Statement by Mark Durkan (SDLP) at the opening of the Review of the Good Friday Agreement, 3 February 2004
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at the opening of the Review of the Good Friday Agreement,
3 February 2004
We meet today, as the Agreement itself says, to "review and report on its operation". That is the purpose of this review. It is not a renegotiation.
As with our approach to all talks since the Agreement, the SDLP's goal in this review is to seek the Agreement's full and faithful implementation. We remain convinced that this is the best - and indeed only - way forward for all of us on this island. We challenge governments, parties and paramilitaries to live up to the Agreement and work it to its true potential.
The Agreement was democratically mandated by the people of Ireland, North and South, by referendum in 1998. That result stands. Nothing since invalidates it. Of course, much has been done to frustrate it.
No one party's mandate at the last election can set aside or override the Agreement's mandate in the referendum from the Irish people at large, including a large majority in the north. Nor can one party's anti-Agreement mandate supercede the pro-Agreement mandate of the other parties elected.
Contrary to false claims, we are not trying to ignore any party's mandate. Operating the Agreement with its provisions for inclusion, proportionality and cross-community protections is the way to respect and accommodate every party's mandate.
While the recent election results have not helped the prospects for this review or the Agreement more widely, we have to remember that those results were not the cause of the impasse and the suspension in which we find ourselves.
Suspension was brought about by the failure to end all paramilitary activity - republican and loyalist - and the failure of unionist parties to uphold the inclusive political institutions. Whether people regard these as two distinct issues - or two sides of the one coin - they are at the crux of the impasse.
Nearly six years on from the Agreement, such fundamentals should not be a continuing source of doubt, concern and distrust. Nor should it be allowed to work to any party's advantage that they still are.
Governments must recognise that negotiations that are exclusive and outcomes that are evasive have repeatedly failed.
Equally, parties must realise that there is absolutely no point in endless discussion on how the institutions of the Agreement might operate and all sorts of procedural alternatives if there is no clarity on ending paramilitary activity and ensuring inclusivity. Long debates on the institutions and their procedures will not bring us any closer to restoring them.
Moreover, the SDLP believes that the public were broadly satisfied with how the institutions were working. And in no way was any of the crises caused by their design. It is not the Agreement that the public are disillusioned with, but the failure of parties, paramilitaries and governments to live up to it.
Nor are the proposals for change from many parties well thought out or properly thought through. The DUP and the Alliance tell us that they want the Assembly to be able to overturn all ministers' decisions.
Yet ministers already were accountable to the Assembly. Their policies were questioned, scrutinised and debated. Their legislation had to be passed in an assembly where they had no guarantee of a majority.
Going further and allowing every decision to be overturned would cause total chaos. It does not happen in any serious administration and it must not happen here. How would we ever have coped with a crisis like Foot and Mouth with such a bureaucratic and indecisive kind of government?
The argument for such a change is to create government without trust. Yet it is the lack of trust that lies at the heart of our problems. And there is no substitute for trust - only worse government and a worse society.
If we are to design a government along the lines of Belfast City Council, then it will only be fit to exercise the powers of a council. That is no way to deliver the transformation of our society and economy that voters expect.
That said, we are convinced by the need to increase collectivity, accountability, transparency and efficiency. We have proposals for doing this and are willing to discuss them in this review. We are also willing to remit issues on the working of the institutions to when we have those institutions working, if that would help speed this review up.
Our concentration, however, has to be on the big issues. Paramilitary activity, loyalist and republican must end. Unionist politicians must agree to work all the agreement's political institutions. And Sinn Fein must agree to work its policing institutions. That is the challenge at the heart of this review.
We must also bring back the Agreement bigger and better than ever before.
The North/South agenda needs to be developed, with more areas for cooperation and implementation. We also have to improve the workings and worksheet of the British Irish Council.
The promise of equality and human rights lies at the heart of the Agreement. We must ensure that it is delivered on the ground in our society.
The Agreement's commitments to victims and survivors must be realised and their right to truth and remembrance vindicated. The political process is rightly condemned for occasionally waving at victims and survivors but doing nothing to reach them or touch them.
Greater efforts have to be made to guarantee parity of esteem, end sectarianism and promote the Irish language.
We have also yet to realise a normalised society and turn military bases to civilian use.
Equally, we have yet to achieve the devolution of justice which would mark the final stage in the overhaul to the system envisaged by the Agreement. Nor yet do all parties participate in our new policing institutions, making the achievement of real community policing more difficult.
These are the additional challenges that we face in this review. But the two Governments can lighten the load of our responsibilities by accepting theirs. They must press ahead with the Joint Declaration and Weston Park commitments on inquiries, justice, equality and human rights without delay.
That leaves us as parties:
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