Peace comes before politics

Mo Mowlam explains why Labour will back elections in Ulster
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The Independent Online
What do Sir Patrick Mayhew and I have in common? On the face of it, not much. And perhaps that is the explanation for how two characters as different as Sir Patrick and I could keep the balance between the parties at Westminster on Northern Ireland.

In Britain and Ireland, north and south, people often ask me what Labour's bipartisan approach means in practice. Do you and Sir Patrick sit down to plan the way forward? Does John Major call for your advice? The short answer to both is: no.

Labour decided to support the Government over Northern Ireland because its approach was based on agreements with the Irish government put into the Downing Street Declaration (1993) and the Joint Framework Document (1995). Our own policy of unity by consent is one of the options in those documents, which provide a firm basis for a consensus on a balanced settlement that can command the support of both communities. Building that consensus is what we would (and will) try to do, just as the British and Irish governments are trying to do.

Our support is based on principle and common sense. We want to put peace above party politics at Westminster. As the process stumbles on, I become more and more impressed by people's passionate desire for it to work. Even people with no interest in politics want the peace to hold and a just settlement to be reached. As a consequence, frustrations build up with what people see as the politicians' failure to give momentum to the process and to work to deliver an outcome.

I receive calls, letters, petitions and motions calling for faster progress. I understand and identify with these feelings and answer that the best way right now for Labour to help is to prevent the Government - with its knife-edge majority - being driven into the arms of the right and the pro-Unionist wing of the Tory party.

Westminster political arithmetic has so often affected the politics of the island of Ireland: we must do all we can to stop that happening again. But however hard we try, electoral arithmetic and pressures will be central to the agenda. They are put there as much by the media, and the public, as anyone else who wants to end this elaborate pre-general election positioning and get on with electing a government fit to govern.

Bipartisan support means putting peace above party interest, but it does not and has not meant acquiescence to whatever the Government says or does. We have had our differences with the Government over the past 18 months. We want - and would have made - more progress on areas such as: protecting the basic rights of both traditions; a proper strategy for training and economic development; and fair employment and fair treatment guarantees for both public and private sectors. We have argued for the transfer or prisoners to Ireland, north and south, to ease family contact, and we have proposed changes to improve community identification with policing in Northern Ireland.

These proposals have come with constructive and critical support. We have not shouted about our differences because that would signal to the parties and people in the discussion: "Don't bother with the Tories, procrastinate and wait for a Labour government." Such a stance would be irresponsible, dishonest and damaging to the peace process.

This is a deeply sensitive period in Northern Ireland. Against the volatile backdrop of the parades and marches, it is crucial that the various mechanisms to make talks happen are put in place. Elections in Northern Ireland are part of the process and the Government wants and needs to pass the legislation to make them possible. We will not stand in the way of that legislation.

But the elections are part of a package. We are calling for the details of the other key elements - the role the elected forum would play and the ground rules for the negotiations - to be published alongside the Bill for the elections. This is essential, first, to let the parties see the whole package, to be reassured where necessary and to see what's in it for them and, second, to prevent support for the elections being adversely affected by a lack of knowledge about the rest of the package on offer.

Publishing all parts of the package together would let all the parties know what they are buying into and bring us closer to the objective that we all share - an inclusive and meaningful process of negotiations covering all relationships, which starts on 10 June with all the eligible parties present.

The writer is Labour's shadow Northern Ireland secretary.