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

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

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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

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