I’m delighted to have the opportunity to address the Alliance party conference this morning and I’m pleased to be the first ever Conservative Secretary of State to do so.
It’s also a great pleasure to be here alongside your leader David Ford. Given my responsibility for national security, I work very closely with David as Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister.
David’s role in overseeing law and order and the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland comes with grave responsibilities and heavy burdens and I’m sure that you’ll agree with me that he does an outstanding job.
I’m pleased to confirm that the draft legislation I published last month contains provisions to give the Justice Minister exactly the same security of tenure as other Northern Ireland Executive ministers.
That’s a commitment that this government made to the Alliance Party a year ago and it’s a commitment that we’ll keep.
The draft Bill is now being scrutinised by the Northern Ireland Select Committee. It’s the first time ever that a Northern Ireland Bill has been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny.
That’s a far cry from the days when emergency legislation had to be pushed through in response to the latest political crisis or to prop up faltering institutions. Once the pre-legislative scrutiny is complete I hope to bring forward our actual Bill in the next parliamentary session that begins in May with a view to the provisions becoming law by the end of the year.
I should also say that Parliament has been united in its support for Naomi Long, and other Alliance members who’ve been subject to intimidation and threats in recent months. Sadly the list of those who have been threatened and intimidated and had their offices attacked is a long one but I would like offer special support and sympathy to Stewart Dickson, Linda Cleland, Geraldine Mulvenna, Michael and Christine Bower and Laura McNamee.
As I said in the House of Commons back in December, any attempt to prevent elected representatives going about their daily business is an attack on democracy. It is completely unacceptable and it will not be allowed to succeed.
So be clear about this.
This government, working with the Justice Minister and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), will do everything it can to ensure that politicians can do the job they’re elected to do. Our overriding duty is to keep people in Northern Ireland safe and secure, whether the threat comes from dissident republicans or loyalist protestors.
It’s a responsibility that we will not shirk. And I’d like once again put on record my deep appreciation for the bravery and professionalism of the men and women of the PSNI.
They do a fantastic job and all of us who believe in the rule of law owe them an immense debt of gratitude. The tragic loss of Philippa Reynolds is a very sad reminder of the risks faced by police officers every day.
But we should comfort ourselves with the knowledge that officers of the calibre, integrity and dedication of Constable Reynolds illustrate what an outstanding police service we have in Northern Ireland.
The are probably one of the most highly scrutinised police forces in the world and they do an incredibly difficult job without fear or favour, making the strongest efforts to be fair to all parts of the community.
Over the past number of weeks I’ve spent much of my time out and about meeting people in areas most affected by the protests places like Carrickfergus, the Newtownards Road and the Short Strand.
I’ve spoken to politicians, businessmen and women, church leaders and other community representatives in places like North Belfast, Lurgan, Craigavon, Portadown, Lisburn and Londonderry. Many have told me that the street protests reflect a feeling amongst some in our community that they’ve been left behind.
At its most basic level they ask: “What has the peace process done for us?”
Now I’m keen to work with Executive ministers to look at how we can address genuine concerns that people have so that people feel they have a real stake in Northern Ireland’s future. In particular we need to look at how we can encourage more private sector investment and promote jobs in disadvantaged areas. That’s not just in loyalist areas but in nationalist ones too. It’s clear too that the efforts being made by the Executive to address educational underachievement will be crucial in addressing this feeling of disconnection and alienation.
But on one thing I am sure. This government will not be moved by people who wrap themselves in our national flag and engage in unlawful rioting and attacks on the police. Respecting democratic decisions and obeying the law are two of the hallmarks of our United Kingdom.
This applies to flags. It also means complying with the decisions of the Parades Commission, as the only lawfully constituted body with the authority to make determinations on parades in Northern Ireland. We cannot afford a repeat of scenes that we saw in parts of Belfast last summer. At a time when we’re in a global race for jobs and investment we need to be able to market the best of Northern Ireland.
That’s one of the reasons why the Prime Minister took the personal decision to bring the G8 here in June. It offers global branding that money simply could not buy. By the same token it’s hard to put a price on the damage done to Northern Ireland’s reputation by the flag protests over recent months. So I say again , let’s finally get these protests off the streets and start a proper political dialogue about how we resolve issues like flags and identity.
It’s dialogue that has resolved so many of the deep seated problems of Northern Ireland’s past and it’s dialogue that’s crucial to building a successful and cohesive future for Northern Ireland and all its citizens.
Benefits of the peace process
And as we approach the 15th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement all of us who support the political settlement here, and want it to work, need to stand up for what it’s achieved. Of course it wasn’t perfect - it involved some very difficult compromises on all sides. There were elements that many, including in the Conservative Party, found hard to swallow.
