In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum and the debate over welfare reform, the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers MP, writes exclusively for Slugger O’Toole about how we move forward
There is much to celebrate about modern Northern Ireland. Twenty years ago this small place carried the burden of a global reputation built on images of bitter conflict and violence. Today, Northern Ireland deserves admiration for its burgeoning creative industries sector, advanced infrastructure and outstanding cultural attractions, as well as for the progress delivered through the peace process. In recent years our home-grown golfing heroes and champion boxers have gained recognition across the world, while the G8 Summit, World Police and Fire Games and Giro d’Italia have shone a spotlight on Northern Ireland for all the right reasons.
The economic picture is also improving here. As the private sector has grown, unemployment has fallen; with the claimant count down for 20 consecutive months. And Northern Ireland continues to have outstanding success in attracting inward investment and jobs. This all adds up to a very positive story to tell about Northern Ireland.
However, as recent weeks have made increasingly plain, there are still substantial challenges with which the devolved administration needs to grapple; primarily around budgets, welfare reform, flags, parades and the past. It’s clear that relationships within the Executive will suffer until progress is made on these matters, and the failure to do so will continue to undermine public confidence in the devolved government.
So I have been urging Sinn Fein and the SDLP to accept welfare reform. A modern, dynamic economy requires a welfare system that rewards work and doesn’t trap people in poverty and dependency. The UK Government accepts that Northern Ireland’s specific circumstances justify some differences in the way welfare should be approached and we have agreed important flexibilities to reflect this, for example on the spare room subsidy. But we have gone as far as we can and there will be no additional money for Northern Ireland to retain a more costly welfare system. The financial consequences of failing to implement these reforms will be to the detriment of Northern Ireland’s front line public services. That impact will escalate to devastating levels in the future if this issue is not resolved before the DWP’s old computer systems are due for shut down and the Executive faces the prohibitive cost of taking over or replacing them.
Equally, I have called on unionists to return to the talks on flags, parades and the past. Time and again, these divisive issues have demonstrated their capacity to disrupt the Northern Ireland economy and poison the political atmosphere. It is vital that talks resume so progress can be made on these questions to enable Stormont to get on with the crucial business of rebalancing the economy and building a shared future.
I’ve been meeting the leaders of all the five parties in the Executive over the last few days to hear their appraisal of current difficulties. I believe that all of the parties are sincere about wanting to move forward and find a way through the gridlock. The proposal by Peter Robinson for cross party talks on institutional reform and welfare, along the same lines as the process that led to the St Andrews Agreement is a significant intervention. That process had an involvement from both the UK and Irish governments, something for which the nationalist parties (the SDLP in particular) have been calling for some time.
If the Northern Ireland parties agree to enter into new talks, then the UK Government will support and encourage that process and I believe that the Irish Government would too. But whatever role we might possibly play in future talks, intervention by the UK or the Irish governments will have little relevance or impact in the absence of sincere and serious negotiation between Northern Ireland’s political leaders, approached with a willingness to seek an accommodation and take difficult decisions. It is providing that local leadership which is pivotal to success. Anyone who thinks that as Secretary of State I can simply intervene and impose a solution does not understand the realities of the politics of Northern Ireland or its devolution settlement.
The UK Government has always said that we are open to institutional reform at Stormont – but we are clear that any changes must command widespread support and reflect the principles of power sharing and inclusivity at the heart of the Belfast Agreement.
I do not share the alarmist view that the Stormont institutions are in danger of imminent collapse. We only have to remind ourselves how much has already been achieved through the power sharing agreements to see that Northern Ireland has survived worse crises and darker days than these. But I do believe that Northern Ireland’s political leaders need to act now to grip the situation and find a way forward both on implementation of welfare reform and reaching an accommodation on flags, parading and the past. Unless they do, the Executive will find it increasingly difficult to deliver on issues such as jobs, education, health and transport and all the other everyday matters that are so hugely important to the people who elected them.