Peter Mandelson: They have the will to succeed; we must support their vision

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Last week I asked the political parties in Northern Ireland to come to see the Prime Minister at Hillsborough. The setting and the timing had a familiar ring, as some commentators were quick to point out. But while at the start of the day some of the sceptics suggested that the Prime Minister was just going through a kind of Easter ritual, by the end those voices were more considered in their judgement.

Last week I asked the political parties in Northern Ireland to come to see the Prime Minister at Hillsborough. The setting and the timing had a familiar ring, as some commentators were quick to point out. But while at the start of the day some of the sceptics suggested that the Prime Minister was just going through a kind of Easter ritual, by the end those voices were more considered in their judgement.

Because while no one, quite rightly, was predicting instant breakthrough, equally no one could underestimate the genuine desire of all the pro-Agreement parties to break the impasse that has dogged it for the past 18 months. Their determination to see the Executive up and running again, and the issue of weapons finally resolved, was clear for all to see. All had put real thought and effort into how to move the situation forward, and all will continue to do so as we move into the coming weeks of further talks.

No one is giving up. No one is writing off the Agreement. Patience will be rewarded. Because while its implementation has not exactly been easy during the past two years, the Agreement has proved a remarkably resilient document despite all the difficulties.

For those who were involved in its creation, it was a hard-won prize, the result of many years of constant, and at times tedious, negotiation - and they are not going to give up on it easily. And the reason is simple: there is no viable alternative. The speed with which even its opponents in the DUP took their seats on the Executive when it was set up in November shows that even its critics recognise that. But while it may be the only show in town, we still have to get that show fully on the road, and that means overcoming the one last remaining hurdle.

That hurdle is easily described. It is a conundrum. Unionists want republicans to show that they are prepared to put their arms beyond use to prove they are committed to solely political means. Republicans want the unionists to prove that politics will work to give them the confidence to put their arms beyond use. It is a question of mutual confidence: for unionists the confidence that republicans are truly committed to politics, and politics alone; for republicans and nationalists the confidence that their side of the community is going to be genuinely treated as equal in the new Northern Ireland.

The central dilemma, therefore, is how to create that confidence on both sides: the virtuous circle of trust, rather than the vicious cycle of recrimination that has dominated so much of the past 30 years. And yet, when the perspective is widened from the immediate difficulties, it can be seen that both sides have gone a long way to creating that confidence during the past two years.

Not only has violence become, for much of that period, a thing of the past, but politics has also been seen to work. No one who looks honestly at the course of daily events in Northern Ireland over the past two years could pretend that the peace has been perfect. There have been outrages, such as the Omagh bomb, carried out by republican dissident opponents of the Agreement, and the record of the main paramilitary groups on both sides has not been perfect either. There have been murders, and so-called punishment attacks. All are unequivocally to be condemned. But, equally, any honest observer, no matter how sceptical, would have to concede that the level of violence has been transformed from what it has been during the past 30 years.

The ceasefires, on both sides, have largely held and Northern Ireland is a different place as a result. People no longer wake up in dread of the morning news. The quiet blessing of normal life is almost taken for granted. And that blessing is not to be underestimated.

Equally, politics has started to work. Two years ago, even as they were concluding the Good Friday Agreement, unionists and republicans did not meet. Meetings were impossible. Communication was always through a third party. That is not so now. Even the DUP are prepared to sit at the same table as republicans in committee in the Assembly.

The relationship between the two sides is not normal, but it is much better than it was before and, significantly, it has continued in a relatively calm and stable way for the past two months since the Executive and other institutions regrettably had to be suspended.

And, thanks to the Agreement, there is consensus across a whole range of significant issues. Most fundamental of all, the constitutional issue, which disfigured Irish politics for most of the last century, is now resolved. All the parties to the Agreement accept that it is the people of Northern Ireland, and they alone, who will decide their future.

But there is agreement also that the government of Northern Ireland should represent, for the first time, all sections of the community there. And there's agreement too about the relationship with the Republic - day-to- day co-operation on matters of practical concern on both sides of the border. And, finally, there's been recognition and acceptance of the need for a Human Rights Commission and an Equality Commission - bodies which are already up and running and doing important work. Unionists, nationalists, republicans and loyalists have all accepted that Northern Ireland should be a fair and inclusive society in which differences are recognised and respected. And they have also accepted that violence belongs to the past, not the future.

But change is never an easy process, particularly after such a long period of conflict. And while I believe that, fundamentally, the parties share a common vision of the future which I constantly seek to reinforce and promote, getting there was always going to be difficult. Mutual suspicion remains. And it is that suspicion, that conundrum of what comes first - arms or politics - that we must now resolve without forcing ourselves into a position in which we get neither, while paying a heavy price in the process.

Both sides' concerns are understandable, but that does not mean that either is immune from the process of change. I understand why unionists want to know that violence is, genuinely, a thing of the past, and that arms will be decommissioned, but that demand should not be made in such a way as to make republicans feel they are being asked to surrender. Equally, I understand why republicans want to be sure that they will be genuinely treated as equals in the new Northern Ireland, but that desire should not mean that everybody else has to move first. Equally, I understand, and share, unionist pride in the achievements of the RUC during the past 30 years, but, again, that pride should not blind its supporters to the need for the force to become more representative of the community it serves. And while republicans press that need, they also must recognise the need to restore the normal rules of law and order in areas now dominated by mafia elements.

Change is a two-way street for both communities. There are opportunities, but also responsibilities for everyone. The future holds the prospect both of political progress and a final end to violence. Both have to go hand in hand. Political progress demands genuine commitment to share power and respect. The absence of violence demands an equal commitment to upholding shared values of behaviour in a normal society. The days of turning a blind eye to bigotry and violence are over. That was the central core of the Good Friday Agreement, and it remains so.

Two years on we all have a responsibility to complete that pro-cess. On Tuesday what impressed me at Hillsborough was the shared sense of that responsibility among the parties. Above all, my job is to create the space that enables them to exercise it. The parties all want to show that politics in Northern Ireland can work. And in the coming weeks I, along with the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and his ministers, will do all we can to help them realise that vision.