Nobody believes that the new British ministers will bring either the commitment or the understanding necessary to tackle the huge social and economic challenges facing our society. Nor will they be able to heal our divisions and tackle the scourge of sectarianism.
Worse, suspension leaves a political vacuum, which the paramilitaries will be trying to fill with fear and violence. Already, we have seen loyalists terrorize vulnerable nationalist communities and dissident republicans try to bring chaos to our streets.
Like most, I am outraged by the threats made by unionists to bring down the assembly. And I am angry that republicans have played directly into their hands through IRA wrongdoing. But now is not the time for blame and recrimination. We have to focus on a strategy to get the institutions up and running again.
I have already presented my strategy to the British and Irish governments. In essence, I had three messages for them.
First, just because the assembly is suspended, it does not mean that the agreement is. The two governments have to press ahead and implement every part of it. Anti-agreement unionists cannot be allowed a veto on the changes the agreement promised to the people. Nor should they be encouraged to believe that the agreement can be renegotiated.
Both governments agreed with me.
As a result, the changes to policing will not only continue, they will accelerate. The new Policing Board created following the Patten report will continue and new police legislation promised to the SDLP will be brought forward by the end of the year. We hope that Sinn Fein will soon join the Policing Board and start playing their part in bringing about policing change instead of continuing to give their seats on the Board over to the unionist parties.
As a result, the North-South bodies will continue their good work, breaking down the divisions of the border and building an all-Ireland economy.
And as a result, the equality and human rights agendas will move forward, ensuring a fair deal for all.
Above all, as a result, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference met a week ago Tuesday, bringing together the two governments to drive the agreement’s implementation forward. The Conference will continue to meet regularly, showing London and Dublin working together more closely and deeply than ever before. That sends a clear message to those anti-agreement unionists who worked to collapse the assembly that they cannot collapse the Agreement.
I also had a second message for the governments that there can be no future on this island for any paramilitaries. Their activities have served only to shatter trust and destroy confidence in the Agreement.
That means getting the police to close down the loyalists, who pose the greatest threat to the peace process. In Larne, Coleraine, Carrickfergus, Antrim and throughout the North, nationalists are at their wits’ end in the face of this terror. We just cannot go on with endless attacks on vulnerable nationalist communities.
The SDLP is pleased that the new chief constable, Hugh Orde, has devoted extra resources to tackling loyalists. We need to see more of this until nationalists everywhere can feel safe in their homes.
Sinn Fein has a responsibility to bring about an end to IRA paramilitarism too. The recent allegations of IRA spying at Stormont have only strengthened anti-agreement unionists. They have destroyed trust and accelerated the collapse of the institutions. If these allegations turn out to be true, Sinn Fein will have let nationalists down very badly. Sinn Fein is denying knowledge or involvement but many republican denials have been shown to be false in the past — for example regarding the gun running in Florida and the escapades in Colombia.
We all must also recognize that an end to paramilitaries is not just a demand of unionists or the British. It is a demand of nationalists on the island of Ireland. That is one of the reasons why I encouraged the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to reconvene the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, and I am delighted that he has agreed to this. The Forum brings together all Irish nationalist parties. The SDLP wants to see all nationalist parties at the Forum make clear that we all want an island without guns, an Ireland without fear.
I also want the Forum to agree a strategy on Irish unity. In the coming years, we will be having a referendum on this and the SDLP will campaign strongly for unity. But first, the SDLP wants to build a consensus among nationalists on the island on unity and how the place of unionists will be guaranteed. For we must have a unity that protects all religions and political traditions. Just as simple majoritarianism was unacceptable in Northern Ireland, we cannot have it within a united Ireland.
My third and most important message for the governments was to get talks going without delay. We need to get all of the parties around the table to work out how to implement all of the agreement for all of the people. That means dealing with all the confidence issues — not just for unionists but for nationalists too. Ending all paramilitarism. Ensuring power sharing. Promoting human rights. Reforming criminal justice.
Unfortunately, the old secretary of state, John Reid, showed little interest in getting dialogue going. Instead, he seemed to revel in his role as direct ruler of Northern Ireland. Just this week, however, a new secretary of state was appointed, Paul Murphy. I have already impressed on him the need to ensure dialogue, and I look forward to seeing him do just this.
We, as nationalists and unionists, have got to find a way of living together and working together in peace and in prosperity. The agreement shows the way. Some may not realize it yet, but they soon will. As you might say in the U.S.: it’s the agreement, stupid!
(Mark Durkan is the leader of Northern Ireland’s SDLP party.)