The Belfast Agreement 15 Years On: Challenges and Opportunities

The Secretary of State addresses students, faculty and staff at the American University in Washington DC about peace and progress in Northern Ireland.

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

Theresa Villiers

It’s a great honour for me to be visiting the American University today and I am really very grateful for the opportunity to speak to you about Northern Ireland.

But before I share my thoughts with you on that theme I would like to say a quick work about my role. I see the job of Secretary of State largely in the following terms.

First, I represent Northern Ireland’s interests in the British Cabinet, for example ensuring that any UK-wide legislation takes account of the specific needs of Northern Ireland.

Second, I represent the views of the UK government in Northern Ireland, such as explaining and promoting our policies for economic recovery which affect every single person who lives there.

Thirdly, I work with the devolved institutions where their responsibilities overlap with the UK government’s, for example in relation to the economy.

And the political settlement means that I have a role in supporting the institutions established under the Belfast Agreement as well as retaining responsibility for national security matters and certain other matters which have not been devolved.

Had I been speaking to you 20 years ago, however, the position would have been very different. In those days Northern Ireland had no local administration and its politicians had very few powers.

The Secretary of State was responsible for virtually all areas of government, including schools and hospitals and other public services. All laws for Northern Ireland were passed at Westminster. And of course Northern Ireland was then still in the grip of a conflict that had erupted in 1968 and which over a 30 year period saw over 3,500 people killed.

In fact just over 20 years ago, in October 1993, a total of 28 people died in one of the grimmest months of the troubles.

There were horrific atrocities, such as the IRA bomb on Belfast’s Shankill Road and the loyalist gun attack on a bar in a small town called Greysteel, described by one of the architects of the peace process, John Hume, as “the crystallisation of the senselessness of violence”.

Indeed many must have felt back then that there would no end to the cycle of violence. Yet just 2 months later, in December 1993, the then British and Irish governments signed the Downing Street Declaration.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, they made it made clear that only parties committed to exclusively democratic and peaceful means could participate in any future political negotiations, and that any settlement had to be subject to the consent of the people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

In other words, the Declaration set out the essential conditions for the peace process that Northern Ireland’s future would only ever be determined by democracy and never by violence. And we will always remember the debt we owe those who stood resolute in the face of terrorism, many of whom gave their lives in defence of democracy and the rule of law.

I firmly believe that the Downing Street Declaration was a hugely important step on the road that eventually led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement and its successors at St Andrews in 2006 and Hillsborough in 2010.

Together these agreements have transformed life for the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland.

Of course it wasn’t a smooth journey.

Like all attempts at conflict resolution and peace building, it had its setbacks and there were times when the obstacles seemed too intractable.

Yet as the Agreements have demonstrated, it is possible to accommodate differences and to resolve issues going back hundreds of years, so long as one is prepared to sit down and talk and engage in a constructive dialogue.

Reaching an accommodation required immense leadership and courage from across Northern Ireland’s political spectrum, and a very close working relationship between the British and Irish governments.

And here I would also like to pay a special tribute to the work of successive United States’ administrations in supporting progress in Northern Ireland. And to the work of outstanding individuals such as George Mitchell, Richard Haass, Mitchell Reiss and Paula Dobriansky.

On many occasions during the protracted negotiations running up to the Belfast Agreement, and afterwards during the long years it took to implement it, the influence of the United States has been invaluable.

The Northern Ireland peace process has had no greater friend. And as a result Northern Ireland has made huge strides forward.

The 1998 Belfast or Good Friday Agreement settled the constitutional position of Northern Ireland on the basis of consent. It recognised the legitimacy, and I quote:

of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland.

And while the British government believes in the United Kingdom and our clear preference is for Northern Ireland to remain within the Union, ultimately the constitutional future is not for the British government to decide. It is, again in the words of the Agreement:

… for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

So let me be very clear. The British government will always uphold the democratic wishes of the people in respect of their constitutional future whether they decide to remain within the Union or choose a united Ireland.

We will also work with all parties and the whole community to build a Northern Ireland in which everybody is treated with equal respect, whatever their background or political aspirations.

And along with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish government we will strive to establish a stronger, more cohesive society based on a shared future for all.

