No standing still if hopes enshrined in Belfast Agreement are to be fulfilled
Opinion: The need to root out sectarianism should be uppermost in all our minds
Lough Erne Resort outside Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, the venue for next June’s G8 summit. “David Cameron’s decision to host the G8 in Fermanagh provides us with a golden opportunity.” Photograph: PA
Today we should reflect on just how far Northern Ireland has come since the Belfast Agreement 15 years ago. It was a truly historic achievement and few can deny that life here changed for the better after the agreement and its successors were signed.
The road to the agreement was long and hard. At the beginning of the 1990s the Troubles still raged. Northern Ireland was governed under direct rule from Westminster. A political settlement seemed as far away as ever.
How different the situation is today. Northern Ireland’s constitutional position has been secured on the basis of consent, and the territorial claim in articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution is a thing of the past. Instead of direct rule from London, we have an inclusive devolved Executive in which all parts of the community have a say, with locally accountable Ministers responsible for delivering the key public services.
All the main parties have signed up to the settlement on policing and justice. There are robust institutions for practical co-operation between North and South. Relations between the UK and the Republic have never been stronger. The rights and identities of all parts of the community – British and Irish – are fully protected. Decommissioning finally went ahead and the terrorist campaigns that cost over 3,500 lives came to an end.
These major steps forward should never be undervalued or taken for granted. Some in Northern Ireland tend to view politics as a zero sum game, in which there is a loser for every winner. But on any objective assessment, all parts of the community here benefited from the Belfast Agreement.
Certainly the agreement contained elements that many people, on all sides, found hard to swallow. The peace process involved moral as well as political compromises, some of which were difficult for those who had suffered at the hands of terrorists, including from my own party.
So I pay tribute to all those who over so many years showed the courage, leadership and tenacity to make the Belfast Agreement and its successors happen. They demonstrated what can be achieved by dialogue and the primacy of politics. Not without justification has Northern Ireland’s peace process received praise from around the world.
Yet for all that has been achieved in the last 15 years, there remain huge challenges to overcome. We cannot stand still if the hopes enshrined in the agreement are to be properly fulfilled.
First, we need to be relentless in tackling those terrorist groups who continue to defy the will of the people of Ireland, North and South, by pursuing their objectives by violence. They have virtually no support in the community but they have capability and they have lethal intent. So the government will continue to give the PSNI the fullest possible backing in the fight against terrorism. Today co-operation between the PSNI and Garda is better than ever and has saved lives.
Second, we must do more to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and end its overdependence on public spending. We need to boost the private sector with an unashamedly pro-business agenda. Unemployment remains too high.
The government is working with the Executive on a substantial economic package to help Northern Ireland in the global race for investment and jobs. David Cameron’s decision to host the G8 in Fermanagh provides us with a golden opportunity.
But on the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, it is the third challenge which should be uppermost in our minds – the urgent need to tackle the sectarianism and division. Too often, this division can lead to tension, disorder and violence and it almost always our most disadvantaged communities who suffer as a result.
As I go around Northern Ireland talking to a wide range of people, I see many great examples of initiatives that bring different parts of the community together. Yet at too many levels Northern Ireland remains deeply divided. The work of the peace process is still unfinished.
So our economic package will be closely linked to, and conditional on real progress by the executive on building stronger community relations and a more cohesive society.
Fifteen years ago the Belfast Agreement called for “reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust”. As we look to the future, we need to make that aspiration a reality. Northern Ireland’s political leaders have overcome challenges just as great as this in the past; now is the time for them to demonstrate they can do so again.
Theresa Villiers is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland