David Lidington – 2006 Speech on a New Direction for Northern Ireland

The speech made by David Lidington on 12 October 2006.

It’s been a good year for our party in Northern Ireland. Our membership is growing and we have regained our toehold in local government.

We are the only political party that contests elections in every part of the United Kingdom.

I look forward to the day when we can welcome to our conference not just Conservative councillors, but Conservative Assembly members and Conservative Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland as well.

Northern Ireland is changing.

Not everything’s good. Sectarian tensions run deep. Paramilitary groups still use intimidation to exert social control.

But while serious problems remain, most people in Northern Ireland can at last lead their lives in the normal way that all of us here take for granted.

The face of Belfast and other cities has been transformed, not by bombs, but by new shops, hotels, offices and homes.

Even in places like Crossmaglen, for the first time in decades, the police can patrol on foot without routine Army support.

Politicians of all parties can claim some credit for making this possible.

But let us never forget, that the peace Northern Ireland has today was won through the courage and endurance of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and our Armed Forces. We shall always remember their bravery and we shall honour the sacrifice that they made.

And of course the victims of terrorism will carry physical and mental scars for the rest of their lives. We have a duty to speak out for them.

That’s why we opposed Labour’s amnesty for ‘on the run’ terrorists. It was unjust. It betrayed victims and their families and I am glad that we helped force the Government to abandon its plan.

Whatever their religion or national identity, people in Northern Ireland have the same everyday hopes and aspirations as the rest of us. They want a prosperous economy, good schools, better health services, decent homes, effective policing.

As Conservatives, we support the Union. And we also believe in trusting the people.

An Assembly and stronger local councils would make politics more accessible and more accountable than it can ever be under Direct Rule.

Giving politicians in Northern Ireland responsibility for practical decisions about jobs, local taxes and public services will force a welcome change in the content of political debate.

That’s why I support devolution and why I hope that the current talks succeed.

But devolution and power-sharing will only work if all parties play by the same democratic rules.

In a democratic society, there is no place for paramilitary gangs. I don’t care whether they call themselves “republican” or “loyalist”; they should go out of business, permanently and completely.

The tiny loyalist parties are too small to qualify for ministerial office under devolution. But Sinn Fein is different. Sinn Fein is now the second-biggest party in Northern Ireland.

Its leaders say that they are now committed to pursue their political objectives by exclusively democratic and peaceful means. Certainly, the decommissioning of weapons and the clear statement that the IRA’s so-called ‘armed struggle’ is finally over were events of historic importance. The police and the army believe that there has indeed been a fundamental change in republican strategy.

But after all that has happened in the last 40 years, we are justified in looking for clear evidence that this change is both permanent and irreversible.

That means two things in particular.

First, IRA involvement in crime has to stop for good.

Second, republicans should support the police and the courts. A power-sharing Executive simply isn’t going to work unless every minister in it is committed to uphold the rule of law.

Let’s hear Sinn Fein’s leaders ask their supporters to give evidence to help convict the killers of Robert McCartney and give justice to other victims of crime.

That’s the way to encourage trust.

Northern Ireland today can look towards a better future. But there are still huge challenges.

Northern Ireland is over-governed, its economy lags way behind the Irish Republic, with some inner city areas blighted by long-term unemployment and deprivation.

We need a new direction: smaller government; harnessing the energy of social enterprise and the voluntary sector to tackle poverty and rebuild broken communities; freeing business to create new jobs and investment.

And Northern Ireland needs a fairer system of local taxation than the tax on homes that Labour is now imposing.

Health spending is higher than the UK average. Yet the quality of treatment and the standards of public health can be amongst the worst. There’s too much waste and red tape, too little responsibility given to professionals at the sharp end. We need a new direction. People in Northern Ireland deserve better from the NHS than they get now.

School results in Northern Ireland are better than in the rest of the country. But too many children from deprived areas still leave school unable to read or write. Vocational education and training aren’t good enough for the needs of a modern economy.

We need to put that right – and can do so while keeping Ulster’s grammar schools. Those schools are successful and they have the support of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

Labour’s ban on academic selection is both vindictive and undemocratic. We were right to oppose them and we shall continue our campaign.

Let me finish with this thought.

As David reminded us on Sunday, politicians, governments don’t have all the answers. But we Conservatives pride ourselves on being a national party: one that speaks for men and women of every race, faith or social background.

Let’s draw on that tradition to help the people, all the people of Northern Ireland to put the bitterness of the past behind them and build a shared future based on justice, reconciliation and trust.