Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 15 June 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Engagement with Ireland's Future (Resumed)
We continue our engagement with Mr. Niall Murphy, secretary, Ms Laura Harmon and the Reverend Karen Sethuraman from Ireland's Future. On behalf of the committee, I welcome them to the meeting.
Before we begin, I have to read a note about privilege. The evidence of witnesses physically present from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings that a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts does and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter.
Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings should be given. They should respect directions given by the Chairman and the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should neither criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the person's or entity's good name.
I invite the Reverend Karen to make her opening statement.
Reverend Karen Sethuraman:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to address them today. It is an honour.
Since our previous meeting, I accepted the invitation to join the team at Ireland's Future. It is privilege to be part of a hard-working group that is committed to putting their shoulder to the wheel regarding possible Irish unity.
I made this decision with the blessing of my board, colleagues, family and friends.
Ireland's Future was established to advocate for, promote debate on and discuss the future of Ireland, including the possibility and viability of new constitutional arrangements on the island. Furthermore, it is important to mention that Ireland's Future makes it absolutely clear it is not a political party and is not affiliated to any political party. We welcome participation from people from all political persuasions and none who are interested in furthering the goals of Ireland's Future. I have highlighted this particular point-----
Reverend Karen Sethuraman:
I have highlighted this particular point as it is important to me for two reasons. First, my work as a minister centres on peace and reconciliation. I have the privilege of working with people from all backgrounds on this island, across the UK and further afield. Second, I believe it is critical that conversations regarding the future of Ireland extend beyond the political arena.
During our previous discussion, I argued for a citizens' assembly, as I am passionate that our conversations are not solely politically-led, but also extend to being people-led. When one gets to the core of what matters most to people, it is not their political stance. It is the bread and butter issues that affect all of us, concerning education, housing, healthcare, the economy and so forth. Therefore, I am sure the Chairman and members can understand my disappointment at some comments made to my colleague, Mr. Niall Murphy, at the previous committee meeting. One member, in an attempt to link us to a political party, publicly stated: "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck". I understand political opposition, but I kindly ask that this is not projected onto those of us who are not political.
The work of peace and reconciliation calls us to have the courage to extend beyond our own boundaries and to step into all places and spaces. I was born into a unionist family. My family, friends and colleagues are unionists. I am currently involved in various projects, which include the Catholic and Protestant divide, gender equality, racism, LGBT+ rights and inter-faith work. I write a column for Belfast Media Group. I am a champion of progressive faith and public theology simply because I believe in equality, inclusion and creating a fair society for all. I have had the privilege of serving as chaplain to two Lord Mayors of Belfast. It was an honour to champion our city. My reason for sharing this is that peace and reconciliation are best exampled when people from very different backgrounds not only work together, but form friendships. I assure the committee that my work is not politically motivated or linked to any political party. This is important to me.
Previously, I shared my vision of creating a nation of neighbours based on the ancient question: who is my neighbour? This question is foundational to my work, as I believe it has the potential to help provide a unifying framework to build a nation of neighbours. Thanks to the Anabaptist Mennonite Trust I have been accepted to begin a PhD this coming autumn on this very theme from a faith and theological perspective. This is important to me because I am your neighbour and you are mine. It does not matter what background we are from – we must always find ways to work and partner together, creating a better place to live. Even though it was disappointing to hear those comments, I was overwhelmed by the response and support for myself and the work of Ireland’s Future. We are not part of any political party. Those of us who are entrusted with a place of leadership have the responsibility to move away from name calling, labelling and any type of pigeon-holing. Let us learn to lead well and by example. Let us together, regardless of our background, put our shoulders to the wheel of peace and reconciliation and concentrate on the main thing, which is creating a better home and future for all of us.
In conclusion, I extend the hand of friendship and welcome to the Chairman and all the members. I ask them to come to Belfast and spend time with us, to hear our stories and about the work in which we are involved.
Thank you. On the last point, the committee would be very happy to visit Belfast. In fact, the clerk to the committee has been asked to make those arrangements at the appropriate and suitable time. As Chairman, I will be happy to go as soon as possible, as would all the members.
I wish to make two points. At the meeting Reverend Karen referred to, I made it clear that I refuted the allegations that were made. They were made by a Member of the Oireachtas, but he is not a member of this committee. I assume he was not familiar with the process we use here. I categorically assure you, Reverend Karen, that I absolutely accept that your work is not politically motivated or related to any political party.
People are entitled to have political views and to express them. However, when one is with Ireland's Future it is a different operation and different process, as you rightly point out. Coming from a unionist background, we are delighted to have Reverend Karen at our meetings. In fact, one of our biggest difficulties has been trying to get people from a unionist background to appear before the committee so we can appreciate and fully understand what their issues are, how we must deal with them, how we must recognise their right to have those views and how to live in an Ireland that allows them to hold those views respectfully and respects them as well.
We will takes questions now. Ms Órfhlaith Begley and Mr. Paul Maskey are the first Sinn Féin speakers. There are 15 minutes for questions and answers.
Ms Ãrfhlaith Begley:
I welcome the members of Ireland's Future to the meeting. I am delighted that Mr. Murphy has been joined by two formidable females. That was a great introduction from Reverend Karen to the committee. Before asking my questions, I commend Ireland's Future on the work it has been doing. I believe there was a vacuum in that regard and it has created a platform on which to engage and have a respectful discussion on the potential for future constitutional change. All who are involved in Ireland's Future are to be commended. I welcome the opportunity to engage with those who are before the committee today, as on the previous occasion. Hopefully, we can have a discussion which remains respectful of our guests and is informative for us as members of the committee and as representatives.
