Speech to the British-Irish Association conference

Theresa Villiers urges the NI Executive to overcome current impasses and continue the story of Northern Ireland's inspiring transformation.

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

Theresa Villiers

It is a great pleasure to be with you here in Oxford this evening and to have the opportunity to share some thoughts on the current situation in Northern Ireland.

I’m very grateful to the British-Irish Association for holding this conference, which has become such an established and important fixture on political calendar.

It’s also a pleasure to be speaking in the magnificent surroundings of Pembroke College.

It was of course founded by James I who in Ireland will be forever associated with the Plantations of Ulster.

That shows once again that there are few places you can go in these islands without a reminder of our shared history.

I’m also delighted that Charlie Flanagan will join us tomorrow for his first BIA as the new Irish Foreign Minister.

I pay tribute to his predecessor Eamon Gilmore.

I worked very closely with Eamon and very much look forward to doing the same with Minister Flanagan.

The past year has seen yet another landmark for UK-Irish relations as a whole with the outstandingly successful State Visit of President Higgins in April.

There were many highlights during that week which saw the streets of Windsor bedecked with Union Flags and Irish Tricolours in honour of Her Majesty’s very special house guests.

For me the most special occasion was the Northern Ireland themed reception at Windsor Castle which brought together people from across these islands and from all traditions.

Few occasions could have demonstrated more clearly the difficult journeys that so many have travelled over the past 20 years.

And in that context I want to speak of the work of Albert Reynolds who passed away in August.

Together with Sir John Major, he crafted the Downing Street Declaration which enshrined the principle of consent and paved the way for the first IRA ceasefire, the 20th anniversary of which took place last week.

That declaration was a historic step forward and there can be no doubt that its signatories are two of the greatest figures of the Northern Ireland peace process.

The journey of UK-Irish reconciliation, friendship and co-operation has been strikingly illustrated over recent weeks by our joint initiatives to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.

I found it profoundly moving to be present for the unveiling of the Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin, a solemn and fitting memorial of those Irishmen from across the island, and from both traditions, who gave their lives during that awful conflict.

And I warmly welcomed the presence of Minister Heather Humphreys at the ceremonies in Belfast and at the Commonwealth commemoration in Glasgow.

It was fitting that she was there to lay a wreath alongside representatives of all the other nations whose people volunteered in their thousands to serve in the armed forces of what was then the British Empire.

So there is a great deal to celebrate in the modern UK-Irish relationship.

We have never been closer and I know both governments are determined that this will continue.

And there’s much to be positive about in modern Northern Ireland too, a small country that continues to punch above its weight on a global stage.

Quite literally in the case of our Commonwealth Games boxers who along with our shooters ensured the most successful Games since 1987.

So, as ever, no shortage of fighting spirit in Northern Ireland!

And I’m sure we all wish Carl Frampton well in his big fight this weekend.

Of course we all know that the world’s number one golfer isn’t from Hollywood California, but Holywood County Down.

And I’m sure the Belfast baker Iain Watters could have clinched that top slot were it not for the scandalous Baked Alaska sabotage controversy.

Northern Ireland has a lively and growing arts and creative industry sector with the world’s most popular TV programme filmed there, showing off some stunning landscapes.

While our home grown food produce is second to none.

And in May we showed the world that we could host yet another global event with the first stages of the Giro d’Italia.

Such was the Giro fever around Northern Ireland that even the Orange Order turned pink for the occasion.

There’s no doubt too that Northern Ireland’s economy is firmly on the road to sustained recovery.

Unemployment is falling, with the claimant count down for 19 months in a row, and this is being driven the private sector growth.

The UK Government and the Executive continue to work more closely than ever before through the economic pact we signed in June last year.

And the Northern Ireland Executive has an outstanding record on attracting foreign direct investment

Next year growth is forecast at around 2.8% in Northern Ireland, way ahead of most major developed economies across the world.

Of course there is a long way to go to fix the broken economy the Government inherited in 2010.

The job is not yet finished.

There are many risks ahead, not least of which are the continuing economic woes in vital export markets in mainland Europe.

But there can be no doubt that Northern Ireland’s economy is heading in the right direction towards the economic security this Government is determined to deliver for our whole country.

None of this has happened by accident.

It has taken the resolve of a Government with a long term economic plan, determined to deal with our record deficit, to start living within our means and to create a modern economy in which growth is driven by business and enterprise not by public expenditure and debt.

And we have confounded the arguments of our opponents who said that bringing public spending under control would wreck the economy and lead to mass unemployment.

In fact the opposite has happened.

With a growing economy and falling unemployment we have comprehensively won the macro-economic argument.

But there’s more we need to do in Northern Ireland to equip ourselves to succeed in the global race.

For our part the UK Government will soon be taking a decision over whether to devolve Corporation Tax powers to the Executive.

And there are also economic reforms which the Executive needs to take on matters like planning, improving infrastructure, tackling red tape and improving public sector efficiency.

And of course a modern dynamic economy requires a welfare system that rewards work rather than the system we inherited from our predecessors that too often traps people in poverty and dependency.

At the heart of our reforms is the principle that work should always pay. That no one should be better off at home on benefits than by going out to work. That the best way to lift people out of poverty is to support them into work, with all the opportunities that provides to turn your life around and provide security for your family.

The Government has agreed important flexibilities for example on the spare room subsidy to reflect Northern Ireland’s specific circumstances.

But we have gone as far as we can go.

There will be no additional money for Northern Ireland to retain a more expensive welfare system.

As we all here know, the devolution settlement gives Northern Ireland the option to go it alone and break parity with the rest of the UK.

But that choice comes with consequences.

