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The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the British and Irish Governments to convene all-party talks to identify how to affirm and promote the values and principles of the Good Friday Agreement, to address issues that have arisen in relation to strands one, two and three of the agreement, to comprehensively and conclusively address all matters that have led to political instability and have been an impediment to reconciliation, and to further agree how to best protect the interests of the people.
I rise this evening to propose the motion about the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. The people of Ireland, North and South, overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 after the talks that were the culmination of the peace process, which brought ceasefires to our communities, saw violence removed from our streets and brought hope to the people of the North. In that moment of hope, people were led to believe that we would deliver a future that was free from the shackles of the past.
We must acknowledge and never lose sight of where we are now and just how far we have come, but the process is always fraught with dangers and worries. Only last night, one of our police officers was shot whilst carrying out his work trying to deliver a safe and welcoming community in north Belfast. Last night, people believed that it was acceptable for them to head out of their homes, pick up weapons and seek out a young police officer and target him with death. Nothing could be further from the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, and I offer him my best wishes for his recovery. What happened last night was a failure of some to live up to the core of the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure respect, parity of esteem and, indeed, equality. However, I note that where we are in society now is not where we could be.
We have consistently asked for a political process not a security process, a political solution not a paramilitary one. If you were to ask us if we would have the Good Friday Agreement again, our reply would be yes, yes and yes. For sure, we would do it again. It has been and remains a sound road map to the society that we want and the type of community that wider society needs. It is an agreement that addresses the people of the North: that is strand one. It addressees the relationship between the people of the North and the rest of Ireland: that is strand two. It addresses the relationship between the people of Ireland and Britain: that is strand three. Those three strands were underpinned by the basic principles that must always extend in any civil society: respect, parity of esteem and equality, to name but three. Those strands and principles should have been the standards of the past. They should be the principles of the present, and, for us, they are still part of the vision for the future.
The SDLP has warned that real damage has been done to the concept and practice of the Good Friday Agreement, particularly in the last 10 years. We warned that the spirit and substance of the agreement were being degraded. We said that the DUP was attempting to reconfigure the agreement in the image of the old world that it knew and loved. We were public in saying that Sinn Féin was agreeing to government on DUP terms. Where did all the new roads go? Where do they not go? Where is the equality Bill? Where is the Irish language Bill? Is there a dedicated anti-poverty strategy in the Programme for Government applauded by the DUP and Sinn Féin only eight weeks ago? The DUP has tried hard to diminish the value, contribution and substance of the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin has been weak and has been powerless to prevent them. Where is the equality? Maybe it is a different slant on the Trojan Horses that we hear about.
The SDLP spoke straight with the people of Northern Ireland. We said that 'A Fresh Start' was not what it claimed to be. Others were not straight, and 'A Fresh Start' has proved to be a false start. We were straight with the people of Northern Ireland. We told them that we would not go into government on DUP terms. Others did so with no firm commitments on equality, language, North/South bodies or equal marriage and nothing on addressing the deep concerns about public finances and how they are managed. We were straight when others were not. In the last weeks of last year, the DUP and Sinn Féin said that they were working hard for people, with articles in the 'Belfast Telegraph' and briefings about how great things are. Now we know the truth. We were straight with the people of Northern Ireland when others were not.
The question now, of course, is this: how does Northern Ireland keep going? Do we go in the direction of failure, or do we affirm the Good Friday Agreement, its values and ambition? One of its core principles, by its very nature, is that it accommodates different ambitions and identities and gathers us all round the right values. In essence, it is about the radical middle, because that middle is needed for all of the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions to work to the optimum. For its ambitions to be realised, the agreement needs the people and parties who are fully committed to its values and outworkings.
Ten years of DUP rule with Sinn Féin consent has failed us and will continue to fail us. We have a different ambition: we call on people to get back to the heart and soul of the Good Friday Agreement. We call on government to affirm the heart, soul and practices of the agreement. We call for all-party talks that embed and do not erode the value of the Good Friday Agreement and grow and not sideline any of strands one, two or three, none of the requirements that deal with all the unresolved issues, and help us to address the horror that is coming down the line with Brexit.
That is no easy task, but the SDLP has never gone down the easy road. We faced down state violence and paramilitary terror. We argued for political accommodation, for policing reform and for government that knew that much of its business would be jobs, houses and health.
I appreciate the Member giving way. He refers to the new start on policing. He also referred to equality. Does he agree that it was hardly fair or decent that people were actively discriminated against on the basis of their religion when applying for a job?
Many things had to happen as a result of the Good Friday Agreement that addressed tens if not hundreds of years of imbalance. Some things had to be swallowed in order to give us a fair and equal society.
We now say to the two Governments that they must show their good authority and have all-party talks across the full range of current requirements. Sinn Féin has, in a panic, rushed us to the ballot box. Even its core constituency could no longer accept government on DUP terms, including RHI on DUP terms. In order to catch up, Sinn Féin has panicked and gone for an election. Let us be careful, because that election could end up giving London more power here to do its worst — a London Government who will be, all at once, hard unionist, hard Brexit and hard Tory. We cannot allow London, Sinn Féin or the DUP to do any more damage to the democratic will of the people of Ireland and to our agreement.
I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out from "all-party" to the second "agreement" and insert "a constitutional convention, including politicians and other citizens, to review, reform and revitalise the Good Friday Agreement with a view to the future,".
The Green Party believes that the traditional parties have wasted the opportunities of the Good Friday Agreement. This was the people's agreement. I say that with a degree of personal passion because I turned 18 in the year of the referendum. I would not say that I was political at the time. I was passionate about many things but not those reflected in Northern Ireland politics, and I did not come from a political family.
For the first time, however, we were discussing politics around the table at home. We had a real debate in the house, and, without betraying family confidentiality, not everyone voted for it — it was a divided house in that regard. It was genuine engagement, and it really did feel like we had a say and a stake in the future of Northern Ireland.
Then, when the traditional parties got power, they guarded it jealously. It stopped being the people's agreement and became about what politicians in Stormont wanted and how they wished to interpret the Good Friday Agreement. Now, from some parties, we have proposals: one is to cede power back to Westminster; and there is even one for joint power with the Irish Government. The Green Party will reject that. We believe that it is absolutely the wrong direction of travel and takes the people's agreement further away from them. The Green Party proposes instead to have a constitutional convention, devolve power back to the people and give citizens a real stake in what happens here.
If we go back to 2007 and the St Andrews Agreement, we see that one of two things happened. Either, as the DUP claimed, the agreement was fundamentally changed — it had opposed the Good Friday Agreement but supported this one — but, if so, I ask the DUP what, given that 72% of people voted for the Good Friday Agreement, gave it the right to change it? You did it after an election, not before. Where was your mandate to do that? Alternatively, as some suggested, it was tinkered with, and the institutions remain largely unchanged. Either way, I have always argued that there has been a democratic deficit since.
Since St Andrews, we have had the Hillsborough agreement; the Haass talks; and Fresh Start, or "false dawn", as some now refer to it.