On the previous occasion, Mr. Murphy referred to the fact that the constitutional conversation is louder now than ever before. He specifically referred to Brexit and how it has accelerated the conversation by placing the focus on the need to prepare for a potential referendum. In terms of that preparation and taking into consideration what I have just heard from Reverend Karen, I would like to hear from her about her perspective on the current level of discussion that there is within the Protestant unionist loyalist, PUL, community or those who identify as British regarding future constitutional change. Within that, what specific issues or concerns does she think there are within the community or among those individuals who, perhaps, identify as unionist in respect of their cultural identity if there was to be reunification?
What protections or guarantees can be put in place to reassure members of that community, and individuals who identify as British, that their rights and cultural identity will be upheld? I thank the witnesses for their previous presentations and the presentation given this morning.
Mr. Paul Maskey:
Reverend Karen has set the context for this meeting, and how we should work our way through life on a daily basis, and described it very well. It is very important to set that context and that everyone respects each other no matter who they are or where they are from. I really appreciate Reverend Karen's opening remarks. She is someone I know very well. She works closely in west Belfast with many marginalised people and is showing and leading the way. I have no doubt the fact that Reverend Karen has become a member of Ireland's Future is obviously a very big step for her to take given her background and where she comes from, but also in the context of the current work she does on a daily basis, so well done to her. It is a brave decision and a brave step so fair play to the Reverend Karen for that.
It is also great to see Ms Harmon and Mr. Murphy here. My question to the group is about the coalition of change on the island, which Reverend Karen shows is there. Throughout the length and breadth of the island more and more people are having this conversation about unity and making sure we are prepared for it. None of us wants to make the same mistakes made with Brexit, for example, with regard to the proposed Oireachtas joint committee and looking ahead at how we prepare, work and propose initiatives. What is Ireland's Future's view of what that joint committee would look like? What form will it take and what should it plan to do in the future, taking this conversation forward?
Reverend Karen Sethuraman:
I thank everyone for their questions and warm welcome. I will answer the first question because it was directed at me. Ms Begley is absolutely correct. There is no doubt, right across the spectrum of our communities, that Brexit has catapulted us to this place. Things are changing and shifting and people are beginning to ask whether there is something better. That is a great and very healthy question to ask. Much of the focus in this conversation is on how we get unionists to engage and bring them into the conversation. It is the wrong question to ask. I am being honest in stating that the unionist community will see this through the lens of certain political parties, whether we like that or not. This is why I am very passionate that we begin to put a light on being people led and not just politically led. That is not in any way to denigrate anyone because I am thankful for all the work members of the committee do. I could not do their job. On the question of unionists being at the table, I would not expect them to come and join my conversation about a future shared island Ireland because they are adamant. It is important to them to be part of the UK.
The reason I raise is the conversation needs to focus, and the spotlight needs to be on, building the case. The invitation is for the unionist community to build its case for being part of the UK. I will be honest that I am up for that. I am from a unionist background. I go into my meetings and have great, healthy banter with people like, "Well, here's Karen who would love to see a united Ireland and there's us who want to be part of the union". It is good, healthy banter and the root of it is, "Okay, you convince me and I'll convince you." If there is going to be a conversation at a table, then our precious unionist community must begin to build a case to be part of the UK, which it is doing.
I commend some of the groups that have been set up. We do not need to threaten violence or threaten our peace process. Healthy debate is being conducted by people like We Make NI, United UK, a new group called Union NI, or groups like Her Loyal Voice and Let's Talk Loyalism, which are groups doing what we are doing but on the other end of the spectrum. That is not a negative because the central question is not, "Do you want a united Ireland?". Of course, unionists will say, "No". The central question is how to begin to think higher than where we are, lift our eyes beyond where we are, begin to build the case for being part of the UK and look at what we are doing to begin to build the vision of us being together on this island. It is not a negative to think about unionists. The reality is their voices are just as important as any of ours.
I am interested in those people in the middle ground, who are the unheard, unseen, silent majority. I am interested in our youth, teens and students. There are voices that want to be persuaded and that is what I see. The majority of people in Northern Ireland want a better future. We just need these conversations to be structured so we can begin to plan for that. If we learn from Brexit, when people head for the polls on a big question of what they want they should be well informed. I welcome and encourage the committee to consider inviting and hearing from some of these groups, such as Union NI, We Make NI and United UK, not to convince them of a united Ireland, but to hear their vision. That is what being a neighbour is about because at the end of the day people will decide.
That is a fair point. I ask the Reverend Karen to give the clerk to the committee contact details of the groups we might usefully invite and who would like to come to give their perspective solely, which is what we want to hear. There are still five minutes remaining in this slot. Does anyone else from Sinn Féin want to come in?
Mr. Niall Murphy:
I will address Mr. Maskey's question. I compliment Reverend Karen on what she said. It was an exceptional introductory address and wholly summarises the philosophy of Ireland's Future. We are so delighted and proud that the Reverend Karen is now an ambassador for our message. It was a real privilege to be on this call to listen and hear what she had to say because it really sums up exactly how we want to conduct this conversation. There is a huge responsibility upon all of us, on politicians and anybody who is engaged in this discourse in civic space, to be as open, reflective and respectful as possible. That is precisely how we want to manage our affairs.
On Mr. Maskey's inquiry on what an Oireachtas joint committee might look like, we respectfully consider that should be complementary to our citizen-led approach in which we are just a participant. We are not defining the conversation and do not seek to. All we want is to provide a platform and contribute to public discourse.
We want that to be done in a spirit of mutual experience, reflective of everybody. I consider it as a bowl of stew in which everybody is a different ingredient. Everybody brings to the conversation that which they have experienced, personally and as a community, and does so with respect and confidence. If there were to be an Oireachtas joint committee in that sprit, the ambition might be for us to get to the position to which Scotland got in 2013. Our overriding overture is that there must be detail, evidence-led and empirically robust positions that everybody and read, comprehend, understand and contribute to. As I mentioned in my remarks two weeks ago, the Scottish Government was in a position to publish a 670-page analysis outlining its vision of how Scotland would transition to independence in the event of a positive referendum. Of course, that did not happen. There is no preconceived outcome to all of this but our position is that detailed preparation should be undertaken to inform the conversation. That is where I think an Oireachtas joint committee can outline, drive, procure evidence, monitor, engage and review how a transition in respect of constitutional change might occur. That might also be complemented by the appointment of a Minister of State with dedicated and specific responsibility to develop strategies to advance constitutional change while co-ordinating with all of the Government's other all-Ireland policies.
The work that has been commenced by the shared island unit was rightly brought to my attention and that of the committee two weeks ago. I compliment that positive step. The finance which has been regenerated and made more specific has infused more energy into what are wholly and fundamentally positive engagements. Reconnecting the synapses of our island is crucial to everybody's best endeavours in this regard. Our respectful analysis is that more needs to be done. As I said, there is a responsibility on all of us to conduct our affairs as transparently and openly as possible. The best mechanism for that is, of course, through the convention of a committee such as the one we are attending today.
The point about the €500 million for the shared island initiative was also referred to at our most recent meeting. As I understand it, the Taoiseach has stated categorically that it is additional, new and ring-fenced funding, as opposed to money that would have come anyway. It is new and additional funding.
I thank the Chair for inviting representatives of Ireland's Future before the committee. I am delighted because I missed the committee's engagement with them a couple of weeks ago. I welcome Ms Harmon and Reverend Karen. I asked Mr. Murphy a question a couple of weeks ago so if it is okay, I will focus on asking questions to Reverend Karen and Ms Harmon. I would love it if both of them could answer my question. Reverend Karen mentioned the need to provide a unifying framework to build a nation of neighbours, which I think is powerful and vital to the creation of meaningful dialogue and the cultivation of positive attitudes towards political opposition. I know Reverend Karen is a champion of peace and reconciliation. Her words today were powerful. My question relates in particular to young people. We all know that young people have not experienced the trauma of the conflict. My question as to how we bring in young people is also directed at Ms Harmon. How do we bring young people into the conversation on their vision of what a new Ireland would look like? It is really important to bring young people into the conversation. I ask that question to Reverend Karen in the first instance.
I will ask Ms Harmon about a citizens' assembly. I know she did phenomenal work on the campaigns to repeal the eighth amendment and the campaign on the marriage referendum. She was involved in and championed those campaigns. She did phenomenal work. My question to her relates to young people and a citizens' assembly. How do we engage young people? I am really asking the same question of both our guests.
Reverend Karen Sethuraman:
I thank the Senator for her welcome and for a great question. It is a timely question because, as I have shared, in terms of my role in Ireland's Future, I really want to go after what I call the kitchen table conversations. Those conversations are happening around the kitchen table and in businesses. Someone contacted me and told me about a project that was happening, led by a CEO named Jacinta Linden. I had never met her before. She is a hero of community and is the CEO of Bolster Community. She received PEACE IV funding to work with young people. It was to run a programme called Youth Up Front for Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. A campaign called Beyond Tolerance involved 120 young people, aged 12 to 15. I really want the committee members to hear this because they are going to hear their voices this morning. I hope we will all pay attention to them. Their idea was to overcome adversity, to build inclusive and cohesive communities and to begin to build leadership skills in the young people.
I approached Ms Linden, told her I was part of the Ireland's Future team and asked her to facilitate three questions from me for the young people. As I mentioned earlier, the starting point with conversation is not to ask people if they want a united Ireland. That is not the place to start, certainly with young people. I pitched three questions to the 13- to 15-year-olds. I explained that this is our home and our home belongs to all of us. I asked how do we make our home a better place to live. I also asked the young people what are their dreams for our future together. My third question, which is for the committee members, asked the young people if they had one message they wanted our Governments to hear, what would it be? I do not have time to read all the responses but I want to read some of them so the committee can hear how important it is that we have these inputs on the table in this conversation.
In response to the question as to how we make our home a better place to live, Éabha, aged 14, said that we need to start by making friends with each other. She said that we are all just human beings. Grace, aged 15, said that she never really gets the chance to meet young people from different religions and have more opportunities to mix and build understanding. James, aged 15, asked why there cannot be more tolerance. He said that surely there is room for all of us, regardless of who we follow. The following one tugged at my heart. Caoimhe, aged 15, said she wants to grow up without ever having to face the sectarianism and danger that her parents faced when they were her age. Those young people's voices matter and we have a duty to pave a way for those young guys.
The second question was what are the young people's dreams for their future together. Éabha, aged 14, dreams that everyone will be treated equally, regardless of race, religion or sexuality. Dan, aged 14, got straight to the question, even though it was not asked. He said that he thinks a united Ireland would be a good future but that he does not want the journey to be too bumpy. Sinéad, aged 14, mentioned integrated education and a lack of conflict. James, aged 15, said that he wants to be a leader who will consider the hopes of others. Tom, aged 14, said that the tensions and fears between all religions and races will end. Not one of these kids gave an answer about flags; they want peace, a future and to share this home together.
I want members to hear the answer to the next question. The children were asked what message they would like their Government to hear. Jessica, aged 15, said that she wants to give everyone an equal chance. Sophie asked the Government to be more accepting, to try to engage with everyone and to consider all options before making impactful decisions. Christina, aged 14, asked the Government to get rid of sectarianism and discrimination. James, aged 15, said that we need kindness in our Government, that we have so much to live for and asked the Government to give us hope for a better future. I love the answer of Jana, aged 14. She asked the Government to listen to children because they want a future in Northern Ireland. She also said that young people need more opportunities to get together and understand better.
