While today we are having two sets of statements concerning Northern Ireland today the fact is that over the last four and a half years Northern-related issues have been increasingly ignored. With the exception of a handful of journalists, there has been little coverage of Northern developments outside of major incidents such as this week’s sectarian riot. At the core of this has been the undeniable disengagement of the Dublin and London governments and the behaviour of the largest Northern parties in seeking to exclude others from legitimate debate.
The sad reality is that the situation in Northern Ireland is now extremely serious. The slow but steady progress of previous years has been replaced by a growing sense of alienation and crisis. The many economic and social opportunities opened up by peace and agreed institutions are being lost – and with this the core challenge of reconciliation is side-lined.
The disengagement of our government and the Cameron government is something I have been challenging for years. I take no satisfaction that the crises I predicted would follow this policy have all happened. However there is no question that root cause of the current problems has been the approach of the DUP/Sinn Fein tandem. They have sought to maximise party advantage in government rather than work in a consensual way. Cases of sectarian funding, the abuse of expenses and the marginalisation of day to day issues continue to mount.
No can now question the impact that the DUP/Sinn Fein administration, which has systematically excluded other parties from playing a meaningful role, has had on the public.
Last month the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey report was published. This has tracked political and social attitudes since 1998 and is the most detailed work of its type carried out anywhere in Europe. The latest survey shows a major deterioration of public faith in institutions and a belief that the Assembly and Executive are more detached than ever.
By a measure of 66% to 11% people are dissatisfied with the work of MLA’s. This is similar across age, social class and national identity.
76% of people say that the Assembly has made no difference or given people less of a say in Northern issues.
84% say the Assembly has achieved only a little or nothing at all.
And when asked what the Assembly and Executive should be focused on, people didn’t choose political issues that said the economy and the health service. Their overall demand was for parties to make “devolution work in a way which is fair to all”.
In most areas there has been an undeniable disimprovement in attitudes towards politics which traces directly to the manner in which the Assembly and Executive have operated under DUP and Sinn Fein control.
And a very good illustration of the impact of this was seen in the recent UK general election, where over 40% of people did not vote. Northern Ireland has gone from having one of the highest turnouts in these elections to having one of the lowest.
Much of this reduced turnout is concentrated in marginal communities and amongst the supporters of other parties who see themselves excluded from all policy discussions and are drifting away from political engagement. The long-term damage this could cause in Northern Ireland is profound.
It’s not just in political attitude that you can see a deteriorating situation. While the two parties have worked hard to divide the spoils of power between themselves, they have presided over a marked deterioration of the economic and social situation of Northern Ireland. Last year Deputy First Minister McGuinness attacked me on this matter and claimed to have delivered economically for Northern Ireland. At the recent Ard Fheis of his party he said it again and added the patently false claim that “Sinn Fein doesn’t do austerity”.
Rates of poverty and child poverty in particular, in Northern Ireland have continued to worsen, with the gap with the UK expanding. Over 46% of children in West Belfast are living in poverty, not just at risk of poverty but actually in poverty.
Pensioner poverty in Northern Ireland is 1/3rd higher than in the UK.
Tackling this through an ambitious development plan should be the issue dominating Northern discussions but it is at most marginal. The current development plan is limited and more about appearing to do something rather than actually doing it.
Agreed by the DUP and Sinn Fein with London without even the courtesy of mentioning it to the Dublin government beforehand, there is no proposal to unleash the huge potential of cross-border economic development and there is economic vision for Northern Ireland.
Providing a blueprint for economic opportunity and tackling poverty is what is desperately needed in the North. Yet the largest parties are focused on everything but this. It is striking that Sinn Fein has during the last seventeen years chosen never to nominate a person to hold one of the principal economic ministries.
The current political impasse is the logical outcome of an approach which is focused on maximising political positioning rather than operating in the spirit of cooperation which the Irish people voted for.
It is not just about the UK government’s welfare policies. When Sinn Fein signed up to the Stormont House Agreement it signed up to implement these policies with some minor changes. What we are seeing at the moment is a desperate attempt by Sinn Fein to find a way of allowing these cuts through but still claiming to be against them.
This is the party which is savagely cutting back on school staffing and threatening 50 schools but still delivering speeches claiming “Sinn Fein doesn’t do austerity.” This is the same party which clams in the South it will abolish property tax and is voting to increase it in Northern Ireland.
Let no one be in any doubt, the welfare cuts are wrong and will cause serious damage in Northern Ireland – just as the other cuts which Sinn Fein and the DUP are enforcing without complaint are causing serious damage already. As Fianna Fáil said to the British government when in office and as we have said since, London has to understand that you must invest in overcoming entrenched division and conflict. Northern Ireland is a special case and deserves extra leeway. This should be our government’s position but unfortunately it is not.
However the crisis goes well beyond the welfare issue. In fact the implementation of nearly all of the important issues addressed in the Stormont House Agreement is delayed.
Arrangements to allow the effective review of policies by parties other than the DUP and Sinn Fein were supposed to be in place in March – this has not happened.
The Commission on Flags Identity Culture and Tradition was supposed to be established last month and legislation on parades was due to be proposed – this has not happened and another contentious marching season is underway.
A Civic Advisory Panel was supposed to be established last month – again this has not happened.
The Budget Act is not required for any of these measures but they remain frozen.
Northern Ireland desperately needs a new impetus for progress. Stagnation and drift is deeply dangerous. It breeds alienation and threatens a return to cycles of sectarian violence which at times seem very close.