It was David Ford. I give credit to Mr Ford for the term "false dawn". Each of these agreements involved secret negotiations behind closed doors, without the light of public scrutiny, and each has chiselled away at the Good Friday Agreement — the people's agreement. That is why I support the intention behind the SDLP motion, but, equally, I recognise that this is 20 years on. As an 18-year-old, I got to vote in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, but there will be voters in March who cannot remember 1998, never mind had the opportunity to vote.
It is not just about going back to the values and principles. We need to go back to the agreement. We need to review, reform and revitalise it, and then go forward with a new agreement. We need a new deal that is suitable for today and, indeed, the future, because we cannot keep having crises. We cannot keep having crisis talks year after year — at one point, it seemed to be the annual Christmas tradition. Institutions and agreements that are continually in crisis need to be looked at again with today's context in mind.
Yes, we should go back to those principles and values, but we must go forward with a new agreement endorsed by today's generation. We sometimes use the term "ugly scaffolding", and I am sure that someone will enlighten me as to who came up with it.
I was going to say Seamus Mallon, so I am glad that I did not. We talk about the ugly scaffolding of the Good Friday Agreement, and there is no doubt that it was of its time and of its context. It was about getting peace on the road, but I hope that we are some way down that road now. It is time to look again at the ugly scaffolding to see whether we can it make it that bit more beautiful.
The Green Party proposes a constitutional convention. The idea is to bring citizens and politicians together in order that citizens become part of the decision-making process. It would be a time-bound process, so it does not have to be lengthy. We can put a deadline on it and come to conclusions on issues that these institutions have found intractable but could be resolved, I believe, with the right structures in place. When we bring the public in, we stop having the fears that all parties have about watching their vote, watching their back and watching what their rival parties will do. Ultimately, at the end of any process, there should be a referendum; so you let the people decide. In that, cynically or otherwise, you have political cover.
What issues could we address? My party would like to start with the community designation that enshrines sectarian division in our institutions and, tied to that, the petition of concern that has led us to some of the crises and continues to frustrate progress in the Assembly. I also believe that, as part of a new, or at least updated, constitution for Northern Ireland, we need to enshrine transparency of political donations. If 1998 started the normalisation of politics in Northern Ireland, this is an essential part of continuing that normalisation. There seems to be an increasing degree of support for voluntary coalition. These are the types of things that we can put to the electorate, engage with them, seek their views and include them in the process.
There are other issues that many have highlighted as remaining unresolved from the Good Friday Agreement; Irish language legislation is an obvious one. It has never been more important that we discuss the issue of a bill of rights in the light of a possible exit from Europe. As well as that, there is the Civic Forum. Again, it does not have to be about bringing something back but looking forward to how we engage citizens on a continual basis and make sure that the people's agreement is exactly that, an agreement for the people, so that they have a continued stake in decision-making.
In the model that works, we have a template in the Irish Convention on the Constitution. Unlike Northern Ireland, the Irish constitution cannot be changed without the citizens' consent. That is what I would like to see here. I can honestly say that the Irish Convention on the Constitution, which I was very privileged to be a part of, was one of the best pieces of deliberative democracy that I have ever seen. It was genuinely something to see true engagement between politicians and citizens and see people have a say that made a difference. Ultimately, the Republic of Ireland was able to tackle, for example, what was sometimes seen as the politically divisive issue of equal marriage. It was able to resolve that in a dignified way and put it to a public vote, with the result — unsurprising to me but perhaps more surprising to those looking in from the outside — that so-called Catholic Ireland supports equality for the LGBT community. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland do also.
It is my view that we can bring forward proposals, through engagement with the public, to bring these institutions up to what we expect in the current context. The process should be open and transparent, as it was in the Republic, and that contrasts with dodgy deals such as Fresh Start. The current constitutional crisis presents us with an opportunity for change, and we should not waste it.
Listening to the last Member speak, I was delighted to hear a strong and robust defence of referendums, the integrity of their outcomes and how they should be protected. I hope that he abides by that principle.
I listened to the person who moved the motion and noted that the words:
"the old world that it knew and loved" were used in reference to me, as a member of the Democratic Unionist Party.
I can talk only, I suppose, about my family experience and my family background when he talks about "the old world that they loved." I am quite proud of the fact that, on my mother's side, no one has voted for the Ulster Unionist Party since the foundation of the state. They were Northern Ireland Labour Party people. They were Northern Ireland Labour Party people because they saw the Ulster Unionist Party as the Tory Party. They were trade union people — working-class people who worked in the shipyard. They came from the bottom of the Newtownards Road, and they were very supportive of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. They would never have voted for what they saw as the Tories. I remember asking —
I remember asking my granny, "Why did you always vote Labour?". She said, "Because they gave us the NHS." So, when you talk about "the old world", you might well be talking about aristocracy and unionist gentry, but, let me assure you, that is not my people and that is not who I come from. That is not an old world that I look back on or want. I want us to use devolution in order to improve the lives of the people that we are sent here to represent. Devolution is a valuable tool for us to improve the lives of the people that we are sent here to represent.
Not while Corbyn is the leader, but afterwards, hopefully. People talk about 10 years of failure. I have made this point previously: for nine and a half of those years, you were part of that Government as well. I think that, over the course of that 10 years, your party, the Ulster Unionists, Alliance, Sinn Féin and ourselves have had achievements that we can point to that have materially improved the lives of our constituents and made things better for the people that we are sent here to represent. If devolution is not about making the lives of our constituents better, then of course people are going to question the value of it or why we should have it.
You talk about the values of the Belfast Agreement. One of the issues that I have already put to you relates to the destruction of the RUC. As a consequence of that, Protestants from Northern Ireland were the only people whom it was legal to discriminate against in the entirety of the European Union on the basis of their religion. Whether or not you make an argument that that was about addressing historical imbalances, it was the reality. So I am very glad that you mentioned St Andrews. I am very glad that, at St Andrews, that was negotiated away, and once the percentage reached 30% of people in the PSNI, the discriminatory 50:50 recruitment rule was done away with. I do not think that those are the sorts of values that we as a society should embrace, celebrate or support.
Mention was made of moving to talks and of the ugly scaffolding. I am up for that; I absolutely am. I would welcome that because I think there are things about the way in which this system works. Some of them are hangovers from 1998, and some come from 2007 onwards. I am absolutely up for fundamental reform of the way in which government operates here. I think that that is in keeping with the mood of where our people are, and, despite where we are heading, I believe Northern Ireland and our people are at a point where we no longer need enforced mandatory coalition. We are mature enough as a society. There will be no going back. No matter what happens as a consequence of where we are presently, no one seriously thinks that Northern Ireland society will slip back to where it was when I was born, in 1983. No one thinks we are going back there.
I will. I think that we are in a better place, and I think that our people are up for fundamental, root-and-branch reform. I would welcome the opportunity to participate in that. In my last four seconds —
I wish you all the best as well.
I will begin by repeating something that Martin McGuinness said a few days ago:
"All of us in political life have a duty and a responsibility to stand up for all sections of society."
