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

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

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing / Sales Co-ordinator - OTE £25,000+

£10000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of staffing and r...

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen Porter

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the four inns of Court is seeking...

Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the four inns of Court i...

Ashdown Group: Graduate IT Support - Surrey - £24,000

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate IT Support Helpdesk / 1st L...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A memorial to the1982 war between Great Britain and Argentina in Buenos Aires  

Argentina poses no military threat to the Malvinas Islands. So why is the UK ratcheting up tension?

Alicia Castro
 

Daily catch-up: religion, politics and roads named after dictators

John Rentoul
War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?