Guest Speaker’s Address

I am always nervous about making speeches that coincide with major sporting events. A predecessor of mine was once speaking to a group of Belfast schoolchildren on the same day as they were to play in an important rugby match.

Just as he was beginning to warm to his theme and felt his young audience hang on his every word they began to get up and head for the door.

I fear that with the prospect of forty horses thundering around Aintree this afternoon the charms of one man and his dog seem rather lukewarm in comparison.

For my part I haven’t decided whether Stormy Passage or Kingdom of Shades is more appropriate.

But I am leaving Call it a Day well alone.

The centre ground in Northern Ireland politics has never been an easy place to be. It has always been easier to say no rather than yes, to be dogmatic rather than pragmatic. But the Alliance Party has never taken that easy option.

As Northern Ireland politics polarised, the Alliance Party was a voice of reason. It offered a haven for people for whom good government, equality and rights mattered more than endless arguments about constitutional conflict.

Now that we have, in the Good Friday Agreement, a framework to resolve that conflict, your core values are essential to help build the decent civic society people want in Northern Ireland.

It takes courage to hold the centre ground – not by default, not as the bulwark between two conflicting ideologies.

But in broadening the political debate, enriching it and setting a creative, non-partisan agenda in the interests of all.

At the heart of Alliance Party thinking is the principle of consent:

That Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority of the people want it to. That its future status should be decided only by the people of Northern Ireland. And that in any circumstances, different aspirations are equally valid and equally valued as long as they are peacefully and democratically expressed.

Nothing could better sum up my own beliefs.

Your party long understood that any settlement must expressly recognise the ethos and ambitions of each tradition as two halves of a single community. A community built on partnership, equality and mutual respect.

It is these principles that are the cornerstones the Good Friday Agreement.

And it is those principles we must now, finally, bring to fruition – and implement in full.

I have already said that I believe we are moving into a critical phase and next week will see another step in that process

We are having intensive discussions with the Irish Government at all levels to try to find a solution that will satisfy everyone. I keep in close touch with the Irish Foreign Minister. And officials meet regularly.

Both Governments are also consulting the parties informally, and I know there are discussions taking place among the parties.

What we are trying to achieve is an understanding that gives both sides the confidence they need to move forward. Unionists the confidence that, in David Trimble’s words, the decommissioning issue will be dealt with, once and for all, in a way that works; that the threat is gone; and that weapons will be put beyond use.

Nationalists the confidence that other aspects of the Agreement to which they attach importance are going ahead as planned, including the restoration of the institutions.

I firmly believe that it is both necessary and possible for us to make progress if not by Easter then shortly thereafter. Time is not on our side.

But that will demand serious attention to serious issues.

Decommissioning is an essential part of the Agreement. For two reasons.

The first is the obvious one that the very possession of weapons is a threat to a peaceful society. It is a huge benefit that the guns are silent. But people want to know whether they are silenced for good.

The second is to do with the political institutions. The test in the Agreement is that those who hold office should themselves use only democratic non-violent means.

It is entirely reasonable to ask why any political party should have access to a private army. If we want politics to work, if we are to uphold democratic values those private armies must be removed from the equation.

So decommissioning is essential, and has to be addressed. The question is how.

I believe that we must think twice before linking decommissioning directly to the continuance of the institutions and end up getting neither.

Decommissioning is most likely to happen in the context of the implementation of the whole of the Agreement, including the restoration of institutions. That in turn is most likely to happen if there is genuine confidence on everyone’s part that decommissioning will happen in good time, and that the threat has been removed for good.

Only the IRA can create that confidence by making their intentions clear. An unmistakable signal of their peaceful intentions would be worth a lot more than a one-off gesture of token decommissioning.

I have not given up on decommissioning. But I do think we need to be both more rigorous and imaginative in our approach if we actually want to achieve it, and that the ball is very much in the republicans’ court.

I applaud the republicans’ commitment to making political institutions work in Northern Ireland. I share their disappointment at their suspension. Like them I want to see them revived.

But we cannot restore them unilaterally. We need to know that Republicans will help to make this possible. We need to know that they will meet others half way, making clear their intentions on arms and providing confidence that democracy not violence will drive politics in Northern Ireland now and for all time.

And in return unionists must convince republicans that they will view positively republicans’ efforts to reach accommodation and won’t keep raising the bar once the issue of arms is adequately addressed.

If the parties are to come to an accommodation they must all leave their baggage at the door.

They must return once more to the compromise and pragmatism that brought the Good Friday Agreement. And both sides must be prepared to give ground.

The Good Friday Agreement and the referendums that endorsed it made politicians the servants of the people, above their narrow constituency.

Today we need to hear the voice of the centre ground – your voice – more clearly than ever.

The 71% who gave the politicians a mandate for change and who are frustrated by their inability to achieve it. The majority who want to know that their political leaders are in the business of finding solutions and not just winning arguments.

The welter of blame and recrimination has obscured the basic truths of the situation.

Two years ago the people of Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday Agreement and its promise of lasting peace, economic prosperity and political inclusion for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Two years on our efforts to implement that Agreement in full have been frustrated but the facts remain the same:

supporters of the Good Friday Agreement are in a majority – a large majority – in Northern Ireland;

this is the only blueprint for a better future – nobody has come close to a viable alternative; and

whatever the present difficulties, nobody wants to go back. Not to the bombs or the barricades. Not to the wrecked homes and the wrecked lives.

It is time for all the parties who brokered the Good Friday Agreement to act as its advocates. To fulfil their obligations to all the people of Northern Ireland. To be statesmen not just party politicians.

They have all shown that they are capable.

For thirty years local politicians have been wrestling with what they thought were intractable problems.

The many rewards that attract most people into politics – exercising power and serving the community – seemed a distant prospect. Most of us risk only our reputations when we enter politics. In Northern Ireland they risked their lives to represent their community and I commend them and applaud them for their courage and stamina.

We don’t have to agree with them to recognise the enormous dedication that each has shown and the distance that each has travelled.

Of course at times we all get frustrated that progress is not happening fast enough or not quite in the direction we would want.

But I and others like me outside Northern Ireland appreciate that we would not be where we are not without the great contribution of local politicians across the entire spectrum.

We have had a tantalising glimpse of devolved government. And I pay tribute to the Ministers – all of them. They thought not only of their own interests but reached out to others.

And, even in the absence of that government, the Good Friday Agreement is reshaping Northern Ireland’s social and political landscape.

Because it builds respect for rights and the principle of fairness into the very fibre of the new constitution.

It has given us a new Human Rights Commission and an Equality Commission to give Northern Ireland the sort of rights-based society that other countries will look to as a model of excellence.

It has set in train reform of policing and criminal justice.

But it needs more. It needs the focus and sense of purpose of its own devolved political institutions.

Of course this Government will continue to govern in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland while direct rule continues. Of course we will work hard to deliver real improvements in health, education, jobs and the economy.

It is not a criticism of the efforts of civil servants who have ably delivered services down the years but they need locally-accountable politicians to keep them in touch with the concerns of local people for government to excel.

A new civic society is starting to take shape before our eyes. Democracy is putting down roots.

Of course this is a long-term project. The wounds of thirty years of conflict do not heal overnight.

But the progress that we have made to date is sharpening people’s ambition for more.

That’s why we must not let them down.

This window of opportunity that we now have will not be open forever.

The clock is ticking.

Now is the time to finish the job.

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