I said in Opposition that I would devote all the time and energy at my disposal to help bring peace to Northern Ireland. I have tried to do that.
A lasting political settlement and durable peace in Northern Ireland are prime objectives of my government.
We and the Irish Government have set the aim of a settlement by May. We believe that whatever the difficulties, that remains realistic. We are determined to stick to it, and I remain cautiously optimistic about the prospects.
The outlines of a settlement are clear: devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, North-South structures to promote meaningful cooperation, and wider so-called East-West (British-Irish) arrangements. There is also acceptance by almost all the parties that an underlying principle in a settlement must be the consent of the people.
The talks in Belfast have been long and frustrating, and there is still a lot of negotiating to do. But we have come a long way in a short time, and, increasingly, the parties are getting down to real substance. Together with the Irish Government we will push hard to keep this momentum going. But the governments cannot do the parties job for them. ultimately the shape of a settlement will be dictated by what the parties can agree.
Sadly, there has been continuing violence by paramilitary groups. This remains a constant problem. We have seen some dreadful attacks on innocent people in recent weeks, although there has been a merciful respite for two weeks now. The main paramilitary groups are sticking to their ceasefires. But there are fringe groups on both sides hellbent on wrecking the process. We must not let them achieve their aim. The peaceful, democratic path is the only way forward.
Meanwhile the basic principles of fairness and justice for both communities underpin our approach. We are working hard to build up confidence on both sides, though I have to say that one mans confidence building measure is all too often another mans unacceptable concession. That is the reality of Northern Ireland politics. It is not easy, but I know from my talks with all the participants last week that the desire for peace is strong. We are working hard on sensitive issues such as social inequality, prisoners, and policing. But I have no doubt that real progress towards a settlement is by far the best confidence-building measure for all sides.
I want today to put on record my sincere gratitude for the US Administrations support for our efforts, not least that of President Clinton himself. We also appreciate enormously the help of George Mitchell and fellow Independent Chairmen who have shown tremendous patience.
We need your continuing help. You have excellent contacts, which I hope you will use. I hope too these contacts will continue to be with both sides. Both Unionists and Nationalists need support and encouragement because they both have basic fears about the future.
Since the election, I have taken risks for peace, as have others, and I will continue to do so. We have succeeded in bringing Sinn Fein into the process, despite the obvious difficulties this poses for us after long years of IRA terrorism, and clearly, that was an important step.
I remain determined to keep the talks inclusive, and to turn the men of violence once and for all onto the path of democratic politics. This means that any return to violence cannot and will not be countenanced. We have already had to act against one of the loyalist parties and eject them from the talks. There can be no exceptions here.
This is one area where your help is essential. We must all make clear that violence can never be an answer in Northern Ireland. Everyone has the chance to put their political case in the talks. Everyone has to be ready to compromise and accommodate the views of others.
This applies to both Unionists and Nationalists. It applies to Sinn Fein as well as to the biggest party on the Nationalist side, the SDLP led by John Hume.
If we can achieve a settlement, endorsed in referendums, North and South, this will be a huge breakthrough. But it will not be the end of the story, only the beginning. We will have to work hard to build on the peace, and consolidate the settlement through reconciliation and progress for all. US help will be even more important in showing that there are real dividends of peace, not least in the economic field.
I have no doubt that there are many difficult moments ahead. You and I may not always agree on every detail. But our objective of a lasting settlement and peace for the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland is unshakeable. If we are all working together to achieve that, we cannot go far wrong.
There have been dark moments, and difficult times. But by any objective analysis, the prospects for peace remain better than they have been for a generation. A great prize is there for the taking. Squander the chance we have now, and it may not come back for a generation or more.
I am Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And I will not rest until the people of all parts of the country I lead live in peace and prosperity.
I ask that you continue to support us in that endeavour.