Britain's N. Ireland chief tips strategy

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Nov. 16, 2005 at 6:57 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 (UPI) -- Can tough love jump-start the Northern Irish peace process and transform its economy to match the trigger growth of the neighboring Republic of Ireland? Peter Hain, Britain's recently appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland, believes it can.

In an exclusive interview with United Press International, Hain, who is visiting the United States this week, expressed confidence that the cease-fires in Northern Ireland would hold and that the Catholic nationalist Irish Republican Army was abandoning not just its paramilitary armory, but its involvement in criminal activity as well. He also expressed optimism that a "sea-change" was taking place among the paramilitary groups in the province's majority Protestant loyalist community, too. And he expressed a tough determination to enforce unpopular economic reforms to shrink the 1.7 million-population province's public sector and develop a modern competitive economy there.

Hain made clear he was determined to take the hard decisions needed to modernize Northern Ireland now by giving the local political parties the opportunity to look good when they come back into the game. It is a post- peace process and post-conflict strategy that also looks to drain the swamp of bitterness and privation in isolated pockets of Northern Ireland where Loyalist extremists are still predominant.

Hain was cautious about the prospects for getting the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, the dominant political parties among Northern Ireland's million Protestants and 700,000 Catholics into a power-sharing partnership that would allow local democratically elected government there to be revived.

"I wouldn't put a time frame on it," he said.

Politicians in Northern Ireland are waiting for the January report of Canadian Gen. John de Chastelian's Independent Monitoring Commission on whether the IRA's July 28 statement is being implemented on the ground by them. "We will want to review the situation immediately afterwards," Hain said.

However, he cautioned, "The DUP (led by the Rev. Ian Paisley) have made it clear they wouldn't be rushed or bounced into negotiations and I understand that."

De Chastelain's January report will be on paramilitary activities, targeting, intelligence gathering and criminal activities. Hain said that the information he was receiving from the British security services gave him cautious optimism that the IRA was in fact fulfilling its pledge to get out of criminal and paramilitary activities. "So far, so good," he said. "The intelligence I am receiving from the security services suggest that the IRA is complying with its July commitment. Yes, it's encouraging, (but) we've (still) got some sticky patches to get through.

"Next week, I'm introducing into the House of Commons a new procedure for terrorist suspects residing outside United Kingdom jurisdiction," Hain said. "They can come back on a license and are free to return to Northern Ireland subject to not getting involved in any more paramilitary activities. That is part of the closure we are looking for on 'The Troubles.'

"It is the same principle that was applied to the 400 (paramilitary detainees from both sides who were) released during the peace process. Of that 400, only 12 have been rearrested," he said.

Protestant paramilitary activities, he said, were "still very worrying. However the Loyalist Defense Force and the Ulster Defense Association have both made hopeful statements."

"There is no rationale for the continued existence of the Protestant paramilitaries," Hain said. "What is the point of (still having) Loyalist paramilitaries? At the moment they seem to be fighting the Northern Ireland police (but) loyalism is supposed to be loyal to the Crown. The police are the officers of the Crown. Yet in the September riots, Loyalists were trying to kill the police."

He said the Loyalists paramilitaries were developed to defend the Protestant community from the IRA. But the IRA has ended its war and he urged them to end their violence. "The war is over," he said.

"I do see a sea change within (loyalist) ranks," he added. "Power -sharing and democratically elected rule won't be restored in matter of weeks or possibly even months. In the short term, the stalemate can hold but if it continued for years that would be very dangerous. I don't expect it to be restored in weeks or months. I'm sure it can be restored (in time)."

Meanwhile, Hain has abandoned the strategic policy of previous Conservative and Labour Party secretaries of state who for decades have poured money into job-supplying bureaucracies in Northern Ireland, not asked questions, bought prosperity with British taxpayer subsidies and focused all their energies on the peace process.

Appointed only in May after Prime Minister Tony Blair's third general election victory in a row -- a record only Margaret Thatcher in modern British history can match -- he has already made clear he is going to be an activist secretary of state imposing needed domestic reform on Northern Ireland from the top down, however unpopular it may be.

He is introducing increased water charges and dramatic increases in the property tax.

"There is a lot of resentment about that," Hain said. "The average property tax in Mainland Britain is 1,200 pounds (about $2,300). In Northern Ireland it is only 500 pounds ($900)."

"I am optimistic on the security front. I am more concerned about the economic front," he told UPI. "Northern Ireland is not a sustainable economy. Currently it has more jobs and more prosperity than ever before. The unemployment rate at only 4 percent is the lowest it has ever been in the province's history.

"But there is desperate over-administration and too much public bureaucracy. Hospital waiting lists are far too long and general education standards are just not good.

"Education standards in general are lower than Mainland (British) standards," Hain said. "The proportion of children without secondary education qualifications and without (college level) degrees is far lower (than in Mainland Britain) At the top of the education system, people (from Northern Ireland) do a lot better than on the mainland, but at the bottom they are doing worse.

"In some loyalist areas, unemployment is as high as 40 percent even though the average level of unemployment for all of Northern Ireland is only 4 percent. And these pockets tend to be the areas of most violent loyalist paramilitary activity. The economic and security strategies are strongly connected," he said.

"My message to the DUP and Sinn Fein is: 'Get into power yourself and take these decisions yourself if you don't like them.' As it is, when they get in, the unpopular decisions will have been taken already by me so it will be a lot easier for them.

"The public sector is far too big and bloated," he said. "If it were not for the United Kingdom umbrella, Northern Ireland would be in dire economic shape.

"We have 26 local councils administering a population of only 1.7 million. We have 100 quangos, semi-government organizations, 19 hospital trusts, four health authorities and five education boards. We have got to have a much higher caliber of decision making. That is why I am announcing a radical restructuring of public services. We need to devolve resources for back office bureaucracy to the front line.

"Northern Ireland needs to develop creative industry, Information Technology, computer technology, nano-technology and bio-tech," Hain said. "It needs to develop value-added information services. We need greater synergy between the economies of the North and South of Ireland. At the end of the day, Ireland is one island. In the end, the island of Ireland is going to face the fierce winds of global competition, especially the threat from India and China.

"The Republic of Ireland has crated a highly efficient, and competitive modern economy, Northern Ireland needs to learn from the South the importance of enterprise and of investing in infrastructure and education and creating a lot more dynamic and entrepreneurial economy," he said.

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