The Agreement also established new political institutions that reflected the need to address relationships within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland.

So a new devolved Assembly and power-sharing government was set up at Stormont, which is responsible for all the key public services including since 2010 day-to-day policing and justice matters. And we are now seeing the longest uninterrupted period of devolved government in half a century.

A North-South Ministerial Council was created to foster much closer co-operation between the two parts of the island, on issues such as transport, tourism, health and agriculture and the environment.

Two decades ago it was considered historic when a unionist leader took a delegation to Dublin to enter face-to-face negotiations with the Irish government. Yet today it is commonplace for unionist ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive to be in Dublin discussing issues of common interest with their Irish counterparts, and for Irish ministers to be in Northern Ireland looking at ways in which the 2 administrations co-operate more closely.

The Agreement also saw the establishment of a new British-Irish Council to enable the different administrations across our islands to share common experiences and approaches on things like tackling youth unemployment.

Policing - for so long a divisive issue - has been radically reformed with all the main parties now signed up to supporting the police service and the criminal justice system. And today the police service is now more accountable, representative and widely supported across the community than at any time in Northern Ireland’s history.

The rights of people to identify themselves as British, Irish, or both, are fully protected in law.

The main terrorist campaigns - republican and loyalist - have now come to an end, along with the security measures that were necessary to counter and disrupt them.

So there are no longer soldiers on the streets, army checkpoints or bag searches entering shops, and people go about their daily lives in a way that simply would not have been possible just a few years ago.

There does of course remain a residual terrorist threat from those dissident republicans who continue to reject the democratic will of the people of Ireland, north and south, who voted overwhelmingly to support the current settlement.

But while they retain a lethal intent and continue to seek recruits, target and plan attacks, their numbers are small, they enjoy very limited support and have absolutely no democratic mandate.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland and their partners in the south, the Garda Síochána, do a highly effective job in countering the terrorists and keeping people safe and secure, and levels of co-operation between them have never been better. And for that they have the complete and unequivocal support of both the UK and Irish governments.

And the relationship between the 2 governments has also been transformed and in large part due to the progress we’ve made working together on Northern Ireland. The closeness of the modern British-Irish relationship was of course demonstrated by the groundbreaking visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Ireland in 2011 - the first by a reigning British monarch since Irish independence in 1921.

And it was underlined last year by the Joint Statement on UK-Irish relations issued by the Prime Minister, David Cameron and the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. This set out the framework for how our 2 countries can co-operate more closely together over the next decade.

It has led to an intensive programme of work in areas such as the economy, job creation, energy, transport, travel and EU matters where we often have a similar outlook.

All of this is essential when you consider just how interdependent our 2 countries are, which is why in 2011 when the scale of the Irish banking crisis became apparent the UK had no hesitation in offering bilateral assistance to Ireland, alone of all the members of the euro-zone.

I greatly value the engagement I have with my counterparts in the Irish government who make such a genuinely positive contribution to trying to move Northern Ireland forward.

And we are working together on joint approaches to what has been dubbed the ‘decade of centenaries’ commemorating the momentous events of 1912 to 1922.

That began last year with the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant - a document signed by nearly half a million men and women to signal their opposition to Irish Home Rule.

It will continue with the anniversaries of the outbreak of the Great War then the Battle of the Somme, the Easter Rising, the creation of the independent Irish Free State, and partition.

Both governments are very much aware that a number of these centenaries have the potential to be divisive - an opportunity for some to re-live the battles of the past or pursue a particular political agenda.

Our task is to be faithful to history while encouraging greater respect and understanding in a way helps all of us to move forward.

So I’m pleased to say that 15 years on from the Belfast Agreement there is much positive news to report from Northern Ireland. Yet there are also major challenges on the economy and building a shared society, and I’d like to take each of these in turn.

Like the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is recovering from the biggest shock to the global economy since the Second World War and the biggest UK budget deficit in our country’s peacetime history.

But today, as a result of some very difficult decisions the government has taken to ensure that the UK can live within its means, there are increasing signs that the economy is turning a corner and is on the road to recovery.