For me, that is what the Good Friday Agreement is all about: mutual respect, equality and parity of esteem are the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement. They are fundamental principles that should inform not only our day-to-day interactions and decision-making but, if embraced with confidence and commitment, can lead us all out of the mire of past antagonisms and perhaps into a better shared future. It is worth remembering, however, certainly at least by way of context, that, for almost 80 years, despite what Christopher Stalford says, nationalists living in the North had to endure unionist and British political domination and endemic discrimination in a deeply unequal society. So, mutual respect, equality and parity of esteem — that handful of words — mean such an awful lot. They also, I suppose, ask a lot of us. They ask us to reach out to our fellow citizens in a spirit of tolerance, yes, but also with a measure of acceptance of the cultural, political and religious differences that exist between us; acceptance of different sexual orientation and gender identification and different family formations and life choices; and acceptance of racial and ethnic differences and so much more.
However, what none of us should ever accept is the idea that those differences can ever justify inequality and disrespect. We collectively need to give full effect to the Good Friday Agreement provisions, including the establishment of a single equality Act, a bill of rights for the North of Ireland, and the creation of an all-Ireland charter of rights.
In 1998, as Members who spoke previously said, through a process of dual referenda, the Good Friday Agreement was democratically endorsed by an overwhelming majority of voters. So, while the Green Party talks about a new agreement and about the people having their say, the people, North and South, have already spoken on this. That was a hugely important moment in our shared history. The agreement envisaged a bill of rights particular to the circumstances of the North. The clear import of that was to have a maximum approach to rights protection.
I thank the Member for giving way. He says that the people have spoken, but I point out that that was almost 20 years ago. On the issue of a border poll, for example, would he be content that it be changed to every 20 years? I suspect that he would not see that as being frequent enough.
The people have spoken and said that it should be every seven years, but that aside.
The core problem that we face now is not in the agreements reached through negotiations but the obstacles that have continually been put in place in the implementation of important aspects of the agreements — not only the Good Friday Agreement — by unionists and the British Government. Those issues include an Irish language Act — Acht na Gaeilge — an all-Ireland charter of rights, the single equality Act, the Maze/Long Kesh peace centre and, more recently, the legacy of the past structures.
This is still a society of many inequalities and great divisions. As many as one in five people has a disability, and people with a disability are twice as likely to be unemployed; one in three children here lives in poverty; a third of those who are economically inactive have no qualifications; sectarian and racist attacks still happen all too frequently; and homophobic attitudes and hate crime remain part of our experience. And, of course, the gender pay gap continues. Yet, despite those difficulties, the will to change is already out there, and it is in our communities. That, unfortunately, is not reflected in political unionism.
A survey carried out by the Equality Commission found that 91% of people in the North support equality laws. So, my view is that it is time for a step change, and the Good Friday Agreement is fundamental to that. To have a properly functioning, power-sharing Executive and Assembly, there needs to be a belief in, as well as a commitment to, mutual respect, equality and parity of esteem. Let me say again that, whether you are talking about legislation or agreements, while you can get the best agreements in the world and the best type of equality legislation in the world, it is not enough.
It gives you a structure on which to build, but if you do not have the political will, all those will fall. You can put it to the people, and you can have another agreement, but if there is not the political will, then it will fall. I will finish with this: with political unionists, the question is whether they will eventually step up to the plate.
I am glad you are still here, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker; good luck thereafter.
I support the motion but not the amendment, because I believe that, after 2 March, the responsibility of the 90 who come back here, in very well-paid jobs, is to get on with it and start governing and offering an effective opposition. I fear that to simply say that our first act would be to throw it back to the people sends out the wrong signal.
Yes, talks now seem pretty much inevitable and, perhaps, worth it if short-term uncertainty brings us longer-term stability. But, I will put in this very important proviso: when we come back after 2 March, we will be very close to the Prime Minister triggering article 50 and a two-year negotiation on the exit from the European Union, and it is critical that we start making our voice heard. This Executive are folding without having published a single A4 sheet of paper about the vision for Northern Ireland beyond the European Union or the plan for how we maximise the advantage to us or any asks. Nothing; not even the priorities and whether we think they clash with or complement Mrs May's priorities. I am sure that we are in no doubt that some of our priorities will clash with hers; what are we going to do about that? How are we making the case, and what are the communication channels?
Yes, there will be negotiations and a return to the values and principles. Sometimes, some Members confuse values and principles with actions. There were actions associated with the 1998 agreement, which were transitional arrangements and which were painful, particularly for unionists. Mr Stalford tried to imply that the agreement wrote in the destruction of the RUC. That is not quite right. It wrote in a review, which led to Patten, which led to the recommendation that we reform. If you really support the police, would you not be listening to somebody like the Chief Constable, who was a proud member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, saying he is now proud to lead the PSNI and very grateful of the fact that it commands more support than the RUC ever could have, for whatever reason.
Last week, Mr Stalford referred to the painful early release of prisoners, but no prisoner would still be in prison. Unless I am very much mistaken, one of the prisoners who availed himself of early release was Dee Stitt, that darling of the DUP. Let us get away from the transitional arrangements and start focusing in on the values and principles.
Paragraph 2 of the agreement states that:
"We must never forget those who have died or been injured and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start".
A fresh start. Those are the words in the agreement:
"in which we ... dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust".
I am afraid that in my assessment of the last 10 years, while the DUP and Sinn Féin have shared the space that is Stormont Castle, there has not been enough effort to achieve those values and those principles.
Paragraph 2 says that:
"The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering."
Indeed, at the beginning of those 10 years, I and three others were called to the castle by the then First Minister, Ian Paisley, and the then deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, and asked to set up a commission for victims and survivors. It was incredibly challenging to ask four people co-equally to take that forward. As it turned out, one was an ex-member of the SDLP, one had an association of some undefined depth with the DUP, one had lost a brother who had been an IRA man who was shot dead by the Army, and the fourth, who had no political affiliation at the time, is now leading the Ulster Unionist Party.
There was certainly no public declaration of support. That was a very, very challenging thing to be asked to do, and yet we got on with it.
I will tell you what is different between what we did then and what happens in here. We argued but you never heard us argue. We argued behind closed doors, and we found a position that we could take out positively and unitedly to the public. Here, we do just the opposite. I remember being in UTV. There were arguments on live television and then we would take the politicians upstairs to the green room and they would crack open a Budweiser and say, "How is your big son getting on at uni?". We do it the wrong way around.
It is clear that we are going to have a talks process after the election. That needs to be both an intensive and very focused process in which we need to address a range of very difficult and challenging issues and, indeed, to look at some of the structures that have been holding us back over the past number of years. I am glad that the motion refers to the values and principles of the Good Friday Agreement, because I think that it is important that we recognise that those are very durable. They are something that we should constantly remind ourselves of and return to on a regular basis, particularly at times of political difficulty.
It is important that we make that distinction between the values and principles and the specific structures. While my party was supportive of the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998, at that time, we expressed some reservations around the very detailed nature of the proposals and how those could, in due course, destabilise Northern Ireland and prevent us from realising our full potential. We have been very much vindicated in that analysis. However, even if you dispute that particular point, looking back almost 20 years to the Good Friday Agreement, it is clear that our structures have been holding us back in more recent times and that there is a need for some degree of change.
I concur with the remarks made by both Mike Nesbitt and Gerry Kelly that, ultimately, power-sharing can only work if there is trust, mutual respect and partnership between those who are attempting to share power. In practice, what we have had in many of our attempts at power-sharing is more of a power carve-up, where we have an almost transactional approach towards the Executive rather than a genuine partnership where we are looking to a common vision of Northern Ireland and moving ahead in a coherent manner.
