Omagh carnage has produced a determined unity of purpose


The Good Friday Agreement, the referendums North and South and the first meeting of the new Assembly caught the imagination of people on this island and far beyond our shores for various reasons, the most potent of which was the deep sense of hope that was breathed into a people who had, for so long, been captives of despair.

For the first time, new and vital decisions were seen to be taken, decisions which could lift us all out of the quagmire of violence and political inertia into a new world of partnership and peace.

Uniquely, this generation was beginning to recognise that we could shed the millstone of a bloody, divisive history and together walk down the road towards a new way of life, with a new vision and above all the confidence to hope.

Almost immediately, however, the storm clouds of our bloody past cast a shadow over that new sense of hope. The tribal anachronism of Drumcree forced the North of Ireland to the brink for the third year running. The burning to death of three young boys - the Quinn brothers in Ballymoney - brought sectarian depravity to a new low and strained the sense of hope to breaking point.

And then Omagh . . . the ultimate, terrifying and bloody reminder of where the evil of outdated thinking can lead. We thought we had seen the worst, and tried to convince ourselves that each atrocity was the watershed, the line beyond which no person, or group would dare step. We were wrong.

But now the Irish people have, with finality and common resolve, made Omagh different. A different Irish unity has been born - a unity of purpose - out of the carnage. We have recommitted ourselves to working together, to building a future together, to implementing the agreement that unites us.

Central to that task will be the establishment of the executive which will administer the affairs of the Assembly. In the shadow transitional period, it should be the creative hub which defines and develops the functions and operation of the new institutions. It should be the motive force which drives the process out of transition into full implementation of all the institutions.

And it will come to exist, be assured of that. It will be inclusive, wholly inclusive, of all parties with the will and the mandate to participate. In some ways its very diversity can be its dynamic. We must see the presence of unionism, loyalism, nationalism and republicanism as part of a wider, larger pluralism. And in that way they all become less threatening, less absolute.

It is my hope that the government formed will take us into the next century, that it will offer to all generations, but especially to the young, new opportunities. It must be worked for - there is nothing inevitable about it. It faces many challenges.

The first of these challenges is for each party to make space for others. Yes, as political leaders we have a responsibility to represent the interests of those who have mandated us. But those responsibilities must be balanced by the needs of the wider process. There is a greater good - and a wider responsibility - which transcends our own sectional interests.

We must, with urgency, create that space, not just for the sake of our partners, but for our own sake too. The logic of signing the agreement is that it was in our own interests and that of the wider community. It follows, therefore, that the difficulties of our partners are our difficulties too. In addressing our problems, in solving them on a reciprocal basis and in giving the political process a unity of purpose, we can be lifted above party political considerations.

Equally, that logic requires that all parties who signed the agreement with a sufficient mandate to do so will assume executive responsibility. That is what all parties agreed to - and it is that inclusiveness which will make this process dynamic and unique.

We must remember that by supporting the Agreement the people have spoken on both this and decommissioning. They do not want brinkmanship on either the issue of decommissioning or the issue of participation. They want action to resolve it - and they want it now. In this context Gerry Adams's statement yesterday is welcome in tone and content and should be built upon.

The second challenge is to agree a new programme for government. This is not the time to set out detailed proposals. But it is the time to set ourselves targets and to organise our efforts.

Let our ambition be that over time people will look to Northern Ireland to learn how we have used this unprecedented opportunity for renewal and rebirth:

* to succeed in delivering efficient, accountable, transparent government;

* to create an inclusive society in which equality is not seen as a zerosum game but as a way of redefining relationships to everyone's benefit;

* to harness our educational and industrial strengths to a new approach to regional development, ensuring that Northern Ireland becomes a nimble player in the global economy with high employment, high wages and high productivity;

* to pioneer new approaches to the problems of social exclusion building on the rich experience of local community development and reconciliation groups which have been the source of so much strength and hope during our darkest days;

* to succeed in transforming and modernising our public service; building on its strengths to make it more efficient, more open, less bureaucratic, more responsive to the needs of our citizens;

* to succeed in nurturing the artistic and creative talent of our people who have the immense advantage of being able to draw from two major cultural traditions;

* to succeed in putting into place new cross-Border structures of co-operation and implementation which will serve as a model for interregional relationships throughout the world.

The third challenge is to accommodate the principles specifically set out in the agreement and to follow through with their implementation. We must ensure that the new institutions will all operate on the charter of principles which underlies the new dispensation, the core of which will be equality, parity of esteem and parallel consent.

These symbolise the sense of partnership at the core of it all. Put simply, partnership without equality is a contradiction in terms.

This is the kind of ambition which I am confident will be shared by the members of the executive and supported by the Assembly in the coming weeks and months.

Seamus Mallon MP is Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland