Mo Mowlam – 1998 Speech to TUC Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Mo Mowlam to the 1998 TUC Conference.

Can I say it is good to be here, particularly to open the debate on Northern Ireland as part of the International Affairs debate. Before I speak on what I have planned to do, can I just, in terms of the TSSA, David, and Keith from ISTC, add my comments that one of the important things – and I think it is symptomatic of what the TUC has done over the years – is that the cross-community representation in the different delegations makes a difference. It is sometimes difficult but it always has helped when the unions have remained organised across the divide – a very important situation to have.

Also in relation to what Mark Healy said from the POA, of course we will have our differences and I would just like to say, through him, a ‘thank you’ to his members for what they have done because, as he says, they have not had an easy time with the deaths that they have gone through, and working in certain prisons in Northern Ireland is tougher than elsewhere for the very simple reason that when somebody threatens you in the Maze there are people outside who are prepared to carry it out. That is tough not just on the POA members but on their families too. Hopefully we have got a time of change ahead and it is change for everybody. So I thank them for what they have done in the past and thank them also for the difficult times that we will face in the future, because change is hard for everybody.

Just a final note on the brothers and sisters in the Probation Service: it is not easy in Northern Ireland. I think the Probation Service is one of the harder jobs around. They make some very tough decisions and not many of them people acknowledge. They have worked hard in Northern Ireland and it has made a big plus. (Applause)

In terms of the welcome you very kindly gave me earlier, can I just share that with the people who have done the work over the years. I think it is important to acknowledge that it has been a joint effort over many years – previous Governments, Tony Blair, Bertie Aherne, the Taoiseach – and one of the big differences is we have worked together, the British, Irish and the Americans, to build the coalition to move the process forward, an important point in getting us going when the Labour Government took over.

But over the years the work has been put in by people like Peter Cassells from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, an all-Ireland body as many of you are aware, and by people like Terry Carlin and Tom Gillan from the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress. They have put that work in. We also have people like Bill Atlee here from SIPTU. Again this did not happen in 16 months, it has happened over 16 years and it is the people who are not represented here today that I would like to share that acknowledgement with.

I do not think it will come as any surprise to anybody here to learn that trade unions, which have been at the forefront of much of the progressive social changes that have taken place throughout the world, were also at the forefront of social change in Northern Ireland and we should say ‘thank you’ to them.

Let me just give you some examples in Northern Ireland of how the trade unions have worked over the years which have helped us get to where we are today. The first – and you do not often think about this – is over the last 30 years most of the focus by the press has been on the violence, and it has been appalling and atrocious for people to live with, but the trade unions, to their credit, kept up campaigning on those issues that affect people’s lives day in and day out as well as the violence. They have campaigned on health, education and, above all, employment. They never let those fall off the agenda in Northern Ireland and I think that is terribly important to remember. One of the phrases they used as a campaign phrase was “A Better Life for All”, and that really encompasses everything that they have fought for over the years gone by.

The other thing they have done is work tirelessly to build up relationships across the communities. A good example is money came from Europe for Northern Ireland to help try and build the peace – Peace and Reconciliation Fund – and they gave it to Northern Ireland and said, “How can we get this through to the people?” So Monika Wulf-Mathies, who is a wonderful Commissioner in Europe, set up these committees, 26 throughout Northern Ireland, and on them are politicians right from DUP to Sinn Fein, trade unionists, business people, community groups, voluntary sector, and they allocate the money for different areas. Throughout all the difficulties those committees have kept meeting, kept talking and delivered things for the local people – over 11,000 community groups set up.

Crucial to those were the trade union members and when the politicians found it difficult, which they inevitably did, they were there to keep the process alive. I can never prove it, but I have no doubt that those partnerships and the schemes they have set up over the years have helped people on the ground get to know each other and get the kind of results we have got now because it is people in Northern Ireland who want peace. They will keep pushing which is why I am so sure we will get there because people want a future that is non-violent and that is a way that the trade unions have helped tremendously. They have got their own projects, like Counteract, in the workplace to try and deal with inter-communal strife that arises – again trade union instigated, again slow, subtle. People do not necessarily notice it first time but again it makes a difference.

