Towards genuine consent in Ulster

Parity of esteem for both communities deserves to be more than a theory, says Marjorie Mowlam
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The Independent Online
In our policies for Northern Ireland, as in all other areas, Labour will apply the principle of fairness not favours. In the vernacular of Northern Ireland politics that means affording each community, unionist and nationalist, "parity of esteem". The focus is on the need for members of both nationalist and unionist traditions to feel that their rights and identities are fully respected.

In Northern Ireland, granting respect to one community is often seen as taking it away from the other. This is a dangerous zero-sum game. It is the duty of politicians from Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland to break out of it. The ending of the IRA ceasefire and on top of that the events last summer at Drumcree have entrenched attitudes within the communities, so it is essential to be pro-active in rebuilding trust and confidence.

The Downing Street declaration signed in 1993 achieved parity of esteem at the level of ideas. It offered to the nationalists a recognition that the people of Ireland alone have the right to self-determination. And it offered Unionists the guarantee that any exercise of self-determination would be subject to the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. As Tony Blair said recently, this approach and the principle of consent has now been accepted by all parties in Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland, with the exception of Sinn Fein.

Parity of esteem is as much about the low art of day-to-day politics as it is about the high politics of a negotiated peace settlement. It is at heart about building confidence between the communities. This is often talked about, but flesh is seldom put on the bones. We have plans to do that. That is why Labour will incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into law in Britain and Northern Ireland. Of course the question of rights - especially minority and community rights - is not undisputed in Northern Ireland. That is why we will continue to consult with the parties in the talks on developing a local bill of rights. But the convention as a basic framework has wide support in both communities and offers us a way to proceed.

There are serious problems with community support for policing in parts of Northern Ireland. As well as negotiation between the Northern Ireland parties on the issue, political action is necessary in Westminster to improve the openness and accountability of the police and to ensure that it reflects both communities more accurately. Recent reports by the UK police inspectorate and a senior former Northern Ireland civil servant have pointed to weaknesses in the system. Labour is examining the recommendations of these reports alongside its own proposals.

Religious discrimination in employment in Northern Ireland is a blatant symbol of unfairness. The Fair Employment Act exists to help combat it, but more needs to be done. As a first step, we must reconsider the effectiveness of existing policies. In the public sector, for example, we intend to make it a statutory duty for government bodies to take equality of opportunity into account through more rigorous enforcement of the Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment guidelines.

Nothing reveals better the absence of trust and confidence and the dangers of playing zero-sum games than the issue of parades and marches. The appalling events at Drumcree last year drove the Government to set up a review (which Labour had called for since 1995). But when its findings were published last month, the Government announced a further period of consultation. What they hoped to learn in just eight weeks that the independent reviewers did not pick up in five months of written and oral evidence wasn't - and still isn't - clear.

I have recently met groups on both sides living on or near two of the most disputed routes - the Garvaghy Road in Portadown and the Ormeau Road in Belfast. Both groups were concerned that what happened last year should not happen again. Labour is committed to: uphold the rule of law; implement the recommendations in the report; and to do all it can to help mediate and resolve disputes through agreement.

The lack of local input into decision making is a problem for both communities. Direct rule from Westminster is far from ideal and that is why Labour wants to see a new agreement for Northern Ireland, including a devolved assembly elected by proportional representation and designed to allow both communities to work together and share power in the interests of all the people.

There are good indications of that happening on the ground in some areas now - in some district councils and in the local partnerships put together to distribute a block of European Union funding. It is a practice we will support and encourage. And we will introduce measures to make the many quangos that administer policy in Northern Ireland more open and representative of both communities.

Labour and the Tories both accept the constitutional principle that a devolved assembly can exist in Northern Ireland without threatening the integrity of the union with Britain. But the plain fact is that Northern Ireland as distinct political circumstances and that new constitutional arrangements need the support of both communities living there to work. This means that practical and mutually beneficial cross-border co-operation and improved working relations between Westminster and Dublin must be integral parts of a comprehensive settlement.

Building trust in the developing North-South and Dublin-London relationships is essential too. That means more openness, for example, in the workings of the Anglo Irish Agreement and its mechanisms. I do not see why local people and their representatives should not be more openly consulted on what is discussed between the two governments when they meet. This is not a matter of ideology but a practical part of the process of building local political support for the work of the two governments.

The theory of the peace process has been developed over a long period, often at the inter-governmental level. The current phase - perhaps the most difficult - is the practical politics of reaching local agreement. Disillusionment with the current talks process is widespread. There has not been the substantive progress we hoped for last June. Pressures on the parties in the talks are mounting and the uncertainty created by the impending general election doesn't help.

A new government will want to bring new impetus into that process, but couldn't just compel the participants to talk. Trust and confidence between the parties and the communities they represent has to grow to enable real progress to be made. We cannot counteract all the years of suspicion and distrust overnight, but there is a lot we can do based on Labour principles of fairness and justice. The people of Northern Ireland deserve nothing less.

The writer is shadow Northern Ireland Secretary.

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