The structures matter. If designed correctly, they can further incentivise cooperation, but, when they are drawn incorrectly, they can disincentivise cooperation or, indeed, provide blockages. It is worth referencing three particular aspects in this regard: the fact that we have mutual vetoes in the Executive; the fact that we have the petition of concern; and the fact that we have institutionalised sectarianism most clearly demonstrated through the use of designations in the Assembly but also permeating through some wider aspects of our public policy and an inability to address that.
I have to say to Sinn Féin, which is making a great play about its demand for equality now, that it is stressing the term "now" because it has passed up opportunities to address equality issues in the past. We have made much of the fact that, when we were offered the opportunity to take on the Justice portfolio back in May 2016, we had what we viewed as five reasonable demands. The first was a reform of the petition of concern to take it back to the original intent when it was designed in 1998. It was clear at that stage that Arlene Foster banged the table and said, "No, never. We are not doing that. That is a way whereby we are going to have to fold on equal marriage: it's not happening".
At the same time, Sinn Féin was also very clear that it was not for budging on the petition of concern. There is this notion that Sinn Féin is seeking to force through equality issues through talks process after talks process. The far better way is to ensure that we are able to address equality and human rights issues on an ongoing basis through the provision of a natural process of deliberation and building sufficient consensus, where there is not the risk of a veto being used inappropriately.
If they are serious about addressing equality issues, albeit belatedly — I draw their attention to the fact that there has been virtually no progress on equality issues under devolution over the past 10 years — they have to be serious about the reform of structures and not just make demands as to what they seek to do.
In closing, I want to make a point about Brexit. We heard a comment that Brexit in itself does not challenge the formal structures of the Good Friday Agreement. In a way, that is correct, if you take it in the extreme, literal sense, but it does challenge the underlying assumptions that empower the Good Friday Agreement whereby people can move freely on a North/South and east-west basis. Brexit creates barriers —
— and interferes with people's scope to have open, mixed and multiple identities, and it puts people back in their single identities, which goes against the whole spirit of what we are trying to achieve under the Good Friday Agreement.
Obviously, my party was not a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement because, at that time, we were not fully persuaded that all the conditions that we believed necessary to satisfy our concerns were in place. It turns out that we were, in fact, right about that. Whilst many individuals went forward in good faith and paid a heavy political price, others who were signed up to the agreement continued to live double lives. They were peacemakers in public but remained wedded to paramilitarism in private, and all the things that we were led to believe were left behind were, in fact, still in place. Paramilitary command structures were still in place, and possibly remain in place to this very day, and acts of terror and violence against communities or former comrades were carried out when deemed appropriate. This was not just the inability of an organisation to rein in a few loose cannons but was an organisation whose most senior leader continued to shield paedophiles and oversee the clean-up operations of continued paramilitary murders. I refer to the cases of Paul Quinn and Robert McCartney to name but a few. That may be uncomfortable listening for some, but they are the facts and those facts are partly the cause of a reluctance in unionism to fully function in a partnership government. That is not to say that we do not wish to be partners in government; it is only an illustration of why there remains a difficulty over issues of trust.
I do, however, accept that trust goes both ways. As far as I am concerned, I do not think that I have ever caused any personal offence to any individual Member or party in the Chamber. It is not how I want to do business. I am very happy to sit down with Members of any party on any issue that moves this society forward. I accept that some positions that my party takes on certain issues are unpopular in some quarters and may be seen as disrespectful or intolerant, but I will never be found wanting when it comes to listening to the concerns and views of others.
In concluding my remarks, I will say that it is deeply regrettable that the institutions have collapsed and that we are heading to an election. I would have preferred all the facts around all the issues to have been fully investigated and any appropriate blame to have been apportioned before deciding to collapse the very institutions that are capable of ensuring that the investigation takes place. The president of Sinn Féin may believe that equality is merely a Trojan Horse, but that is not my view and it never will be my view, and, if I am fortunate enough to find myself back in the Chamber at some point in the future, I will be only too happy to be reminded of that pledge. I hope that others can make that same commitment.
Finally, is it not possible to recognise that the Good Friday Agreement was almost 20 years ago? We have had subsequent agreements and elections, and things have moved on. This is a time when we should be focusing on the future. Let us look at solutions for 2017 as opposed to rehashing 1998 over and over again.
A Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, I also wish you well in the time ahead as a republican activist.
It is fairly ironic in its own way that, in the last hours of this Assembly, we are debating the principles and values of the Good Friday Agreement. On behalf of our party, I hope that, when we come back after the elections, people apply all of themselves to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Quite clearly, part of the problem and part of the reason why we are where we are today is the very recent financial scandal around RHI, which is at the end of a long list of other financial scandals that have brought public confidence in the institutions to an all-time low. Alongside that, and, maybe, at times, more importantly, power-sharing and the concept, principles and values of the Good Friday Agreement have not been adhered to by parties in here. I am speaking in particular about the DUP. It was interesting to listen to our colleague Pam Cameron, who, in fairness, acknowledged that the DUP, for whatever reasons — whether we agree with them or not — has difficulties with power-sharing. We agree that the DUP has difficulties sharing power. The DUP, to its credit, opposed the Good Friday Agreement. It never supported it and did everything it could to thwart it. That was its position, which it was entitled to have. Fortunately, all the other parties involved in the all-party talks, both Governments and, more importantly, the people, in referenda across this island, voted overwhelmingly to endorse the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Féin and I would argue that all parties, all participants and all communities made major compromises to agree to the Good Friday Agreement and to subsequent agreements in the ensuing number of years. We would argue very clearly that we are working under the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement. We are very disappointed that many key elements of it have not been adhered to over the last number of years, and my colleague Gerry Kelly referred to a number of those. I think that it has been made very clear that you can legislate, set up institutions and all the rest of it within a particular framework, but, if people chose and choose not to embrace the principles and concepts, it will not work. Coming from a divided society that has been in conflict for generations, you cannot expect the garden to be rosy all the time. That is why safeguards and checks and balances need to be built in. That is why we have mechanisms such as the petition of concern and mutual vetoes, which, when used on a positive basis, are about requiring cross-community support on key issues of governance.
The fact that some will abuse the petition of concern does not mean that it is not a necessary mechanism for a whole range of issues. Over the last number of years, we have all been challenged in the things that we had to do and in the agreements that we had to reach and were challenged to adhere to. Nevertheless, when people have worked in the spirit of partnership and sharing power, this place and this and previous Executives have produced much better work. When people work together having embraced the concept of sharing power rather than simply trying to divide it out, this place has produced much better results for the wider public and for society as a whole. It is when people resile from the concepts of sharing power, treating people with respect and affording equality to other citizens that we become not fit for purpose and not fit to be in position.
In recent times, there has been an increasing abuse of the likes of the petition of concern, which, as I said, was built in as a safeguard to make sure that, if there was sufficient concern that mustered the marshalling of 30 signatures, that denoted that there was a serious problem that needed the matter under discussion to require cross-community support.
No, thank you. I do not have that much time, Chris. Sorry about that.
The fact of the matter is that the petition was a safeguard, but people are now using it as a veto — in other words, as a block to other people's rights. Once you start using it to block other people's rights, that is a complete and utter flagrant abuse of its use. People need to return to what the petition of concern was about. It was about protection, and it was one of the mechanisms intended to make sure that one community or one set of parties does not abuse or discriminate against another.
They are positive mechanisms. We appeal to all the parties that come back after the elections to embrace the spirit of partnership. If we sit down together — it is not about having a whole new negotiation — and simply work to —
I was nine years of age when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and, to me, it feels like a long time ago. I remember reading the Good Friday Agreement and its outworkings at Cullybackey High School and googling a lot of its attributes. Some of it was quite amazing, and I can understand why people struggle to understand a lot of it. When you google the names of those who were let out of prison and read their histories, it is very difficult to understand. That is from someone who was not really around in those times and certainly was not able to understand such things at the time.
To be fair, in the Chamber, as we have discussed this, there is consensus that we all want the best for Northern Ireland. We make that claim. As an optimist, I assume that most of us mean it. The problem starts, as has been said, in that we all differ in what we think and, by extension, what our electorate think is best for Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement was, understandably, an attempt to move Northern Ireland forward regardless of those political differences. This party, over the last 10 years, has made a huge effort to move Northern Ireland forward in the right direction, even though it is very difficult to do business with a party that we do not want to do business with and, as one of our party members quite rightly said, when sometimes we have to hold our noses to do that business. I am sure that people can understand our difficulty. Mr Maskey is right to say that he understands how difficult that is. I appreciate that. We have always taken steps to try to move Northern Ireland forward. I think that we were making —
I appreciate the Member giving way. Does he agree that when people talk about making sacrifices or compromises, it is not much of a sacrifice or compromise to stop killing people or stop bombing the place and come up to the same basic democratic standards that everyone else who participates in politics has to abide by? That is not a compromise; that is meeting basic, minimum requirements.
Thank you. I thank the Member for his contribution. He is absolutely right. It really should not be an expectation to ask for those things. It should just be part and parcel of life and human decency.
I think that we were making progress. It was slow and laboured; nonetheless, I think that we are making progress. I had hoped, when I entered politics and for the last number of years, that we were able to discuss positive policies rather than engage in political point-scoring. However, our counterpart in government decided that it was not getting enough out of the deal. It started to get selfish and lost sight of the greater good, something that the former deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness had formerly embraced. He worked with Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and, more recently, Arlene Foster for a short time. We were making real progress, but no more.
To be honest, I have no idea what lies ahead after an election. I have no doubt that there will be talks, as the motion indicates, whether it is about building on what we have already attempted to achieve or maybe on a new way forward. There will need to be genuine effort made on all sides. One side cannot throw in the towel if it decides that it is not getting quite enough. It has to be talks and negotiations, and they have to be fair. We need to work on finding a way on things that we do not agree with and on things that are not mutually exclusive or contentious. We have already begun to comprehensively and conclusively address the RHI issue. However, as I said last week in the House, RHI is not the real reason why Sinn Féin has pulled the institutions down. We heard in Mr Kelly's contributions that it was the Irish language, a united Ireland and equality.
Was the Member in when Simon Hamilton outlined the plan? I see this as a way forward. This is positive. There was a problem, and we have addressed it. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want. Elections will not fix this or make it right, but we have put in place steps to do that.
Sinn Féin has used the Irish language, a united Ireland and equality. Those are some of the things cited as factors in this election. It is no secret that we will not give an inch on some of the issues that Sinn Féin would like us to. I believe in equality. Let me make that clear. But, I do not believe in Sinn Féin's definition of equality in the form, as I said last week, of a Trojan Horse. A united Ireland is decided by the people. Everyone, including Sinn Féin, knows well that there is absolutely no appetite for a united Ireland. Some of the issues that are cited under equality are being used as pawns. Let us talk about them and not polarise people with different opinions. I want to focus on all the people of Northern Ireland. I may sound frustrated, and I have said it before, but let me repeat it: I am frustrated because I want to protect the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, those who elected me and those who are in need of help. We need to come in after the election and move forward, not go back to the past. We will certainly have no attempts to rewrite the past.
I was overseas when the Belfast Agreement referendum took place. My father held my proxy vote, and I remember speaking to him about the referendum. My dad spent 22 years in the Royal Ulster Rifles and then another eight years in the Ulster Defence Regiment. He never talked politics or religion. He never apportioned blame. He understood that, in any conflict, there will always be competing narratives. He said to me, "Douglas," — he always called me Douglas — "there are many aspects of this agreement I don't like. In particular, I don't like releasing terrorists from prison until they've completed their sentences. I don't like it that we're not decommissioning first. They've been responsible for the murder of our family, our friends, our colleagues and our neighbours. But, for Northern Ireland — for our children, for your children, for the ability for you to come back to Northern Ireland and live again — we have to take a chance. This is a once-in-a-generation time to have peace in Northern Ireland".
He voted in favour of the Belfast Agreement. I wonder what he would say today. Would he have voted for the Belfast Agreement had he known about the on-the-run schemes and the comfort letters? What about the unbalanced justice systems that we are seeing now, where the Director of Public Prosecutions can direct the PSNI to investigate state forces and ignore the terrorists? Would he have voted for the Belfast Agreement if he knew that, after releasing the terrorists from prison and dismantling the Maze and the special treatment, all we would do was set it up all over again? One party openly supports dissident special treatment, while another party in the Executive does not have the courage to end it. What would he have said if he had heard a unionist politician thanking a former terrorist for not killing us any more?
Not just yet.
As honest and as open as that was, I would have stopped short of thanking him, especially when former soldiers are in the dock and dissidents are having their bail terms changed. We have a 75-year-old veteran being classed as a flight risk. It is unbalanced and unfair. I will give way.
I thank the Member for giving way. I really did not want to interrupt, because I know that he is passionate about the points that he is making. If I remember correctly, the Ulster Unionist Party leader said a couple of months ago that, if the Good Friday Agreement was up for debate now, the party would not support it. I hope that all the parties will come back here, as I have said previously, with a commitment to delivering on the Good Friday Agreement. Our problems are not because we had the Good Friday Agreement; they are because we have not fully implemented the agreement. Is your party still committed to the Good Friday Agreement? If we could get that consensus in the Chamber tonight, it would be a good start.
To answer your question, Alex: absolutely. Hopefully, you will understand that my blood and thunder might diminish slightly in a moment or two.
It is clear to me that the political parties presently in control of our Executive, and, therefore, our country, do not know how to govern. They do not understand that mutual respect and equality was at the heart of the Belfast Agreement. As we have heard today, they work together because they have to, not because they want to. That lets down the Belfast Agreement; you have to be in there and want to govern. We want to be the largest unionist party. We want to work with the willing —
No, I will not. Sorry.
We want to work with willing partners. We want to show respect to all who live in Northern Ireland and their identity, culture and traditions. Many people raise their eyes when I say that I am Irish. I am Irish. If it is comfortable for you, prefix that with "Northern" if you want. I am also a proud Ulsterman, and I am a fiercely proud Brit. However, I am Irish. The Belfast Agreement allows me to say that. It allows the people to decide that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom.
The power is with the people, not with this Chamber. Let us be clear: my identity is represented by the Union flag, 'God Save the Queen', the Twelfth of July, Ulster Scots and the monarchy; it is also represented by the shamrock, St Patrick's Day, the GAA, Irish dancing and the Irish language. They are all part of me.
Before I run the length of myself, I have to say to everybody that it is all about the language that we use and how we have to be careful of it. People would be far happier embracing, talking or having a conversation about the Irish language if we did not have —
— people throwing things in our face by saying, "Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet fired in the struggle for Irish freedom". That does not help; it is a bad statement. I support the motion. I support dialogue; we need dialogue.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh LeasCheann Comhairle. I also wish you all the best for the future.
I start my speech how I ended my last one in the Assembly on 19 December — that infamous day that, in my opinion, was part of a series of events that brought this Assembly to an end. I said on that occasion that if the party opposite did not work the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister as a joint office, I doubted that there would be an office. The attitude displayed since has confirmed to me that the party opposite, and others, believe they are almost returning to a unionist state — a state where the Good Friday Agreement does not exist or matter and where power-sharing arrangements are an inconvenience rather than a legislative and political responsibility on all parties. Mr Stalford said during his speech — I will not quote him, because I cannot remember his exact terms — that there is no going back. He is absolutely right: there is no going back. The only way government will operate in this state is under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
I will shortly.
There may or may not be talks in the future, because it is clear that relationships have broken down. However, talks will be required at some stage in the future. The Good Friday Agreement will be the foundation on which we build a society. Anyone who has it in their head that they are going to take apart the Good Friday Agreement is sorely mistaken. The only way any of us, if re-elected, will be standing in this Chamber or in a future Executive will be on the principles of power-sharing, respect and mutual understanding. That is the reality. I will give way to Mr Stalford quickly.
I did say that we would not be going back to the dark days of the past, and I hope that that is a conviction shared by everyone. I will tell you something else we will not be going back to: we will not be going back to the days of you boys trotting in and out of Downing Street. I know that this is hard to believe, but you are not the centre of the universe any more.
I have never believed myself to be the centre of the universe, but I am, currently, an elected representative, and my party has a significant mandate across the island of Ireland. That brings me to Mr Logan's comment that some unionists — maybe it was himself; I do not know what he said exactly — have to hold their nose to share power with Sinn Féin. I do not care what part of your anatomy you have to hold to make yourself feel comfortable, but I will tell you what you will not be doing: you will not be looking down your nose at us, and you will not be looking down your nose at the people whom I represent or the people whom we represent. That is part of the difficulty.
If you look at another section of society, whether in the Chamber or outside it, and you believe that they are your lesser, what chance have we for our society? You referred to the fact that, at the age of nine, you learned about the Good Friday Agreement in school or that it was signed then. At the age of nine I was burying two of my cousins and an uncle who were shot dead by state forces operating under the guise of the UVF. You can tell me that they were a few bad apples — they were bad apples — but there were members of the RUC and the UDR in that gang. That was the now infamous Glenanne gang. You said that you had googled names of people who were released from prison. I can google the names of members of that gang. None of them — not a single one of them — went to prison for dozens of murders in the north Armagh area.
We have all hurt. We have all had pain. We all have those sorts of things going on. As republicans 20 years ago, however, I and others had to make a decision, and we did, after long deliberations. Did we believe that the Good Friday Agreement was an honourable way forward for republicans? Was it a way forward on which we could build peace, and, yes, could we still move towards our ultimate objective of a united Ireland? People often say that unionists had to compromise to come into the power-sharing institutions. Republics compromised. This is a huge compromise for republicans, but was it the right thing to do? Of course it was the right thing to do.
I do not hold my nose to share power with anyone. I hold my head high. As a former Minister in a power-sharing Executive, I am proud to say that I shared power with my Protestant and unionist neighbours. I am proud of that. We get a lot of personal and, at times, physical abuse from so-called dissident republicans. I have stood in front of many of them and told them that I am proud to have shared power with my Protestant and unionist neighbours, despite our history, despite the conflict that we have been through and despite the pain that we have gone through. Despite all those things, I am proud to have done it. Therefore, when Members on the other Bench can look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they are proud to have tried to share power with their nationalist and republican neighbours, and when they can answer that question honestly in the positive, there is hope for this society into the future. But, be under no illusions: that future has to be on the basis of equality and mutual respect. It has to be on the basis —
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this evening's debate on the values and principles of the Good Friday Agreement. I do so as the parent of three now adult children who were the young generation following the Troubles. I, like many others, thought that the agreement meant a better future for them.
The SDLP is a party that was born out of the civil rights movement. It was instrumental in the creation of the Good Friday Agreement and is totally committed to its core principles. The party is tied to the principles of social justice, reconciliation and prosperity. There have been many great people involved in the peace process, all of whom played an instrumental role in changing the political and social dynamics of the North of this island. It is important, however, that we in this very Chamber also remember people who do not always get the headlines: women such as Pat Hume and the late Gertrude Mallon also played a pivotal role in the agreement.
It is true that the North has come a long way since 1998. Despite recent events, people are no longer being murdered on our streets en masse. It is fair to say that the agreement has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives that would otherwise have been taken by British state forces and various paramilitaries. The Good Friday Agreement was about much more than peace and ending tribal warfare in our society, however. It presented a better, clearer vision for the future — a vision of settled relationships and prosperity, and one that put the need of both sections of our community first. It was meant to bridge the gap that has unfortunately only widened since the devolution of powers to this institution. It was meant to provide political stability in a region that suppressed rights rather than enforced them.
Here we are, almost 20 years later, and I have yet to see this Assembly gain its legislative spurs, to start delivering for everyone in our society and to start making amends for the grievous injustices that went on in the past. Rather than have mature politics, the political parties in this Government have abused power to the benefit of their own. The renewable heat incentive scheme, the social investment fund, Research Services Ireland, Charter NI, Red Sky, community hall funding and the decision to stop the Líofa bursary funding have all recently laid bare the ineptitude of this institution and this Government.
It is green and orange politics that delivers for no one and does not conform to the principles that underpin this agreement. Later, the Assembly will debate the rights of victims and survivors who have campaigned for justice for the horrendous crimes that were committed against them by the state, yet this institution has once again failed those individuals who have waited so long for justice. These institutions have also failed the victims of the Troubles who have been unlawfully killed and maimed. There are still no answers for those families and individuals who have been wronged by the grievous crimes committed against them.
In the midst of the current political uncertainty and the fall of these institutions, we have hanging over all of us the growing shadow of Brexit, which will disproportionately hit the North of Ireland. Wales has a plan, and Scotland has a plan, but this Executive have been found wanting once again. The borders of the past will be constructed and erected across border counties, and this will impact on travel, trade and investment. It will be the people of the North who will suffer and not the fat cats who advocated a "Leave" vote in the first place. That is an indictment of this institution, and it is also an indictment on the Good Friday Agreement, which calls for cross-border collaboration. If article 50 is triggered next month, we will have no seat at the table. We will have no one advocating the best interests of the people of the North.
It is clear that immature politics takes precedence over political and regional stability. This Assembly needs to be realistic about what is truly important. We can no longer go on carving up budgets, one piece orange and the next piece green. We need to start delivering for the best interests of the people of the North. We cannot continue with scandal after scandal and suspension after suspension. We need mature politics, and we need to deliver here and now.
Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, I wish you all the best for the future.
Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. I will still wish you well for the future.
There is a certain irony that, almost as we approach the end of this Assembly term, we are debating the issue of the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement, the values and principles that are supposed to underpin everything that we do but which have been sadly lacking for some time. I think that there are still a dozen of us, including three or four who are in the Chamber at the moment, who were here in September 1998 when we first came into this place and remember that as a time of hope, a time of optimism and a time of belief that things were really changing. It was a time when we were actually looking at three sets of relationships that defined the people of Northern Ireland and these islands and how we managed together.
However, there is absolutely no doubt that, since that time, the eyes have been taken off the ball of some of the fundamental issues. We are going to need some significant reforms if we are to restore public trust in the ability of the Assembly and the Executive to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. Part of that problem is because of the watering down of the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement that we have seen on a number of occasions over the last 17 years. For example, the St Andrews Agreement removed the issue of the First Minister and deputy First Minister being elected jointly. It may only have been optics, but it was significant optics that they were seen to have the confidence of the House. The fact that, in those early days, David Trimble and Seamus Mallon sat beside each other at Question Time on alternate sides of the Chamber was optics, but it was significant optics, and the watering down at St Andrews by the DUP and Sinn Féin and the two Governments took away a lot of that positive engagement and left us in difficulties there.
Of course, 14 months ago, we had the so-called Fresh Start, which Stevie Agnew credited to me as the false dawn document. In fairness, I only said that it was a false dawn for victims on the day, but, a year on, it is pretty clear that it is a false dawn for absolutely everybody. Again, that was a stitch-up between the two Governments and the two largest parties, rather than what is referenced here in the motion, an inclusive process that would engage all of us. It was when all of us had the opportunity to be engaged in the run-up to Good Friday that we made some difference.
I do have to say to my friend Colin McGrath, who was not here in the early days, that it was not actually perfection in the days when the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP were the two largest parties. We only have to take Séamus Mallon's recent article as an example of what was not even covered by the Ulster Unionist Party in those days and the way that he felt treated. I can personally remember saying on one occasion that we would give a Programme for Government seven out of 10 if we were Scotland or Wales, but the Alliance group voted against it because it did not address the fundamental issues of overcoming divisions and building a united community in this society, which had been left out completely. We have had things like the watering down of the engagement of Committees in the budgetary process since last May. There is also the fundamental issue that, when we talk about Committees being there to advise and assist Ministers, if Ministers do not allow that to happen, they have lost us that in the current Executive as well.
Steven Agnew highlighted a number of the issues that we need to address. We need to address openness around party funding. We need to address some way of moving towards a more normal voluntary coalition with a suitably weighted majority. We need to do something to ensure that the petition of concern is triggered only on fundamental issues and not on every social reform that the largest party does not like. We need to do something to get away from the designations that divide us rather than unite us. A lot needs to be done if we are to make a real difference. If we do not find some way of getting into serious talks when we come back here, we will not be delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.
Mike Nesbitt made the point that he did not want to see a constitutional convention and our going back to the people after the election. The 90 MLAs should come back and get on with the job. I suppose that it is a fundamental difference between representative democracy, whereby we go to the electorate and say, "Elect us and we will reflect your views", and a participative democracy, which is a continual engagement whereby we continually seek the views of the electorate. It is not enough to go once every five years for a mandate; it has to be a continuing dialogue. The recent referendum on Europe is an example, and Gerry Kelly made the point that the people spoke 20 years ago. People deserve more engagement than that. It is what went wrong with the UK in relation to the European Union, whereas the Republic of Ireland, where there were changes to what it signed up to, went back to referendum, whether Lisbon, Maastricht or whatever.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He cites the Republic of Ireland and its relationship with the European Union and referenda. We know, of course, what happened there: when the political elite got the wrong answer, it simply had another referendum until it got the answer that it wanted.
I thank the Member. They went back to the people, and the people gave a different answer. People are entitled to change their mind and have done so. The point is that Ireland, through various referenda, has shown itself to be a country that supports its position in Europe. In the UK, where people were told, "We sorted that issue in 1975. I do not care if you were born since then, you do not get another say. We have changed it. The EU is good — like it". I support the EU but I do not support that disengagement. It is no wonder that we talk about Europe as if it is separate from us rather than our being part of it and it happened to us rather than being something we are part of. Indeed, our MEPs and Ministers helped to shape that.
We need something that is more participative in our democracy. I see it as a preventative measure because we have had continual crises. Every time you list them — the Hart talks, the Haass talks, Stormont House, Hillsborough or St Andrews — you wonder whether you have left one out because there have been so many. I have been in full-time politics only since 2007, and I counted that the current crisis was my fourth. I just rolled my eyes and thought, "Another one". We need something to change. We cannot go on like this. For me, it is not direct rule at the other side of the election or some form of joint government; as a number of people have said, it is likely to be negotiations.
Those negotiations should, however, be open and transparent and engage our citizens. Negotiations should not be kept from citizens until we present some form of agreement, and they have no say on whether it is the agreement that they wanted. They will elect their political parties and be told, "We represented you in those negotiations". We cannot see that. There is no transparency, and I do not think that it is enough.
There are a number of issues, and Stephen Farry and David Ford highlighted some that I highlighted with community designation and the petition of concern. Even some of the language that is used has shown us that we may be 20 years on, but, at times, it can feel as though we are no further on. I do not believe that. We are, I believe, in a better place, but, at times, when I still hear the language of two communities, I feel that we live in a very diverse Northern Ireland. That is not the language of today; that is the language of 20 years ago. Whilst we still have parties that say, "We represent the whole of Northern Ireland", yet seek their vote from one section of Northern Ireland —
Has the Member not put his finger on part of the malfunction and something that will never function properly in the Belfast Agreement, namely that, in fact, by virtue of the system that it has created, it entrenches sectarianism? It entrenches one block to play off against the other, which defeats what is supposed to be its purpose.
I agree with the Member. I think that it enshrines sectarianism, and we need to move on from it. I suspect that we would disagree on how we would do that. I would, however, like to disagree with the Member in a constitutional convention that includes our citizens and come to a conclusion that gets the endorsement of the people of Northern Ireland, as the Good Friday Agreement did.
To finish, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, I, too, like everyone else, once again, wish you well. People are looking at Stormont at the minute and thinking —
Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. Like others, I wish you well in life after this Assembly, and I hope that we will not all join you in life after this Assembly in the next couple of months.
I thank all who participated in the debate, which has been an important review of the principles. As Members have said, it is a bit sad perhaps that we are restating and discussing those principles only now. I feel old because Phillip Logan was only nine years old back then, and I was just coming 18, but I remember that sense of possibility and optimism, which, it is fair to say, has not been present in this Building in recent months and is absent from our politics, but we do not believe that it has to be, and nobody will lose sight of how far we have come.
Nobody said that it was perfect, and I think that that is very clear. I am not quite old enough to be able to dig out memoirs of Oliver Napier and Brian Faulkner, who, I suspect, had their relationship difficulties as well in getting things up and running, but I do not think that we can ignore the external context in those early days of devolution, which was the overplaying of the decommissioning hand and the DUP screaming in the windows of the Assembly. I think that Mallon and Trimble did an incredible job with the progress that they made at that time.
Colin McGrath, when moving the motion, referred to the appalling shooting last night of a public servant and member of the PSNI as an illustration of what we have failed to eliminate and what we are definitely not returning to, but, as we said, that opportunity has been squandered. That is a lot of the story of the last 60 years of politics here, and certainly the last 20 years. We think that that is due not to the fundamental design but to the failure to live up to the spirit and substance of the agreement in a lot of the everyday decisions; the failure, over the years, on the big picture stuff around weapons, policing, respect and parity; and the failure to make any meaningful progress on North/South, with the North/South Ministerial Council now watered down on the sidelines.
I appreciate the Member giving way. Does she agree that there is an issue between the values of the Good Friday Agreement, the architecture of the agreement and the way in which it was implemented, and that there were failings in the second and third elements?
I do agree; I was going to come to that. Stephen Farry raised a number of points about the ugly scaffolding. We have said that there can and should be an evolution of that. I think that John McCallister did us all a service when he put some of those mechanisms on the table. We all engaged with that in good faith. It is something that can be revisited. However, I have to agree with Alex Maskey: I do not feel that we can eliminate some of those mechanisms. I believe that the proof of the pudding has been in the eating; how government has been done and how minorities have been treated. We are up for that discussion but I have not seen a perfect alternative proposal yet.
We definitely appreciate the intention of the Green Party amendment and are for maximum civic participation, including the re-establishment of the Civic Forum and engaging people in the ways that we can; but we do feel that the period after the election is do or die. We do not have a very long time. We need to get governance back up and running to deal with a lot of the issues that we have been discussing, not least Brexit and delivering for survivors of abuse and victims. With the best will in the world, even though the model in the South has been very constructive, we do not see how a constitutional convention can be enacted and delivered within the very narrow window that we have.
I take your point but at no point did I say that it should be within that three-week window. Regardless of whether we get through the three weeks and these institutions are up and running, we still need to have this. As you pointed out, there are issues such as victims, for example, which have not been solved since 1998. If it takes a year, that is very little time in comparison.
In the context of the motion's being about the talks that will follow the election, and to prevent there being a second election simply because if this one will not solve anything, another one certainly will not, we do not feel that there is a window of opportunity. We are very happy to come to back to it, hopefully, in these refreshed institutions.
I just want to pick up on another few points. Chris was in quite constructive mode but still probably failed to grasp the fundamentals of the equality that was envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement in his rejection of 50:50 recruitment, which, as Mike Nesbitt said, resulted in a Police Service that the whole community has been able to buy into. Again, that is something that I think that we could not do without.
Mike Nesbitt and Stephen Farry were among a number of Members to raise the key issue of Brexit and its potential to do fundamental damage, obviously not just to our economy, but to our politics. I think that tomorrow morning, around 9.30 am, we will probably be a lot clearer on some of the political and constitutional issues. Obviously, we hope that the Supreme Court reinforces the authority of the devolved institutions here and elsewhere. If it does, and I hope that it does, it would be an appalling dereliction of duty if we were not here to take up that responsibility and give that voice. Any talks that follow —
The lady, to be fair to her, has been consistent; consistently pro-European. She and I clashed repeatedly during the referendum but, I think, always in a generous way. Does she agree that it is absolute rank hypocrisy for members of a party that is collapsing these institutions to continue to refuse to go to Westminster, where it would have a vote, I suspect, on the issue of leaving the European Union?
I speak for the SDLP only. I agree: I do not feel that anybody who is elected here to any of the 18 Westminster seats is a better Irishman than Parnell, Davitt or many other Irishmen who went and represented at Westminster. Wherever our future is being discussed, the SDLP will be there to deliver on our pledges.
As I said, Stephen Farry raised the issue of ugly scaffolding. We are up for dealing with that as well. Gerry Kelly gave a very spirited defence of the Good Friday Agreement and all that has not been realised that would have rung a little bit truer had it not been from a party that has not been driving the Government for the past decade.
Colin McGrath made the point that, despite the disappointment and the stop and start of progress, if we found ourselves 20 years back, we would still push to try and deliver the Good Friday Agreement, because the fact is the that core analysis of John Hume's three strands still stands. Its delivery and relationships within Northern Ireland and on an east-west and North/South basis have not been fully implemented. If we could return to those principles, we would be in much better shape. Those principles have not been in evidence in the Government because, effectively, the Government have been driven by people who never really bought into them. The DUP has — and, at least, has been open about it — been attempting to rewrite and remake those structures for its own purposes.
We just do not feel they have been adequately defended by your enablers in Sinn Féin. While all structures can evolve, the various degradations in Stormont House, St Andrews and so on were not agreed by all parties, and certainly were not endorsed by the people North and South of these islands as the Good Friday Agreement was. Those parties thought they knew better and decided to go it alone. We saw the outworkings of that in the Programme for Government negotiations in May, and we are now seeing the very grim final outworkings when all of the criticisms we made of governance and how it was and was not being done here are now being restated by those people who dismissed our criticism.
Looking ahead, it is difficult to see where we go from here, but we believe the foundation stones are still there in the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement, and in the unwritten fourth strand in my head about the European dimension. The alternatives just do not bear thinking about. We are not going back to what we had last night, and we certainly do not want to go back to direct rule by this Government.
Briefly, I will reference the SDLP's joint authority proposals — joint authority, not joint sovereignty, because we firmly respect the principle of consent. I will be very clear that our first, second, third, fourth and fifth preference before that is to re-establish power-sharing and local administration here. The agreement and its outworkings, driven by those people who want to work them, could deliver a very different future.
I did take some hope from Mr O'Dowd's comments that he has been proud to share power. I think that has been lacking — parties wanting to share power and who see power-sharing as a virtue and not just something they do because, as Mr Douglas Beattie has said, the law told them they had to do it. To make it work, we have to restore mutual trust. That was what the Good Friday Agreement was about: the belief that getting around the table and working together in all our common interests would build up trust. We have not seen that trust build up over the last 20 years, but we believe it still can —
— and the electorate have the opportunity to make that choice.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put. The Assembly divided:
Mr Agnew, Mr Aiken, Mr Allen, Ms Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Butler, Mr Chambers, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Mrs Dobson, Dr Farry, Ms Fearon, Ms Flynn, Mr Ford, Ms Gildernew, Ms Hanna, Mr Hazzard, Mr Kearney, Mr Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McKee, Mr McMullan, Mr McNulty, Mr McPhillips, Ms Mallon, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mrs Overend, Mrs Palmer, Ms Seeley, Mr Sheehan, Mr Smith, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McGrath, Mr McNulty
Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mrs Little Pengelly, Ms Lockhart, Mr Logan, Mr Lyons, Mr McCausland, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Weir
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford
Main Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly calls on the British and Irish Governments to convene all-party talks to identify how to affirm and promote the values and principles of the Good Friday Agreement, to address issues that have arisen in relation to strands one, two and three of the agreement, to comprehensively and conclusively address all matters that have led to political instability and have been an impediment to reconciliation, and to further agree how to best protect the interests of the people.