Theresa Villiers: “That’s the kind of Northern Ireland we’re determined to build…”

Louth TD, and Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams has taken exception to a recent speech by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers at the British-Irish Association’s 2013 conference – describing it as “an unacceptable intervention” ahead of those talks with Richard Haass.  Although, I don’t think the speech was delivered “yesterday”…  [And what’s he going to do about it?! – Ed]  ANYhoo… Let’s see if we can identify what might have ruffled his feathers.  From the NI Secretary of State’s draft speech.

Moving on to the second means of moving Northern Ireland forward, building a more cohesive society, virtually all the relevant policy responsibilities fall within the remit of the Northern Ireland Executive

But making progress on this is still a key priority for the government which is why it’s featured in nearly every conversation I’ve had with the First and deputy First Ministers since taking office.

The publication the Executive’s document Together: Building a United Community met a mixed reaction. Certainly, the real test will come with efforts to see its proposals actually delivered. But the publication of an ambitious programme to tackle division and build a stronger society in itself represents a genuine and welcome step after long months of deadlock, and I congratulate the First and deputy First Minister for finding a way to move things forward.

I have also warmly welcomed the establishment of the cross party working group on parading, flags and the past that will begin its work later this month under the chairmanship of Richard Haass. While the government is not directly represented on this group we are very supportive of it and are keen to engage constructively with its work. For a number of reasons, we have a direct interest in the outcome of this process.

The most obvious reason is that we want these talks to be successful because that would improve life for people in Northern Ireland, strengthen the economy and make it easier to combat the threat from dissident republicans. But it’s also worth remembering that parading and some elements of the rules on flags are currently matters for Westminster. So if changes are proposed by the Haass group, they would need the support of the government if they are to be implemented.

Likewise, while not necessarily requiring legislation, it is likely that any proposals to deal with the past would, at least in part, fall to the government for implementation.

Despite Gerry Adams’ objections, that would appear to be an accurate assessment.  Although the prospect of any agreed outcome from the Haass talks being blocked by the UK Government would seem to be remote.

And onward to the past…

I am sure that no one here would doubt that the legacy of the troubles has a continuing impact in modern Northern Ireland. I see that when I meet victims of terrorism or those who believe that the security forces operated outside the law. It’s impossible not to be moved by harrowing stories from families who lost loved ones, often in the most brutal of circumstances.

A range of initiatives are underway regarding the past, a number of which I have had the honour to visit. In addition to a host of local and oral history projects across Northern Ireland, there are outstanding initiatives like the CAIN archive at the University of Ulster, the renowned collection at the Linen Hall Library and the wealth of historical material held by the BBC and UTV. Other projects such as the Warrington Peace Centre and the Wave Trauma Centre also do invaluable work. As a consequence, Northern Ireland’s troubles are one of the most comprehensively recorded and documented periods in history.

For its part the government is moving from the 30 year rule to a 20 year rule for the release of state papers, though the release of any information into the public domain will always have to be done in a way that is sensitive to the Article 2 rights of all parties. [added emphasis]

[Are you listening, Caral Ní Chuilín?! – Ed]  Indeed.  And that’s an ongoing case in point…  Back to the speech

So the allegation that “nothing’s happening on the past” isn’t true. But of course there is no so-called over-arching ‘process’ on the past and little consensus on what that should be. I’ve found that in the range of discussions I’ve had on this subject, as did my predecessor Owen Paterson, as did the last government in the 12 year period during which they grappled with this issue.

So we should all welcome the opportunity for the Haass working group to bring a fresh perspective. I’ve no intention of pre-empting the Group’s discussions, but I’m mindful of the following:

*Any mechanisms for dealing with the past needs to be fully consistent with maintaining the integrity of the rule of law *they must have regard to the fiscal position in which the UK government finds itself as a result of the deficit *and as our manifesto set out and the Prime Minister re-iterated in his statement on Bloody Sunday, we will never put those who uphold the law on the same footing as those who seek to destroy it. For us, politically motivated violence from whatever side was never justified and we will not be party to attempts to re-write history by legitimising terrorism. [added emphasis]

[Are you listening Gerry Kelly?! – Ed] Indeed.  And, again, an ongoing case…

And, in conclusion.

But in conclusion, whatever the outcome of the Haass process I hope there will be a thread running through all work on the past which ensures that its underlying purpose is always to play a constructive part in wider efforts to heal social division, build mutual respect and understanding and move Northern Ireland forward towards a better future.

And it is vital that the Haass work takes place alongside real progress on other crucial issues on reconciliation and social cohesion and on the economy. Richard Haass and his group have an immensely difficult task ahead of them. Whether they will succeed is something we can’t yet know for certain.

So over the coming weeks and months it is critical that we see progress both on the economic package and the shared society proposals from the First and deputy First Minister. There is much that we can work on even while issues like the past and parading remain to be resolved.

As ever, the ability of the political leadership of Northern Ireland to work together collaboratively across political boundaries will play a key part in determining whether the changes needed to rebalance the economy and heal social divisions are delivered. [added emphasis]

And who could argue with that…

Of course, at the same time, Gerry Adams is also calling for more intervention from others.