I welcome the past two week’s developments in the North, especially what has been achieved in policing and justice. No society can hope to attain any form of normality or legitimacy without control of something as basic and fundamental as policing and justice issues. They go to the heart of the kind of consensus that any society needs to have and the type of contract people have with each other on how their society is run.
It is a pity reaching the agreement took quite as long as it did. While I do not say that by way of criticism, it was frustrating at certain stages to see it dragging on for so long. It was unfortunate to see the issue of and, admittedly, the important and delicate issues tied up with the Parades Commission as the obstacle to agreement on the more fundamental question of policing and justice. It is, none the less, a great achievement that this stage has been reached. Congratulations are due to those individuals and parties, such as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Taoiseach and the British Government, who participated and brokered the agreement.
We have been here before. My party leader made the point in the Lower House that there must have been half a dozen occasions in recent years when we said to ourselves that was the moment at which we moved on and normality could be attained in politics, public life and society in Northern Ireland. This was what people hoped for and I certainly did.
The national question, as it is often called, or the constitutional imperative has been the fault line of politics in the North. Arguably, it was also the fault line in the South for many years too. While the seeking of a united Ireland is a noble and honourable objective, politics must move on. The issues that preoccupy all the peoples of Northern Ireland, as they do us, are fundamentally social and economic. We cannot shirk from the fact there are different options and ways of approaching economic crises and change. People in the Seanad have different views on how we should address those pressing issues. It is no longer credible, therefore, that the fault lines that divide people are those tied up with the constitutional question.
I raise the recent retirement of Mark Durkan as leader of the SDLP. That party has a proud tradition of upholding solid social and democratic politics, the kind I strongly support. Mark Durkan, a great exponent of this politics, has been a real politician, not just as a fearless and strong representative of his community but as someone who has brought forward real politics and options in respect of addressing economic issues, the most pressing that face any community. I wish Mark Durkan well in his retirement. I have known him personally for more than 30 years. We soldiered together as student politicians in the late 1970s and early 1980s when we were both rookies at the game. In the past ten years, he has achieved a huge amount as leader of the SDLP. He will continue to make a huge contribution as an MP.
Senator Feargal Quinn recalled the contributions to the process made by various Taoiseach-nominated Senators from the North and how they brought a special element into debates in the House. I know Mark Durkan has a position in another parliament but I would hope he might be considered a suitable Member of this House in the future. I know a Taoiseach’s nominee seat is free at the moment and somebody probably has their eye on it. It is a pity we cannot use it to avail of the knowledge and expertise of some people from the North.
I believe Margaret Ritchie will make a terrific leader of the SDLP and will uphold social democratic politics, seeking to foster them in the future.