“We need politics in Belfast to inspire again” – Minister Flanagan
Statements on Northern Ireland
Dáil Éireann, 15 July 2015
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan T.D.
A Cheann Comhairle;
It is just over a year to the day since I took up my current responsibilities as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade – a year that has been defined by strenuous efforts to resolve longstanding issues, meet newer ones head on, and to keep Northern Ireland on track towards a prosperous and reconciled future.
Within hours of becoming Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I had made my first calls to the Northern Ireland Executive Party Leaders and to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and before the month was out I had made my first visit to Belfast. It was clear then, as it is now, how high a priority Northern Ireland is for this Government.
The message I received from the North’s leaders last July was clear. They were in the midst of a profound political crisis that they felt unable to resolve. They told me that the machine of devolved government was broken and they could not fix it alone. I was told by at least three parties that an intervention by the two Governments was required. In September, First Minister Peter Robinson publicly called for governmental involvement to resolve the crisis, and within a few weeks Secretary of State Villiers and I had convened the Stormont House talks.
The Good Friday Agreement provides the framework for the totality of relations - both in Northern Ireland, and across these islands. This Government is committed to ensuring that the institutions established under the Agreement deliver the effective leadership and governance that a society emerging from conflict needs. We entered the Stormont House talks with this key objective in mind.
The purpose of last autumn’s talks was to create a framework across four work-streams within which a range of previously intractable issues could be resolved – from the urgent need to provide human-rights compliant mechanisms to deal with the past, to welfare and budgetary issues that had created a lengthy logjam in the North’s political institutions, to issues like parading which continue to cause friction at community level in small but significant areas. It was also an opportunity to refocus our collective efforts on implementing outstanding commitments from previous Agreements. This was a substantial body of work.
Throughout the talks, the Government’s position was informed by the need to find practical, workable solutions, but also solutions built on the bedrock principles and ethos of the foundational Good Friday Agreement. During the course of these talks we insisted that the Government’s role as co-guarantor of the Good Friday and succeeding Agreements be fully respected.
After decades of conflict and a generation of peace, the people of Northern Ireland deserve so much more than piecemeal compromises or halting progress. They deserve vision. The Stormont House Agreement articulates a positive vision for Northern Ireland’s future that fully respects the complexity of its past.
Indeed, the motion on Ballymurphy passed today by this House is a timely reminder that for thousands of families across this island, the past and its legacy have not been consigned to history. They live on in their daily struggle to find truth and justice. I am deeply conscious that these families are relying on us all – the Government, the North’s Executive Parties and the British Government – to implement the Agreement to give them the best chance of getting what has been owed them for too long.
To this end, the Government has done everything in its power to ensure the total implementation of the Agreement. Real progress on the legislation needed in both jurisdictions to establish the framework for the past has been made. We have fulfilled many of our financial commitments under the Agreement, including the allocation of €5m to the International Fund for Ireland and the disbursement of over €1.5 million since the start of this year from my Department’s Reconciliation Fund. And we have provided every support possible to Northern Ireland’s leaders as they have struggled to find a way forward on complex financial and budgetary challenges.
And yet, despite the enormous efforts invested in the Stormont House process, the fundamental issue of stable and effective partnership government in Belfast seems no closer today than this time last year. For months, Northern Ireland has been mired in deadlock over the budgetary and financial commitments agreed at Stormont House. These are fundamentally important issues that get to the heart of governance and I understand how challenging it is to find the necessary compromises. But in Government there are always constraints; there are always difficult choices to be made within limited resources. A much more creative and constructive approach than has so far been evident is needed to overcome the current impasse on these issues.
Instead, what we have seen over the past few months is serial brinkmanship.
Last-minute negotiation in the spotlight of another feigned crisis is not leadership at all. It damages people’s faith in the institutions meant to serve them, undermines power-sharing politics and, as the Taoiseach stated, ultimately risks political collapse. We cannot afford, and cannot allow, that level of political neglect. What Northern Ireland needs is generous, courageous and effective partnership government in Belfast. Instead the weeds of political opportunism are choking the green-shoots of progress seeded by the Stormont House Agreement.
No Agreement in and of itself solves problems – it merely gives guidance and the tools to fix things. No piece of paper can force an individual to show the leadership or the strength of will needed to make a vision a reality.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves the fundamental question of why – having spent so long and invested so heavily in agreeing a common vision of how to address the North’s current challenges – the Northern Ireland Executive today continues to struggle to do its part in making this vision a reality. With the Stormont House Agreement we have a common map, we know the direction we must travel in, and yet the process remains hobbled.
Is the machine still broken? And if so, how do we fix it?
The Parliaments and Assemblies across these islands will rise shortly for the summer; some have risen already. When we return, we will return to a series of impasses in Belfast that cannot be ignored. I hope that political leaders will use the weeks ahead to reflect carefully and to recognise how high the stakes are. The images on our TV screens from North Belfast on Monday night remind us of the toxins that have yet to be drained from society and which will become even more poisonous if partnership politics fails to deliver for the North.
These are serious challenges but they are not insurmountable. The support of the Irish Government to reach workable solutions to the benefit of the people of this island as a whole remains unwavering. No-one is in any doubt about the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland or that, as a place emerging from conflict, it will have distinct and particular needs, perhaps over generations. Similarly no-one can be in any doubt but that there needs to be political leadership in Belfast articulating and activating, through the powerful mandate they have as a power-sharing Executive, a strategy and a vision for Northern Ireland. It has to be a collective vision founded in the economic reality of the present but also determined to seize every opportunity to create a better future for the people of Northern Ireland.
I have visited Northern Ireland 20 times over the past year. The focus of my visits has gone beyond political negotiations. I have attended commemorative events and met with community and business leaders and civil society on the ground. I know that the desire for political progress, genuine reconciliation and economic renewal runs deep. Next year Ireland will mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the centrepiece of this Decade of Centenaries. Next year we will also mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. 100 years on from 1916 we are a democracy that has stood the test of time. We have experienced violence, grief and tragedy on our island. We have weathered economic storms that caused untold damage to our communities. We have survived each crisis and emerged ever stronger. We have worked to build peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and will continue to do so in order that all parts of this island’s community can realise the full potential of peace and stability.
At so many points in the last twenty years, Northern Ireland too has proven that politics can inspire; when individuals and groups have gone beyond their comfort zone to shift society and politics onto a more positive, transformative track; and when former opponents have put differences aside to work together for the common good.
We need politics in Belfast to inspire again.