by David Ford, Leader of Alliance
There are two common views on the Agreement which are still heard after five years. The first is that everything is still dreadful and it is all the fault of the Agreement. The second is that everything is now perfect under the Agreement, once we just tidy up a few odds and ends.
Both are simplistic, both are wrong.
The real question about the Agreement is not: ‘Are things better?’ It is obvious that they are. Of course there are difficulties with ongoing paramilitary violence, many weaknesses in public policy, many obstacles put in the way of the Police Service functioning in a new, civilian role.
However, life in Northern Ireland has been measurably better for most people over the last five years.
The question that needs to be asked is: ‘Are things as good as people had a right to expect after five years?’ The answer to that is clearly ‘No’.
That is why this week’s talks and the statement from Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, are so important. It really is time for Acts of Completion from the paramilitaries – all of them – which will allow a normal political process to have its opportunity.
Five years ago, the great majority of the people of Northern Ireland voted for a new beginning. Few of us expected it to be easy, or immediate. The transition from thirty years of violence to a normal, peaceful society was a major step for any community to achieve. It was probably inevitable that we would have to go through a transitional period of imperfect peace. But we must not stop there – now is the time for a full and genuine peace.
However, the achievements of the Agreement have also been very limited in other respects. The Assembly has started to make a difference, by holding Ministers and civil servants to account, and bringing local knowledge to bear. But compared to the partnership governments of Wales and Scotland, the achievements of the Executive have been distinctly limited.
Where is the radical thinking that would have really tackled student funding and the provision of free personal care for those elderly people who require it? Scotland has managed this, but not us.
The Executive has failed to show any commitment to joined-up thinking, with Ministers running Departments as their own personal fiefdoms, ignoring what is happening in other areas. This lack of coherence has extended to the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister: the Department that should co-ordinate other Ministries cannot even speak with one voice itself.
Most telling has been the failure of the Executive to take any serious action to improve community relations and act against those who are seeking to divide this society. It is not good enough for Ministers to ignore the most significant problem we face because of their own background in traditional party politics.
I firmly believe that the Agreement can be the foundation on which we build a new society. What we now need is a commitment from all parties to do so.