A British Government decision to make the delivery of a new economic aid package to the North dependent on progress tackling sectarian divisions is not an attempt to blackmail Stormont politicians into action, the UK's Secretary of State has insisted.
Visiting Belfast on the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, Theresa Villiers said linking measures to boost the private sector economy with the implementation of shared future initiatives was a demonstration of how strongly British Prime Minister David Cameron felt on the issue of reconciliation.
Ms Villiers, who this morning met with community groups on both sides of one of the city’s infamous peace walls, said great strides had been made since the historic power-sharing accord, but said there remained an urgent need to address the divisions that continued to blight the region.
“Huge progress has been made in the 15 years since the Belfast Agreement was signed and we need to give an enormous amount of credit to Northern Ireland’s politicians for delivering unprecedented peace and stability,” she said.
“But I think they acknowledge that there is unfinished business, there is further work to be done, and a key area for that is healing sectarian divisions.”
The Government is in negotiations with Stormont Executive ministers on a range of potential economic measures.
It is understood these include British Treasury incentives to boost the province's flagging private sector, including the creation of enterprise zones, greater support for business start-ups and improving access to loans.
Ms Villiers, who said the package could potentially go beyond what has been offered to other parts of the UK, said it made “good sense” to link the economic support with action on sectarianism.
“If we can’t agree the package it’s a fact that we may not be able to deliver some of the things that we are talking about and discussing on the table at the minute,” she warned.
“But I think there’s every chance that we will be able to agree that because, as I say, the Executive are already doing some excellent work on building a shared society and I am optimistic that we will be able to come up with something that they are happy with and we are as well.”
She added: “Frequently I do these interviews and I am told ’well what are you doing about a shared society?’
“This is a demonstration of how strongly the Prime Minister feels about it and this is an opportunity for us to work with the Executive on delivering an important and beneficial economic package for Northern Ireland as well as seeing real progress towards a shared society.”
Asked if the stance amounted to blackmail, the Secretary of State replied: “Not at all.
“Both the Executive and the UK Government want to see sectarian divisions addressed.
“We are talking here right next to one of the so-called peace walls which continue to scar the face of Northern Ireland.
“I think we all agree, both the UK Government and the leadership of Northern Ireland’s political parties, that progress is needed – this is a good opportunity to actually map out a pathway to that progress.”
Earlier, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker said today was an opportunity to reflect on the progress made since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and to renew the commitment to working for peace and prosperity.
“The peace process in Northern Ireland was one of Labour’s proudest achievements in government,” he said.
“The Good Friday Agreement showed that it is only by working together that we get things done.
“That is as true today, for the British and Irish governments and the Northern Ireland parties, as it was in 1998.”