2 November 2021

Reconciling with Northern Ireland’s past, looking to its future

By The Rt Hon Brandon Lewis

This year is the centenary of Northern Ireland, and the Union as we know it. As we mark this historic occasion, I know many will be reflecting on the past as well as looking to the century ahead. But building the brighter future we all wish to see requires us to be honest and upfront about some uncomfortable truths. 

There are some generations both in Northern Ireland itself and elsewhere in the United Kingdom whose first instinct on this anniversary will be to think of The Troubles – the descent into bloody violence that began in the late 1960s, claiming the lives of more than 3,500 people, and which only came to some sort of a close with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998. 

I do not propose to go back in discussion here to the roots of the problems. But we must take a moment to reflect on the communities that were bitterly riven, memoirs which speak of streets like ‘war zones’, the pervading menace of paramilitaries, the bombings and the innocents on all sides who were killed, injured or grievously affected in some way. 

Twenty-three years on from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, we have an opportunity to help build a better future for the generations to come, which is less tainted by the legacy of Northern Ireland’s difficult past. Earlier this year the Government set out its proposals for how we might take this next step forward. 

It would be foolish to claim or believe there is anything at all straightforward about this. But we must, now, do something to enable those who want to find out the truth about what happened to their loved ones to be able to do so. If we are to build a Northern Ireland that can look forwards with confidence, some measure of reconciliation with the past is essential. 

I am hopeful of progress, but we should be under no illusion that the situation in Northern Ireland is complicated. Today, there is significant overlap between terrorist, paramilitary and organised crime groups. These groups exist in the same ecosystem and cause significant harm. 

We will continue to support the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the National Crime Agency against those operating in pure criminality (smuggling, modern slavery, protection racketeering), bushelled under the guise of political paramilitarism and exploiting the border for their own ends. They should be called out for what they are. 

This might have seemed a rather strange way to open a piece on the centenary of Northern Ireland and indeed the Union of today. But my point is that we would be doing ourselves no favours by trying to ignore the long shadow of the legacy of the past. We should be clear that one of the Government’s primary objectives for Northern Ireland is to continue to ensure that it is ever safer and more free from paramilitarism and terrorism, because only this way will it flourish, prosper and reach its fullest potential. 

Communities must be supported by this government and the Northern Ireland Executive to become ever stronger, more resilient and more reconciled. Vibrant and cohesive communities are the key to helping more sustained economic progress, to becoming more tolerant and open, and to ensuring that current and future generations can reap the benefits of a safer, brighter future. 

Against this backdrop, everyone can really see how far society in Northern Ireland has come – and the very real and exciting potential for what the future looks like too. We want to see a stable Northern Ireland where democracy is mature, and integration is embraced. 

Progress has not stalled – but this past year has, of course, been particularly difficult. The response to the pandemic has shown the importance of all parts of the UK working together. We have delivered a world-leading vaccination programme, ensured everyone across the UK can access testing, and delivered a substantial economic package to get us all through these extremely challenging times. It is this story of resilience against the pandemic that has demonstrated the true value of our Union in Northern Ireland’s centenary year. 

We have wrapped up these past 100 years of history in the campaign ‘Our Story in the Making: NI Beyond 100’, which tells of communities and individuals in a spirit of mutual respect, inclusivity and optimism. With these stories of the past and present we can really put the spirit of our ambition for Northern Ireland in context. 

The programme is a comprehensive way to truly highlight all that Northern Ireland has to offer as a place to live, work, invest or visit – from events to celebrate the achievements of young people in arts, sports and culture, to our Business Showcase later this year, to academic and historic events and a Shared History Fund, which through 39 projects is bringing together the diverse and previously untold stories of Northern Ireland. 

Beyond the centenary year itself, there are ambitious plans on the Levelling Up agenda. To me, a levelled-up Northern Ireland means one where economic opportunity is more evenly distributed, society is more integrated and confident in itself, and great public services are delivering the best possible outcomes for everyone. 

Northern Ireland has been one of the most disadvantaged areas in the UK. Its economic model has previously been built around relatively low-skilled and low wage jobs – resulting in poor productivity, and indeed living standards. 

But that is the old modus. And it is one that is now belied by what I have seen to be the truth on the ground. Microsoft has recently chosen Northern Ireland as the location for a new Cyber Security Centre. Anyone with a Fitbit – that’s supported by technology out of Northern Ireland. The wildly popular television series Game of Thrones was, of course, filmed in part in Northern Ireland – but the cultural landscape does not stop there, with Netflix, now the largest production company in the world, earlier this year beginning its first major production. 

Long a pioneering hub of aerospace manufacturing, the Northern Ireland of today is also developing breakthroughs in drone technology. These may be used to deliver emergency medicines or in search and rescue operations, helping to save lives. And if you have travelled on a bus in Aberdeen, Belfast or London, it may well have been a hydrogen-powered bus made in Northern Ireland by Wrightbus, showing we can help reach our climate targets with brilliant home-grown ingenuity. 

These are just a clutch of examples of how Northern Ireland is powering forward in fintech, aerospace, R&D, the arts and more. 

But there is more we need to do to meet our levelling up ambition. We want to help ensure that everyone in Northern Ireland has the skills to succeed and benefit from its new and highly innovative economy. Just as the Union provided us with the strength to fight the pandemic, it is important we continue working together to ensure the health services in Northern Ireland, and indeed in all four nations of the UK, provide the best possible care in the years ahead. And I am keen to find a pathway to a more integrated education system in Northern Ireland that delivers a high-quality education for every child. A recent survey found that the overwhelming majority (69%) would prefer to send their children to a mixed-religion school.19 And yet at present, less than 10% of children receive education in an integrated school.

So the bedrocks for Northern Ireland’s future are: prosperity and levelling up its economy with the rest of the UK; greater inclusion, tolerance and openness; and keeping society safe and stable. 

I believe the best way for Northern Ireland to achieve all of these objectives is as part of the UK, with a responsive and effective Northern Ireland Executive, backed by the UK Government. By working together we have gotten through the pandemic, and we can deliver the good healthcare, good schools and the opportunity of good jobs that will help Northern Ireland thrive. 

This government has invested a great deal in Northern Ireland – which reflects our scale of ambition and belief in the future. Taken in the round, we have made the most substantial investment in Northern Ireland for pretty much a generation. The back-end of last year saw an additional £400m guaranteed through the ‘New Deal for Northern Ireland’. This was on top of £650m for the Trader Support Service; investment in new technology to support traders; and our contribution to the PEACE PLUS Programme, funding activities that promote peace and reconciliation and contribute to the cross-border economic and territorial development of the region – and that all on top of the £2bn committed to the Northern Ireland Executive under the New Decade, New Approach agreement of January 2020.21 

That is not to say that everything is perfect. The Government is seeking to negotiate with the EU significant changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is not working in its current form. We cannot ignore, as I set out earlier, the legacy of some of those issues that still trouble us today regarding Northern Ireland’s relatively recent past. 

As we look to the century ahead, we must continue working hard to deliver on the issues that matter to Northern Ireland’s people. Stability. Rewarding jobs. Great schools. Excellent healthcare. But the story of Northern Ireland and our Union has always been about so much more than that. Like the emotional and cultural ties that bind us together and are cherished, on both sides of the water.  

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Brandon Lewis is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.