over half way through the second term of the second Assembly since devolution was restored in May 2007.

That’s the longest period of unbroken devolved government in Northern Ireland since the closure of the Stormont Parliament in 1972.

Not bad when one considers the commentators who predicted that a coalition led by the DUP and Sinn Féin couldn’t last 6 months, let alone more than 6 years.

And the executive can cite a number of real achievements, not the least of which is its continued success in bringing foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland.

This has made Belfast the second most popular city in the UK for inward investment.

Another significant step forward was the publication by the First and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland’s first ever locally agreed community relations strategy: Together: Building a United Community.

Delivery

As the First Minister highlighted in Washington recently, most decisions taken by the executive don’t go to a vote given the amount of consensus that exists, while the deputy First Minister stressed the stability of the institutions.

But for all that the executive has proven stable and delivered in a number of areas, I believe that there is a clear public perception that more still needs to be done.

That comes across in successive opinion polls and also in many conversations I’ve had across Northern Ireland.

Of course I understand that a mandatory coalition that embraces 5 parties with fundamentally divergent views on constitutional, economic and social issues was never going to be easy to operate.

Yet one of the central features of the 1998 settlement, as amended at St Andrews in 2006, was precisely to bring together politicians from different traditions and show that they could deliver for the good of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.

It’s crucial that we make it work

So this morning I want to offer a few thoughts on how we might move things on here, to help the transition away from the politics of identity to a stronger focus on the politics of delivery.

The legacy of the past

First, I believe that the political situation here would be significantly improved if the parties could reach an agreement on dealing with flags, parading and the past.

We’ve seen over the past couple of years how disputes over flags and parades can lead to serious public disorder, at a great cost to the police, the executive, the economy and to Northern Ireland’s international reputation.

But the past too has the capacity to poison the political atmosphere, as demonstrated by the controversy over the so-called ‘on-the-runs’.

These matters are of course now being examined by a number of inquiries, including the judge-led inquiry established by the Prime Minister.

Lady Justice Hallett’s examination of the scheme now needs to run its course.

But I’d like to reiterate one point.

This government does not believe in amnesties.

We believe in the rule of law and that people who committed terrorist crimes must face the consequences if the evidence exists to prosecute.

And if at any point when we inherited this scheme in May 2010 we had believed that it amounted to an amnesty we would have stopped it immediately.

For me, there’s no doubt that the reaction to the scheme after the prosecution of John Downey was halted has reinforced the need to find an agreed way forward on the past.

One that allows us to put the era of side deals firmly behind us. A mechanism that is balanced, transparent and accountable and allows us to get on with building a better future for the people of Northern Ireland.

So I welcome the fact that the parties are continuing their work on the issues considered by the Haass process.

And I am urging them to stick with it because the reality is that only an agreement negotiated by Northern Ireland’s own locally elected political leadership is going to be viable.

Any attempt to impose solutions over the heads of that political leadership just isn’t going to work.

So those discussions do need to make progress and there will be no lack of encouragement or support from the UK government and we welcome the support and encouragement Irish government has also given to the parties throughout the negotiations.

There are of course some who believe that the best way to deal with the past is to forget it.

I understand that sentiment, but as the OTR controversy has demonstrated I don’t believe that’s a viable option.

Let me explain why.

Northern Ireland’s Operation Banner was the longest operation in British military history.

Over 250,000 men and women served in the RUC and the military over its 30 year history and I am utterly convinced that the vast majority did so with the greatest distinction, honour, integrity and courage.

The fact that many gave their lives in service to the community here in Northern Ireland is something for which we should always be deeply grateful and which should never ever be forgotten.

We owe all of them a huge debt of gratitude, not least because without their self-sacrifice and their service, the conditions for the peace process would never have been created and Northern Ireland would not be the place it is today.

And whatever process emerges from the current discussions, that is a message that I and the UK government will reiterate whenever we get the opportunity.

It was a message the Prime Minister put very clearly when he broke new ground in his response to the Bloody Sunday report in the frankness of the apology he gave for what happened that day.

We have been and we will continue to be willing to take responsibility where state agencies have acted wrongly, but the misdeeds of the few should never be allowed to tarnish the heroism of the many.

I have acknowledged on many occasions the great difficulty around efforts to address the legacy of the Troubles.

I appreciate the understandable concern that new structures and processes could lead to a one sided approach which focuses on the minority of deaths in which the state was involved rather than the great majority which were solely the responsibility of the terrorists from whichever part of the community they came.

So I have always approached this issue which caution.

But I’ve also made very clear that if the architecture proposed by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan forms part of a package eventually agreed by the political parties here, then the UK government will play our part in working with the new institutions.

We fully understand the benefits that an agreement could bring to Northern Ireland and we too are prepared to be part of the compromise needed to bring that about.

The need for a fresh approach on the past is becoming ever more vital because of the increasing pressure the status quo is placing on Northern Ireland’s institutions, with inquests, cases in Strasbourg, freedom of information requests and Troubles related investigations by the police and Police Ombudsman.

All this is placing a major burden on the policing and justice system with a recent CJI report estimating that the Northern Ireland executive now spends over £30m a year on legacy issues.

The combined impact of the various processes underway means a detailed trawl through hundreds of thousands of documents, with the greatest burden falling on the PSNI who in most cases have to decide what it is safe to disclose publicly and what must be kept secret in order to protect national security and the lives of individuals.

At least with a new process, agreed by Northern Ireland’s political leaders, there is scope to write in from the start the need for an objective balance and with proper weight and a proportionate focus on the wrongdoing of paramilitaries. Rather than the almost exclusive concentration on the activities of the state which characterises so many of the processes currently underway.

