The current blockage in making the Good Friday Agreement work is extremely frustrating for all who want a better Northern Ireland.
The Alliance Party has spent thirty years seeking to build a united society in Northern Ireland in place of a deeply divided society.
To us, the Agreement is not an end in itself, but the best way of ending those divisions. These divisions show themselves in many different ways:
· bigotry, intolerance and sectarian hatred;
· disputes over issues such as parades and policing;
· segregated education and housing; and
· people who say Northern Ireland should continue to be rigidly divided into ‘two communities’.
Terrorism, or political violence, is the most extreme demonstration of the deep divisions in society.
Alliance has a vision of a different type of Northern Ireland. Our vision is of a peaceful, prosperous, fair and non-sectarian society. Sharing rather than separation would be the norm within the community.
People would be judged and respected as individuals, not labelled by others, whether as Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist.
It would be accepted that the people of Northern Ireland form one community, not two separate communities. The things that the people hold in common will be recognised as being more important than those that separate them. At the same time, the cultural variety of the many traditions within Northern Ireland should be supported. Unity within diversity should be our motto. People would be placed before territory.
Many people in Northern Ireland, and around the world, share this vision. However, it is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to put this vision into practice, unless the Agreement is up and running and is being implemented in full.
The Agreement is not a perfect document. There are a number of flaws. In fact, there is a real danger than the very divisions that Alliance wants to overcome could become permanent. For example, making all Assembly Members sign in as unionist, nationalist or other emphasises differences.
Everyone should be concerned about this, because if these divisions are not dealt with, they could fatally undermine the Agreement in the years to come.
The Agreement must be seen as a carefully balanced set of compromises. It provides for local government in the Assembly with power-sharing, North-South structures, protections for human rights and greater equality of opportunity.
In the ‘principle of consent’, local people are given the right to decide their own future. Put simply, Northern Ireland now has a form of government to which the vast majority of the people can give their allegiance.
Both devolution and decommissioning are important issues in themselves.
Devolution gives the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to control their own destiny, and to make their politicians responsible for their actions. There are many important issues that are suffering through the lack of political progress. Look at the crisis in health services.
Decommissioning is also important. It is a means to provide confidence in the totality and staying power of the paramilitary ceasefires. It gives reassurance to people that violence is over. These objectives could also be met through statements from the paramilitary organisations in which they clearly renounce the use of violence.
There have been a series of murders since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Most of these have been attributed to organisations that are officially on ceasefire. Furthermore, the paramilitaries engage in so-called ‘punishment attacks’, in which the human rights of people are abused in the name of community policing. These activities need to come to a complete end. It is noticeable that the paramilitaries seem able to turn them off and on, as the political context changes.
However, it was a mistake for the issues of setting up the Executive, and decommissioning weapons to become so closely linked. This linkage has not led to much progress on either, but a lot of paralysis on both.
It is now vital that the current deadlock in the Agreement is broken as quickly as possible. The issues at stake for Unionists and Republicans can be solved. The real problem is an absence of mutual trust, and a willingness to move.
There is substantial drift in the political process. I fear that violence could easily fill the growing vacuum. Alliance believes that it is the duty of the British and Irish Governments to push an initiative, but nothing substantive has happened. They have hardly even spoken to each other.
Alliance has tried to show some leadership through our Six-Point Plan. It is on the table as one way to break the deadlock. It involves a series of steps to progressively create sufficient confidence for movement, and achieve progress on both devolution and decommissioning. It has been well received by other parties, as well as London, Dublin and Washington. I believe that it could form the outline of the way forward.
The pro-Agreement parties would collectively restate their commitment to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries should provide a new form of words that makes clear that they have completely renounced the use of violence for both ‘military’ and ‘non-military’ objectives.
The Government should accelerate the process of ‘normalisation’ in Northern Ireland.
Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries should intensify their engagement with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), and in particular provide information regarding inventories and timetables for decommissioning. In this context, the IRA may reinstate the commitments that they had made to the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning prior to the suspension of devolution and elaborate upon them.
The political parties would collectively agree to a meeting of the Executive and the first acts of decommissioning occurring on a fixed date to be determined. This step should be sufficient for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to rescind the order suspending the political institutions.
On the appropriate date – the ‘Day of Reconciliation’, the Executive would reconvene and the first acts of Republican and Loyalist decommissioning would occur. Further progress on decommissioning would continue according to timetables and modalities agreed with the IICD.