There is an irony that Raymond McCartney of Sinn Fein began his assessment of unionism by looking backwards. Amongst the attempts at self-justification and flailing claims about leadership it has been the constant tendency amongst republicans to spend their time looking backwards which has been a feature of recent months.
The actions of Sinn Fein in Castlederg where they revisited grief and trauma upon innocent victims had nothing to do with unionism. It was about the inability of republicans to lift their gaze beyond a very narrow base. Similarly Gerry Kelly’s tweet celebrating the 30th anniversary of a prison break-out and the associated death of a Prison Officer was not related to unionism but was either a crude attempt to pacify disillusioned republicans or just an even more crudely fashioned insult designed to cause maximum offence.
Unionism has resolved itself of the need to make Northern Ireland work through cross-community government. Opinion polls have consistently shown in recent times that the majority of people, regardless of religious background have resolved themselves of our constitutional position and want to see us making Northern Ireland work. That, of course poses difficulties for republicanism which has neither delivered its constitutional aim nor made any real progress towards it. Attempts to portray Northern Ireland as the ‘failed state’ they used to talk of ring more hollow also when they are a key part of its administration, under the banner of the United Kingdom.
The major issue in Northern Ireland may not be a fear of change, but a fear of no change at all. Prolonged stability and good government in Northern Ireland benefits everyone, regardless of background, but it does not provide a platform to campaign for a border poll. That may well be the contradiction facing republicans who want to tackle the issues of the present and build for a better future but fear it undermines their analysis of the past.
In reality though, building a successful Northern Ireland is good for everyone who lives here regardless of their background and working towards economic prosperity can help address some of the other political challenges that we face. Those challenges which face Dr Haass are not insubstantial but equally important is the rising cost of living facing families and the need to deliver the very best public services to the people of Northern Ireland.
The challenges we face should not be looked on as opportunity for any party to exploit, regardless of the impact on wider society and the political process of which they are a part. The narrow interests of some within a political party should not outweigh the interests of the public we are sworn to serve. It is vital that we deal with issues of the past, but the determination of a small number of people to cling to the past should not outweigh the interests of the public who also want to see us moving forward.
We have shown that it is possible to attract investors to Northern Ireland from across the world, and in a few short weeks we will again have some of the biggest names in business in Belfast for an investment conference. We have not heard a great deal of discussion about the importance of that conference too being a success, but a positive outcome could have a massive impact on people here. Such a positive economic impact can only provide a good environment for progress on other issues.
In moving Northern Ireland forward, and in making progress on these issues we must do so together. One side cannot hold out a hand of reconciliation while continuing to wage a campaign by other means. There is no workable alternative to the political process and there is no benefit to anyone in manufacturing crisis where none exists.
There are some on the loyalist side who have no strategy, just an ability to point out the perceived wrongs of others without any concept of how, in a deeply divided society, we can right those wrongs or overcome the difficulties.
There are some on the republican side who think that continuing with conflict or glorifying past acts of terrorism will further their goals. But anyone following either of those courses has learnt nothing from our history and has very little to offer the future.
Building a stable and peaceful society will not be easy and we will not allow the process of getting there to be anything other than balanced and fair. The denial of the expression of any identity or legitimate political viewpoint flies in the face of what we want to achieve. A peaceful future can only be built on mutual respect, tolerance and an unwavering commitment to the rule of law and the democratic process. No section of our community can be excluded from that shared future.
There is strong leadership within unionism and it has displayed courage and vision, with a strategy for the long-term. There is no crisis within the political institutions and we are not faced with difficulties in the absence of a mechanism to help solve them. Hopefully everyone will have the will to put the interests of Northern Ireland first and to achieve the progress which is possible.