In Northern Ireland unemployment has fallen for 9 consecutive months and at 7.3% is below the UK average. Furthermore a number of independent surveys are now indicating that business confidence and activity is rising. And Northern Ireland has some great success stories to boast about:

The world-famous London red bus is now built by a firm in Ballymena in Northern Ireland that also exports buses to China.

Belfast is the world’s top city for the technology that drives global stock markets, such as the New York Stock Exchange and Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Northern Ireland produces a quarter of the world’s marine energy devices; over 1 in 3 of all computer read/write heads and almost a third of all business class aircraft seats

And in Bushmills, Co Antrim we have the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery dating back to 1608.

So we have some world beating companies and some great brands, but we need more of them.

The fact is that the Northern Ireland economy relies far too much on government spending and fiscal transfers from the UK Treasury while the recovery is still lagging behind the rest of the UK.

Both the UK government and the Northern Ireland Executive are fully committed to rebalancing the economy, and in June we jointly launched an ambitious new economic package to help business grow.

This was followed last month by an international investment conference in the iconic new Titanic Belfast building where the Prime Minister set out the case for investing in Northern Ireland.

And this built on the huge success of the G8 Summit that took place in County Fermanagh in June, which was so peaceful even the protestors commented on the warm welcome they received and the friendliness of the police.

Yet the UK government is acutely conscious that Northern Ireland will never realise its economic potential while parts of society remain so bitterly divided along sectarian lines.

For all the progress that’s been made, 90% of all social housing is segregated, over 90% of children are educated separately, and the number of so-called ‘peace walls’ that keep communities apart has gone up.

And regrettably this year we have seen too many reminders of how those sectarian divisions can spill over into disgraceful scenes of rioting and violence.

From the protests over the decision to limit the number of days on which the Union Flag should be flown at Belfast City Hall, to trouble around parading on 12 July. Street violence does grave damage to Northern Ireland in the global race to attract investment and jobs. And I’m particularly conscious of that standing here in the United States capital, where Northern Ireland enjoys such tremendous support and goodwill.

Violent street protest and the kind of disgraceful attacks on police officers that we’ve seen in recent months undermines any cause that people engaged in it claim to be supporting, because no government is ever going to allow such behaviour to succeed.

So we do urgently need to make progress on these issues in a way that respects people’s rights to parade and protest in a peaceful and lawful way, but also balances that with respect and tolerance for the views of others.

That’s why the government welcomed the publication of a new community relations strategy by the Executive earlier this year. And that’s why we strongly support the establishment of the All-Party Working Group under the distinguished US diplomat Richard Haass, to look at flags, parading and the past. He has a very difficult task but I remain optimistic that progress can be made if Northern Ireland’s politicians show the same leadership and courage that has helped to deal with seemingly insoluble problems in the past.

And I’m optimistic because in Richard Haass we have a chairman of great distinction and ability, and the whole British government - from the Prime Minister down - is immensely grateful to him for taking on this demanding role.

And Northern Ireland’s politicians will need encouragement and support if they are to take the difficult decisions needed for progress. For any elected representative, reaching out beyond your power base, beyond your traditional supporters, and beyond that part of the community from which you come, can be a hard road to take.

So the UK and Irish governments stand ready to provide some of the support and encouragement needed to help Northern Ireland’s leadership take that path forward, as can our great friends and allies here in the United States. People in the United States who care about Northern Ireland and want to see it move forward, who want to see an end to the tension, division and rioting that can still disfigure Northern Ireland in the eyes of the world, and people who, as the Prime Minister put it in his recent speech, want Northern Ireland to be defined by its shared future, not its divided past.

The United States has been a key part of Northern Ireland’s journey over the past 2 decades. From presidents, congressmen and a host of other distinguished individuals to those businesses like Citigroup, Allstate and the New York Stock Exchange who’ve invested there. You have helped Northern Ireland take great strides forward.

But the journey isn’t finished and much remains to be done to build a modern, confident Northern Ireland whose best days lie ahead. The kind of Northern Ireland we saw in June when the G8 summit took place against the stunning backdrop of Co Fermanagh in the sunshine.

So I thank all those in the United States for the friendship and support you have given, continue to give, and I know will give in the future as together we continue that journey to a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland based on a genuinely shared future for all.

Published 19 November 2013