That is a little snippet of from 120 young people from all backgrounds taking part in a PEACE IV programme. We have a duty to honour their young voices. They are not just our future but our today. They are the voices that matter as we shape our future in terms of the role of Ireland's Future and of other organisations that take part in conversations.
That is very powerful and as my mother used to say: "Out of the mouths of babes". That is fantastic. I want to ask Ms Harmon about young people and about the Citizens' Assembly. That are Ms Harmon's thought about the Citizens' Assembly? She has so much experience in that area.
Ms Laura Harmon:
I apologise that I was precluded from joining the committee two weeks ago due to technical issues. I am speaking in a personal capacity as a member of Ireland's Future, which I joined a number of months ago. I am part of the events' team, I am excited to be on board and I am excited about this dialogue that is already happening. It is important that we facilitate these conversations in a proper manner and that we are part of them.
I work for the Irish Council for International Students and I used to work the National Women's Council of Ireland in Dublin as well. As part of that work, I was the head of voter mobilisation for Together for Yes. Previously, back in 2015 I was the president of the Union of Students in Ireland, which is an all-island organisation that represents students North and South. It also has a trilateral agreement with the student union in Britain and in the North so that provides a lot of learnings. I would have been involved in making submissions to the Constitutional Convention between 2012 and 2014 in the lead-up to marriage equality and the Citizens' Assembly, particularly the one on the eighth amendment to the Constitution.
I am from a Gaeltacht in Cork and I have been in Dublin for a number of years. The reason I joined Ireland's Future is that there is a need to have a non-political entity driving this. We saw in recent referendums the importance of having these conversations led by citizens. That is not to say that politicians should shy away from those conversations. They should be involved in them but they should be citizen-led initiatives that are inclusive of all aspects of society and they should not be tied to one political party or another. It is important for us to bear that in mind.
I will get to the questions that were asked. On young people, I echo what Reverend Sutherman has outlined and it is fascinating to hear the views those young people have expressed. It is great that the shared island unit is engaging with young people as well and that those conversations are happening. When it comes to young people and from my previous experience with the Union of Students in Ireland, one of the reasons the marriage equality referendum in particular was so successful is that we saw mass voter registration drives of young people. Young people were part of the conversation and they were not just a sideshow but they were at the table, which is important for this issue. When we are talking about a shared island and having these dialogues, we should not just be going off in silos and just having specific youth consultations. Those are important and we need to consult with all the representative youth groups and ensure that young people from all creeds and backgrounds with different languages, including the Traveller community, the Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, LGBTQ, community and the migrant community are represented. Also, when we are having conversations, young people need to be included with older people and be at the table when there are panels and debates happening. It should not just be a sideshow with young people. They need to feel that they have ownership of this issue and that they are just as valued as any other age group in society. That is important.
I know the Citizens' Assembly was discussed at the last meeting as well. First, having it citizens-led is important if it is to be a citizens' assembly but politicians and political parties should not just take a back seat either. Political parties need to step up and be responsible for the issue but it is important that it is citizens-led. One of the things that worked well with the Citizens' Assembly which started in 2016 was that it was not polarised and that there was a random selection for it. That is not to say that any future citizens' assembly should purely be a random selection of citizens. This would be a completely new entity because it will have to include the North and the South and citizens in the North will be vital in their self-determination around this issue.
It is valuable to include citizens who might not necessarily have been involved with the issue before and who might not have their opinions made up yet. That is all part of the process. People are on a journey to figure out where they stand on the issue and to figure out what issues are important to them in terms of a shared island, education, health, a post-Brexit economy and issues of rights. We need people at the centre, therefore. We need to have an opportunity for groups to feed in from all perspectives with their issues. These include issues of unity, issues from youth groups and issues from all relevant sectors. People must be able to make submissions and request to address the assembly if that is what it will be called. There will be recommendations out of it that can then be taken into consideration by Governments.
Planning is really important because the public across the island are ahead of politics. These conversations are already happening in schools, around kitchen tables and in workplaces. I have personally seen such an increase in people talking about this issue, not just in the media or in places like this but in everyday life. We need to be ahead of the curve, start planning and start looking at what models will work best. That is not to say this is something that should be rushed but it is something that needs to be planned and to have forward-thinking. It should never be something that is rushed but it needs to be started now because these conversations are already happening.
I thank our guests for their presentations. I apologise that I missed some of the meeting earlier because I had difficulty getting connected. In one of his responses, Mr. Murphy made a point on detailed preparation for what I, along with others, want to see in the future, which is constitutional change on our island. Like many others, I aspire to a united Ireland to be achieved through the mechanisms laid out in the Good Friday Agreement. It is extremely important that detailed preparation is made in every respect.
Something I have repeated ad nauseam at this committee is the need to utilise and maximise the potential of the existing agreements and political architecture in place already with the Good Friday Agreement, the Stormont House Agreement and the New Decade, New Approach agreement. All of these are important pieces of the political architecture on this island, predominantly the Good Friday Agreement. I have always believed it is most disappointing that all of its aspects have not been implemented. We know how important the commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement are and we sincerely hope they will be honoured without delay for the benefit of all of the people of the island.
At our previous meeting at which Reverend Karen was present, Mr. Lunn left us to go to the announcement of the results of the inquest into the Ballymurphy massacre when I was making my contribution. I mentioned the issue of the civic forum in Northern Ireland and I suggested that perhaps Reverend Karen would discuss it with Mr. Lunn as a member of the legislative assembly. From memory, in the multiparty talks, the Women's Coalition was a powerful advocate for a civic forum. Subsequently, as a result of signing the Good Friday Agreement, the Civic Forum was established in 2000. Unfortunately, it has not met since 2002. Its purpose was to have a means of consulting civic society to ensure better understanding of social, economic and cultural issues. We all know that such assemblies or fora are prevalent throughout the world and are associated with various parliaments and parliamentary systems. I have always believed there has been a huge lacuna without the Civic Forum to involve and engage civic society.
