It’s a great pleasure to be able to speak to you in such magnificent surroundings this evening. I would like to congratulate the Friends of St Patrick, for hosting the second Spirit of St Patrick dinner. I’d also like to thank Margaret Ritchie and Ian Paisley for jointly inviting me tonight - a fine example of cross-community co-operation in action.
The motivation of Friends of St Patrick is to promote the true spirit of Ireland’s Patron Saint by crossing community divides, bringing people together and encouraging people from all backgrounds to help others less fortunate than themselves.
Some might question what possible relevance a figure from the so-called dark ages can have in 21st century Northern Ireland. Well just two weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting St Patrick’s grave at Down Cathedral, Saul Church and the St Patrick visitor centre with Margaret Ritchie. I was struck by two things:
First the great potential that exists to boost tourism here, not least from the millions of people across the world who drink St Patrick’s health every 17th March. But I was also reminded just how much we can be inspired by St Patrick’s life and his message, which still resonates today so many centuries after his death.
As someone whose teaching predates the divisions in Christianity which emerged in Europe from the 16th century, St Patrick can be a genuinely unifying figure. And of course finding ways to reconcile different traditions and bring people together in a cohesive and shared society should be a key priority for all of us in Northern Ireland.
After just over six months in office as Secretary of State I am convinced that there is no greater or more pressing challenge for Northern Ireland’s political leadership. So it’s on this subject that I’d like to focus my remarks this evening.
First, the positives:
Over recent weeks I’ve visited many cross community projects and I’ve seen many examples of superb work being done to tackle sectarianism and bridge divisions. I’ve been heartened by the commitment to breaking down barriers shown in interface areas, particularly among young people.
The opening of the Alexandra Park peace gate which I visited a few weeks ago is a real step forward. I also saw great work underway at the Jethro Centre in Lurgan to build mutual understanding between different parts of the community. And the movement towards shared education represented by the Lisanelly campus in Omagh is surely an example of the way forward that brings children together from diverse backgrounds.
These and many other initiatives show what can be done and point the way forward. This kind of work needs to be developed and repeated across Northern Ireland.
And we should not forget Northern Ireland’s well deserved reputation for hospitality and the friendliness of its people. That’s something which has certainly struck me during my first six months here.
As we approach the 15th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, we should not be shy of trumpeting how life for almost everyone here has been transformed since the dark days of the troubles. The Agreement and its successors settled the constitutional argument and ensured that the future of Northern Ireland will only be determined by democracy and consent.
They established political institutions in which all parts of the community are represented according to their mandate, with all the key public services in local hands.
All parties signed up to unequivocal support for policing, and the rule of law and achieving their objectives by exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
The rights and identities of both main traditions, British and Irish, are fully protected.
We have a police service more accountable and representative than ever before.
Relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland have been transformed, as was demonstrated again yesterday with the successful summit meeting between the Prime Minister and the Taioseach.
The peoples of our two countries have never been more connected than they are today. And while the dissident threat remains severe, the main terrorist campaigns that cost thousands of lives over thirty years have ended.
All of these are huge steps forward for Northern Ireland and indeed for these islands as a whole. But they were not gained easily. The relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland now enjoys took years of negotiation, many difficult compromises and real political leadership and courage on all sides.
The achievements of the peace process should never be taken for granted and we should all be clear that there must be no turning back. So I say to those who seek to de-stabilise society here, be they so-called dissident republicans attempting to achieve their objectives by terrorism, or those loyalists engaged in riotous protest in the mistaken belief that this is a means of defending our national flag:
You will not succeed in dragging Northern Ireland back to the violence and instability of its past.
And the Government will never shirk its responsibility to keep people here safe and secure. It is our number one obligation and we will fulfil it, not least by giving our full backing to the PSNI who serve this community without fear or favour.
Yet for all the gains of the past two decades, it is clear that we’ve still got a long way to go if we are to build a genuinely cohesive and shared society. That has been so vividly illustrated by the flags protests and by the activities of dissident terrorists over the past days.
The Belfast Agreement talked of the need for ‘reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust’. But at too many levels, society here remains even more divided than it was when the Agreements were signed.
The number of so-called peace walls has gone up. Over 90 per cent of children are educated separately and the numbers in integrated schools has gone down. Public housing remains largely segregated. And issues like flags and parades still have the capacity to provoke tensions that can too often result in violence that scars the image of Northern Ireland, injures police officers and disrupts daily life in some of our most deprived communities. So tackling sectarianism and division has to be a priority.
It’s an economic priority - the cost of policing the protests is already £20 million, money that could have been spent on community policing or on schools or on hospitals and now never will be. At a time when we are in a global race for investment and jobs we need to be able to promote the best of Northern Ireland. We just cannot afford images of lawlessness and rioting to be beamed across the world.
It’s a political priority - because a more cohesive society will help to underpin devolution and the greater stability that Northern Ireland now enjoys. Ask investors what are the key factors they take into account when taking decisions to locate a business and political stability is virtually always up there near the top.
And, of course, it’s a security priority, because sectarian divisions can make it easier for paramilitaries and terrorists to recruit.
So I believe we need to return to the spirit of the Belfast Agreement and look again at how we can build the ‘reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust’ which it envisaged.
While virtually all of the relevant policy areas are devolved to the Executive, we have always made clear that the UK Government will support Ministers here in taking the difficult decisions needed to make change happen. That’s a message both the Prime Minister and I deliver in all of our discussions with the First and deputy First Ministers, because a shared future cannot be imposed from London. It requires local solutions, local leadership and local drive. And it needs those solutions, that leadership and that drive now.
Northern Ireland has enormous potential. And its already shown how it can shine on the world stage. Last year we saw the successes of the Irish Open at Portrush, the Titanic Centenary and the ground breaking Diamond Jubilee visit of Her Majesty the Queen.
2013 can also be a great year for Northern Ireland. Derry-Londonderry is making a flying start as the first ever UK city of culture. In the summer we have the World Police and Fire Games - the third largest sporting event on the planet. And of course the eyes of the world will be on Northern Ireland in June when the G8 Summit comes to Co Fermanagh.
All of these events provide us with the opportunity to show what Northern Ireland can be - a confident, modern forward looking place whose best days lie ahead. A Northern Ireland that has put behind it the sectarianism and divisions of the past and which is building a genuinely shared future for all its people.
I know that’s a hard task and there are no quick fixes. But it’s a prize worth striving for. And working with organisations like yours, encouraging reconciliation and promoting the true spirit of St Patrick, I know it’s something we can ultimately attain.