Peter Hain: It is time for Northern Ireland to govern itself

The political process cannot become an end in itself. We need a conclusion

Share

In my job you get to meet some remarkable people. From the headteacher who spent the early years of her career dodging bullets in the playground; to the army sergeant who survived two IRA assassination attempts (both of whom now favour a power-sharing government); to young Catholic police recruits who are prepared to be part of moving forward Northern Ireland's policing future.

The place is remarkable too. And it is changing fast. The changing security environment means the soldiers have gone. There are now more tourists visiting each year than residents. Living standards have never been higher. And this week there was the first ever meeting between Reverend Ian Paisley and the head of the Catholic church in Ireland, Archbishop Brady. The war is over and Northern Ireland has changed beyond recognition.

There is no room for complacency. There remain areas of social, educational and financial deprivation, particularly in Belfast. While SureStart and extended schools are giving children greater confidence and ambition, the social exclusion they and their families experience is profound.

I believe the most effective way to give these children, and indeed all the children of Northern Ireland, a brighter future is for the local political parties to take responsibility for the government of Northern Ireland in a stable, democratic power-sharing assembly. That is the challenge for Northern Ireland's politicians at the St Andrews summit, which starts today.

Wherever I go people ask me, often in an incredulous tone: "Do you really think Ian Paisley will agree to go into government with Sinn Fein?" When I reply in the affirmative, as I have been doing increasingly of late, the response often remains disbelieving. Historically, unionists have been wary of engaging with, let alone embracing, nationalism, while republicanism has been their implacable enemy. The suffering inflicted over 30 years of violence not only destroyed lives, but convinced Unionists that their very identity was under threat and that they were being forced into becoming something they were not, and did not, want to be.

Whatever reservations some unionists had about the Good Friday agreement, it remains the only model for moving forward, precisely because it settled the constitutional issue. The Irish government removed their territorial claim, and the principle of consent was set with a united Ireland, only if the people of Northern Ireland vote for it.

Not only has the constitutional source of insecurity been removed, the threat of violence has ended just as decisively. Last week's Independent Monitoring Commission's report showed conclusively that there has been a historic, seismic and irreversible change in the IRA and an end to its capacity to wage war and terror.

Reverend Paisley and his DUP colleagues will make their own assessment of this proposition, but I will go to St Andrews confident that the unionist people have nothing to fear and every reason to be optimistic about a power-sharing executive.

There are those who would derail this process. Dissident republicans who have set their face against democracy will do all they can to frustrate political agreement this autumn.

As well as the political and historic issues on the table in Scotland this week, there are global economic forces influencing Northern Ireland's future now and its political leaders must be in a position to respond.Northern Ireland needs its economy, which is over-reliant on the public sector, to be rebalanced, the dense thickets of quangos cut back and the chronic waste and inefficiency of providing duplicate services to two communities needs to be urgently addressed.

The best people to address these issues are locally elected, locally accountable politicians. A view shared by business leaders, trade unionists, the voluntary sector and academics across Northern Ireland. Of course there are outstanding issues between republicanism, unionism and nationalism, not least on the issue of Sinn Fein engagement and co-operation with the police and the criminal justice system. That is why we are going to St Andrews.

It is nearly 10 years since the agreement was signed and more than four years since the sssembly last sat. The political process cannot be allowed to become an end in itself. It is time for a conclusion, one way or the other.

The British and Irish governments have set a deadline of 24 November to strike a deal. When we leave Scotland on Friday, I hope we will have a road map which leads to an agreement before that deadline. This is too big an opportunity to miss - one which may not come around again for a very long time.

The writer is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Supporters in favour of same-sex marriage pose for a photograph as thousands gather in Dublin Castle  

The lessons we can learn from Ireland's gay marriage referendum

Stefano Hatfield
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine