Theresa Villiers is MP for Chipping Barnet and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
When many were enjoying a much needed Christmas break over recent days, in Belfast political leaders were up all night grappling with some of the most divisive issues facing Northern Ireland – flags, parading and the past. While the talks chaired by former US diplomat, Dr Richard Haass, did not reach an agreement before they broke up in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, Northern Ireland’s five largest political parties came remarkably close to consensus, with much common ground established on these highly sensitive topics.
Throughout the Haass process, I have been closely engaged with party leaders and working group members, as well as with Dr Haass. Both the Prime Minister and the Irish Government have taken a keen interest as well. In the aftermath of the talks, the message from me and from the Prime Minister has been a clear one: that this must not be the end of the road. The momentum needs to be maintained. None of the parties have so far said they will walk away. All of them acknowledge that there are important elements of the Haass proposals which they can support. It is now vital that the political parties get back round the table and continue to strive for an agreed way forward. There is still a valuable opportunity to be grasped and important potential benefits to be gained for Northern Ireland.
All three of the issues under consideration can sharply divide public opinion in Northern Ireland and problems with parading and flags, in particular, have frequently helped trigger serious public disorder. Some form of accommodation on these issues which could garner cross party support could have significant benefits in terms of political stability and economic prosperity. While Northern Ireland has enjoyed real success in terms of inward investment over recent months, few things are more off-putting to investors than rioting and disorder.
The seventh and final draft produced by Dr Haass and his colleague, Professor Meghan O’Sullivan, has now been published on the website of the First and deputy First Minister. It includes a new set of arrangements for regulating parades and protests, with responsibility vested for the first time in devolved hands. While there is no immediate resolution on flags and emblems, the document advocates a new Commission to engage the public in a wider debate around identity, culture and tradition. The proposals in the document on the past would see two new bodies set up, one to replace the Historical Enquiries Team currently run by the Police Service of Northern Ireland to investigate Troubles related deaths, and an Independent Commission on Information Recovery. The idea of an amnesty was rejected but statements given to the latter body were to be subjected to limited use and could not be used in any subsequent criminal prosecutions.
Establishing the Haass working group was an important element of wider proposals to address sectarian division in Northern Ireland which were published by the First and deputy First Minister in May under the title, “Together Building a United Community” (“TBUC”). This included plans to see interface barriers start to come down and provide many more people in Northern Ireland with opportunities to live, work and study alongside others from different traditions and different backgrounds.
Both I and my predecessor, Owen Paterson, had long pressed the Northern Ireland Executive for progress on healing sectarian division. Alongside boosting the private sector and countering terrorism, building a genuinely shared and united society is one of the Government’s three highest priorities for Northern Ireland. This issue has been highlighted by the Prime Minister in all his recent visits to Northern Ireland. While the mechanisms for addressing sectarian division now lie mainly in the hands of devolved ministers, the UK Government has been working with the Northern Ireland Executive to push this forward. In June, we signed a far reaching economic pact, which acknowledged that Northern Ireland will not reach its full economic potential while it remains subject to seep seated sectarian division.
The pact was expressly linked to the TBUC programme for dealing with social division published the First and deputy First Minister. It included new capital borrowing powers to support TBUC projects. The first of these to benefit from this is a new shared education campus at the former military site in Lisanelly. This proposal will see a number of schools from different traditions co-located on the same site with the aim of ensuring that more children have a chance to learn side by side with their contemporaries from other parts of the community, helping to address the long-standing divisions in the Northern Ireland education system.
Whatever the outcome on the three issues considered by Dr Haass, it is essential that the Northern Ireland Executive press ahead with their other programmes to deal with sectarian division and boost the economy, for example in implementing their obligations under the economic pact agreed with the Government. It is also crucial that the current system on regulating parades is respected and that the determinations of the Parades Commission are obeyed. They carry the force of the law and until a new system is agreed and implemented, the Parades Commission will continue to be the lawfully constituted body for adjudicating on parades.
There have been many occasions over the 20 years since John Major’s Downing Street Declaration started the peace process in earnest when Northern Ireland’s politicians have taken difficult decisions in order to make progress. That has sometimes involved accepting proposals which many (including in our party) have found hard to swallow. I can certainly accept that there are elements to the Haass proposals which are difficult, for example on the past, and which I would have preferred were different. But if Northern Ireland’s political leaders are prepared to make compromises on these matters, then so is the UK Government.
I will continue to work with Northern Ireland’s political leaders on making progress towards a society which is both more united and more prosperous. While the Haass negotiations had the support and engagement of the UK, Irish and US governments, unlike previous rounds of talks this was a process initiated by Northern Ireland’s political leadership. That illustrates the relative stability of the devolved institutions and an admirable willingness to focus on issues which had proved intractable in the past. We are in a far better place now than we were 12 months ago when the protracted flags dispute had put serious pressure on crucial working relationships within the Executive. There is still the chance to achieve a successful outcome from the work started in the Haass group. I very much hope that Northern Ireland’s political parties will endeavour to do this and live up to the challenge they set themselves when they initiated the process.