There are a range of concrete steps which can and should urgently be taken. The governments can, if they have the will, take the initiative on these and break the deadening grip of the largest parties on the whole process.
First of all a new economic and social development plan is urgently required. Entrenched poverty and unemployment have to be tackled. Independent of the funding issue, what is required is at very least a sense of direction and a demonstration of ambition.
We need a new energy behind the North/South dimension of the agreement. The disinterest of the British government, the party politics of the DUP and Sinn Fein and the lack of urgency from our government has reduced the North/South dimension to a series of meetings and photo-opportunities.
All parts of this island are suffering because of the failure to unleash the full potential for cooperation on economic and service development. There are individual examples of progress, but they represent only a fraction of the true potential.
For four years we have been hearing about discussions, it’s time for action setting out specific plans for the development of North/South initiatives – both formal bodies and other initiatives. There is an overpowering case for seeking a joint Border area economic and social services development plan.
A lengthy history of sectarianism and thirty years of an illegitimate campaign of violence have caused damage which cannot just be wished away – and an ambitious Border regional plan is badly needed.
We also need a new urgency around challenging sectarianism. While the majority of people are showing a new commitment to cross-community understanding, there is a substantial minority wedded to a deeply sectarian approach. A renewed anti-sectarian initiative is needed and a start should be made by calling out politicians who use sectarianism to further their own agenda’s.
Gregory Campbell’s childish mockery of the Irish language was not harmless and the fact that he faced no consequences reflects badly on his party.
So too does the blatantly sectarian campaign of Sinn Fein in North Belfast in the recent election. Calling on people to vote by religion and get one over on the other side is sectarianism pure and simple – and Sinn Fein should stop trying to find excuses for it.
The failure of political leadership to properly assist the fight against sectarianism and to promote a genuine spirit of equality was demonstrated by Deputy Adams’ disgraceful comments when he talked about “breaking the bastards” and said that equality is “the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy”. He can do his usual twisting and turning – claiming that black is white and vice-versa – but his words are on the record.
Equality is not a strategy, it is not something to be exploited – it’s the fundamental and core foundation of the entire strategy of the people of Ireland. When a party of government in Northern Ireland speaks so cynically about equality it is inevitable that the others will continue to resist it.
The equality agenda remains essential and needs the governments to insist on the implementation of past agreements.
Addressing issues of the past should not be an option it is essential. So far the Irish government, due to initiatives taken by past governments, is the only party to the process which has been willing to be fully open and honest about its failings. Everyone else has been taking the position of demanding openness from others while protecting their own.
The evidence of state collusion with loyalists in grotesque sectarian crimes in overwhelming. It must be investigated independently and the families of victims given the right to know what happened and who was responsible.
So too the collusion with elements of the Provisional IRA must be investigated.
The Dáil has called for a full investigation of the revelations of the ongoing protection by the Provisional IRA of their own members when accused of child abuse. This is a problem which Deputy Adams has admitted was known about.
While Sinn Fein did their usual trick of calling for cooperation with the justice system yet again no one has come forward. Sinn Fein has been able to expel people for wanting to deselect a TD but cannot find anyone to take action against in relation to the systematic covering up of child abuse within the Provisional movement.
Of course there are limits to what can be done, but our government has a duty to demand a proper independent inquiry so that victims North and South can come forward and begin a process of healing which must start with accountability for those who abused them and those who worked to prevent justice being done.
The parliament promised Mairia Cahill and other brave victims that we would not rest until their abusers were held to account and we must honour this promise.
The increasingly dysfunctional political situation in Stormont needs to be tackled. Growing detachment and disengagement from politics is the direct and inevitable outcome of how the DUP and Sinn Fein are controlling the Assembly and Executive.
They are focused on obtaining as much party political advantage as possible. Other parties are routinely excluded from discussions and the system is milked for party advantage. Northern Ireland has half the population of Wales but its leaders have twice the number of publicly funded political advisers.
Ministers of both parties have been found to favour their own in decisions – with a Sinn Fein Minister found by a court to have made a major appointment on a sectarian basis.
Through the tenacity of journalists a large scale abuse of political funding has been revealed – none of which would be possible under the legislation in operation here for nearly two decades.
Deputy Adams never sat a day in Westminster but took over €1 million in expenses during the last decade. BBC spotlight found that over €1 million had been funnelled by Sinn Fein MLAs to Research Services Ireland Ltd – but was unable to find details of any research work carried out by the company. This is on top of the money funnelled by Sinn Fein to fictitious cultural organisations.
There is an urgent need for the governments to demand a tightening of the controls on public funding of politics and for the establishment of controls along the lines of those operated here which would make such abuses illegal.
The revelations in relation to Cerberus and the NAMA portfolio have rightly led to concerns about political involvement.
In the referendums of 1998 the people of this island chose to support a new way forward. They acknowledged our shared future and set all parties a challenge of working together for the common good. Too often they have failed.
Unless we see a new energy and commitment we will continue with the cycle of ongoing crises and profound problems will be left to fester.
We need a renewed engagement by the governments. We need a new vision for the economic and social development of the North and the Border region in general. We need a concerted effort to challenge sectarianism, starting with the casual sectarianism of political parties. We need a determined effort to sort out a dysfunctional and deeply cynical approach by the dominant parties.
The peace process was and remains a great victory for constitutional republicans on this island who did everything possible and many things though impossible to get the paramilitaries to put down their guns and end their illegitimate campaign. But the work isn’t over. Much more is required and unless we are willing to commit to this effort we could make an error of genuinely historic proportions.