Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
The Next Generation of Political Representatives in Northern Ireland: Discussion
Apologies have been received from Senators Mullen, Black and Ó Donnghaile, Deputy Carroll MacNeill, Dr. Stephen Farry, Ms Claire Hanna and Mr. John Finucane.
As usual, I propose to call members in the following rotation order and time limits, repeating as time allows: the first 15 minutes will be Sinn Féin, followed by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, SDLP, Alliance, Independents, Aontú, and then Sinn Féin, Labour and the Green Party. That rota is agreed.
The next generation of political representatives in Northern Ireland are here and I am delighted that they are present. Representatives from the Alliance Party, the Green Party, People Before Profit, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party, UUP, and the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, were all invited. I welcome Ryan Carlin of Sinn Féin from Lisburn City and Castlereagh City Council; Séamas de Faoite of the SDLP from Belfast City Council; Sorcha Eastwood of the Alliance Party from Lisburn City and Castlereagh City Council; Áine Groogan of the Green Party from Belfast City Council; and Stuart Hughes of the UUP from Lisburn City and Castlereagh City Council. It is good to see so many young and eager faces. We look forward to engaging with them and hearing their views on what the future holds for all of us, particularly their generation.
I must 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 Chair 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 call on the witnesses to give their opening statements and I ask them to limit those statements to three minutes each. I want to be as flexible as possible. During the question-and-answer session, they will have ample opportunity to expand on all the issues they would like us to consider. The clerk to the committee has selected the witnesses to speak in alphabetical order. They can blame him if he made a mistake here.
I know how important the order is. I will call Mr. Carlin, Mr. de Faoite, Ms Eastwood, Ms Groogan and Mr. Hughes. After that we will have the party rotation for questions.
Mr. Ryan Carlin:
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil as ucht an deis seo. I thank the committee for the invitation to discuss the views of the next generation of political representatives on the politics and current affairs in the North. To give the committee an understanding of my views, I will give some insight into my background. I am currently a member of the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, to which I was elected in 2019. I also ran as a parliamentary candidate in that year for the 2019 Westminster election. In my professional life, I work in Belfast's growing technology sector as a software engineer and development manager. Although I am a political representative from south Belfast on Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, I am originally from Derry city. I was born and raised in the Bogside area of the city, where I attended the local integrated primary school at the direction of my mother, whose ambition was that my brother and I would grow up engaged in a positive cross-community environment and experiencing friendships with those from different backgrounds and communities from ours. Many of those friendships last to this day.
In January 2020, my son was born in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. My partner is from Navan, County Meath and our family relationships, like a growing number of others on this island, naturally extend beyond the artificial boundaries imposed on us. From Derry to Belfast and from Meath to Lisburn and Castlereagh, we are as Irish as the next family and the fluidity of our lives across the Border give a broadened sense of just how small our island is. It is my ambition that my son will grow up in an Ireland free from these artificial boundaries, and the divisions they sow, on a unified island and in a unified community. However, to realise that reality, we must see the appropriate preparation, planning and civic engagement.
Irish unity and the provisions for constitutional change are a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement. It is embedded in the heart of the agreement, which clearly outlines our pathway to the unification of Ireland and dictates that a new constitutional future in Ireland can only be achieved with the democratic consent of the people of Ireland. It is my belief that members of this generation want their say on that future. Like me, they are ambitious for change. They see the unnatural imposition of partition on their lives and aspire to build something better, not just for them but also for their children. I have always believed in Irish unity.
Brexit has caused a paradigm shift in many people's thinking, and there is now a rapidly growing and diverse constituency that recognises the great potential of an all-island economy and a unified nation within the European Union. These conversations have begun. They are happening in our offices or via Zoom and in our homes across the country. I speak daily both with constituents and work colleagues in my profession, many from a unionist background, who are now ready to have that conversation and eager to know what a united Ireland would look like. Twenty-three years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, we must now move to provide them with answers. It is my view that this conversation is headed in only one direction, and in the coming years there will be referenda on Irish unity, North and South, as outlined in the Belfast Agreement. The people want their say. The success or otherwise of those referenda, however, will hinge on the preparation, engagements and dialogues we make today. I believe that this generation is the one that will finally make our ambitions on Irish unity a reality. It is ready for that task and comes with a renewed determination and ambition to deliver for all our people as part of a new Ireland.
I will be happy to take questions on my opening statement or on general politics in the North.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an bhfinné as ucht na hóráide sin. Beidh ceisteanna ag teacht ó gach comhalta nuair a bheidh na daoine eile atá anseo tar éis a gcaint a thabhairt dúinn. I call on Mr. de Faoite to give his opening statement.
Mr. Séamas de Faoite:
I thank the Chairman for his introduction and I thank the Deputies, MPs and Senators who serve on the committee for the invitation to address it today. I will be brief in my opening remarks because I believe the most beneficial part of this meeting will be the questions many members may have for the group before the committee. I know some members quite well and I have interacted with them on social media, but for others it is my first time to interact with them so it is appropriate to give them an idea of my background.
I am a 29-year-old SDLP city councillor, representing the Lisnasharragh district electoral area in Belfast, which stretches from the east bank of the River Lagan in the Belfast South parliamentary constituency to Connswater in the Belfast East parliamentary constituency. Our electoral area is politically diverse, with four different partisan traditions represented at the council, the SDLP, the Green Party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and the DUP. It is the home of Ulster Rugby, the Museum of Orange Heritage and two of the largest and fastest growing GAA clubs on the island, Bredagh and East Belfast GAA. Like some of the other councillors here this morning, I was first elected in May 2019. Following the United Kingdom's exit from the EU, I became the only directly elected representative in east Belfast who advocates a position of constitutional change. Following my election, I proposed the establishment of Belfast City Council's all-party working group on the climate crisis, serving as its first chairperson and as the chairperson of the council's Brexit committee. In 2019, Belfast City Council became the largest council in the North to back the proposed referendum on presidential voting rights for Irish citizens across the island and, potentially, across the world. I was glad to propose that motion and received support from across the council, including abstentions from the DUP, allowing it to proceed without opposition.
I was born on 5 February 1992 and on the same day Jack Duffin, William McManus, Christy Doherty, Peter Magee and James Kennedy were murdered in the Sean Graham Bookmakers massacre on Lower Ormeau Road in my home community. My grandmother was the local primary school teacher and knew some of the victims as past pupils and my mother knew them as members of the same south Belfast community that she had always called home. For as long as I can recall, the Good Friday Agreement was referenced to me and my generation as the reason that we could expect to live free from the threat of violence and free from the type of horror that occurred on 5 February 1992. That signalled a sense of hope and optimism that my parents' generation had not grown up with and a promise that an end to violence would lead to an end to division and a new and prosperous home place for all of us to share. I worry that over the past number of years the politics of Brexit, carve-up and division has undermined much of that hope among my generation. I try my best each day, as do the other elected representatives at this meeting, to try to rebuild some of that sense of hope and optimism, to work the common ground and to identify the places where we can work together on issues on which we agree, despite holding differing views on other issues.
I am keen to offer committee members the opportunity to ask as many questions as possible. I believe we are in a time of flux and change. There is a great deal to consider about the future of our home place. This is a good opportunity for representatives from across the island to get a sense of where the next generation of people's representatives see the future.
Ms Sorcha Eastwood:
I thank the committee for the invitation to participate in the meeting. One of the most profound and truly pivotal moments in our shared history was the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. As a young person who had an interest in politics, I watched the countless figures, mostly men, emerge from Castle Buildings in the years preceding the agreement. Indeed, I often saw them in the streets of my home town, Lisburn. I often looked at them and wondered if they held the same values that I held and if they wanted to fight for my rights to have my voice heard.
Twenty-three years after the Good Friday Agreement, one could be forgiven for thinking that our politics has fallen back to pre-1998 standards, with political parties still selling the politics of a new Ireland or an ever-stronger union. With both these goals legitimate but eternally incompatible, it can sometimes feel that we are mired in political stalemate, with Brexit causing political instability. However, the political sands are shifting beneath our feet, with parties that do not designate as unionist or nationalist seeing significant growth and electoral success. It has sent shock waves throughout the political system. It has challenged the old assumptions. Indeed, our election results in Lagan Valley in the 2019 general election are still sending shock waves throughout our politics today. Radical politics is not about the age-old unity or union binary. It is about tackling the barriers that divide us, throwing them aside and working together, tearing down the walls of division, brick by brick, identifying as a united community instead of separate or divided communities and stepping forward together as one community to tackle the toxic legacy of years of conflict, paramilitarism, sectarianism and segregation.
People are embracing the politics of united community and we need that to be reflected in the mechanisms of the Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement was an opportunity to transform our politics. It provided the foundation to build a better place for us all; a place where everyone was respected, valued and welcomed; historic wrongs would be righted; those who lost their lives would be remembered with reverence; and those hurt, injured and maimed by the conflict would be looked after, not left to fend for themselves or fight their own lonely battles. Yet, we have not delivered on this. We laid the foundations of peace, but the peace we have built is a long way from the blueprint drawn up in 1998. We have peace, but sometimes on a piecemeal basis: justice, for those who are able to get it, served on an individual, not a collective, basis; communities that are still in the throes of ongoing paramilitary coercive control, having to negotiate their small peace with malevolent forces; lives half-lived with young people who have not seen the peace dividend; with the number of people who have died by suicide much greater than the number of the bereaved lost through the conflict since 1998; and still fighting for truth and justice.
Since the inception of Northern Ireland, it has been taken as read that our politics must be divided in terms of identity, a pattern that has emerged and has stayed with us. However, in recent years, this has changed, with a growth and significant rise in unaligned parties, including my own, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Indeed, this has given rise to the question: what happens if Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is the second-biggest party? As somebody who is neither nationalist nor unionist, my vote should count the same as anyone else's, and it is deeply wrong that in certain circumstances, my vote would not count, if that were the case. We are making great progress with our integrated education Bill. Many people and families now have fluid and multifaceted identities. Indeed, we have welcomed many newcomer families to Lisburn from Syria. The Northern Ireland in 1998 and the Northern Ireland now, thankfully, are hugely different and changed places. Every day we are thankful that we do not have to live through what our parents and others lived through. We have a different, diverse, and vibrant community that has changed in many ways since 1998. The future we are building is not a binary choice; it is a rainbow of colour, identity and values that respects everyone's place and is working together for a united community and a peace.
Ms Áine Groogan:
I thank the committee for this opportunity. I probably will not get to cover everything I want in the opening statement, but I will do my best. I am a Green Party councillor for the Botanic district electoral area in south Belfast. I am the first Green Party councillor to represent that area. It is a diverse constituency. I represent a number of inner-city working-class Protestant unionist loyalist communities, as well as a predominately nationalist or republican community. We also have the Holyland student area and some more affluent areas. My constituency also has a significant number of newcomer and black and minority ethnic, BAME, communities. All of this makes us one of the most diverse communities in Northern Ireland.
I will be honest. Issues such as Brexit or the constitutional question do not feature in my day-to-day life. They did not feature in my election campaign. I was not asked about them on the doors. What people do speak to me about is a lack of trust in politicians here; the lack of housing for their families; feeling pushed out of their city; the cruel and inhumane benefit system; or why in 2021 we are still putting women and pregnant people on a boat in the middle of a pandemic.
As a Green Party member, our position on the Good Friday Agreement is clear. We support the Agreement and its full implementation. It was, and is, the people’s Agreement. However, what we have seen since 1998 is the altering of its provisions by politicians and for politicians, through the various other agreements that have been made as we have lunged from one political crisis to another. That has been done without the consent of the people who agreed the Good Friday Agreement in the first place. That has so often failed to be acknowledged. I am not saying that we do not need to update the Agreement, but I do not believe it should be done as a result of closed conversations in back rooms by a small number of political elites. As a party, we do not designate as either nationalist or unionist. We are "othered". We have seen the rise of the "other" in Northern Ireland for some time now yet, in the Assembly, our votes still count for less. As the rhetoric ramps up, post Brexit, so do the calls to pick a side, as if the only two possible identities in this place are nationalist or unionist. I take great offence at my identity not being considered valid, as it does not fit the neat binaries that have been entrenched in our political institutions. It may suit certain parties to continue peddling the myth that there’s simply "them’uns" and "us’uns", as it keeps them in a job, but I can sit here with confidence and say that I am not a unionist, nor am I a nationalist.
I am a feminist and an eco-socialist. That is my political identity. That is what is relevant to me and I believe a growing number of other people in Northern Ireland. We have a right for that to be respected, just as those who choose their political identity to be nationalist, unionist, or something else entirely. It is not "sitting on the fence", as I have been told. The constitutional future of Northern Ireland will be dictated by the people and the people alone, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, and not by political parties.
We are still fumbling our way through an unprecedented global pandemic. Who knows what impact that is going to have on us going forward? Brexit is, and will continue to be, one of the most complex socio-political and economic shocks that we are going to have to try and make sense of. Our world is burning. We all know John Hume’s famous line: "You can’t eat a flag". Well, I am going to quote my esteemed colleague, Councillor Brian Smith: "If you don’t deal with climate breakdown now, you’ll be arguing about a United Ireland in a canoe in a few years." Climate does not recognise borders. The issues facing the people in my constituency know no borders. Working-class people in Belfast, Derry, Dublin, London, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Cardiff all the have same issues. That is what I want to focus on as a political representative. I will leave it at that and I am happy to take any questions.
Mr. Stuart Hughes:
I thank the Chair and the committee for the invitation. It is always great to hear some southern voices. Anyone who has been in Belfast recently will know that is not a particularly new phenomenon.
I am not as well known as some of the other councillors in this group, so I will give the committee some of my background. As the Chair said, I am an Ulster Unionist councillor, elected in May 2019 to Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, representing Lisburn North. It is a relatively diverse area. I am proud that I am the only councillor in the area who still lives in the area. We have strong working-class unionist areas and more demographically changing class areas. When one is approaching the age of 30, being referred to as the "next generation" is refreshing. I am sure some of my colleagues will agree with this.
The Ulster Unionist Party is proud of its role in the Good Friday Agreement. We have never shied away from saying that, and we never will. We are proud of the three-stranded approach that came out of it. There will be some people who think that my attendance at a meeting such as this one is somehow a dilution of my own unionism. To them, I can only say that nothing was ever lost by engagement. My unionism will not be diluted by anything that is said or heard today. My unionism is mine. How I choose to shape it is my decision.
To give the committee some background on what shapes my views, my parents come from different backgrounds. My father is from a working-class unionist background in Belfast and my mother is from, as I like to remind her frequently, leafy suburbia in east Belfast. They were quite the mix. They worked hard to bring us up. We lived in a comfortable, mixed middle-class area. I feel fortunate that this is my background. Unfortunately, the reality is that too many people in Northern Ireland still today live in segregated communities. That is not just segregation through housing, but through education. My objective is that Northern Ireland remains within the United Kingdom, but that this happens as a union of people.
We can only do that when we start to share and live together and educate our children together. Those are some of the priorities I see for the future.
We will delve into several topical issues during questioning. One point I will emphasise now is that in the past several years we have heard people say how we must dial down the rhetoric. We may hear the point made during this meeting as well. Those are usually the people who are then the first to dial up the rhetoric after they have made that statement. What is required are calm heads and cool conversations. People need to be confident in their own identity, whether that is British, Irish, Northern Irish or whatever else, as is allowed for by the Good Friday Agreement. This is the key aspect for the future. We must allow people to be confident in their identities and we must not be insecure in ours. Those are some of my initial thoughts and I will be happy to take any questions. I thank the committee very much for the invitation to contribute.
I thank Mr. Hughes. We are delighted to have him here, especially today. As he said, all the parties in the South support the Good Friday Agreement and we think it is the way forward for all of us. I refer to respecting, understanding and supporting each other regarding rights and the right to our own political views. How people see the island's future is their own business. We must respect that and the collective will of the people as it is expressed from time to time. I am delighted that Mr. Hughes has agreed to speak here today.
We will move on now to questions. For the benefit of our guests, what we normally do is to have 15 minutes for each political grouping. A representative of that political grouping asks a question and witnesses respond as they wish. At the end of 14 minutes, I will call time and then we move on to the next grouping. That is the way we have done things up to now. I hope it will be a free exchange of views and I will try to keep it as relaxed and informal as possible, other than with the time slots. Representatives from Sinn Féin will ask the first questions, followed by speakers from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, SDLP, the Alliance Party, Independents, Aontú, Sinn Féin, Labour Party and Green Party, in that order. The first 15 minutes are for Sinn Féin. Will Ms Gildernew state who will ask that party's questions?
Ms Órfhlaith Begley:
For those who do not know me, I am the MP for West Tyrone. I almost feel as though I should be considered the next generation as well, given that I am the same age as Mr. Hughes. I am approaching 30 this year. The work of this committee is concerned with considering the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Like many others involved in this meeting, I was only a child when the agreement was signed. I am part of that generation that has benefited from the peace process.
I find it disappointing that we have reached this stage without the full implementation of the agreement. Many elements of the agreement are still to be realised. I refer particularly to human rights and to having a bill of rights for the North. A committee has been established in the Assembly to deal with that aspect. An integral part of the peace process as a whole, though, is to ensure that we have equality for all citizens. Unfortunately, there is a rights deficit in the North. For example, England and Scotland have an Equality Act, whereas the North does not even have that, never mind a bill of rights. Therefore, there is still a great deal of work to do. As the next generation of politicians, our work is cut out for us to ensure we see the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Reference was made to the ongoing constitutional conversation. Of course, the Agreement provides for a peaceful and democratic pathway through which to hold a referendum. It is fair to say that, despite the varying opinions in this respect, a legitimate conversation is under way throughout the island of Ireland. Many people are engaging in the conversation who perhaps might not have done so before. Ultimately, however, it will be for the people of this island to decide their own future through a potential referendum. On that point, I would like the views of the witnesses regarding the establishment an all-island citizens' assembly. That could include not only the constitutional conversation, but also many of the issues mentioned in the contributions. I refer to climate change, healthcare services and education. It would be an opportunity for citizens to engage as a whole.
I am delighted that Mr. Hughes has attended. To pose a direct question to him, does he think that an all-island citizen' assembly would help to engage those who may identify as unionists to become involved in the debate concerning future constitutional change? Those are my questions and Mr. Brady will follow me.
Mr. Mickey Brady:
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I am not the new generation, but very much the old generation. However, I am relatively new to politics. I was first elected to the Assembly in 2007 and then to Westminster in 2015. I represent the constituency of Newry and Armagh, which is a Border constituency. I think we are the second largest constituency in the North. I am pleased to hear so many diverse views from the witnesses. It might be worth pointing out that I have never been a councillor, but I do not know if that is a good or bad thing. In my experience of working with councillors, though, I have found them to be the front line of any political party and often the first port of call for constituents. Therefore, it is interesting to hear the views of the witnesses on many subjects.
Ms Begley made the point that many aspects of the Good Friday Agreement have not yet been implemented. Human rights and all those types of issues must still be addressed. We are also dealing to a great extent now with legacy issues. That element affects my generation much more so than that of the witnesses. I grew up during the 1950s and there was a campaign from 1956 right through. I lived through much conflict, therefore, and I am grateful to have seen the advent of the Good Friday Agreement. Some may view it as an agreement reached in a room by elite politicians, but the reality is that it has brought a great degree of peace to our society. I suppose other issues are more relevant now such as the protocol. I would like the views of the witnesses on that aspect, as well as the whole concept of Brexit and its effects. I ask that because in my constituency we have seen the advantages of the protocol. For example, one company is now able to export to nine European countries that it did not previously. The protocol has also been an advantage in respect of local food sources and similar aspects. Many, if not all, of the witnesses also referred to integrated education. I would like their views on how that endeavour might be implemented. I will leave my contribution there, because I think I have covered a fair wee bit of questioning.
I thank Mr. Brady. We will go to our guests now for a response. They may answer in whatever order they wish, and they have almost ten minutes left to respond to those points. If Sinn Féin members wish to ask further questions in that period, they should feel free to do so. Who would like to take the first shot at a reply? I do not think our guests are always as shy as they appear to be.
Mr. Stuart Hughes:
Several issues were raised. Starting with the constitutional question, I have no issue with anyone who aspires to achieving a united Ireland through peaceful and legitimate means. However, what is frustrating for many unionists is that nationalism still seems to be having that conversation itself and it still needs to work out what exactly it wants to do from its perspective in this regard.
From my perspective, there is much clamour to get unionists involved in these conversations but, ultimately, these are conversations with a predetermined outcome, which is that people want a united Ireland. Therefore, I am more than happy for people to campaign for a united Ireland and seek whatever meetings they want to have but my focus is on the people of Northern Ireland and how we work for a better future for all of them.
That is where the focus of most unionists is. I am not against engaging with people and I am here today, but there is a succinct difference between that and being involved in those conversations. Some people have been engaged in them and the optics may have looked good for some of those pressure groups and think tanks that have had those people at their events. However, for me, as a unionist politician and as a representative of people in Northern Ireland, my focus will be on them, on ensuring a better future for them and ensuring that happens within the United Kingdom. If other people want to pursue this peaceful and legitimate constitutional means through whatever body they wish, that is a matter for them. There are institutions covered by the Good Friday Agreement that we have not been making full use of in recent years and that we should be considering which would help to engage people. Perhaps that is a matter we could examine in terms of how we can broaden them and broaden the input people have into them.
Regarding Brexit, our view on the protocol is very clear. I can completely understand why people do not want a hard border or checks on the island of Ireland. What I cannot understand is why nobody shows that same understanding towards unionist people who do not want checks on goods being moved, which in our view is within our own country, or their pets being subjected to checks to ensure they have been injected against diseases that have not existed on these islands for decades. That is how unionists people feel. That is the reality. It is not only people in working class unionist areas, but it is right across the board. There is deep anger. I do not want to go into where the blame lies. We often are accused of not mentioning the British Government. Trust me, if members were to go on to the Ulster Unionist Party website and type in Boris Johnson’s name around October, November or December 2019, they would see plenty of statements from the Ulster Unionist Party criticising the protocol and the role of the British Government in it. The reality is we all have a responsibility in Northern Ireland, in the Republic of Ireland, in London and in Brussels to find solutions to the real problems. People are quite frustrated. We had a recent issue about sausages but the issue is not about sausages, rather it is the principle of the checks that angers people. We all understand there are other ways to source goods but it is the principle of the checks that angers people.
Regarding Mr. Brady's final question on integrated education, if I knew the answer to how to get that implemented tomorrow, I probably would not be sitting here; I would be off doing it. It is a tough one. There is goodwill from various stakeholders on this, but the question is about how we get there. My honest answer to that question is that I am not sure how we get there now. What we see in the Northern Ireland Assembly is goodwill with respect to many issues and then five years pass, we have three consultations, the Assembly takes a break for three years and we have another three consultations, and a decade later, as we have seen with licensing laws, we finally get legislation passed that changes and updates the law. There is a job of work to be done in the Northern Ireland Assembly to make that chamber more fit for purpose and more productive. If people in Northern Ireland were asked what is a big issue facing them, that probably would rank high for them because there is frustration in that respect. I come a private sector background. I cannot understand the sloth that sometimes occurs in Stormont. It is not a private versus public issue. When we note comparable legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff, London, Dublin or wherever, more is being delivered. Certainly, in the UK more is being delivered through devolution. There is a piece of work to be done on that.
I thank Councillors Carlin and Eastwood for raising their hands to indicate they want to speak. I will bring them in. It is difficult to see everybody's name on the screen and I know people understand that. I call Councillor Carlin to be followed by Councillor Eastwood to respond to those questions.
Mr. Ryan Carlin:
I got disconnected briefly toward the end of Mr. Brady's contribution but I have a good gist of it. In terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, and I understand what Councillor Hughes said about it, from my point of view and that of people in Border areas, it has been implemented as the best worst option. The North voted against Brexit. If checks ever had to be implemented, we wanted them to be as undisruptive as possible. As Mr. Brady said, there are many communities located along the Border and people can move freely back and forth across it. The majority of councillors on the panel today are Belfast centric. I am probably the only person from a Border constituency. I come from Derry city. If there had to be checks, it had to be at the ports. That was inevitable. We saw political unionism in Westminster when unionists had a say on what was happening. They, and Britain as a whole, rejected any sort of deal that would have allowed us to avoid any checks in terms the Single Market and the custom union. On that angle, I empathise but there are great opportunities within the protocol in that it gives us access to the Single Market. We have seen from news reports the massive growth in North-South trade in the recent past, which is beneficial to everyone on the island in building a stronger all-island economic unit.
In terms of a citizens’ assembly, on which Ms Begley touched, as a member of Sinn Féin, I am definitely in favour of creating whatever forums we can to engage on unionism. In many ways political unionism might not want to engage in conversations around a united Ireland and that is understandable. People are talking about it. We saw polls at the start of this year, which, essentially, showed those in favour of Irish unity and those against it were neck and neck. We have seen other polls that counteract that. It is my belief we are heading in that direction. It is important to have such dialogue and conversations now. Many people, particularly unionists, are worried we will talk ourselves into a united Ireland by having these forums and discussing the issue but it is my belief we should be talking ourselves into having a united Ireland. That is the means by which we should do it, namely, through dialogue, engagement and conversation. I would encourage any form of citizens' assembly, civic assembly or political forums that allow us to engage and discuss all these cross-Border and all-Ireland dimensions to make that happen. I would want to see it done in as inclusive a manner as possible. Ms Eastwood, Mr. Hughes and myself all work collectively on our council for everyone. I do not see why that would be any different in a united Ireland context.
In terms of rights, and the implementation of rights under the Good Friday Agreement, there has been much talk about the establishment of a bill of rights, which I would very much like to see. It would underpin the Good Friday Agreement. The ad hoccommittee in Stormont is working on that. For some reason there is resistance to implementing rights in the North. We continually see it is almost perceived that rights seem to be for one side, but that is not the case. Rights are for everyone and they underpin and provide a safety net for all of us, be it cultural rights, social rights or rights to housing and other such issues.
I agree with Mr. Hughes in some respects in that there is a perception that Stormont can be quite slow in terms of delivery. That is the nature of having a five party executive and people with diametrically opposed views all trying to find consensus, which can be incredibly frustrating for those who are working on it. It is also rewarding when we can get consensus and bring everyone along in that manner. Those are my views in response to some of those questions. I would be happy to take any follow-up questions.
I was talking to the clerk to the committee. We will defer all the private business we were going to deal with at this meeting to our meeting next week.
Ms Eastwood, Mr. de Faoite and Ms Groogan are offering. The problem is that if I extend the time, which I have no problem doing, not every party will not have the same equality when it comes to asking questions. I am thinking on my feet here. Is it okay if I extend this for another ten minutes between the three speakers? We can then move on to questions from members from Fianna Fáil followed by questions from Fine Gael and other parties. I am trying to be as flexible and fair as I can.
Ms Sorcha Eastwood:
I wanted to jump in off the back of some of the remarks on integrated education. What we have seen in the past number of years is a general political consensus that this is not just a nice idea but essential. In terms of action on that, my party colleague, Kelly Armstrong, is bringing her Private Members' Bill on integrated education through the Assembly. This has support so there will be progress on that shortly, which is fantastic. In respect of the pace of legislative progress within the Assembly, my party leader, Naomi Long, who is the justice minister, has managed to bring forward two Bills relating - Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill and, hopefully, shortly a justice Bill. Although we note that this was not brought forward in its entirety, we managed to get approximately 70% of that through. There is an example of where we prioritise legislation that impacts on everybody. Frankly, this was one of the reasons I got involved in politics. It shows that you can achieve a lot with what was a tight legislative framework in what was the remainder of a mandate.
In terms of the protocol, I acknowledge that where things have gone over the past number of months has been unfortunate. Indeed Mr. de Faoite and I organised a rally in 2018 called "Rally for Remain" in Belfast that had speakers from lots of different political viewpoints, including people from a unionist background who spoke of their opposition.
Ms Sorcha Eastwood:
We understood that Brexit was going to bring barriers and borders. This is why we opposed it. What we have now is the practical outworking of a Brexit that people wanted. The protocol is not perfect but it is what we ended up with. Indeed, a manufacturer in my constituency of Lagan Valley spoke about the benefits of it as well. However, if we are going to continue to drag the debate on to the constitutional ground, it will not be helpful. We need to go about this in a practical way. I understand that there are sensitive concerns around identity and how people feel. This should not be minimised for a second. I would never want to do that but we need to recognise the realities of Brexit and where we need to move to now together to push for the best outcome for everybody.
Regarding a citizens' assembly, there is no harm in people talking. Talking is the only thing that has ever brought us forward in this place. If we spend more time looking at the issues that impact on everybody regardless of view such as health, education, the economy and jobs, we will move to a place where we can achieve a lot more and see how much we have in common.
Mr. Séamas de Faoite:
I will go through some of the points that have been raised. On the citizens' assembly, it is important to note that the city council supports the principle of citizens' assemblies on policy subjects around unity, particularly in regard to issues such as health, education and the bread and butter subjects that must be covered in any conversation on constitutional change because, at the end of the day, we must be able to present a plan, vision or idea about what the change we want to achieve looks like. This position was arrived at by the council following an SDLP amendment to a Sinn Féin motion so I am glad that this was the direct impact of the SDLP on that conversation to make it the official policy of the council of the second largest city on the island. An interesting consideration mentioned by Mr. Hughes concerned getting the unity campaign on the same page. Ultimately, there are significant issues around how we lead this conversation. As an SDLP councillor, I am glad to see the initiative my party has shown around the New Ireland Commission, which includes some members of this committee. What is important about that conversation is that it has brought in people from many different backgrounds without any expectation on a landing point or where we expect to be in a year or two or three in respect of constitutional change but rather to sound out as many views and opinions as possible. They are people who are open to having that conversation. I am glad to see that. Although the background on my screen is blurred, one of the pictures behind me in my office is of the former German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, who used to talk about Ostpolitik and the idea that to unify Germany, there needed to be a clear plan about how to make it happen to address regional economic imbalances and cultural differences. That is a good starting point as a model for us to work towards unity and understanding that we need a plan. We need something to be able to grow so we can say that this is our vision and this is the future.
I know Mr. Hughes has said he does not want to get into the blame game around the protocol but I will be honest in saying this is a consequence of the Brexit the DUP, the Conservative Party and the European Research Group all pushed for. It is quite unfortunate that this is the position we have ended up in. Others on this call have advocated for different positions that would have ameliorated some of those issues. As I said earlier, I was chairperson of Belfast City Council's Brexit committee in my first year on the council. Some of the warnings we faced regarding the impact on trade, businesses, particularly manufacturers in the city, and quite simply council resources to follow through with required checks were pretty stark. This is why so many parties and individuals advocated for the softest possible measures relating to Brexit.
Ms Áine Groogan:
Most of what I intended to say about the protocol and the citizens' assembly has been covered quite well by Ms Eastwood and Mr. de Faoite. I agree that there is no harm in having conversations. The last thing anyone ever wants to have is Brexit part II where we have a vote on something when people have very little understanding of what it means in reality. With Brexit, we have seen is very much like playing off that. We have been very supportive of a people's vote on what the final deal would have looked like. What we are seeing now is the outworkings of unpreparedness and the fact that we were thrown into something where nobody knew what was coming down the line.
I will pick up on the point regarding inefficiencies at Stormont made by Mr. Hughes. This is true. We are all pretty frustrated with the lack of progress on many issues. A simple example that is affecting us as councillors is the legislation on meeting remotely. Legislation was rushed through last year, which was great, but nobody realised that there was a deadline set in that, which meant that come 3 May 2021, under the legislation, we could not longer meet remotely. We are still waiting for that legislation to finally come into effect. It was pretty minor. It seemed to be a case of a copy and paste of what was there last year and change the date yet, we are taking months to get that through. If this is how it takes to do that, what hope do we have of anything else?
The point about integrated education is a great one.
Nobody is saying that he or she does not want integrated education. We have seen little coming through in terms of making that a reality in Northern Ireland. It is up to parents and schools to drive that. There is no government push to make that happen. I welcome a Private Members' Bill coming through on that, but this is an executive job. It should be doing it but it is not. Serious questions should be asked as to why it is still left to parents to drive this. There are more and more barriers put in their way. I pay tribute to the likes of the integrated education fund, which does incredible work to try to support those who do want to make that change. Many more people want that option. The Lagan Valley school is just outside my South Belfast constituency. It is probably the most over-subscribed school in Northern Ireland. There is serious appetite there, yet government policy fails so many children and parents who want that option. I will round it up there because time is of the essence.
I thank Ms Groogan for co-operating with me. I am sorry it is like this. If we were all in one room, it would be much more dynamic. I am aware of that and I apologise for having to interrupt anybody. Now we are into the Fianna Fáil time slot. Senator Niall Blaney has indicated.
I do not think Deputy Brendan Smith is on the line. I know he was going to be late, but he had hoped to make the meeting. I will start for now.
I welcome all contributors today. It is good to see young faces with such a keen interest in Northern Ireland politics. They have a diverse range of views. Sometimes, I feel like I am banging my head off a wall, because we are missing that diverse range of views in our own committee. It is great to see someone like Councillor Stuart Hughes; we have been lacking that insight to unionism. He is very welcome today. All of the presentations were good. In ways, I would love to see the likes of Councillors Ryan Carlin and Stuart Hughes getting together in a room. It is smart of me to say that, but I do not mean it from that point of view.
It is young people, like our witnesses, in politics who can make a difference. As many said, down the years, too many have gone down the political lines of identity. Back in the days of the Good Friday Agreement, political parties were on either side of the divide. The SDLP was stuck in the middle trying to pull them together. I wonder who the new leaders are going to be in Northern Ireland. It will take people stepping up to the parapet. It will take new leaders and people who have foresight. Some of our witnesses may be the new, young leaders who we will look towards, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. The leaders will be those who will go out there with an open mind and put out the hand of friendship. They will be those who are interested in going into a room and letting down their political guard to sort out issues, a bit like what Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness did. I, for one, look forward to seeing who those new leaders in Northern Ireland will be. That is critical in finding solutions up there.
On the idea of a Border poll and this question of unity, I am as much a believer in a united Ireland as anybody at this meeting. However, I will steer away from talking about it. For me, it is putting the cart before the horse.
Many issues were touched on, such as issues with the Northern Ireland protocol. A number of speakers alluded to different ways of having conversations. I find that many political parties in Northern Ireland are not willing to identify with the shared island unit in the Taoiseach's Department. There is a fantastic amount of work being done within that unit. There is dialogue ongoing with roughly 150 organisations, community groups, and businesses across Northern Ireland. These dialogues are about issues existing within Northern Ireland, with a view to working towards a shared future. Some €40 million was released yesterday to start research on a North-South basis which will be critical research to identify the barriers to our shared future. It will critical research for institutions, so they can realise what is missing in society, on the Border, or in Northern Ireland. They will then be able to identify what needs to be put in place to create a better economy, better opportunities within Northern Ireland, and to attract investments to create high-end jobs for the children of the future. I would like to know the witnesses' views on the shared island unit. Are they pro the shared island unit and its work or are they against it? Do they see issues with it? I would like to get their views.
The dialogue today has been good. I would be interested in working with our young witnesses in the future. Without picking anybody's presentations, many interesting issues have been raised today. There is great opportunity to continue this dialogue and not just leave it here today. We should keep working on this, whether in this group or with a wider one. A sub-forum could be worth considering.
I am interested in hearing the views of those presenting today on the shared island unit and what is happening within it. I would also be interested in any questions they have in relation to it.
I welcome the contributions of our guests. I will add to what Senator Niall Blaney said. One message came across particularly clearly in the contributions of Ms Groogan, Mr. de Faoite, and Ms Eastwood. That was the frustration with the lack of progress on some political issues. We express frustration at times in regard to how slowly policies are implemented. However, this was clear in the witnesses' messages.
On other occasions in this committee, I have referred to a citizen's assembly which was mentioned by witnesses, including the Sinn Féin councillor from Derry City and Strabane District Council. Provision was made for a Civic Forum for Northern Ireland in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That was first mooted in the multi-party talks. It was championed by the then Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, NIWC. Provision was made for that. The Civic Forum for Northern Ireland was established in 2000. It met last in 2002. In the Stormont House Agreement, provision was made for the establishment of a civic advisory panel. The purpose of a civic forum or advisory panel is to give a mechanism and means to consult civic society. Oftentimes, we get a better understanding of social, economic and cultural issues through these. Throughout the world, civic fora or advisory panels have been a popular feature of political work and the political process. Again, that has not been established in Stormont. Do the witnesses, within their own political parties, exert any pressure to have such a panel established?
They have all talked about the merit of an all-Ireland citizens' assembly. There is a mechanism in place, that, unfortunately, has not been implemented, where wider society could be consulted. Ms Eastwood said it is good to talk and listen and good for all of us to learn from other viewpoints as well. It struck me on the day we had Mr. Murphy of Ireland's Future that he agreed with me on that issue. He said a civic advisory panel or civic form could be a "tangible and meaningful" process within Stormont and the existing political architecture. Is there any momentum or any efforts made within the political parties to implement that aspect of the Stormont House Agreement and, indeed, of its predecessor, the Good Friday Agreement?
I welcome their contributions, as Senator Blaney said.
I do not know who is offering to reply. If I follow through on those who spoke last, I will call Ms Groogan, Mr. de Faoite and Ms Eastwood first and then we will move on to Mr. Hughes and Mr. Carlin. That is the fairest way to do it. I want to keep it dynamic, if someone wants to put up his or her hand. There is a hand up and I cannot see the screen.
Ms Sorcha Eastwood:
I wanted to take it back to some of Senator Blaney's opening remarks on the issue of how we move everything forward. He talked about unionist and nationalist parties coming together. I want to incorporate that into some of Mr. de Faoite's feedback where he discussed the issue of Ostpolitik. Something that struck me during that period of history was the issue that some people also referred to a wall in the mind in Germany in that time.
Ms Sorcha Eastwood:
To finish that point on the issue of a wall in the mind, we have physical walls and barriers on the streets here. We have physical, self-imposed, almost social barriers in some ways in how we live our lives here. For me, that is the fundamental issue that we need to have a discussion about. We have more shared housing now in Northern Ireland than we have ever had. We have more people wanting to live together. However, what we have seen, unfortunately recently, is intimidation, whether that be through people writing messages on walls or erecting symbols that are unwanted. That is the conversation that we need to have in a way we did not fully realise when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. People then got into the day and daily.
Ms Groogan mentioned carve-up politics. I might throw in words as well. "Clientelism" sometimes appeared. We had issues through that over the years. Something I would like to see is people having those very open and honest conversations about what is a united community. Why do we still have those barriers? Let us have those conversations. That would be the most prescient think that we can do.
Mr. Séamas de Faoite:
In his contribution, Senator Blaney talked about the idea of people being able to work together. I am quite proud of the fact that in my electoral area we have been able to achieve that on a number of different issues. As I said in my opening statement, four political traditions are represented at council level in Lisnasharragh - SDLP, Green Party, Alliance Party and DUP. We disagree on many issues, not least constitutional questions. Even when it gets down to the pure economics of politics, we have very different outlooks but we have an ability to work the common ground on the places and things that we agree on for the benefit of our constituents.
Unlike previous occasions where people in elected office may have been cautious about making that kind of work public for fear perhaps of electoral recrimination or response, we have been honest in saying that we work together and we achieve results because of that. Whether that is on the impetus to try to get more dedicated cycling and walking infrastructure in our constituency, which we have all worked together on, whether it is on the regeneration of the Creggan Road area in Lisnasharragh, which had been a bustling shopping part of east Belfast, or whether it is on local policing issues and trying to support residents in respect of crime and anti-social behaviour, we have all been able to work together on those issues. That work has been recognised. Our incoming lord mayor, in her first speech in the role, made it clear that she wanted all of us to try to emulate that kind of partnership approach. I am quite proud of that and I would encourage others to try and take that approach. We can still disagree. We can still have political arguments and discussions where we disagree on issues and hold clear by our principles. Hume quite often talked about principled disagreement and the need for principled compromise rather than compromised principles.
