Be warned: failure is not an option in Northern Ireland

The Good Friday Agreement can, and must, be made to work, says Mo Mowlam
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The Independent Online
St Patrick's Day in Washington this year will be an important opportunity to help build confidence in the Northern Ireland peace process. As well as the British and Irish governments, representatives of all shades of opinion in Northern Ireland - Unionist, Nationalist, Loyalist and Republican - will be there.

While the achievements of the past year are a lot to celebrate, there is serious business still to be done. The vision of the Good Friday Agreement has yet to become a reality. The new Northern Ireland Assembly, North- South bodies and the British-Irish Council are all ready and waiting to go. By Good Friday 1999, we all want to see them working.

Before they can get started, a new Northern Ireland Executive has to be established. We already know which parties are entitled to sit in that Executive - Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein.

The prospect is there of a Northern Ireland government in which all sides of the community have a fair say for the first time. Standing between us and this new future is a dispute over the decommissioning of weapons and who should be allowed to take their Executive seats. It is a dispute which needs to be resolved if we are going to implement the Good Friday Agreement.

The establishment of agreed political institutions is an essential part of the Agreement, but the transfer of power and responsibility to Northern Ireland's politicians (and the end of direct rule from Westminster) is only workable if there is an inclusive and cross-community Executive, involving both traditions, in place.

The aim is for the parties, aided by the British and Irish governments, to resolve their outstanding differences by the end of this month. Easter is a natural deadline. Then the marching season begins and Northern Ireland's European election campaign will be under way.

This week President Clinton will be meeting all the party leaders in Washington. And Northern Ireland's politicians themselves will meet informally and have the chance to talk. Perhaps this will serve to lessen their distrust in each other and help build the confidence necessary to work together. Meanwhile, discussions with all the parties are continuing in Belfast, preparing the ground for when the party leaders return to commence intensive talks on 22 March.

Time is tight. In order to be in a position to devolve power to Northern Ireland's politicians by Easter, we need agreement between the parties early in the week of 29 March. But I am confident that the political will is there among all the parties to tackle the issues head-on and find a way through. We are not planning for failure. There is no Plan B.

If we cannot resolve the outstanding differences, it is difficult to see how the Good Friday Agreement can work. I can think of no greater tragedy for the people of Northern Ireland at this time if that were allowed to happen.

So much has been accomplished. The design and creation of political institutions which all sides of the community can support is a monumental breakthrough. The decades-old dispute over Northern Ireland's constitutional position has been settled. Under the terms of the Agreement, whether Northern Ireland remains part of the UK or joins a united Ireland is for a majority of the people who live there to decide.

New institutions and constitutional guarantees are a key part of the treaty. But there has been progress in other crucial areas too. Northern Ireland's new Human Rights Commission started work on 1 March. It will begin work on a new Bill of Rights, specific to Northern Ireland. The protection of fundamental human rights will be part of the bedrock of the new Northern Ireland. And a new equality commission charged with ensuring equality of opportunity for all in the community, regardless of religion or political view, will start work in April.

Areas in the past that have provoked bitter division are being resolved by agreement. A commission, independent of government, is exploring with the people of Northern Ireland how new arrangements for policing might work. Alongside this, the criminal justice system is being reviewed. Under the terms of the Agreement, the release of paramilitary prisoners is continuing for organisations that are maintaining cease-fires. The British government has stuck by our commitments and so far some 250 loyalists and republican prisoners have been released on licence.

We also promised on Good Friday last year to take progressive steps to reduce the security presence on the streets in line with the reduced threat from paramilitary groups. The number of British troops in Northern Ireland is now at its lowest level for three decades. Twenty five army installations have already been closed and routine military patrolling in support of the police is down by 70 per cent.

The Agreement recognised the need to help most those who have been the victims of violence and their families. Nothing can make up for the loss of a loved one. But the Government is acting on what we can do to help those who have suffered most during the Troubles. As well as putting more than pounds 1m into a new memorial fund for victims, the Government is establishing trauma centres to provide support and advice especially to young people, a pounds 250,000 educational bursary scheme and a new fund for community and voluntary groups working to help victims and their families. All of these elements within the Agreement, and more besides, have been taken forward in the past 12 months.

Issues such as security normalisation, human rights, justice and policing are all parts of the Agreement and it is crucial that all parts move forward together. That includes paramilitary decommissioning. All parties are committed to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. It is not a precondition, but an obligation.

Under the Agreement the Independent Commission on Decommissioning is to monitor, review and verify progress on decommissioning. Its work continues. But so far only one small paramilitary group - the Loyalist Volunteer Force - has started to decommission. It is critical that all parties are seen to honour these and all their commitments. Without progress on all its aspects, the Agreement will fail.

For the past year, the people of Northern Ireland have shown the world that it is possible to deal with seemingly intractable conflicts by agreement. They have shown that if hope is alive and the will is strong, we can achieve more than we ever imagined. Creating a new political context in which all outstanding issues can be addressed is a shared responsibility. We all have to work at it together. For those in Northern Ireland this requires a new approach among political opponents who now share common ground in that they all support the Agreement.

More than anything else, people in Northern Ireland want the Agreement to work. That view is shared in Britain, Ireland and across the world. We have to make it work. Which means governments and supporters of Northern Ireland everywhere need to encourage and urge all the Northern Ireland parties to deliver on all the commitments they made last year.

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