The contributions we have heard from Ms Harmon, Reverend Karen and Mr. Murphy have focussed very much on involving civic society. They speak about a citizens' assembly. We have provision for a civic advisory panel that, unfortunately, has not been put in place or used at present. I am not saying it would solve the problems of our country but were the politicians to put that structure in place to ensure the different voices all the witnesses have spoken about today could be listened to, it would be an important message to give out to civic society in Northern Ireland about the mechanism provided for in the Good Friday Agreement and Stormont House Agreement.
If I got the message coming from the young people Reverend Karen quoted, it was about the need to listen and consult. The witnesses are advocating very strongly on the potential for an all-Ireland citizens' assembly. Will they comment on the deficiency we have at present in not having the Civic Forum? It could contribute something to the general debate, not just on constitutional issues but economic, social and cultural issues also.
It is always great to discuss the future of Ireland. I have a question out of pure curiosity for Reverend Karen on her road to Damascus and becoming a member of this group. I am very curious about it. Can she say she is a unionist any more? She has come to the right side of the road and has now become a nationalist. I would love to know from her point of view how has she reconciled this in herself, coming from a unionist background and wanting union with the UK and now wanting a union of Ireland.
I have another question for Ms Harmon and Mr. Murphy. Reverend Karen spoke about what the children had said about integrated education and about listening to children. I look at the education system in the North and how segregated it is. From the point of view of the witnesses, what can Northern politicians and Southern politicians do to advance an integrated education system in the North? To me, this is a huge barrier to peace if we are to move forward to a united Ireland, which is my ambition for this island. We have a lot of work to do in the North and its education system and for our young people to make sure either side does not have two heads. We are all just trying to get on, which is exactly what those children said in Reverend Karen's presentation.
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their presentations. Following on from some of the comments I made on the previous occasion about the Good Friday Agreement, where we are on this island, the pathway that lies ahead for us and how we create that pathway, there is a lot of responsibility and onus on us all. In reference to this, the battle over many decades was with the British establishment and British Government. Since the Good Friday Agreement, that pathway has changed. We have our own destiny and how we create that destiny is what this is all about.
One of the questions I asked on the previous occasion, and I pose it again in the context of what Reverend Karen said this morning, was how do we break down these barriers. What can Ireland's Future do as an organisation? It has done a lot of good work. What can it now do to bring the unionist communities, parties and tradition, and the Protestant people in Northern Ireland with it? Much of the work it has done heretofore has been very heavily on the nationalist voice. There is a pathway for a group such as Ireland's Future to do massive work on bringing in these unionist speakers and voices and letting them have their say. We need these voices at the table.
We are crying out for them and we crying out for them on this committee. The pathway ahead must be one that we all share. I will be interested to hear the witnesses' thoughts in that regard.
Reverend Karen Sethuraman:
I am happy to go first. I am going to answer the question from Senator McGreehan. The Senator and I need to get a cup of coffee. It is a long road to Damascus. I grew up in east Belfast, with Union Jacks on the lampposts. Going to the bonfires for 12 July every year was an outing. I grew up in that community, where we had street parties as kids, championed the English football team, partook in all the things the unionist community does and I loved every bit of it. I do not know if there was a big road to Damascus moment. I probably started to see outside of my own narrative because of my pastoral experience. I started to work and get involved in peace and reconciliation work and through that I realised that there was another story apart from the one I grew up in. I realised that there were other people who were hurt and busted and who did not agree with the same outlook. I was probably sheltered from that view as a young person who grew up in the Troubles. If I am being honest, though, I am not sure that I really understood what they were fighting over. I just knew, and remember being told, to just not go to this community, that I should stay in this community and all of those things. However, that is a whole other conversation.
To be quite frank with Senator McGreehan, I fell in love with people. I lifted my eyes up a little higher to think about whether there might be something more. I ended up becoming a mum myself and that wrecked me even more because - and we still laugh at this as a family - when I was driving my kids, who were 16 and 18 years old, one day they asked me whether they were Catholic or Protestant. I thought it was wonderful to have moved so much forwards that my kids did not know that. I am not really into labels, but I would probably label myself as a "neither" in that regard and someone open to being convinced and persuaded either way. However, when I got out of the little bubble in which I grew up and went down to Donegal, I fell in love with the beaches and the people there. When I went to Dublin, I wanted the diversity of that city for Belfast. When I went down to Cork, I also fell in love. Something in me realised that I may have grown up and identified as British, but I am Irish and I am proud of that.
There is something about working, looking back and thinking that here we are one hundred years after partition. However, is it not the work of peace and reconciliation to seek to bring together what has been divided? That is probably where my answer focuses. The root of my changed perspective is that I fell in love with people. My kids have also changed me. I am not sure how we identify. I have people in my family, and I am talking about people in my close-knit family, who are unionists and that is the bottom line. I have a daughter who is Irish and she wants to live in Dublin. I have another daughter who probably identifies with the Alliance Party. Therefore, we are just this great mixed bunch and I think that is an example of many people here in Northern Ireland. There is something about hearing other people’s stories. I want to make this clear. I commend the Government, in respect of wanting to build bridges with neighbours, on acknowledging the passing of Prince Philip. Simple things like flying the flag at half-mast reach out to our unionist neighbours.
Turning to the question from Senator Blaney, we can often break ourselves wondering how we can get unionists to the table. We must shine the light on a different question, which is not whether people want a united Ireland. That question may very well come in a border poll at some stage. However, the question now is let us consider that we may be bigger than the UK, and that the other option on the table is that we may be part of an all-Ireland entity. That is the invitation to unionists. Unionists cannot be asked to be part of something they do not want. However, it is possible to ask them to build the case regarding why they are better off in the UK and what that means to them as a people. When it then comes to the time for a border poll, unlike Brexit, people will be going to that poll having been informed. Politicians will share their visions and raise the flag for what they believe is best, and that includes unionists, nationalists, the Alliance Party and all sorts of parties. The people will then decide.
