Brandon Lewis is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and is MP for Great Yarmouth.
It is understandable that, during the last few months, moments of profound national significance have not had the same attention as they may have done previously. But our way out of the pandemic is in sight. The UK is leading the way in the roll-out of Coronavirus vaccines as we undertake the largest vaccination programme in our history – an achievement of which we should all be proud.
For many, it will have gone unnoticed that this year marks 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland, paving the way for the formation of the United Kingdom as we know it today. And with elections in Scotland and Wales in May, it is right that we are focused on fighting those.
In concentrating our efforts on them, though, I am determined that we do not lose sight of the fact that this year is also a hugely important one for Northern Ireland and for the United Kingdom as a whole.
For more than a century, the Union has been at the heart of our Conservative politics – but rarely has it had such prominence. The Government has been accused of paying lip service to the cause, but that could not be further from the truth.
As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I have a particular obligation to remain impartial when balancing cross-community interests, but that does not mean I am neutral. As a former Chairman of our Party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, I am unapologetically pro-Union.
At times, Unionists in Northern Ireland could rightly feel demoralised at the idea that people in Great Britain do not reciprocate their feeling of attachment to the mainland. This often results in a self-fulfilling prophecy, which manifests in the continuation of narratives about a distrust of those in Westminster. We must be fearless in challenging those narratives both in our words and in our actions.
This instinctive pessimism is not helped by the overwhelming emphasis that is placed on the contribution – financial, social and cultural – that Great Britain makes to Northern Ireland when little attention is paid to the huge advantages Northern Ireland brings to the rest of the United Kingdom.
That is why we will be using this national anniversary as an opportunity to promote Northern Ireland and recognise its contribution to the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland has distinct strengths in its digital economy – artificial intelligence, fintech, cyber security, advanced engineering and manufacturing. A great example of this is seen in the fact that Queen’s University in Belfast recently overtook Cambridge as the university ranked most highly for ‘entrepreneurial impact’ in the UK.
I am acutely aware that Northern Ireland is often overlooked as ‘too complex’, its history ‘too problematic’, and its politics ‘too divisive’. There is a tendency to shy away from engaging in meaningful discussion about its past, present or future, for fear of putting a foot wrong. This is counterproductive to our cause. We must allow room for all of Northern Ireland’s communities to celebrate their identities, while respecting alternative points of view. We should challenge those who present simplistic, or inaccurate, historical narratives, without indulging in any of our own.
The Conservative Party has a long- radition of being pro-Union. That does not deny or invalidate the relationship that Northern Ireland and its people also share with Ireland. These two relationships are not mutually exclusive, and the UK Government’s commitment to promoting the positives of the Union for Northern Ireland does not negate the benefits of improved North-South collaboration. A positive and inclusive vision for Northern Ireland must be welcoming of those who identify as Irish within the United Kingdom.
We will all pursue the path that we feel will give Northern Ireland the best chance to look forward as one, rather than continually looking backwards at a divisive history. It is absolutely possible, and indeed necessary, to afford respect to all the traditions of Northern Ireland without the need to always set them in direct opposition to one another. It is not a betrayal of our Unionism to acknowledge that those who believe in a ‘united Ireland’ are also free to present their case peacefully.
A brighter future for Northern Ireland will rely on promoting it as an attractive place to do business, maximising the chances for greater inward investment and jobs growth. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom; and it is now uniquely placed to benefit from dual-access to the EU and whole of the UK market. This results in a globally exclusive opportunity.
This year, I particularly want to focus on the social inequalities that persist, such as the continued lack of widespread integrated education across communities. There is now an entire generation of people within Northern Ireland – the ‘Good Friday generation’ – who have only known peace. If we are to continue to build on the hard won gains of the peace process then we need to support the next generation to move beyond traditional divides and the tenets of a post-conflict society.
This Government has a clear role to play as an enduring force for good in Northern Ireland – fostering healthy debate based on the principles of honesty, transparency and mutual respect. My priority will remain the articulation of a strong, optimistic and pro-active case for the UK and Northern Ireland’s place within it.