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Thursday, 17 October, 2002, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
Key extracts from PM's NI speech
PA
Prime Minister: Crunch time but peace achievable
Key extracts from speech by Prime Minister Tony Blair to a gathering of business people at the Harbour Commission in Belfast.

On 16 May 1997 I came to Belfast on my first official visit outside London as Prime Minister and made a speech here. I said then that it was no accident that I had chosen Northern Ireland for my first visit.

It is now four and a half years since the Belfast Agreement.

Did anyone seriously believe it would be easy? Did we seriously entertain the notion that the Agreement would be signed on the 10th April 1998 and on the 11th it would all be different?

It was a brave undertaking and a vast one. Even now I think that only in the first flush of a new Government could we have contemplated it.

And almost immediately the problems began.

But let me state this with passion. I have not regretted for one second the effort or the hassle or the compromise. Because along with all of that, anyone can see there has also been progress.

Northern Ireland is different today, different and better. But not as it should and can be.

Yes, there is still violence, but at a far, far reduced rate. The transformation in the economy has been enormous. And in all sorts of small but immensely symbolic ways life has changed. Not for all, I know.

Northern Ireland is different today. Different and better. But not as it should and can be.

The disappointment comes not from the modesty of our achievements, which are considerable, but from the enormity of our expectations.

And all the way through, there has been one fundamental issue and I want to state it as I see it. I don't want on this occasion to be diplomatic. I think I have the duty and a right, from the very time I have spent on this issue, to give you my frank view.

It is hard for anyone to understand terrorism and I do not believe it was ever or could ever be justified. But let us just reflect on its purposes.

Committing to peace

The prospect of a ceasefire was a sufficiently tantalising prospect, to make the British pay attention and to get real movement from unionism.

At the core of the Agreement was this deal. In return for equality and justice - in politics, policing, in acceptance of nationalist identity - all parties were to commit exclusively to peace.

And for unionism, the right of the people of Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK so long as a majority want to, was enshrined. Indeed, provided, in effect, unionists agreed to equality and to recognising the legitimacy of the identity of nationalists, the union would remain.

Once the Agreement was signed, republicans committed themselves to peace. But they had their suspicions too. They believed that if they relinquished entirely the paramilitary, they might find the new British enthusiasm for the political suddenly waned; that they could and would be safely ignored again.

Crunch time

All the while, we were coming to a crunch point. Would republicanism really take the final step of committing exclusively, Sinn Fein and the IRA, to the peaceful path; or would they wait for the British finally to complete the normalisation of Northern Ireland, the policing and other changes promised, before doing so?

But the crunch is the crunch. There is no parallel track left. The fork in the road has finally come

That is the crunch and the problem is that the very thing republicans used to think gave them negotiating leverage, doesn't do it anymore. It no longer acts to remove Unionist intransigence, but to sustain it; it no longer pushes the British Government forward, but delays us. It doesn't any longer justify David Trimble's engagement; it thwarts it.

But the crunch is the crunch. There is no parallel track left. The fork in the road has finally come. Whatever guarantees we need to give that we will implement the Agreement, we will. Whatever commitment to the end we all want to see, of a normalised Northern Ireland, I will make. But we cannot carry on with the IRA half in, half out of this process. Not just because it isn't right any more. It won't work anymore.

Remove threat of violence

Remove the threat of violence and the peace process is on an unstoppable path. That threat, no matter how damped down, is no longer reinforcing the political, it is actually destroying it. In fact, the continuing existence of the IRA as an active paramilitary organisation is now the best card those whom republicans call "rejectionist" unionists, have in their hand.

It totally justifies their refusal to share power; it embarrasses moderate unionism and pushes wavering unionists into the hands of those who would just return Northern Ireland to the past. And because it also embarrasses the British and Irish Governments, it makes it harder for us to respond to nationalist concerns.

Remove the threat of violence and the peace process is on an unstoppable path.

To this blunt question: "how come the Irish Government won't allow Sinn Fein to be in Government in the south until the IRA ceases its activity, but unionists must have them in Government in the North?", there are many sophisticated answers. But no answer as simple, telling and direct as the question.

So: that's where we are. Not another impasse. But a fundamental choice of direction, a turning point.

Remaining optimistic

Why do I remain optimistic? Because underneath the surface, despite all the disputes, confrontations, anger and recrimination, there has been another benefit of the past few years. There has been a maturing, steady but probably unnoticed and unnoticeable by the majority of people, of the politics of Northern Ireland. Suspension has been bitterly opposed. But no-one wants to walk away. There is a logic and reason compelling people towards finding a way through rather than using the crisis as an excuse to turn back. For republicans there is one very simple thing moving them in the direction of progress.

Leave aside the disagreement over aspects of policing. They want to join. But the concept of republicans on the policing board, of young republicans becoming police officers, while maintaining an active paramilitary organisation, outside of the law, only needs to be stated, to be seen as an absurdity.

There can't be two police forces. And as the changes in criminal justice take effect, how can there seriously be calls on the one hand for human rights and on the other, the savage beatings of people without any trial or due process without any rights, human or otherwise.

Symbolic gestures, important in their time, no longer build trust. It's time for acts of completion

Any thinking republican can see this. That is not to understate the difficulties when, for many, this has been a way of life in republican communities often outside of the reach of the law. But there's no future in it and actually republicans know it.

In a different way, but with the same logic, the unionist community knows the only way of having a lasting peace is to have a just one.

People say unionists now reject the Agreement. I don't think that's true. It's not that they don't support the concept of it. They don't believe it is being implemented properly whilst paramilitary activity remains.

I feel sorry for some of the political leaders of loyalism. They have tried hard and been immensely brave at critical points. But the activities of loyalist paramilitaries no longer fool anyone.

However, I know the political leadership still want to find a way to lead loyalist communities back to political influence. They too need the help that comes from change.

Where now?

So, what do we have? We have a situation where, in truth, the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland and their political leaders want to see the Agreement implemented, want the institutions up and running again, accept the basic deal of justice for peace, but don't have the requisite trust to continue unless all the remaining bits of the puzzle are clear and fitted together.

Another inch by inch negotiation won't work. Symbolic gestures, important in their time, no longer build trust.

It's time for acts of completion. We will do our best to carry on implementing the Agreement in any event. But, should real change occur, we can implement the rest of the Agreement, including on normalisation, in its entirety and not in stages but together. And we are prepared to do what is necessary to protect the institutions against arbitrary interruption and interference.

But that means also commitment from others. Unionism to make the institutions secure and stable. Nationalists to act if violence returns. Republicans to make the commitment to exclusively peaceful means, real, total and permanent.

People are genuinely sad that the Executive and local decision-making has been suspended.

The violence in Northern Ireland is pointless. It is just an obstruction to politics. And the second thing is a complete intolerance of injustice on the basis of race or sex or religion. That's not to say such injustice doesn't exist. It does. But it has no place in respectable politics.

Process can still work

In the end, justice for peace is in tune with our age. That's why this process in Northern Ireland despite it all, can still work.

Four and a half years on, the way forward remains the same. The question is do we have the courage as politicians to do what the people want us to do? Do we trust each other enough to make the acts of completion happen? I can only tell you as British Prime Minister that I have that trust in all the parties I have worked with.

Now is the moment of choice. The same standards must apply to all. And we must implement the Agreement in full, because it is the choice of the people; the people here, the people in the South and the people of the United Kingdom as a whole.

See also:

17 Oct 02 | N Ireland
17 Oct 02 | N Ireland
17 Oct 02 | N Ireland
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