A better question, however, which is the question we pitched to those children, is what do they dream of as being our future. What does such a future look like? Cases can then begin to be built for the UK and for a new island. It is also important to say that we would not expect those who are champions of the UK to be part of the Scottish conversation on independence. We would not expect representatives of the Scottish National Party, SNP, to be at conversations concerning championing the UK. We would expect a case to be built for such arguments, and that is all that this is. I see myself as extending the vision beyond Northern Ireland being part of the UK. I refer to the possibility that what may be best for us is to join up with the South. I am up for that.
I love everything about the whole island, including the freedom to be able to have those 12 July celebrations and go to bonfires. It would be great if Ireland embraced all of that as an island and recognised 12 July as an all-island celebration and as a holiday. I think there are ways in which we can work together but the starting place is how we can make our home better. I hope I have answered the question from Senator McGreehan but let us grab a coffee and I will share more about the road to Damascus.
It nice to see everyone again and to meet Ms Harmon for the first time. I will pick up on a point Deputy Brendan Smith made about the Civic Forum. This is an aspect that I have raised, and I note people like Emma DeSouza fly the flag for the Civic Forum. To me, it is just a gaping hole in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement belongs to everybody and mechanisms were put in place to ensure that politics left nobody behind. Unfortunately, however, we have seen how politics has left people behind, particularly in the loyalist communities. Therefore, I am very much on the same page as Deputy Brendan Smith in respect of ensuring that the Civic Forum is progressed.
I refer not only to the Civic Forum, but also to the North-South consultative forum. There have been moves regarding the forums in the New Decade, New Approach document but there is no better time than right now to set up those forums. I refer to looking at the economic opportunities that are there for the taking by the North in respect of having access to the British internal market and the European market. The North-South consultative forum would be a very valuable place for businesses to engage regarding the all-island economy and for the Northern businesses as well. We are absolutely on the same page in that regard.
I look forward to meeting again over the summer in more face-to-face forums when opportunities arise as Covid-19 lifts and we are all able to get out and about more as we, collectively, are part of this bigger conversation about the future. I reiterate that I am in favour of a citizen's assembly but the issue for me in this regard is timing and getting that right.
The witnesses' organisation is set up to advocate, promote and hold important discussions about Ireland's future, including the possibility and viability of new constitutional arrangements on the island of Ireland. The organisation has people within it who have different views about timing and urgency. I presume that they accept that. It is a good thing.
Regarding the shared island unit, much of the Government's emphasis is on multilateral action and seeking consensus rather than pursuing unilateral action. Do the witnesses see the benefits of the shared island unit as a good approach to getting more people involved in this conversation in a positive way? While we believe that a citizens' assembly is the way to bring about constitutional change, it is important to get the timing right.
Mr. Niall Murphy:
I might address Deputy Brendan Smith's remarks on a civic forum, a thread that was picked up by Senator Currie. I was struck by the Deputy's description of the political architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. It is right to say that this is an important feature of the Good Friday Agreement that has not been given expression, and we are all the lesser for it. In short, we are in favour of the inception of a tangible and meaningful civic forum, but it should be as well as rather than instead of the citizens' assembly, which we have advocated for. They would address two discrete and different sets of relationship, but they could complement each another.
Regarding the political architecture, a quote came to mind about international law, namely, pacta sunt servanda, or agreements must be kept. That is a fundamental principle in international diplomatic relations and law. It is a regrettable fact that several aspects of political agreements over the years have been left unexecuted, as it were, for example, an Acht na Gaeilge. We are 500 days on from New Decade, New Approach, 15 years on from the St. Andrews Agreement and 23 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, all of which made explicit and express affirmations in respect of Irish language legislation. In terms of citizenship and the architecture of the state, it has been argued in court twice that the Good Friday Agreement is not binding on the courts or the British Government. We have also seen that expression used in judicial review proceedings taken by a parent who had chosen an Irish route of education for his or her child and applied to Coláiste Feirste. The Northern Ireland Department of Education attempted to persuade the court that the Good Friday Agreement was advisory rather than binding. Obviously, and rightly, the court dismissed that argument. We have had agreements on how to resolve the legacy of our past, for example, the Stormont House Agreement, but we still do not have an historical inquiries unit, HIU. The matter was addressed more generally in the UK Supreme Court yesterday. Perhaps most egregiously, we have had a Secretary of State express his intention to break international law in terms of Brexit, which is an issue that continues to vex the G7. The political architecture is important, but it is also important to consider it in a wider context, the overriding fundamental principle being that agreements are all well and good, but they are no good if they are not abided by.
Deputy Brendan Smith was right to bring to our attention the utility and good auspices of a civic forum, and I would welcome the inception of such a forum, but it should be as well as rather than instead of our call, which is to promote an all-island dialogue on the exclusive issue of the potential constitutional change on our island.
Ms Laura Harmon:
I wish to comment briefly on Senator McGreehan's comments about education. What we have seen with the Erasmus+ programme post Brexit has been interesting. The funding committed to in order to continue it was positive. The education system in the South is evolving, as it is in the North, for example, the issue of patronage in the South. A much wider discussion on what education might look like probably needs to happen, but it could be held as part of a citizens' assembly-type forum in consultation with the students themselves and their parents.
