Two leading Irish Americans, former Congressmen James Walsh and Bruce Morrison, writing on behalf of over a dozen Irish American leaders, have called on parties in the North and the Irish and British governments to reach an immediate resolution of the welfare issue crisis.
The call is contained in an open letter to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan and to Northern Ireland party leaders.
Morrison and Walsh wrote: "We are concerned that a 'one size fits all approach' to welfare reform for the United Kingdom negates this striking reality of Northern Ireland’s recent past.
"We believe the basis of a compromise exists if agreement can be reached to accept the current cuts envisioned by the Stormont Agreement, coupled with an agreement by her Majesty’s government to accept a three year moratorium on future welfare cuts."
The call comes after meetings with Senator Gary Hart, the personal envoy for Secretary of State John Kerry, and leading Irish Americans in New York and Washington.
Morrison and Walsh wrote: “We are writing as long-time friends of the Northern Ireland peace process on behalf of a group of U.S. experts who represent over 30 years of active U.S. engagement in support of the peace process in Northern Ireland from the 1980s through the IRA ceasefires, to the Good Friday Agreement and the Saint Andrews Agreement. We have represented and supported both Republican and Democratic Administrations that have actively and successfully promoted peace in Northern Ireland.
"In October of last year we wrote to two of you, Messrs. Robinson and McGuinness, outlining our concerns about the stalemate in resolving outstanding issues facing the devolved government at Stormont. We urged you 'to go back to the table and hammer out a compromise with a clear recognition that all sides will have to give up certain prerequisites to do a deal that moves Northern Ireland beyond the current stalemate and creates a vision of a shared society for the generations to come.'
"We were particularly pleased by the decision of U.S. Secretary of State Kerry to appoint former U.S. Senator Gary Hart as his personal envoy to the subsequent talks. We believe that Senator Hart was extremely effective in representing both the interests of the U.S. Administration and the American people in encouraging all the political parties to make the needed compromises that culminated in the Stormont Agreement in December. Senator Hart continues to be an excellent advocate for compromise. We fully support his ongoing efforts to listen to all parties involved in the implementation of the Stormont Agreement.
"In our opinion, the Agreement was comprehensive and established a set of agreements and processes to resolve long outstanding issues particularly on addressing the Past, including the creation of an Oral History Archive, a Historical Investigations Unit, and an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval. We noted that an Agreement was reached on welfare reform, public sector restructuring, reform of the Assembly and broadened civic engagement.
"The Agreement also included provisions to promote equality in shared and integrated education, housing, social inclusion and community development. We were particularly pleased that the Agreement embraced full implementation of the Together: Building a United Community strategy that addresses the core issue of sectarianism that has so bedeviled Northern Ireland. The Stormont Agreement is a substantial achievement.
"But implementation of the Stormont Agreement is in peril due to disagreements over the pending welfare bill. Once again creative compromise will be required to assure that implementation of the Agreement does not founder on this issue. The potential gains that can be achieved by full implementation of the Stormont Agreement are worth every effort to find a compromise over the welfare bill in the next few weeks.
"Whatever may be true in the remainder of the United Kingdom, the burdens on Northern Ireland from both the Great Recession and the decades of the Troubles make the prospect of further welfare cuts a matter of great concern. Northern Ireland continues to have one of the highest rates of PTSD in the world and 'the suicide rate in Northern Ireland' is '63% higher' than the rate in Britain. Between 1995 and 2013, 4,018 people took their own lives in Northern Ireland, higher than the total number of deaths attributed to violence in the Troubles. Northern Ireland should be in a much better place economically and socially in three years if the Stormont Agreement is broadly implemented and the resulting economic and political stability can produce increased inward and local investment in job-creating development. We know that such stability is absolutely essential for the promotion of investment in Northern Ireland by American companies.
"Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Charles with their recent trips to the Republic of Ireland and to Northern Ireland have sought, with great dignity and grace, to offer the people on the island of Ireland the possibility of a new narrative of hope and enduring friendship with the people of Great Britain. Their words may not fit easily into a budget document but they offer an alternative and positive world view to the people of Northern Ireland – compromise, good will, a peaceful and sustainable future based on a deep understanding that while we cannot gloss 'over the pain of the past' we can imagine and do the real work necessary to build a shared future together.
"We believe that our proposal may provide the basis for a renewed effort by each of you to resolve the current impasse impeding the further implementation of the Stormont Agreement.
"Hon. James T. Walsh
Former Member of Congress
Former Chairman, Congressional Friends
of Ireland Committee
"Hon. Bruce A. Morrison
Former Member of Congress
Former Co-Chair, Ad Hoc Congressional
Committee on Irish Affairs."