Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Theresa Villiers stirs up a hornets' nest

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has been fairly anonymous during her tenure of office, but she certainly made a big impact with her speech yesterday setting out her vision of the way politics in Northern Ireland should progress.

The timing may have been a little suspect – the local parties are going to play to the gallery until the elections are over and there will be little statesmanship evident in the coming months – but they are words the politicians needed to hear.

Ms Villiers is right, the public does expect more from those running affairs at Stormont, and that means dealing with the hard issues of flags, parading and the legacy of the past. Her concern that present truth recovery processes mean an over-concentration on wrongdoing by State forces, while terrorists, who were responsible for most of the deaths during the Troubles, get a relatively free ride, is one shared by many people.

However, it brought predictably polarised reactions from unionists and nationalists, the former praising the Secretary of State, the latter virtually accusing her of a sellout to unionists. Even the outgoing Victims' Commissioner joined in the howls of protest with strong criticism of Ms Villiers' comments.

But the Secretary of State is right. Our politicians need to deal with the issues of flags, parades and the past and get on with the real work of rebalancing the economy, reforming the public sector and building a genuinely shared future.

The public's real concerns are jobs, transport, schools and healthcare. Those are the things which impinge on their daily lives, but politicians' attention is diverted by ancient quarrels which hold little relevance to the majority of people.

The Secretary of State lobbed another grenade into the mix with her suggestion that there should be a real opposition at Stormont. While the present power-sharing arrangements were established for very valid reasons, the administration must evolve in the longer term to provide viable alternatives to the parties in power. Otherwise everyone has a veto on progress, which is bad for democracy.

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