Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Governments must work together to achieve peace

Westminster cannot be allowed to shirk its responsibility when it comes to Northern Ireland, says Vernon Coaker

I've said many times over the last number of weeks that the rioting seen in Belfast would not be acceptable on the streets of London, or Dublin. It's a view that is shared by most people in Northern Ireland.

Today, the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, and the Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, are meeting the First and Deputy First Ministers to try and find a way forward.

And that's important, because both the British and Irish governments still have a crucial role to play in guaranteeing the peace and progress made in Northern Ireland.

With a devolved administration, there is, of course, a balance to be found between helpful intervention and harmful interfering.

But the sustained and violent public disorder and the negative impact it is having on community relations, business and the image of Northern Ireland call for the two governments to act.

Too often, those in the corridors of power in London talk about Northern Ireland in the past tense. Job done.

Recent events show that approach has been proven to be as misguided as it is dangerous - because the Westminster Government can't shy away from some of the more difficult aspects of the job it has to do for people in Northern Ireland.

Firstly, the violence must stop. The PSNI has done a very good job in tough circumstances. But it's clear to me that they can't sustain the level of policing needed for the protests and riots without other areas of their work suffering.

If the Chief Constable needs additional resources, then the Government should make that available. Because, in my view, this has become an issue for Westminster.

When loyalist paramilitaries have, to a degree, orchestrated the rioting and are involved in attacks on the police, it's a national security issue.

So, as well as supporting the police, the Secretary of State should look carefully at what options she can take to stop the criminal behaviour of those engaged in this sort of activity.

The protests must also stop. When they do, we can start to discuss the valid and important things that working-class unionism and loyalism has to say.

I've been in many of these communities and am keenly aware of their sense of alienation and that their economic and social disadvantage is worsening. I've heard the same views expressed in nationalist areas, too.

So it's clear that all of us in positions of leadership must be open to hearing what people have to say and seeing how we can support these communities.

We need to get serious about building a shared future at a grassroots level. I know that there is already some great work being done to break down barriers and challenge sectarianism.

But we need to do it every day and in every way. Westminster and the Executive could, for example, jointly set a target of reducing the number of peace walls.

We have got to be ambitious about the future and give a clear statement of intent that separation and division is not part of it.

Finally, job-creation is vital to giving young people in places like east Belfast a chance. Labour has proposed a special youth jobs fund - funded by a one-off tax on bank bonuses - that could create 2,000 jobs. Because no job, no hope and no future are no choices for the young people of Northern Ireland.

I know these are difficult times for Northern Ireland. But people here have been through far worse. They were promised better and brighter times ahead.

It's up to both governments and the Executive to make good on their word, and, in spite of the occasional bump in the road, keep Northern Ireland journeying firmly forward towards a peaceful and prosperous future.

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