But in answer to the question “what has the peace process done for us?” let me suggest the following weighty list of achievements.
it has settled the constitutional position of Northern Ireland on the basis of consent, leaving its place in the United Kingdom probably more secure than at any time in its history
it contains robust protection for the rights and identities of both main traditions in Northern Ireland, both British and Irish
it has established political institutions in which all parts of the community are represented according to their political mandate and all can have their say
it has vested responsibility for virtually all the key public services in locally elected hands
it has delivered a police service more representative and accountable to the community than ever before.
it has left relations between London and Dublin and between north and south better, stronger and more productive than they have ever been before
And above all it brought to an end the main terrorist campaigns that over 30 years saw more than 3,500 people killed and many more maimed or injured, including those who lost their lives in a ball of fire that 35 years ago engulfed the venue in which we meet today, in one of the most shocking and brutal terrorist attacks of the Troubles.
That’s what the peace process has done for Northern Ireland. As any Secretary of State learns early in their tenure, political discourse here isn’t always suffused with optimism with a tendency perhaps to focus on what has been lost rather than on what has been gained.
But we should never allow people to forget just how far forward this place has moved in the past 2 decades. We should never stop reminding people of just how much has been achieved and just how dramatically the Belfast Agreement has transformed life for the better in Northern Ireland.
And we should never cease our efforts to keep going forward to complete the work that started with the peace process.
The events of the past few months have reinforced the urgent need to tackle sectarian division and build a genuinely shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland. It’s an economic priority because Northern Ireland cannot afford to spend a million a week on policing riots and protests.
It’s a political priority because a more cohesive society will help to underpin devolution and political stability. And it’s a security priority because sectarian divisions can fuel grievances on which terrorists and paramilitaries prey. Under the devolution settlement most of the key policy responsibilities for dealing with these issues rest with Northern Ireland’s elected representatives.
In my regular discussions with ministers here, I’ve been keen to stress the UK government’s willingness to support them in coming forward with bold and imaginative solutions. We’ll back them in taking the difficult decisions that may be necessary to make progress.
A shared future cannot be imposed from London, it requires local solutions, local leadership and local drive. Nobody doubts that this is an immensely difficult task.
With some divisions dating back centuries, there are no quick or easy fixes. But Northern Ireland’s political leadership has been able to solve problems just as difficult as this over the last 20 years and I welcome the commitment that the Alliance Party has shown on this issue over so many years.
So I say to the Executive today, let’s work constructively and positively on this - let’s give it the urgency it genuinely requires - and let’s get on with the projects and the goals that need to be delivered if we’re going to fix this problem and complete the work that started with the Belfast Agreement.
Another area where progress is needed is in rebalancing the economy by ending our over-dependence on the public sector and promoting a stronger private sector. And we have to do this against the backdrop of the biggest deficit in the UK’s peacetime history.
There might be some who argue that the government should ease up in its efforts to reduce the deficit, and possibly even spend a little more to give the economy a short term boost. I disagree. While the road on which we are embarked is a difficult one, it’s the right one. To change direction now would risk a repeat of the mistakes of more borrowing and more spending that got us into this mess in the first place.
So when my shadow at Westminster calls for cuts in VAT he ought at least to spell out how he’d raise the extra £15 billion his policy would cost. The simple truth is that you don’t solve a debt crisis by creating more debt. We’ve cleared a quarter of the deficit in a little over 2 and a half years. Across the UK, the private sector has created over a million new jobs.
At long last there are tentative signs that the economy is healing. I realise how tough things are here in Northern Ireland. And that’s why we’ve taken measures to help hard-pressed families.
For example, the government has cut income tax for over 600,000 people and we’ve taken over 30,000 of the lowest paid out of tax altogether. And pensioners have benefited from the biggest ever single cash increase in the state pension.
Those are the actions of a coalition government that’s on the side of those who work hard and want to get on while protecting the most vulnerable in society. I fully recognise that here in Northern Ireland unemployment remains far too high, particularly among young people. Many of the key policies to promote local growth and jobs, such as planning, training and skills are devolved. And I commend the work that your minister, Stephen Farry, is doing at the Department for Employment and Learning on the matters such as skills and apprenticeships which are so crucial both for our economic competitiveness and for delivering opportunities to young people.
But there are things the UK government can do to help. In the Autumn Statement last December we made an additional £132 million available to the Executive for capital infrastructure projects. We’ve also exempted Northern Ireland electricity generators from the carbon price floor a key demand from the business community here. And we are continuing to look at the case for devolving the power to set corporation tax to the Assembly in order to help attract new investment.
Fulfilling our potential
I’m the first to admit that we’ve hardly had the ideal start to 2013. Northern Ireland has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. But it doesn’t have to be like this. As a place to live, work and do business, Northern Ireland has so much going for it. And 2013 still has the potential to be a great year for Northern Ireland.
Derry-Londonderry has already got off to a great start as the first ever UK city of culture. The World Police and Fire Games will bring thousands of competitors and spectators here in the summer.
And the G8 in Enniskillen will see the eyes of the world focused on Fermanagh. All of these events give us an opportunity to demonstrate how far Northern Ireland has come, and what we have to offer as a positive, modern and forward looking place that’s open for business.
So let’s show that side of Northern Ireland to the world this year.
And let’s move forward together.