Category: Archive

Op-ed Standing on the edge of power

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Tony Blair

Today Northern Ireland’s politicians stand on the edge of power. After 30 years of violence and political stagnation, the Good Friday agreement can become a reality. But I repeat what I said as I emerged from those exhausting days of intense negotiations on the agreement: "Even now it will not work . . . unless you take it unto your hearts that others can reach different conclusions in just as good faith as you reach yours."

What I long to see, as soon as possible, is the devolution of power to an Executive with representatives of all the parties which qualify for seats. That includes Sinn Fein. I want to see Northern Ireland’s politicians taking responsibility for ordinary issues such as healthcare, education and economic development. Of such politics are new alliances forged and old dogmas shed.

But power can only be devolved to an Executive that represents both communities. That is the very basis of the Good Friday agreement. The idea that an Executive can be imposed against the wishes of one or other community is not only politically unrealistic but against the fundamental principles of the agreement.

Both governments are forging ahead with the implementation of the agreement. Treaties have been signed between London and Dublin. A Human Rights Commission has been established and an Equality Commission follows close behind. Reviews have been launched into the vitally important areas of policing and criminal justice. Over half of all paramilitary prisoners have been given early release. And there has been rapid progress in normalizing the security situation. Twenty-five army bases have been closed or demolished in the last year. The British army is deploying fewer soldiers in Northern Ireland than at any time since the early 1970s. More can happen as the threat diminishes.

None of this has been easy. For example, prisoner releases. The Good Friday agreement did not specify a date for starting the program of early releases, any more than it specified a date for beginning the process of paramilitary disarmament. But we honored our obligations because that was the spirit of the agreement, overwhelmingly endorsed by all the people of Ireland, north and south.

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The present impasse is at heart a matter of trust. Unionists are concerned about going into an Executive in which some ministers have links to a private army. Republicans fear that decommissioning is a ploy to humiliate and divide them.

Republicans have often condemned the Unionist mantra of "No Surrender." Yet on the arms issue there are republicans and loyalists who share the moribund philosophy. Let me be clear that no one is being asked to surrender.

Perhaps better than anyone in British politics, I know that in preparing for government you have to lead minorities in your ranks away from the comfort of dogma and history toward the challenge of the future.

The declaration which Bertie Ahern and I issued at Hillsborough on April 1 tried to find a way through the trust gap. It was our best guess at a balanced package which could achieve an Executive and devolution of power with the least delay, while beginning the process of decommissioning. If the parties can find a better way forward, let them agree it. But the bottom line is that nothing can work unless it is acceptable to both traditions.

America has been central to the peace we are building in Northern Ireland. Senator Mitchell won the trust of all with his wisdom and patience as we negotiated the Good Friday agreement. President Clinton has contributed again and again at critical moments with balance and fairness. Similarly, Irish America can exert the greatest influence for good when it acknowledges the hopes and fears of both communities. I ask for your support and encouragement in the crucial period ahead.

(Tony Blair is the prime minister of Britain.)

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