Can I just be cheeky for one minute because it is my own union and that is UNISON, just to say what I think UNISON has done and I would like particularly to mention Inez McCormick and Patricia McEwan and lots of the other folk there who worked on the ground to get lots of people, particularly women, involved. They have done an amazing job and I know how effective they are because I remember the first time when I was Shadow in this job I went to Inez’s office and said, “Inez, I just need you to talk me through what the issues are, what I need to know”, and she said nothing, took me down to the Royal Victoria Hospital to the basement, put me in a room for an hour with cleaners, cooks, porters and they told me what they expected me to do without any doubt. That is the way the work has been done on the ground and I would like to acknowledge particularly what they have done.

Other examples of what the unions have done: the campaign that they have organised on what we call the Fairness Equality agenda again has been central because inequality, discrimination, has been a crucial part of the backdrop of what has happened in Northern Ireland, and the work they have done on fair employment legislation has made a big, big difference.

Finally to thank them, when we had the referendum in Northern Ireland back in May I kind of had a free front of panic for the first week because not many people were saying anything, and because of the difficulties that have happened in the past people are sometimes reticent to speak out. It takes a lot to have the confidence to stand up and say, “I’m going to support this side”, or the other. It is a bit of a risk. It is not easy in Northern Ireland. That “Yes” Campaign, which won the Referendum, was due in large part to, as always, the union leaders in Northern Ireland having the guts to stand up, put their head above the barricade and say what they believed. That got it going and that made a difference. I do want to put that on record because they were crucial in getting us to where we were.

The second thing I want to touch on, briefly, is the degree of violence and the degree of divisions which exist in Northern Ireland – that sectarian bigotry which you see at different times manifest itself. That is not going to disappear overnight. It is going to be there for years. We must slowly edge away at dealing with that. You deal with that by building up people’s confidence and getting them closer and closer to respect each other to hope that the future will be very different.

One of the central difficulties is the degree of exclusion that divisions create. The deprivation which exists in parts of Northern Ireland is worse than anywhere else in the UK. That fuels the difficulties of the past.

Let me give you a very bland statistic. Out of the unemployed in Northern Ireland, more than half of them are long-term unemployed. That is double anywhere else in the UK. It gives you an idea of the extent of how there is a group which is marginalised on both sides of the divide, and that needs addressing. We are beginning, in the first sixteen months, to address that.

Let me give you a quick example so that you get a feel of what is actually happening in Northern Ireland. First, New Deal is working and making progress. We have a thousand employers signed up. Do not forget that Northern Ireland comprises 1.5 million people, similar to Greater Leeds, so that is a good bit of progress in terms of getting people off the dole and into a better future.

Policies which will be implemented here by the middle of next year, such as the minimum wage and Fairness at Work will all help. We have many policies, thanks again to the equality agenda which has been pushed, on TSN – Targeting Social Need – so that policies in terms of fair treatment are directed to the most deprived.

The Gordon Brown “the Chancellor’s package”, as we call it, which is a specific effort to put money into infrastructure to make it more attractive to get investment, has helped again. One of the big differences is that the people of Northern Ireland are at the moment putting together their own economic strategy to grow local businesses. In the past 24 hours there has been , 5 million worth of investment between two local companies in Craigavon and Dungannon. Again, that is real progress alongside the talks which will help make them work.

The other and final area which we have been working in is trying to get more inward investment. We have not done too badly. We are off again next month to try and get more investment from the United States, who have been quite positive in their investment in Northern Ireland. Eleven cities will be visited and Gordon Brown will launch it. The important point about this tour is that it is headed by David Trimble and Seamus Mallon, together in partnership symbolically saying “We are working for a different future in Northern Ireland and we are leading it to show that this is where the future lies”. That is a real big plus because it shows to people Unionists and Nationalists working together to build for the future.

In terms of that visit in October, we have had a lot of support from the AFL-CIO, particularly John Sweeney, who has worked with us in what could otherwise be a difficult area to facilitate that trip.