Those include the long term economic and social damage caused clinging to a broken system that has spiralled out of control and fails the too many of the people it is intended to help.

They also include financial consequences with welfare absorbing ever more of the Executive’s budget to the disadvantage of Northern Ireland’s hospitals, schools, policing and transport.

The recent round of reductions is proving painful enough, not least because implementing in-year cuts at short notice makes them far harder to deliver through efficiency and inevitably increases the impact on front line services.

But the cost of taking over an ageing IT system from DWP is eye watering and the cost of replacing would, I believe, have a devastating financial impact across all other areas of spending for the Executive.

So I am strongly urging Sinn Fein and SDLP to think again about this issue and allow these reforms go ahead for the two reasons I have set out, and for a third one too.

I believe that both those two parties are sincere in wanting the Executive to deliver effectively and improve life for the people of Northern Ireland, just as all the five parties are who are represented in the administration.

But there can be no doubt that a continuing budget wrangle over welfare will significantly impair the ability of the Executive to do that, because of the toxic effect it will inevitably have on the ability of the different political parties to work together, get decisions made and to get stuff done.

But welfare reform is just one of the two big concerns now jeopardising the effectiveness of the Stormont administration.

The second is of course the three legacy issues of flags, parading and the past.

Time constraints prevent me from rehearsing in detail the case for reaching an accommodation on these issues, but what I will emphasise is the central part they play in broader efforts to see an end to sectarian division in Northern Ireland and build a genuinely united community.

A goal which is the UK Government believes is essential to underpin political stability, strengthen the economy and move Northern Ireland forward towards a better, more secure, future.

So I want reiterate strongly to those who are reluctant to move forward to creating a fresh approach on the past.

Yes, there are risks but the status quo is increasingly unsustainable and is putting ever greater pressure on our policing and criminal justice system.

I would urge those who hold back on this to see cross-party talks not as a threat, but instead as an opportunity to create a more balanced, transparent and accountable approach on the past.

One which has safeguards and oversight built into to it to ensure that its work is anchored around principles of objectivity, fairness and historical accuracy, and cannot be hijacked by one side or one partisan narrative.

And for those discontented with the way decisions are made on parading, the cross-party talks are your opportunity to see that change.

The Haass talks led to some real progress towards consensus.

This is not an unattainable goal.

And in making my decision on whether a new process to seek a resolution of the north Belfast parade dispute is justified or appropriate, my priorities will include the following.

Firstly, avoiding anything that could undermine the Parades Commission as the lawfully constituted authority to determine parades.

And secondly, getting the cross-party talks on flags, parades and the past started once again.

But whether it’s the mounting pressure on our policing and justice system or unrest on the streets, the last two years have shown beyond doubt the power the three legacy issues have to come back to bite us.

We’ve seen many illustrations of that, most notably when the collapse of the Downey trial brought us to the brink of crisis.

It seems to me that in Northern Ireland we walk a permanent tight rope, and at any time a vote in local authority, or a contentious parade, or an unexpected revelation about the past has the potential to seriously damage the working relationships which are so pivotal in enabling the Executive to function properly.

So just as I urge SDLP and Sinn Fein to implement welfare reform, so I also urge the DUP and the UUP to come back to the table on flags parades and the past.

The UK government believes that resumption of cross-party negotiations on these issues is absolutely essential.

We have no power to force the unionists back to the table.

Anyone who thinks that Ulster men and women meekly do the bidding of London knows very little about the last hundred years or so of our history, and not a great deal about being Northern Ireland Secretary either!

Nor do we have the locker full of concessions and inducements that our predecessors might have had.

The combined effect of the age of austerity and the implementation of a very extensive devolution settlement means that the levers at our disposal to help us convince political leaders and oil the wheels of progress are probably more limited than they ever have been.

But be in no doubt we will do all that we can to move things forward and to get the talks started again. And in doing that we will continue to work together with our colleagues in Dublin and Washington on that shared endeavour.

And with that in mind I say this regarding these two great blockages in Northern Ireland politics - welfare reform and legacy.

I’m not joining the crowd of commentators who assert that the Executive is dysfunctional and incapable of delivering its programme for government.

As I have already acknowledged this evening, much has been achieved despite all the challenges that come with any coalition. Challenges which are magnified in a mandatory coalition of five parties with strongly divergent views and a long history of enmity and conflict.

But I have to acknowledge that there is now a danger that decisions will become ever harder and slower because of the two impasses which I have reflected on in my speech here this evening.

Deadlock and dysfunction is now a real possibility if the political parties in the Executive don’t act now to prevent this and grip the situation.

There is a genuine fear that Northern Ireland’s leaders may be losing their invaluable ability to clinch a deal, to find a way through, to make - as Her Majesty said in Belfast City Hall - the seemingly impossible, possible.

And I never forget that those leaders are men and women who were prepared to put themselves forward for political office when that came with significant personal risk.

I never forget that many lost friends and family to the brutality of the troubles.

I never forget that these are people who have given decades of their lives to the gritty and determined pursuit of their aspirations for this very special place at the far western edge of Europe.

And I make this appeal to all who face choices over the issues I have spoken about.

In the spring of 2016 they can face their electorate after nearly two years of an Executive which could be paralysed by wrangling and disputes, unable to press on effectively with the vital work of building a better, brighter, future for Northern Ireland.

Or they can face them knowing they made the hard choices of responsible government.

They can face them knowing they found a way to continue that inspiring story of a place which left its troubled past behind and found a way to heal divisions which date back centuries.

They can face them as the statesmen they are, admired worldwide for the transformation that their work and sacrifice has delivered over the last 20 years.

The choices lie with them.

I hope they will make the right ones.

Published 5 September 2014