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The Alliance Party is a liberal party. We recognise the diversity of society in Northern Ireland and our objective is to create a fair, just and peaceful society based on respect for all sections of our community and on the widest possible participation in government and decision making. We believe that the problem is essentially within Northern Ireland and can only be resolved by the people of Northern Ireland agreeing on a common way forward.

On that basis we welcome the publication of the framework document as a basis for discussion between the Northern Irish parties. We have in fact pressed for the publication of such a document since the last talks process ended in 1992, as we considered that the Northern Ireland parties would not enter into realistic debate until the two governments gave an indication of their thinking. What is now needed is serious dialogue between the parties here to take the process forward.

British policy in Northern Ireland has tended to be a matter of walking a tightrope, moving cautiously forward while attempting to keep a balance by satisfying everyone, or at least by offending everyone equally. The balancing act has become even more difficult recently with the government’s narrow parliamentary majority prompting both official unionists and Tory backbenchers to throw their weight around. But the two governments may have got the balance not far short of right in the Framework document.

What is particularly welcome in it is the commitment to the principle of consent. The unequivocal recognition by both governments that there can be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland is an essential starting point for progress. It offers unionists the prospect for having their fundamental requirement underwritten not only by the British government but also by incorporation in the Irish constitution. That represents a major step forward for unionists, who have always been haunted by insecurity and by the fear of a British betrayal. That unionist politicians spurn the commitments made is more a measure of their political ineptitude than of the importance of what they are being offered.

The proposals for devolved institutions in Northern Ireland in which powers would be shared across the community, for the adequate protection of rights, and for North/South institutions which would provide for effective co-operation and a positive relationship between the two parts of this island also provide a starting point for discussion. However, the specific proposal made on each of these areas need a lot of work.

In our view any effective proposals must reflect the diversity of Northern Ireland, must be based on the participation of the `Northern Ireland people in decision making, must be accountable, and must be straightforward and transparent – people will not trust institutions or proposals which have a sense of sleight of hand to them. On that basis the framework document leaves a good deal to be desired. For example, its paragraphs on human rights are conspicuous for their vagueness. It may surprise some people to realise that this is an area on which the Northern Ireland parties are substantially agreed – we all want o see the European Convention on Human Rights incorporated in NI domestic law, as at least a starting point on the rights issue. So why this vagueness and this talk about charters? Why not a specific commitment to incorporation? No doubt the simple answer is that the British government, and no doubt the Irish, have their own agendas about human rights, and incorporating the Convention isn’t part of them.

Similarly, why is such a complex and improbable structure proposed for devolution in Northern Ireland? Not only an Assembly with proportionate distribution of offices – which is straightforward and fine and readily comprehensible by everyone – but also a directly elected three man “panel” to oversee it. That proposal – effectively for a collective presidency on the perhaps unfortunate model of the former Yugoslavia – would exclude all but the representatives of the traditional blocks and thus would promote rather than reduce sectarian division , and would muddy the waters of accountability by leaving it unclear where power really lay. Equally it has to be clear that any North South bodies are practical agencies for co-operation, accountable to the Northern Assembly and the Dail.

Transparency and accountability are really the keys here. We need institutions which are straightforward, capable of being worked collectively by people with widely differing political viewpoints, and capable of reflecting the wide diversity of opinion and community in Northern Ireland. The government – and the Northern Ireland parties – need to concentrate on the practicalities of setting up workable institutions capable of commanding widespread support and confidence. And they need to do so with a greater sense of urgency than has tended to be displayed up to now.

Steve McBride
(Chairman, Alliance Party)