East Belfast MP Naomi Long asked a long question [Q7] during Prime Minster’s Questions on Wednesday 13 March. She wanted to know what role he saw for the British and Irish governments “as joint custodians of the agreement” in progressing the outstanding issues of “reconciliation, unequivocal support for the rule of law, and to deal comprehensively with the past and its legacy”.
David Cameron answered:
I think there is of course a responsibility for the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to work together, and we had a very good set of meetings this week; but the greatest possible responsibility lies with the devolved institutions. It is great that they are working and that the agreement has bedded down, but I would appeal to the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and all those involved in the Assembly to put away the conflicts of the past, work on a shared future for the people of Northern Ireland, start to take down the segregation, the peace walls and the things that take people apart in Northern Ireland, find the savings from those things and invest in a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland. [emphasis added]
Liam Clarke’s interview with the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers was published in the Belfast Telegraph on Good Friday. A similar tone is struck.
If Northern Ireland wants more economic help from the Government its politicians must build a shared and stable society, the Secretary of State has warned.
Theresa Villiers pledged that Westminster is prepared to fund infrastructural projects here, such as schools and roads – if its conditions are met. The Government is also ready to hand over Ministry of Defence property to the Executive and allow it to keep the proceeds – if it sells off public assets such as Belfast Port.
However, the aid comes with other strings attached.
Ms Villiers said: “We would like to see commitments on building a shared society as part of an overall package. We will be waiting to hear from the Executive what they would do to boost the economy and also what they are doing to address sectarian divides.
“The Prime Minister sees a stable and cohesive society as a crucial part of building economic prosperity.” [emphasis added]
The proposal is to make Northern Ireland eligible to receive funds from the Infrastructure Guarantee Scheme. In one hand it’s a sweetener on the back of the delay in deciding whether or not to devolve Corporation Tax. But it’s also a financial carrot to put pressure on the Executive (and the Assembly) to address shared future issues more seriously than they have up to now.
Liam Clarke’s analysis:
There are other ways to help the Executive, for instance allowing it to sell major assets such as Belfast Port. But any economic package will not provide full value unless the Executive guarantees political stability and reduces sectarian division.
The people of Northern Ireland and their leaders have traveled a great distance over the past fifteen years. Step by step, they have traded bullets for ballots, destruction and division for dialogue and institutions, and pointed the way toward a shared future for all. There is urgent work still to be done – and there will be more tests to come. There are still those few who prefer to look backward rather than forward – who prefer to inspire hate rather than hope. The many who have brought Northern Ireland this far must keep rejecting their call. From building cross-community trust to bringing opportunity to hard-to-reach communities in Belfast and beyond, every citizen and every political party needs to work together in service of true and lasting peace and prosperity.
Fifteen years on from the Belfast Agreement, and six and a half years after the St Andrews Agreement – which the then UUP leader Reg Empey described as the “Belfast Agreement for slow learners” – these are likely to be only two in a whole series of messages from the Prime Minister and the NIO asking Northern Ireland politicians to make more of a difference.
In a small community like this there have been few who have not been touched by the hand of violence and by the murders and atrocities that have taken place. But this generation imagined it could be different. This generation was prepared to dedicate itself to attempting to make it different.
I believe we now have one of the most successful peace processes in the world today. Of course there are difficulties, of course there are obstacles, of course it isn’t easy or straightforward. What is important is that over a period of time you can see the length we have moved.
This generation may have imagined it could be different. But this generation are still living, working and playing in communities that are often structurally segregated, with political representatives unafraid and at times impatient to stoke the embers of identity issues, and unwilling to take bold steps to reform.
Sadly at the moment this process of reconciliation appears to be on auto pilot as politicians have taken their eye off the ball. We are fifteen years on from this agreement and we still have a society and a government for that matter that is essentially based upon what side of the community you come from.
The question for London is how tough will they dare to be with the financial negotiations? And what measures will they use to demonstrate progress towards a “stable and cohesive society”?
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.