Belfast Telegraph

Analysis: Something for everyone in David Cameron's Northern Ireland speech

By David Young

In a speech that invoked an Irish saint, quoted a British monarch and recalled a dip in the ocean, David Cameron had something for all those round the Assembly's diverse horseshoe chamber.

There were nods to both Northern Ireland's main traditions while the Prime Minister's professed love of bracing walks in the Antrim Glens even raised a smile from the sole Green Party MLA.

He trumpeted the Queen's visit to the Republic as extraordinary and hailed the contributions of successive Irish governments to peace.

But the 20 minute address, only the second ever by a British premier in the wood-panelled legislature, was not all sugar-coated.

His thinly veiled challenge to the IRA to tell truths from the past and his vow not to shy away from wrong doings of the British state was certainly not meant to curry favour.

The chamber was crowded for the speech, but by no means full.

Unsurprisingly, there appeared more spaces on the nationalist benches than the unionist.

But in the public gallery surrounding the blue carpeted amphitheatre there was enough to suggest the green tradition was not entirely disinterested by the visit of a Tory leader.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, who resigned his Assembly seat to run for election to the Irish Dail, had made the effort to be there.

But he cut a rather lonely figure as he looked down on his chattering party colleagues on the benches below.

Some claim the republican veteran has become a peripheral figure in Northern Ireland's political discourse, one now dominated by the personalities of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

The sight of him sitting, legs crossed on his own watching proceedings from above did little to dispel that theory.

Across the gallery was former SDLP leader Mark Durkan, another who has fallen off the Assembly's political landscape since he resigned his seat to focus on Westminster.

As the only one in the packed public pews to stand when Mr Cameron walked in, he clearly had not forgotten the chamber's protocol.

But he was not the only one who seemed to have made an extra effort for the PM.

Sinn Fein junior minister Martina Anderson, a former IRA prisoner, was sporting a new tousled hair style as she shared small-talk with her DUP ministerial counterpart and son of a Protestant minister Jonathan Bell prior to the address.

Such cordial encounters between members of parties who until six or seven years ago did not even communicate are now commonplace around the Assembly.

After he reflected on the work of St Columba and talked of memories of swimming in the Atlantic off the Irish coast, Mr Cameron borrowed a line from George V as he insisted it was now time to replicate the progress at Parliament Buildings in the still divided neighbourhoods outside the gates of the Stormont.

"Of course I recognise that this is not a place without controversy," the Prime Minister said.

"In the past it was for some a guarantee of their place within the Union; for others a symbol of a state and a system from which they felt excluded.

"I don't intend to ignite that debate, but I am reminded of the words of King George V when he opened the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921 and his appeal to all Irish men and women - 'To stretch the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill'.

"Nobody suggests that we have finally reached that point yet and that there aren't significant challenges still to overcome.

"But few can argue that we have not moved a long way towards it over the past two decades."

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