Regarding Senator Currie's comments, the shared island unit is a great initiative and the Government's commitment to funding it is important. The Senator also spoke about timing. We are all in agreement that timing is key. As we outlined, though, many of these conversations are already happening and public opinion has been shifting. As the Senator knows, it will take a great deal of time to get the structure of a citizens' assembly right, for example, who will be the chairperson and how to include all citizens and voices. There is nothing to stop us starting the preparations for the assembly now. With previous assemblies, issues have not necessarily been acted on straight away. If there was a recommendation from this citizens' assembly for a border poll, it might not occur immediately. It would be up to politicians to decide what would happen with a recommendation.
I asked how the witnesses felt about encouraging multilateral progress. Throughout the document, it is stated that, if unionists do not come to the table, we should proceed. What are Ms Harmon's thoughts on how we can try as best as possible to make them part of the conversation? There is an emphasis in the document on politicians being part of this.
How would Ms Harmon see that being managed?
Ms Laura Harmon:
I thank the Senator. Some of my colleagues may wish to come in on this. In terms of managing it, however, first and foremost, we need to make sure that whatever process we are setting up is as inclusive as possible in respect of all communities and that the invitation is sent out on any dialogue we have. Ireland's Future is deeply conscious that the schedule of events we are planning is as inclusive of all voices as possible and brings everybody to the table. Everyone's voice is as important as the next as part of this discussion.
As we said, it is about a shared future and a shared Ireland. There is no right or wrong answer when we are having these discussions on how we do that and construct an assembly. It will be important to ensure those mechanisms are in place for submissions and presentations to occur as part of that process. As we discussed earlier, there is also scope to ensure that different groups are represented as part of this committee and that different entities are invited to make presentations on their views on the issue and how it should progress.
Táim ag éisteacht le gach duine inniu. Is dóigh liom go bhfuil an rud a luaigh Reverend Karen an-tábhachtach ar fad, an rud is tábhachtaí a chuala mé inniu.
We will move on. Ms Hanna was present for the SDLP. She had another commitment in the middle of our meeting, as did Mr. Farry. I acknowledge their presence and their good wishes to our witnesses and acknowledgement of their contributions.
We will go back to the Sinn Féin slot for give 15 minutes, after which we can go into private session if everybody is happy with that. I believe that would be fair to everybody. We have some matters to discuss in private session as well. Whoever wishes to contribute from Sinn Féin may do so..
Mr. Mickey Brady:
I thank Ireland's Future for its presentation and commend the work it has done and continues to do, which is very important. As someone who engages on a daily basis with the Protestant, unionist and loyalist community through constituency work, that engagement is so important to continue to get feedback from that community as to how things are going.
I have a fairly basic question for Ireland's Future. How important is it that all groups and individuals that make submissions to the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement should be treated respectfully as part of the engagement and conversation taking place in Ireland today?
I will make it clear that this has been dealt with. It has been acknowledged and addressed by me, as Chairman, and by Reverend Karen. I believe everybody has accepted that. I am just trying to keep things moving on this discussion.
I am taking my opportunity to say on the record that this was an outrageous political attack and what was said was unbecoming of an Oireachtas member. As the Chairman can see, the three speakers come from various political backgrounds. They are very respected in their own right and are independent political thinkers. I am glad that those comments have been rightly-----
I want to make it very clear that Deputy Mac Lochlainn has every right to say what he said. Nobody here is disagreeing with him. I pointed out to Reverend Karen at the very beginning that while the person who made that contribution is a member of the Oireachtas, that person is not a member of this committee and, unlike Deputy Mac Lochlainn, is not familiar with the way we do business. I acknowledge the truth of what the Deputy is saying-----
I also want to say that a member of this committee asked a similar question. I want to put on record that this type of behaviour on the part of committee members should stop. I am glad that the Cathaoirleach of the committee has made our position clear-----
-----and has removed any suggestion whatsoever. What was being attempted and what happened at the previous meeting was unbecoming of Oireachtas members.
Now, to get on to the serious business of this committee and put questions to people who are in the business of building relationships in the North of Ireland about the work they are doing. I thank Reverend Karen for her thoughtful and excellent contributions thus far and at previous meetings of this committee. I believe it is important, particularly for people in the South - in the Twenty-six Counties - to understand that when we talk about unionism, it is a broad church in the North. It is not all DUP voters. And also, many people who vote DUP do so because they want to remain within the United Kingdom. They do not necessarily agree with that party and all its different points of view, however. It is very complicated and multifaceted. Perhaps Reverend Karen could talk more about the engagements Ireland's Future is having with the unionist and loyalist community in the North and also about the multiple layers. She described the layers and colours in her own family. I believe that is a healthy thing in a healthy democratic society. I hope to see more of that in the new Ireland I intend to be a part of.
If we could deal with that issue, it would really cover it. Again, I want to put on record how angry I was when I read the comments of what happened at the previous meeting, and how pleased I am to hear that the Cathaoirleach made it clear that this person does not in any way reflect the views of the cross-party Good Friday Agreement party in the Oireachtas. I congratulate all three witnesses, who are respected people in their own right, on the excellent work they are doing.
To add to what the Deputy said, I believe Reverend Karen expressly and explicitly recognises the position of the committee on that issue. She accepts the acknowledgment that she is not nor has that organisation been involved in any political activity as such. I want to make that exceptionally clear. If the Deputy was here earlier, he would have heard that. I say that by way of being factual. Is there another Sinn Féin speaker before we get replies from our witnesses?
We cannot hear Senator Ó Donnghaile. His voice is dropping in and out and we can only hear some of his words. I am sorry; we just cannot hear the Senator. Does Deputy Conway-Walsh want to come in? Does anybody else from Sinn Féin wish to speak?
Okay, I thank the Deputy. The clerk to the committee pointed her presence out to me. I thank her for following the rules. I hope I did not embarrass her. I hope I did not embarrass the clerk, Mr. Stephens, either. Is that it then? Has everybody here had an opportunity to speak? Our guests may wish to reply to those comments, after which we will go into private session.