While I am on the subject of leaders, one of the things which has helped in Northern Ireland is the relationship between the trades union Movement in America, in Ireland and here, in Northern Ireland, in the UK. The co-operation between them makes work easier. John Monks is an important part of that. His contribution — do not look so embarrassed — has been important because he is there in public when you need him. He went after the Canary Wharf bomb to Derry and spoke. When we were having the Referendum, he came to Belfast and spoke. That counts.

But in addition what also makes a difference is, privately, when we are going through tough times he is there behind the scenes, over the years, working consistently to try and move it forward. We all have bad days. I have had some pretty bad days in the past 16 months. It makes a difference when people like John phone you up and says “It happens to all of us. Keep going”. I did just want to take this opportunity to thank him, too, because that has made a difference.

Let me just touch on some aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. I also ought to say that of symbolic importance is at the Labour Party Conference at the week after next. We have a fringe meeting at which David Trimble and Shamus Mallon are speaking. It is sponsored by the TUC and the CBI, which shows that in Northern Ireland it is about partnership and working together. That is happening.

I hear a mobile phone! I have a rule with the press in press conferences in Northern Ireland. That is that if a mobile phone goes off I stop and refuse to speak until the sinner leaves the room. They do not thank me for it but it is pretty awful.

Let me talk about a couple of things that we are doing in the Good Friday Agreement. It is quite important in terms of the fairness and equality agenda which you, as a Congress, have committed yourselves to over many years. One of those aspects is that we are setting up a Human Rights Commission, which will be a new and powerful body. It is about changing the culture, to a human rights culture from one of injustice and discrimination. When people are threatened, they go back into their own culture and people. We are saying that if we have a human rights culture where everybody is treated fairly, then that will make a difference. That is part of the Good Friday Agreement and it is being set up. It will exist not just to advise people about the rights that they are entitled to but to help them when they believe their rights have been abused, or they have been denied rights, but it will give them assistance in taking it through the courts. I think the Human Rights Commission will be an important and powerful body. It is part of the “new” politics which is going to be the future as Northern Ireland begins to change.

One of its priorities, for example, is to look towards consulting with all the parties in Northern Ireland to examine the possibility of a human Bill of Rights, which would, again, be an important and symbolic backdrop for making progress in Northern Ireland.

Another part of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, which again links in with your interests, is, as part of that, a commitment to introduce a legal duty on all public bodies, which is legally binding, to be sure that there is the promotion of equality of opportunity, not just a fairness for Catholics and Protestants, and that will be for men and women, people of different races, people with different disabilities, sexual orientation and age. It will be a pretty comprehensive equality of opportunity portfolio together. The point is that unless we deal with those underlying inequalities, we will never deal with the fundamental problems. That is why I have highlighted those two because I think they are important.

As to that equality commitment, in terms of equality of opportunity, we are putting in an Equality Commission to implement it. I know, from talking to a number of you, that that is not terribly popular because we are merging some of the different inequalities. People feel that some may be treated as second class rather than the importance they have as individual agencies. We are still consulting on it and I hope that we can find an agreement so that everybody will get a bit of what they want. In the nature of compromise, nobody ever gets everything they want. I hope we get there.

Let me, briefly, emphasise where we have got to and where, I hope, we are going in the next couple of months. At present we are indulging in implementing all the different bits of the Good Friday Agreement. The only way we are going to continue to make progress is if it is implemented in total, because those Parties which signed up to it did not sign up to it because they agreed 100 per cent with it — nobody agreed 100 per cent — but they all got something which they wanted. The only way that we are going to be able to move it forward now is that the bit which they wanted moves in unison with everything else. Otherwise, they will say “Why have you got it and I have not?”, and we will be back to where we were for many years.

At the moment we are putting in place the Assembly in the North, the North-South Ministerial Council and the Civic Forum, which is a chance for other voices to be heard in Northern Ireland from other communities apart from the political parties. I noticed, as I was coming in, I saw one of those voices, Monica McWilliams, who is a T&G woman, who had her voice heard in the Women’s Coalition, which did very impressively and gained a couple of seats, and also May Blood, who is one of those women who have been there for years and worked on the ground to make it happen.

