Theresa Villiers: “our economic package will be closely linked to, and conditional on real progress by the executive…”

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, was in west Belfast today on the 15th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.  Here’s a couple of lines from her press statement

The Agreement called for ‘reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust’ and as I’ve travelled around Northern Ireland, I’ve seen many fantastic initiatives that are bringing different parts of the community together. Forthspring Inter Community Group and the Argyle Business Centre are two great examples of the courage, leadership and tenacity that local people have demonstrated in order to help make the Belfast Agreement’s vision a reality.

But at too many levels society remains deeply divided and huge challenges remain if the hopes enshrined in the Agreement are to be properly fulfilled. We urgently need to tackle sectarianism and segregation in order to build a more cohesive society.

Today reminds us that Northern Ireland’s political leaders have overcome challenges just as great as this in the past. Now is the time for them to demonstrate that they can do so again. [added emphasis]

That would seem to echo some of the concerns voiced by the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, in February this year.  There have also been recent comments by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, TD, in Dáil written answers

We have also urged the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to work with other Party Leaders in Northern Ireland to move on from the current controversy towards building a shared, cohesive and integrated society.

And, as Alan noted some days ago, the Government may now be prepared to play hardball on the issue.  From an Irish News report

Over the past 15 years life for the majority of people has improved, she says, but the peace process isn’t finished. Ms Villiers highlights progress the Stormont executive has made towards a shared future, but concedes that more needs to be done.

“They’ve got goals they want to see achieved and I’ll continue to urge them to go at that direction,” she says.

The latest British government initiative to spur progress – though it’s unclear whether it’s a carrot or a stick – is a series of economic measures for the north, including reallocation of European structural funds and the retention of EU assisted area status. The secretary of state also insists that the bid to devolve corporation tax is “very alive”.

In exchange for further economic support and help we would want to see the executive commit to further milestones and further progress in terms of building a shared society – so we’re seeking to use all the options that are available to us to see this happen.” [added emphasis]

In her Irish Times op-ed, the NI Secretary of State goes further

The government is working with the Executive on a substantial economic package to help Northern Ireland in the global race for investment and jobs. David Cameron’s decision to host the G8 in Fermanagh provides us with a golden opportunity.

But on the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, it is the third challenge which should be uppermost in our minds – the urgent need to tackle the sectarianism and division. Too often, this division can lead to tension, disorder and violence and it almost always our most disadvantaged communities who suffer as a result.

As I go around Northern Ireland talking to a wide range of people, I see many great examples of initiatives that bring different parts of the community together. Yet at too many levels Northern Ireland remains deeply divided. The work of the peace process is still unfinished.

So our economic package will be closely linked to, and conditional on real progress by the executive on building stronger community relations and a more cohesive society. [added emphasis]

Fifteen years ago the Belfast Agreement called for “reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust”. As we look to the future, we need to make that aspiration a reality. Northern Ireland’s political leaders have overcome challenges just as great as this in the past; now is the time for them to demonstrate they can do so again.

What’s missing, as yet, is how progress on that issue would be measured.  The NI Executive OFMDFM semi-detached polit-bureau not exactly having a great track record of setting clear and unambiguous targets, achieving what targets they do set, or being open and transparent about it

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