The Secretary of State has said the centenary of Northern Ireland gives the country a huge opportunity to promote itself around the world.
Brandon Lewis MP was speaking at the launch of the government branding for the centenary celebrations, which will see £3m spent on various events around the country in 2021.
“This is a significant moment for the whole country and an opportunity to acknowledge Northern Ireland’s contribution as a valued part of the United Kingdom,” he said.
“Over the last few decades people have had conversations around what the next ten years holds.
“The importance of 2021 as we’re coming out of Covid is a chance to really promote Northern Ireland around the world.
“The way people have come together across communities to support each other through Covid bodes well for the future.
“Next year is the time to shine a light on what makes Northern Ireland so special, and to look forward to a bright future,” he said.
The Secretary of State praised the NI Executive for the way it has handled internal differences throughout Covid, but when quizzed over the fallout of the funeral of leading republican Bobby Storey, which was attended by Sinn Fein ministers, he said that no-one should be above the laws of the land.
“I don’t want to pre-judge the outcome of the police investigation, and that is ongoing,” said Mr Lewis.
“When you look at equality overall there have been great steps forward in Northern Ireland this year, on abortion, on same-sex civil partnerships being able to covert into marriages. We’re proud to deliver on that.
“One of the things we’ve learnt throughout Covid across the UK is that guidelines matter. They’re there to keep us safe and healthy.
“It’s great credit to the NI Executive, all the parties. It’s understandable they’re not going to agree on everything. In the last few weeks we’ve seen discussions on changes to Covid regulations but they’ve found a way to work through that, even after what happened at the republican funeral.
“That’s a credit to the Executive as a whole.
“But it’s important to understand that everybody should be treated the same, that’s how the rule of law works.”
One of the main issues Northern Ireland is still struggling to deal with is the legacy of the Troubles and the Secretary of State said the UK Government was right to be taking its time:
“There are a huge amount of unknowns,” he said.
“A lot of families who still don’t have information from things that happened decades ago. I’m not surprised it’s complicated.
“There is so much for people to work through.
“We’ve still sadly got over 3,500 deaths where we want to get that information out there. Taking the time to do it right is the right thing to do and we will take our time.
“We have a duty to find a way forward so the next generations can start looking forward more and more.
“It’s important to ensure legacy is something that is not toxic today. It’s always going to be part of our history in Northern Ireland.”
He also said that the UK government is still considering the impact of a ruling in May which saw Gerry Adams conviction for escaping from the Maze prison quashed by the Supreme Court. Mr Adams called for the legality of every internment during the Troubles to be scrutinised.
“It’s too early to give a straight answer on that,” said Mr Lewis.
“We have to look at the ruling and outcome of that case, the details and implications.
“At the time of the outcome we were disappointed with the overall decision the court came to.”
In an hour long online forum hosted by the UK’s leading political think tank Policy Exchange to launch the Centenary branding, Mr Lewis also reiterated the view that Northern Ireland has a huge opportunity to benefit from the government’s commitment to deliver on New Decade New Approach once the UK’s departure from the European Union is finalised.
“There is a big opportunity here for the economy. I understand the tension leaving the EU has created and we must find a mutually beneficial way forward,” he said.
“When the UK and Irish governments work together it helps stability, personal relationships and friendships are important.
“There will be further opportunities to work with the US. In the President elect we have someone with a special link to Ireland. There are many shared agendas there.
“But there is a very strong and growing confidence that Northern Ireland will be in a very good position as part of the UK. I think people will find that the opportunities will be there in a much smoother way than people expect.
“But the future of Northern Ireland is in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland. As an integral part of the UK, Northern Ireland will have a unique place to prosper in the years ahead.
“If we look to 2021 it’s about celebrating the people of Northern Ireland, the opportunities Northern Ireland has, but by being respectful to all views and understanding and respecting the past as well.”