I have to mention some other bits because if I do not, people say “You are not doing that which we are implementing” in parallel with the ones that I have just mentioned. At the British Irish Council we have Commissions working on criminal justice review, on policing and where that will go in a year’s time, and a decommissioning independent body, which is a difficult one. Nobody doubts that the decommissioning of weapons has been one of the stumbling blocks in previous years with previous Governments. It is hard. It is part of the Good Friday Agreement and it has to happen in unison with the other parts of that Agreement.

I believe that in the two year stretch we have we will see not just the decommissioning, but another tough issue which has started and that is the accelerated release of prisoners. Again, it is very difficult for victims who have lost people – victims’ families – to cope with that. We have a counselling service in place and constraints. Anybody who committed anything after April 10th cannot qualify. None of those who committed the atrocities at Omagh or those who murdered the three Quinn brothers will qualify. But that accelerated release, however difficult people are finding it to be, is part of the Good Friday Agreement. My job is to honour that Agreement and implement it in full, and that is what we will be working at.

Alongside that, and Tony has worked very hard — I did not think the Prime Minister would have as much time as he has had to work on this — on this. When we have had difficulties and could not anybody, it has been very useful to call on the Prime Minister to come in and knock heads together, which he has done on more occasions than I believed possible, but he has made a difference.

The other person who has made a difference is, when we have worked with the President of the Irish Republic, Bill Clinton. I do not think that many people know but during the talks he used to stay up all night because of the time difference. When we wanted a call from the Prime Minister, a call from the Irish Taoiseach or a call from the President of the United States, when we were trying to move along in those last days, everybody played their part, but none of that has hit the media. That helped us push people along to get to where we did.

Finally, let me talk briefly about the security situation because, as a Government, one’s real job, first and foremost, is to make sure you protect citizens, and that is our first job. We are doing everything we can on that front to achieve as tight a level of security as we can. Two weeks ago we put through the House of Commons legislation which now matches the Irish legislation — legislation for legislation — to do all we can to catch the very small numbers still engaging in violence. The advantage of that is for the first time ever — the Irish Dail passed legislation at the same time as the Westminster Parliament — terrorists cannot go from one side of the border to the other, which they have in the past, to escape. This should put us in a much stronger position.

Contrary to some of the things said in the wonderful press, everything we have put in place is in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. I am sure we will be challenged but we would not have done it otherwise. It is time limited and focused on the specific groups which are still committed to violence.

I consider myself a libertarian. I do not have any trouble with that legislation. We are dealing both north and south of the border with — I do not know — maybe 100, 200 or 300 people who are directly or indirectly still involved with violence in Northern Ireland. I do not think that we should let them ruin what 99.9% of people in Northern Ireland want to see.

The final way to rid a community of terrorist activities, of people who indulge in violence, is to make the Good Friday Agreement work. Only when the community reject them and does not give them any hiding place ‑‑ that is, everybody’s mum and granny says, “If he is involved, they are not coming in this house” ‑‑ do you begin to root them out. That is why making the Good Friday Agreement succeed will take out those men of violence quicker than anything else. That is also why, in the weeks and months ahead ‑‑ it is going to be tough; nobody said it was going to be easy ‑‑ we have to make sure, even though the formal talks are over, that the talking continues because that is the only way we are going to find a way to build a better future. The good part of that is that most of the decisions now are devolving slowly to local people during this transitional period ensuring that by next year it is not us but the representatives of all the communities in Northern Ireland making those decisions.

David Trimble made the best point when the Assembly met last week: “I want this to be a pluralist Parliament for a pluralist people in Northern Ireland in which all of us, Unionists and Nationalists, work together for the benefit of all.” When David Trimble says that, and Seamus Mallon immediately afterwards says “A peaceful path has been created”, it is up to all of us now to walk down it.

That is why I am hopeful. I am very pleased that we are walking down that path step in step with the unions in Northern Ireland to deliver what people in Northern Ireland deserve, which is a future based on equality, justice, opportunity, but, above all, hope. Thank you.