English MPs with an interest in Northern Ireland are coming along like buses today. Labour MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ivan Lewis delivered a speech to the Labour party conference in Manchester this afternoon.
He joked that the city was home “to three institutions in serious decline … the Tory party, the Lib Dems and Manchester United.”
When people tell you politics can’t change anything, politicians don’t make a difference, give them a two word answer, Northern Ireland.
Tell them it was this party against all the odds working with others which brought the violence and brutality of 30 years of the troubles to an end … it is one of the greatest historical achievements of our movement, and we should never forget it. We have a special responsibility to nurture the reconciliation and mutual respect which are central to building a shared future.
He listed some of the big events NI has hosted in recent years.
Despite so much progress, the political situation in Northern Ireland is at its most fragile for many years. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness have done an impressive job in promoting Northern Ireland globally and attracting significant inward investment. However, the Executive has failed to make political progress on legacy issues, such as flags, parades and the past.
The unionist parties withdrawal from talks, their threat of a graduated response to a disputed parades commission decision together with Sinn Fein and SDLP’s unwillingness to move forward on welfare reform have fuelled mistrust and growing public dissatisfaction.
Treasury penalties for the non-implementation of welfare reform will cost Northern Ireland £87 million this year, rising to £114 million next year, and with other financial pressures threaten deep cuts to frontline services.
All of this has taken place against a background of the Government’s political disengagement from Northern Ireland.
Today, I call on the Prime Minister to work intensively to end the current stalemate. Where appropriate working with the Irish Government supported by the US administration. The UK and Irish Governments should consider providing a framework for talks, to break the stalemate on all contentious issues. If necessary, nominating a chair acceptable to all parties. We will offer our full support to the Government should they take these steps.
The shadow secretary of state also raised the possibility of a new Northern Ireland flag. [Ed – another flag?]
Of course, Northern Ireland’s political leaders must also face up to their responsibilities. There is middle ground to be found on accountability for the organisation and conduct of parades and the basis on which the union flag, which must remain sovereign, could be complimented by a new Northern Ireland flag.
On the past …
It would be disingenuous to suggest the wounds or trauma of the past can be healed easily. But putting the needs of victims and their loved ones centre stage is the right starting point. Protocols surely can be agreed to deliver a process which reflects the fact that state wrongdoing must be exposed but the vast majority of killings were committed by paramilitary organisations.
On welfare reform, he squeezed in Labour’s favourite adjective, ‘pernicious’ …
I support all Northern Ireland’s political parties in refusing to implement the pernicious bedroom tax. I am proud of the fact that this will be scrapped by an incoming Labour Government. However, refusing to implement any reform despite the terms of devolution cannot be right and runs the risk of precipitating a financial and political crisis.
He had some advice on leadership …
In post conflict situations standing still means going backwards, leaving a vacuum too often filled by extremists. Working in partnership does not require friendship or even forgiveness for past wrongs, but it does require mutual respect and a willingness to build trust. Good leadership is about mobilising your supporters and delivering on bread and butter issues.
Great leadership requires you to sometimes walk in the shoes of your former foes and say difficult things to your own base about the need for compromise, Northern Ireland’s peace process urgently needs great leadership from all parties in the Executive.
This leadership will be tested even further in the debate about the nature of devolution across the UK in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum. This will undoubtedly have profound implications for Northern Ireland. We are committed to ensuring the voices of the people of Northern Ireland are heard in that debate.
Ivan Lewis formally announced what had been trailed on radio and TV news reports from early this morning, an independent commission – which he dubbed the Heenan Anderson commission – “to improve opportunities for those who currently have no stake in the economy and are at the margins of their communities” and inform Labour policies should they be returned to government in May 2015. [Ed – and pollsters don’t believe that’s impossible]
Northern Ireland has had the highest rate of benefit claimants in the 12 UK regions for 49 consecutive months. Growth still lags behind most of the UK, inequality is above average and the private sector needs rapid growth.
Too many are trapped in worklessness and the victims of intergenerational poverty. Youth unemployment is worse today than in the early years of the peace process. The global banking crisis and consequential austerity have undermined the economic peace dividend people were promised. In both communities there is too much alienation caused by a lack of opportunity and aspiration.
This is not unique to Northern Ireland but the stakes are higher as people are at risk of exploitation by paramilitary organisations and political extremists. Peace and stability will only endure as the anchor to building a shared future if we can offer people the training, jobs and personal support for a better future …
The independent commission will be chaired by Prof Deirdre Heenan (pro-vice chancellor at the University of Ulster) and Colin Anderson (CEO of ASG, an advertising/communications agency). A panel of experts will be appointed to assist. A final report with recommendations is due by the end of February.
Ivan Lewis finished his speech by calling for civil society to make its voice heard …
Northern Ireland is at a crossroads. It is time for the voices of progress to be heard. Faith leaders, civil society, business leaders and trade unionists have a duty to speak up with one voice and demand an end to stagnation … The Executive must show leadership but others must play their part in helping to build a shared future …
It’s time for this generation to fulfil its responsibilities to the next. It’s time to begin the journey from a cold peace to a warm peace. It’s time for the shared future that the people of Northern Ireland so richly deserve.
The SDLP’s Mark Durkan said that “if [the commission] tries to address questions around the Welfare Reform Bill which is stuck in the Assembly they would need to offer light on the darker implications of the Welfare Cap”.
NI Conservatives spokesperson Mark Brotherston attacked the statement from the shadow secretary of state and pointed to the disconnect between Labour’s “One Nation” slogan and it’s continuane “to treat people in Northern Ireland like second class citizens and shows contempt for its local members, who have campaigned for decades for the right to stand candidates”.
Will this body examine whether there is political discrimination by the Labour Party and what the effects of excluding people from electoral participation might be?
Tomorrow evening’s fringe meeting in Manchester organised by the Labour NI CLP – and due to be attended by Ivan Lewis – will address some of those points. Though I note that Labour NI’s petition has only reached 315 signatures after a month.
No other local party has a statement on their website – though I’m sure political representatives have reacted to Ivan Lewis’ speech on Twitter as well as local news and current affairs programmes.
So what advice would you give the Heenan Anderson commission? What actions and policies would you recommend to improve opportunities for those who currently have no stake in the economy and are at the margins of their communities?
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.