Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Theresa Villiers: Stop fighting over past and start delivering for present

Theresa Villiers said most people do not wake up in the morning thinking about the Troubles
Theresa Villiers said most people do not wake up in the morning thinking about the Troubles

The Secretary of State has laid down the law to Northern Ireland's politicians, telling them that they need to stop fighting over the past and deliver for the present.

Theresa Villiers ignited a storm of controversy after warning them that they need to get on with the job of fixing the economy, reforming the public sector and building a shared future.

In a keynote speech in Belfast, she bluntly told local politicians: "Let's face it, the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland don't wake up on a Monday morning worrying about the past, flags or parades.

"While these are important matters, the priorities for most people are issues like jobs, pensions, transport, schools and hospitals. And that's where they expect their politicians to focus their energies – not tied up with fighting the battles of yesterday."

She also told an audience of Church leaders that the past "has the capacity to poison the political atmosphere, as demonstrated by the controversy over the so-called on-the-runs."

And she called for "proportionate" focus on wrongdoing by republicans and loyalists rather than the security forces as part of future measures to heal divisions.

She said there was a "need for an objective balance and with proper weight and a proportionate focus on the wrongdoing of paramilitaries, rather than the almost exclusive concentration on the activities of the State, which characterises so many of the processes currently under way."

She further spoke of "the understandable concern that new structures and processes could lead to a one-sided approach which focuses on the minority of deaths in which the State was involved rather than the great majority which were solely the responsibility of the terrorists."

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly said Ms Villiers' comments "read like a unionist manifesto".

"Theresa Villiers' claims that there has been too much focus on State killings stems from the fact that during the conflict State killings and collusion were never properly investigated," he said.

"The reason so many cases on State killings are now going through the courts is that families are being denied the truth about the murder of their loved ones right up until the present."

Kathryn Stone, the outgoing Victims Commissioner, will meet the Secretary of State today. She accused the minister of a simplistic approach which failed to take account of the impact her words would have on Troubles victims.

She said Ms Villiers had been "insensitive to thousands of victims and survivors who do wake up every morning living with the legacy of the past and fearing what new trauma is around the corner".

"It is the reaction of victims and survivors that lasts much longer and is much more deeply felt than that of the general public. That is why we need to continue to put them first."

But DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds welcomed her approach.

"The facts are clear – 90% of deaths in Northern Ireland were caused by paramilitaries, and of those, two-thirds were by republicans.

"The IRA killed more Catholics than either the RUC or the Army, yet there has been a concentration of resources and calls for inquiries on a very small number of deaths."

Elsewhere in her speech, Ms Villiers called for the creation of an opposition at Stormont.

Yesterday the leaders of the Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist Churches said they had had "an open and constructive conversation with the Secretary of State following her address".

"For many people in Northern Ireland issues such as health, education, employment and welfare are an immediate priority. In our approach to healing the past we, as a society, cannot afford to lose sight of the responsibility to care for the vulnerable," the leaders said in a joint statement.

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