I think the problem was something to do with my earphones. I was listening in a busy party room. They will just have to hear it now.
As I am conscious that I made a few points at the previous meeting, I will not eat into the time too much. Like other colleagues, I want to take the opportunity to welcome our guests back and to thank them for what has been a much more thoughtful and respectful engagement and dialogue.
I watched Michael Portillo's documentary last night. I do not know if anyone else saw it but it was a documentary on partition and the centenary of same. It concluded with Gerry Adams making the point to Michael Portillo, a former Tory Secretary of State, that the key way to build peace is through dialogue. That is the key ingredient and the core component. That is why the work of this committee and of Ireland's Future are so important and why the broad range of engagements, conversations and dialogues it is having are so important.
I made a point at the last committee meeting and I would be keen to get the visitors' views on it. I stated that in many ways, large parts of society were ahead of us in terms of the clear call for Government to respond to the need to prepare for constitutional change. Some colleagues took issue with that point and that is fair enough; they are entitled to do so. I will ask this question of our guests, because we ultimately ask it of all our guests at the committees; if they had one request of the committee in terms of what it can do and should be doing on this issue of promoting dialogue and a citizens' assembly going forward, what would that be? We have had citizens' assemblies before on issues that would have appeared to be contentious, intractable and fundamental and nobody said we could not have a citizens' assembly because an issue was too sensitive. Maybe that was said at the beginning but it ultimately came to the point where society led matters to a position where that reality could no longer be denied. I would love to get the views of the witnesses on that and to hear what they think we can do going forward from these worthwhile and useful engagements.
Mr. Niall Murphy:
I might commence our concluding remarks and I will invite Reverend Karen to make our final address to the committee. I want to pick up on what Senator Ó Donnghaile said about what our request might be and to pick up a theme that Reverend Karen addressed in her opening statement.
I also did not get the opportunity to respond to Senator Blaney when he asked what more we can do. There is more that we can do, we will endeavour to do that and we will keep doing our best. All anyone in life can do is one's best. I would ask the committee to do its best. This is not wholly and exclusively the purview of Ireland's Future. We are a responsible contributing voice to the conversation but in terms of building bridges and relationships with our neighbours, friends, work colleagues in the North, there is a responsibility on everybody on this island and on the elected representatives on this committee to listen and to invite them in.
Reverend Karen made some suggestions, such as Union NI and Stronger Together Northern Ireland. The committee should bring them in and listen to them but more importantly, members should tell them that they want them to be a part of our island, that they are valued citizens and that they are an entity which can make everybody's opportunities on this island better. That is not an overture that is often heard. There should be no frostiness but a clear, concise and direct message that we want them and that we want this island to be better together. My ears are open to anybody who wants to make an argument to the contrary but that is not a message which often resonates in the ears of our unionist friends in the North from the South; that the South wants them. That is one respectful suggestion I have and I will have over to Reverend Karen to conclude our contribution.
Reverend Karen Sethuraman:
I thank the committee regarding our guise as Sinn Féin and for their welcome and I again thank the Chairman for handling the situation with grace. We wholly accept that, in terms of comments that were made.
I know that someone mentioned that people are moving away from the DUP. I do not want to get into politics in that sense but I mentioned earlier that in my heart, I regard myself as being in the middle ground and that I would classify myself as a "neither". A lot of people are moving away from the two-community distinction because we are more than two communities. We need to lead outside of that box.
I am interested in the unheard, the silent majority, the "neithers", those in the middle ground and the ones who want to bring change and who dare to dream of something different. A lot of us have shifted into that place. I said the last time that it is a bit sad that the media only portray certain voices. That is why opportunities such as this are key and critical. One gets to hear other people and one gets to hear the voices of children that I shared earlier. Those are the sorts of voices around which we need to build the vision of a better future together. That is important. If we focus on the minority, then the alternative is that we remain where we are. I do not want to remain where we are; I want to move forward and I long to bring people with us. As Mr. Murphy has said, we will engage with everybody and anybody. I will seek and endeavour to continue to hold those kitchen-table conversations and at every opportunity feed back to the committee, like I did for those 100 young people from all backgrounds, in order that we can hear that there are other voices that deserve to be heard.
This is our home and that is our starting place. I have said this many times. The starting place is not to set out what we would like it to be and that we would like to include people in that. The starting place is that this is already our home. Nobody is an addition and we are more than two communities. We owe it to those children and the generations that come behind us to pass something better on. One of those young kids said that she did not want to grow up in what her parents had to go through. She is the voice of the majority and of everybody who is present here. Therefore, I plead that the committee does not focus in on what we must have but that members understand that there is a majority of people who are open to this and that these conversations are already taking place.
That takes me to my request, which Mr. Murphy addressed, and that is that we get to the next step. Conversations have been happening for quite some time and the next step is the support of the committee to set up the citizens' assembly that provides structure for these conversations. Let us remember that there are other organisations such as the SDLP's new Ireland commission, the shared island unit or Think32, which has been holding podcasts with our unionist friends. There are other people besides us and we are all doing this together. I do not join things but I signed up to this because I believe in passing on a better future and a home for all of us. Opportunities like this are brilliant, therefore. Having the place to be able to hear the groups we mentioned that are championing the UK, to hear their voices and to hear their vision for being part of a United Kingdom is important. Our role as Ireland's Future is to continually reach out the hand of friendship. We would want to reassure everyone that this is what we are doing. We are working in the background and meetings have been organised throughout the year, beginning in the autumn, in places across this island. I would encourage people to come along, pull up a chair and listen.
We are better when we work towards holding on to everything we have for a peaceful and better future.
I thank Mr. Murphy, Ms Harmon and the Reverend Karen for attending and engaging with the committee. I propose that the committee go into private session to deal with some administrative matters. Is that agreed? Agreed.