Opportunity for change (February 2010)
Last weekend saw the SDLP's Mark Durkan deliver his final speech as leader of the SDLP. I found it extremely unfortunate that he, and the SDLP, used their annual party conference as a platform to criticise the agreement reached at Hillsborough, an Agreement which has been welcomed widely by the vast majority of citizens here.
The Agreement between ourselves and the Democratic Unionist Party; the Agreement that the SDLP was intent on criticising, deals with the transfer of policing and justice powers and other outstanding matters arising from the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements.
The crisis which culminated in the Hillsborough Castle negotiations had been building up for some time. As early as last year we in Sinn Féin had warned the British secretary of state that the political institutions were not sustainable in the longer term because they were not functioning on the basis of equality and partnership. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, there have always been many within the DUP who have been opposed to power sharing and who have had difficulty in dealing with nationalists and Republicans as equals.
The tone of the SDLP conference, and their negative comments, were all the more disappointing given that in recent years they have been more interested in standing on the sidelines and sniping as Martin McGuinness and others did the heavy lifting.
So, while some had, in recent weeks, preferred to criticise and snipe from the sidelines, we in Sinn Féin were involved in protracted negotiations with the DUP and the Irish and British governments in Hillsborough Castle for over a week.
Our focus was on getting an agreement which would see the leaders of unionism working genuinely to secure a new beginning, a new beginning which would see the proper functioning of joined-up government based on equality and citizens' rights. An Agreement which will not only see the transfer of powers on policing and justice in April, but also by the end of the year the transfer of responsibility from London to Ireland for dealing with the issue of parades, and the setting in place of a process to progress the rights of Irish language speakers, clear the backlog of executive papers and decisions which are still pending, and advance the all-Ireland aspects of the St Andrews agreement. It is a detailed and time-framed agreement.
There will, of course, be some who will rail against this agreement. Those who have done so already have come from varying positions on the political spectrum and make for strange bedfellows. But they are the minority. The vast majority want this process to work and public opinion in recent weeks, while at times frustrated at the protracted nature of these negotiations, has overwhelmingly favoured a deal.
The judgment on this Agreement's success, however, will be in whether the process and the institutions deliver for citizens. As the parties negotiated, hundreds more job losses were announced in Belfast and Monkstown in County Antrim. The number of unemployed is rising; families are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. There are increasing numbers of children living in poverty, while our elderly choose between heating homes and buying food.
The reality is that for two years the executive and assembly have not been as effective as they should have been in developing strategies to tackle these problems. There is now a significant opportunity to change that. An opportunity to build a society based on respect, equality, partnership and fairness. So, rather than snip and attack the Agreement reached at Hillsborough, the SDLP should join with the rest of us in making sure that the Assembly and Executive, of which they are a member, delivers for all of the people here.