By Dr. Alasdair McDonnell
The political situation is beginning to stagnate. It is now more than six months since the Good Friday agreement was signed and five months since it was fully endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South, voting in the referendum.
Assembly members have been in place since the end of June, but apart from the election of the first and deputy first minister, no other structure of any major significance has been established. Instead, over the last few weeks, we have become bogged down yet again in a contrived decommissioning debate, which bears all the hallmarks of a ham-fisted attempt to slow down or derail any meaningful political progress.
It is my view that the question of decommissioning has been dealt with. Indeed, under the agreement, the issue is the ultimate responsibility of the Decommissioning Body and General de Chastelain — not the Ulster Unionist party and David Trimble.
By raising the issue yet again, Trimble is wantonly poisoning the atmosphere and risking the agreement without in any way progressing the issue of decommissioning.
It makes no sense to repeatedly throw up decommissioning as a roadblock to progress. By arguing up decommissioning as a make-or-break issue, Trimble is simply playing into the hands of the wreckers in his own party.
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What we need to do is seriously and immediately begin to implement the agreement. Only by setting up the dual institutions of administration — the assembly and the North-South council — will it become a reality.
The Good Friday accord is a key part of the peace process, not a substitute or alternative for it. It has institutionalized the process, not ended it. It provides us with a more structured political mechanism to continue working for a political solution and it therefore follows that how the agreement is carried forward is crucially important to the development of the peace process.
For me, a political solution means creating a new open political society on the island of Ireland and the peace process is about working for this new political society, which must be based on ending divisions — and this is the next task for the peace process. The agreement was an important step in the process. The next step must be to fully mobilize the agreement so as to begin to break down barriers.
Ending divisions must be the top priority. It would surely be perverse if the agreement were used to maintain the deep-seated sectarianism of our society, or, by keeping both parts of the island at arms length, to reinforce partition. The assembly and the North-South institutions must draw us together, not be used as a formal mechanism to keep us apart while giving the appearance of working together.
There is clearly a need for more general sharing at a political level, which goes beyond individual ministers talking to their opposite number. If the peace process is to build a new political society on the island of Ireland, it must move to end the isolation of Northern parliamentarians from the Dail. This can be achieved by providing seats in the Dail for assembly members and, as a pro quid pro, if the Assembly agrees, permits Dail TD’s to attend sittings of the assembly and take part in debates.
To complete this political sharing, I want to see the assembly and the Oireachtas, as suggested in the agreement, establish a joint parliamentary forum to focus on matters of mutual interest.
The scourge of sectarianism must be tackled and in this context I want to mention two opportunities.
First, I believe we must make improving community relations a priority by making it central to the whole debate on equality. It would be too easy to have equality based on separateness between both our communities. Instead, I firmly believe that equality should be placed in the context of sharing between both communities and that community-relations policy must make this whole area of equality and sharing central to its concerns.
Second, the Irish government has a major responsibility in this area. Under the Dowing Street Declaration, the Irish government agreed "to examine any elements in the democratic life and organization of the Irish State that can be represented to the Irish government in the course of political dialogue as a real and substantial threat to their way of life and ethos [that is the Unionist community], or that can be represented as not being fully consistent with a modern and pluralist society, and undertakes to examine any possible ways of removing such obstacles."
So far very little has been done in this regard. It is true that a committee of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation was established to look at obstacles in the South to reconciliation. I believe the report of this rather initiative must be published as soon as possible and placed in front of the Dail and assembly for debate as a means to take this fundamentally important matter forward.
A strong economy is essential in tackling these wider issues of sectarianism and division as well as generating wealth to play for the social infrastructure in health, housing, education and welfare that any modern society needs.
In laying the foundations for sustainable economic development, there are three elements required to drive the economy forward. First, we need a package of tax incentives that would include a corporation tax rate in line with that of the Republic as well as higher incentives for investment in fixed assets and training. Second, we need an education system that produces graduates able to contribute both to a 21st century economy and to the community. The third element must be a joint working relationship with the Irish government designed to build on the prosperous Southern "Celtic Tiger" economy in order to transform our economic prospects in the North and to develop and market a single island economy in Ireland.
(The writer is an SDLP assembly member from South Belfast.)