And there is scope for structured oversight by bodies representing different shades of opinion to try keep the process fair and historically accurate and to prevent it being hijacked by any one particular interest group or viewpoint.

And as we approach another marching season there is no doubt that an agreement on the way forward on flags, parading and the past - even in outline - would send a powerful global message about the ability of Northern Ireland’s politicians to find solutions even to the most divisive of issues.

Crucially though I also believe that agreement on the Haass agenda could free up the space for politicians to focus more on other issues that are critical to our future, such as rebalancing the economy, reforming the public sector and building a genuinely shared future.

Because, let’s face it, the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland don’t wake up on a Monday morning worrying about the past, flags or parades.

While these are important matters, the priorities for most people are issues like jobs, pensions, transport, schools and hospitals, and that’s where they expect their politicians to focus their energies, not tied up with fighting the battles of yesterday.

Difficult political choices

So that leads me to my second point about moving politics forward. The need to move beyond the issues that have dominated political debate here and recognise that difficult choices are often needed in order to deliver the services the public want and expect.

For example, I believe that people in Northern Ireland deserve the same protection from organised crime as people in Great Britain now have through the work of the National Crime Agency.

To me, it is deeply regrettable that despite months of talks and a real willingness by David Ford and the Home Office to be flexible, some parties remain opposed to the Assembly legislation needed to allow the NCA to operate with its full range of powers here.

That means Northern Ireland’s ability to fight some of the most despicable crimes is weakened.

Be in no doubt, it may have ‘National’ in its name but the UK government completely accepts the crucial importance of ensuring that NCA’s operations in Northern Ireland are fully consistent with the devolution settlement.

That‘s why the Home Secretary has agreed a number of significant changes to provide the necessary assurance and guarantee the primacy of the Chief Constable.

And I believe it’s now time for the executive to press ahead on the NCA and to put common sense and the interests of the public above ideology, so that the NCA is allowed to work properly in Northern Ireland for the good of all citizens.

Similarly on welfare reform, the devolution settlement gives the choice to the parties of the Executive here.

They can accept the welfare reforms the UK government has taken forward, along with the important flexibilities which Minister McCausland has secured to reflect the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland. Or they can go it alone and stick with a flawed system which too often leaves people trapped on welfare and punished for doing the right thing and going out to work.

That choice rests with political leaders here, but so too does the cost of that choice.

And there should be no doubt that the cost of that choice could rise steeply in future years, not least when the computers supporting the old system are shut down and the executive is left with the prohibitively expensive and difficult task of procuring and running their own system.

And finally, the executive faces choices on economic reform.

I’m well aware of the central place ministers here give to the devolution and reduction of corporation tax.

But if the answer on that is yes to devolution, this reform will only provide that shot in the arm the parties here hope for if it is one part of a suite of measures to make Northern Ireland a more competitive place to do business.

Issues such as labour market reform, planning reform and public sector reform must all be addressed as well if the economy here is to be rebalanced in the way all the parties say they support.

Opposition

The third way in which politics could be moved forward here is through the evolution of the devolved institutions.

Let me be clear, power sharing and inclusivity are enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and the government is not going to undermine any of those principles.

Far from it, we will continue to uphold them robustly as we have all of the institutions established by the Agreements.

Yet at the same time nobody can plausibly argue that the institutions must be set in stone for all time.

Political institutions the world over adapt and change.

As the founding father of modern Conservatism - the Irishman Edmund Burke - once put it:

A state without the means of change is without means of preservation.

And there are inherent weaknesses in a system in which it is very difficult to remove one’s rulers by voting and to choose a viable alternative.

After all, democracy does rely on voters being offered a choice and being able to exercise it.

That’s why this government is clear that we would welcome moves that facilitate a more normal system at Stormont that allows for formal opposition, so long as a way can be found to do this which is consistent with power sharing and inclusivity.

But we also believe that if or how this happens really has to be primarily for parties in the Assembly to take forward, not least because it is so firmly within the Assembly’s competence to deal with those matters that might characterise an opposition, such as speaking rights, financial assistance and committee chairmanships.

And I’d like to thank my colleagues Lord Empey and Lord Lexden for using the House of Lords debates on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous) Provisions Act to move this issue forward in a significant way.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, we need to move away from the politics of the past based largely around identity, to the politics of the future based around delivery.

And our ability to do that will be greatly strengthened if an accommodation can be reached on flags, parading and the past, the issues that continue to create such tension, division and disorder.

At the same time some difficult decisions are needed if we’re to build a more prosperous economy, a safer community and a stronger society.

And we should also consider the scope for our political institutions to evolve in order to ensure that our democracy is vibrant and politicians held properly to account.

Last week we saw the first ever state visit by the Irish President to the United Kingdom.

The visit was a spectacular success and I felt very honoured to play a part in it.

It was a further demonstration the transformation of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and the bonds of affection and mutual respect that now unite us across these islands.

It was also a welcome opportunity to celebrate the immense contribution that men and women of Irish nationality and heritage make to life in Britain.

I am in no doubt that as Her Majesty the Queen said at that memorable state banquet at Windsor; they have made Britain a better place.

The word ‘historic’ can sometimes be over-used but the events of last week genuinely deserve that description and none of this would have been possible without Northern Ireland’s peace process and the political progress it has made possible.

And I sincerely hope that the friendship and reconciliation between the UK and Ireland which the visit so visibly demonstrated can provide a helpful backdrop to assist Northern Ireland in completing its journey towards genuine reconciliation and a society no longer fractured by sectarian division.

As the 2 heads of state made so very clear, Northern Ireland’s political leaders will have the full support of both the UK and Irish governments as they strive to make progress towards that crucial goal.

Thank you.