Warning that political deadlock in North could undermine emerging positivity
Opinion: ‘A situation where the political institutions in Northern Ireland are beset by crisis or inertia creates a vacuum which will be filled by the very small minority who wish to drag Northern Ireland back to the dark days of conflict and division’
The US envoy to the inter-party talks, Gary Hart (right), is met at Parliament Buildings Stormont by SDLP Leader Alasdair McDonnell and party colleague Joe Byrne (left). Photograph: Paul Faith/PA
Political talks in Northern Ireland are now in their third week. My sense from my involvement so far is that the process has been mostly positive. There is no doubt, however, that there are many tough issues to confront and the compromises required won’t be easy, but the eventual prize – political agreement on very sensitive issues such as parades, identity and the past and restoring the focus on Northern Ireland’s people and its prosperity – is within grasp if the political will is there.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I am determined to do all I can to encourage and facilitate political leaders to make substantial progress. The Irish and British governments are fully engaged in supporting these talks, while former US senator Gary Hart is joining us this week in Belfast as personal representative of the US secretary of state, John Kerry.
Hart’s appointment to this role underlines just how much the US has remained an important and steadfast friend to the people of Ireland, North and South, and to the peace and reconciliation process. I know from my contacts with Gary Hart since the summer that he shares our ambition for these talks and, indeed, for Northern Ireland.
The key message is: these talks matter, above all to the people of Northern Ireland but also to all of us on these islands. However, south of the Border, I have been struck by the relatively low level of attention being given to these talks and to the importance of their succeeding.
Looking back to just less than 30 years ago in 1985, at the moment when Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, violence continued to haunt the community in Northern Ireland with 57 people killed that year alone. The appalling loss of life of those times came with a sense of hopelessness across the entire island, with our collective potential held back by the cost of conflict and uncertainty. Between 1966 and 1999, an astonishing 3,636 people died.
We have travelled a long way in the intervening years. Every successive British and Irish government has continued to work together for peace, reconciliation and prosperity. 1998 was a watershed year with the signing of the Good Friday agreement, subsequently endorsed in referendums in both parts of the island.
However, there remain residual issues from the Troubles that continue to disrupt politics. Disagreement on a number of legacy issues – around parades, flags and identity and dealing with the past – have had a corrosive effect on government. A political logjam has now been created and necessary decisions on budgets and other economic and institutional reforms have not been taken. The progressive implementation of agreements has in some respects stalled. And the necessary trust underlying government has been undermined and is slipping away.
So the current impasse in Northern Ireland is a political one. And the talks that are now under way in Belfast are looking to address these political issues. Much of the real business of negotiation and compromise must take place between the Northern Ireland Executive parties: as I said last week in Belfast, it has to be by Northern Ireland, for Northern Ireland.
However we in the South have an important role to play. First, political progress and confidence in Northern Ireland still requires the active support of the Irish and British governments working together. We are providing this, with valuable support from the United States.
Second, it is a core responsibility of the Irish Government to be involved and that is why I am in Belfast every week at the moment, along with my colleague Minister Seán Sherlock. This flows from the solemn commitments we have made, most particularly in the Good Friday agreement.
Third, it is in all our interests on this island to care deeply about what happens in the talks and to support all genuine efforts towards further forward-looking political, social and economic progress.
The real risk of the current political deadlock is that it fails to reflect, and perhaps even undermines, the emerging vibrancy and positivity that has been evident in towns and cities across the North. A situation where the political institutions in Northern Ireland are beset by crisis or inertia creates a vacuum which will be filled by the very small minority who wish to drag Northern Ireland back to the dark days of conflict and division.
For those of us south of the Border, all this really matters and needs to be debated and discussed more. We benefit from seamless travel across the Border, in contrast to the intimidating Border crossings of decades past. Internationally, we market the island as a whole as a tourism destination and we enjoy visiting destinations such as Derry, Titanic Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway. We can deliver better services locally, especially in the northwest and in the Border region, if we can plan and co-operate on an all-island basis. North-South trade is at long last improving and has so much more potential yet.
We need to have the risks and threats to this progress sorted out and we should not wait any longer to do this. The talks present an opportunity to take the next necessary political step so that greater reconciliation and economic renewal join peace as permanent features on the Northern Ireland landscape.
This is not about being pulled backwards: this is about finding a way forward. It behoves us all to play our part to make this happen.
Charlie Flanagan is Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade