Mr Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to open today’s debate on the 25th anniversary of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
This is a historic occasion, not just for the people of Northern Ireland, who have benefited directly from the peace, prosperity and the host of other benefits that it has brought, but for the entire United Kingdom and for all of us in this House.
I know that Hon and Rt. Hon Members will have their own unique reflections on this momentous occasion.
The Agreement ended almost 30 years of armed conflict in Northern Ireland. That will always remain its most profound and important legacy.
The generation that has grown up since its signing has known only relative peace and increasing reconciliation. This in itself is a remarkable achievement.
As many of us know, the Agreement comprises three closely interrelated strands, all of which underpin the peace and prosperity that Northern Ireland enjoys to this day.
Strand One established the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly , enabling decisions on health, education, employment and much, much more to be undertaken locally for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland. These institutions provided important guarantees on inclusive decision-making on governance, representative of all communities in Northern Ireland.
Strand Two of the Agreement provided for co-operation between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and established the North-South Ministerial Council.
Strand Three included the establishment of the British-Irish Council and British Irish Intergovernmental Conference, conduits for the important and enduring friendship and dialogue we enjoy with the Irish Government, and with jurisdictions across these islands, to this day.
The Government is steadfastly committed to upholding each of these three strands, which balance the aspirations of all communities in Northern Ireland and remain vital elements in Northern Ireland’s constitutional settlement.
The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is also based on guarantees of rights. It recognises the crucial birthright of all people of Northern Ireland to identify, and be accepted, as Irish, British, or both, and confirms the right to hold one or both citizenships is accepted.
The Government delivered the powerful new institutions set up by the Agreement to secure and protect the rights of the whole community.
The Agreement enshrines the principle of consent – the important principle that safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the union and means Northern Ireland will remain as part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority of its people wish for it to be.
We must also credit the Agreement with helping to set Northern Ireland on a path to permanently ending armed conflict. This achievement was delivered with the support of many other countries, – the United States, Finland, South Africa, Canada amongst those.
One of the most important, most tangible aspects of the Agreement, was the return of a devolved government in Northern Ireland after nearly thirty years.
There is a long history of devolved decision-making in Northern Ireland from its very foundation 101 years ago. The Agreement recognised that previous devolved governments had not been inclusive of the whole community.
The Agreement established important guarantees and principles that a devolved government should work for all parts of the community in Northern Ireland.
With a functioning Executive, Northern Ireland enjoys the best of all worlds – a strong Northern Ireland Assembly and a strong UK Government. Regardless of which part of the community people are from, the importance of locally accountable decision-making in the interests of Northern Ireland is something everyone shall be able to all agree upon.
For our part, the UK Government has continually supported and invested in Northern Ireland, its place in the union and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement framework itself and we are committed to making it better still.
We have shown that through the investment, support and commitment we have provided as a UK Government to the Northern Ireland institutions through numerous successor agreements.
Agreements that proved the signing of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 25 years ago that proved that was not the end of a journey, but a new beginning. Each helped pave the way forwards to the Northern Ireland that we see today.
Whether it be the progress on policing and justice at St Andrew’s that enabled those matters to be devolved at Hillsborough Castle; the substantial capital funding we provided for new shared and integrated schools in Fresh Start and Stormont House; and the investment we provided in public services in the New Decade, New Approach.
It is precisely because of the UK Government’s steadfast commitment to both the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and to Northern Ireland’s place in our union that we have, through listening to and heeding the concerns among the people of Northern Ireland with the Protocol, replaced it with the Windsor Framework which makes fundamental amendments to the Protocol.
A Framework that restores the delicate balance struck by the Agreement.
The Framework addresses problems with the Protocol by removing the Irish Sea Border for UK goods, with a new green lane and UK internal market scheme for businesses trading GB to NI, removing costs, paperwork and checks and just as importantly, it gives the people of Northern Ireland a veto over new laws that apply there in the form of a Stormont Brake.
Mr Deputy Speaker, Northern Ireland has changed beyond recognition over the last 25 years, thanks to the peace and prosperity that the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement has brought.
Upon that foundation, Northern Ireland has built a dynamic and vibrant economy, which can be seen across the whole of the nations:
- Northern Ireland’s world-leading screen and film production industry (Game of Thrones, The Northman) that has already contributed over £1 billion to the Northern Irish Economy
- The fintech, cyber security and engineering sectors that are going from strength-to-strength in the Northern Ireland of today and these sectors are now creating thousands of highly skilled jobs with Belfast being ranked in the top 25 Tech Cities in the world
In the years since the Agreement was signed, Northern Ireland has also taken positive steps towards greater reconciliation and I pay tribute to the work of community organisations, faith groups, individuals and all who try to foster reconciliation, respect and mutual understanding in Northern Ireland in the journey to the Agreement and over the last 25 years.
The fact that Northern Ireland now has a locally accountable police force demonstrates the huge progress that Northern Ireland has made.
However, events such as the abhorrent shooting of DCI John Caldwell illustrate that the peace Northern Ireland now enjoys and that we have all worked so hard cannot – and must not – be taken for granted.
Indeed, yesterday I made the announcement that the Northern Ireland-Related Terrorism (NIRT) threat level in Northern Ireland had been increased by MI5 from substantial to severe.
Coming ahead of the Agreement’s 25th anniversary, this news is particularly disappointing.
However, it does not detract from the fact that Northern Ireland remains markedly more peaceful and reconciled than it was in 1998. It’s a testament to the people of Northern Ireland themselves, as well as the PSNI and the security services that do so much to keep us all safe.
As we approach the Agreement’s anniversary, we must also acknowledge that there is more to be done to realise other aspects of the Agreement’s ambition for a society that is reconciled with the past and able to look to the future.
We must never let the progress that we have seen allow us to be complacent about the challenges of the future. Indeed, we are investing in the development of integrated education, so that more children are able to be educated together and look forward rather than back to a divided past.
It is also our duty to tell the Agreement’s story so that the next generation may appreciate Northern Ireland’s remarkable journey and build a more prosperous future.
That is why, as part of our programme to mark the anniversary, we have launched the first phase of a pioneering educational package. These have been developed by The National Archives for parents and teachers across the UK to use in assemblies and the classroom, thereby enabling this vital story to be told.
Mr Speaker, I would also like to acknowledge the contribution that members across this House and those in the Other Place and elsewhere have made to the journey to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 25 years ago and to Northern Ireland.
No single party, government, individual or organisation owned the journey to that Agreement, nor the journey of Northern Ireland since.
From the famous speech by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke in November 1990 that announced that the UK Government had no ‘selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’, to the 1994 Downing Street Declaration between John Major and Albert Reynolds that provided a pathway to a negotiated settlement on the basis of the principle of consent, it is clear that the Agreement was unlocked through the achievement, bravery, and dedication of a great many people in politics, public life, religion and civil society and communities over many years.
Mr Speaker, last week I was privileged to go to a reception in the Speaker’s House, where I met three inspirational Members of the Youth Parliament from Northern Ireland – Izzy Fitzpatrick, Ryan Kearney and Lauren Bond. Lauren, and I think we can all agree, those who heard her speech, gave a brainstorming speech.
She spoke powerfully about her future in her nation and also about a number of other fantastic things. Importantly, about the forgotten role of women in the peace process. I hope I can begin to put that right today.
From one of my own predecessors as Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, who enabled the Tony Blair Government to secure the Belfast Agreement in that April of 1998 through an unrelenting bravery, a disarming personal touch and an unstoppable belief in the potential of peace.
To the Women’s Coalition and people like Monica McWilliams – a signatory to the Multi-Party Agreement – women played a pioneering role and rightly insisted that their voice be heard in the peace process.
To Pat Hume, a consummate diplomat who endured risks and threats to get people talking, and who established warm relations with families of unionist politicians – including Daphne Trimble, who of course later served in the two human rights bodies created by the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
It is clear that the full story of the Agreement cannot be told without acknowledging the contributions of these other brave and visionary women.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of that Agreement, I am also aware that we will also do so without some of its other architects. Not least Lord Trimble, leader of the UUP and Northern Ireland’s first First Minister, and John Hume, the long time advocate of civil rights through dialogue, campaigning and peaceful protest. Who I had the pleasure serving alongside for five years in the European Parliament.
They succeeded not just because they worked tirelessly – but because they took risks. In the face of opposition and, at times, threats, they pursued their vision for what Northern Ireland could be. Northern Ireland is poorer without their leadership, but they serve as examples to all generations of political leaders who come after them.
Others, too, took risks along the way to secure the gains of the past twenty five years. The leadership of Sinn Féin, particularly Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, persuaded republicanism that its future lay in the ballot box and the late Reverend Ian Paisley who, again I served side by side in the European Parliament. in 2007 led his party into power-sharing.
In securing widespread engagement with the peace process, I would also note the contribution of Lord Alderdice, whose party provided a powerful voice for those not part of either of Northern Ireland’s two traditions. And we recognise the role of the Progressive Unionist Party, and particularly the late David Ervine, in providing clear representation for loyalism.
I know there are many, many other names involved in the journey to the Agreement I am omitting. But I know the whole House, and the Hon Member for Hove and Portslade, will join me today in recognising their collective achievement.
If this anniversary can remind us all of one thing, Mister Deputy Speaker, it should be that progress did not come easily. It took decades of tireless work, leadership and steadfast commitment. Most importantly, it required a willingness to work across divides, sometimes with people who it had hitherto been unimaginable to work with.
The lessons from the leaders of 1998 will, I hope, prove instructive for all of us who have the honour to follow in their footsteps.
Mister Speaker, I know that Northern Ireland is on a path to a better, brighter and more prosperous future over the coming 25 years, thanks to the foundation that the peace and stability the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement provides.
- We are creating a platform for this more prosperous future by investing in the people of Northern Ireland, giving them the skills they need to succeed and harnessing their entrepreneurial spirit. Only last month my Minister of State announced £18.9m of funding to boost the fantastic cyber security sector in Northern Ireland. Together with over £600m of UK Government investment in City and Growth deals for every part of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland of the next 25 years will be a byword for the cutting edge technology and innovation it is becoming known for now.
- We have addressed the issues caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, by agreeing to the Windsor Framework which fundamentally amends the old Protocol, it protects the economic rights of the people of Northern Ireland and provides us with the basis to move forward together as one United Kingdom.
- We, as the UK Government, will continue to support and invest in Northern Ireland, to make it an even better place to live, work and start a business in the years to come
Mr Speaker, the 25th anniversary of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is an historic moment for Northern Ireland, the whole United Kingdom, and Ireland. It is a milestone that will be heralded here in this country and in those countries whose contribution to the peace process made the Agreement’s success possible.
Today’s debate affords us all an opportunity to recognise this remarkable achievement, to reaffirm our commitment to protecting and upholding the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and to supporting Northern Ireland’s journey in the 25 years to come, to build a more perfect peace.
Mr Speaker, I commend this motion to the House.