The present government deserves credit for the time and energy that they have given to Northern Ireland. Tony Blair, like John Major, recognised that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had a duty to deal with the appalling violence, lawlessness and social division that beset part of our own country. The Belfast Agreement of 1998, approved by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum, was a remarkable political achievement.
Life in Northern Ireland today is better than 10 or 20 years ago. You can go shopping or clubbing in Belfast without worrying about bombs. Employment has risen. People are more prosperous. Not only in Belfast but in towns and cities like Ballymena and Newry, you see visible evidence of economic growth and urban regeneration.
But the political optimism of 1998 has gone. Unionist confidence was undermined by the seven year delay before the IRA carried out large-scale decommissioning and by continuing republican involvement in crime. Government side-deals with Sinn Fein have made things worse. We had prisoners released without decommissioning, the ill-fated Bill to give an effective amnesty to terrorists on-the-run and the special arrangements to give Sinn Fein MPs parliamentary allowances even though they refuse to attend Parliament. The revelation that, in December 2004, while Sinn Fein was negotiating for a deal with the DUP, the IRA was planning the Northern Bank raid for 23 December, shattered any hope of unionists trusting republican promises.
Direct Rule is a badly flawed form of government. I want to see devolution restored and the ground rules devolved government are fairly clear. Everyone has to accept, even if they might wish it otherwise, that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will remain so for as long as that is the wish of the people. There should be power-sharing between unionists and nationalists. Both communities in Northern Ireland are entitled to respect for their British or Irish identity, their respective traditions and political aspirations. There should be close economic and political relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and between the Republic and the United Kingdom.
I want to see Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom but I have to recognise that a very large minority of the population wishes otherwise. Similarly, I have to accept the disagreeable truth that more than a fifth of voters supported Sinn Fein candidates last May.
But one basic principle needs to be clear and unambiguous. Any political party that is entitled to have Ministers in a devolved Executive must support the police, the courts and the rule of law. We cannot have Ministers in Belfast who are “inextricably linked” (Tony Blair’s and Bertie Ahern’s phrase) to a paramilitary organisation that is involved in serious crime and which still asserts that it is the IRA “Army Council” that is the legitimate authority in Ireland both North and South.
It is in everyone’s interest that the republican movement should complete its transition from terrorism to democracy. It has not yet done so. The recent IMC report concluded that republicans, including senior members of the IRA, were still engaged in organised crime, that they were still gathering intelligence on their opponents and that intimidation was being used both to drive people out of Northern Ireland and to maintain control over nationalist communities in the Province.
The IMC also reported on the criminal activities of the loyalist paramilitaries. They too should give up violence and crime. But loyalist political representation is tiny. They would have no Ministers in any Executive. That is why the political focus is on republicans. The onus now must be on Sinn Fein to show that its commitment to exclusively peaceful politics is both permanent and irreversible.