Letter from Westminster 20.03.09

Of my various parliamentary com­mit­ments, my role as the Liberal Democrat front bench spokesman on Northern Ireland is one which in normal circumstances does not demand too much of my time. In terms of parliamentary and press activity it is fair to say that my main role as shadow secretary of state for Scotland is more time-consuming. In the normal course of things it involves a one-day visit to Northern Ireland perhaps three or four times a year and the occasional meeting in the House of Commons. It is a role that I have performed on and off over the last six or seven years and the changes that I have seen in that time have been remark­able. For people living in Northern Ireland there has been a real peace dividend. The social, commercial and political advantages have been enormous. There has been a marked improvement in the basic quality of life as people have started to live without the fear of sectarian violence.

Over the last 18 months or so, however, the meetings and briefings have become more and more con­cerned at the growing level of violence among the dissident repub­lican groups such as the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA. One police source told me towards the end of last year that if every failed attack on the police had been successful then upwards of 30 police officers in Northern Ireland could have lost their lives.

The news that two soldiers had been killed outside their barracks in Armagh, while shocking, did not come as a particular surprise. Nor, sadly, did the killing of a police officer some days later.

It is difficult at this stage to say what impact this will have on the peace process. I hope that while it may be shaken it can still emerge from it stronger. In truth, however, the answer to that question lies in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland themselves. For once they have been given impressive political and religious leadership.

To see Roman Catholics and Protestants taking part in a service outside the Masareene Barracks the day after the shootings there was a powerful first signal to the world that the churches would be unwaver­ing in their pursuit of peace.

Pictures of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness standing next to First Minister Peter Robinson and the Chief Constable would in years gone by have been as unthinkable as the message that all three had to impart. No-one should under-estimate the progress that is represented by Mr McGuiness, in particular, telling people that they must co-operate with the police in their investigations. People have been kneecapped or worse in the past for doing exactly that.

I believe that in Northern Ireland a peaceful co-existence bet­ween the different communities is now the settled will of the people there. It is up to the people to say so in terms that are clear and which even the men of violence can understand.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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