Regarding the shared island unit, the only disappointment is that it came after the passing of former Senator, Maurice Hayes, who would have been very interested in the work of the unit. I recall his work in the National Forum on Europe on breaking down barriers and looking at ways to include as many people as possible in political debate.
I welcome the fact that the shared island unit means money on the ground. I note Senator McGahon is on the call here. Mr. Chris Hazzard MP from South Down would recognise the great move forward on Narrow Water Bridge and the welcome progress there - I look forward to seeing more progress on that particular project - and the announcement yesterday on research investment. The latter will make a big difference in south Belfast in the presence of the two main universities.
Finally, on the civic forum, part of the difficulty has been that a huge amount of our time and exertion has been put into keeping the Assembly alive, never mind any other bodies that might be associated with it. It has taken up a great deal of the political capital, in one instance, to get the political institutions back up and running after three years without government and, on other occasions, to try to keep them running when we have stuttered from crisis to crisis over the past 14 years. That is, I suppose, a partisan issue. I would be honest about that.
I would like to see a greater form of civic engagement. The SDLP has previously proposed successful motions in the Assembly calling for the civic forum to be re-established.
I share some of Ms Eastwood's concerns on clientelism.
Ms Áine Groogan:
I question what Senator Blaney said as well in terms of going into a room and getting stuff done. Much like what Mr. de Faoite said, the one good example of that in Northern Ireland is councils. It is often forgotten how well councils in Northern Ireland operate. We have genuine power-sharing on most councils across Northern Ireland and we get on with the day-to-day work. There is the odd argument - do not worry about that - but we get on with the day-to-day issues. That can often get lost. I work just as well with some of the DUP councillors as I do with the Sinn Féin, with Alliance, SDLP and People Before Profit. We all work well together. One has to. I am one of four Green Party councillors in Belfast. If I want anything done, I must work with other parties. I hope we do so quite successfully.
What I would say on the shared island unit is that it is good to see it coming forward. It had to happen. As I said in my opening statement, climate knows no borders.
Many other issues know no borders - east, west, north and south. Anything that helps increase that dialogue and helps us work on common issues is important. There is an idea that they are focusing firmly on creating a united Ireland. That is not right, but it is important that we work on those issues and have those conversations - and they are difficult conversations. Whether we like it, we share Northern Ireland. The UK and Ireland share an island and a Border. That is the reality. We need to start grappling with that more and with the hard issues. There is not going to be a perfect space here but we have to learn to get on with it and get work done. There is more that unites us than divides us. We are often caught up in binaries that are not helpful or conducive to getting work done. I hope the new political leaders coming through can start to break down those barriers a little more. We are coming with slightly less baggage than some of the older generation.
We have also been supportive of the civic forum. We have seen civic society move on that in Northern Ireland with the Building Change Trust starting that model a couple of years ago through a pilot project. It is necessary. In my opening statement, I said that the people's agreement has been changed without the consent of the people. Something like a civic forum would be a useful way to revitalise the political institutions in Northern Ireland. It is about giving the power back to the people in terms of what they want to see and to move on. Mr. de Faoite mentioned the examples in the South where people were very much ahead of the politicians. If it had been left to the Dáil, we would still be in the same position in respect of the eighth amendment. We saw what happened when the power was given to the people and their voices could shine through.
I will wind it up there. I have covered most of the points I wanted to.
Mr. Ryan Carlin:
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Off the bat, Sinn Féin and I work and engage with unionism every day. Sometimes there is a perception south of the Border that Sinn Féin and the DUP are constantly at loggerheads. We are in terms of equality and rights issues. I know that Ms Groogan touched on the eighth amendment. Marriage equality was an issue for a long time. Acht na Gaeilge was another issue.
We work, where possible, to find consensus. We try to work with unionism every day, but at times, it is impossible. There are parties that are more progressive in their outlook and parties that are not. It becomes incredibly difficult to deal with those issues. I sit, as one of two Sinn Féin representatives, on a majority unionist council in Lisburn and Castlereagh, along with Mr. Hughes. We work every day to deal with issues. We have the odd spat, but we engage positively and try to build consensus where we can. I would like to dispel any myths or beliefs that we do not engage or work together; we do, and try our best to do so.
The shared island unit is a positive step for the Irish Government to take in terms of connectivity across the island in respect of transport. I believe there has been discussion of the possibility of developing the University of Ulster's Magee campus. The Narrow Water Bridge project received funding recently to link the North and South better. I would like the unit to move further and work towards Irish unity. Sometimes we forget that the North does not exist in isolation. Many geopolitical factors also come into play, which I believe we need to prepare for. We only have to look to Scotland, where there is a majority in favour of Scottish independence in the Scottish Parliament. What would our process or reaction be if Scotland were to obtain independence? Are we prepared for the political outworkings of that or what might be on offer? We should look towards greater integration and potentially for a move towards Irish unity. That is obviously an Irish republican's point of view. I would like the shared island unit take that step further. As was previously stated by Professor Colin Harvey, when he appeared before the committee, a united Ireland is a shared Ireland. That is the message that we need to put across and it is what we want to see.
Sinn Féin is 100% in favour of the civic forum and will continue to push to have it implemented. It is also important to have an all-island outlook on this. Sometimes we look at the Six Counties in a small, narrow manner in respect of what we can do to better integrate or connect people. There are also barriers between the North and South and barriers along the Border. More broadly, there are barriers between Belfast and Dublin. We need to move to better align people's thinking and integration both in a North-South capacity as well as within the North.
Mr. Stuart Hughes:
To reassure members, I confirm that Mr. Carlin and I have been in a room together many times, just not often in the past 18 months, unfortunately. I agree with what he said. Some members of Belfast City Council are attending the meeting. They will not thank me for saying it, but one of my biggest frustrations with councils is when councillors try to turn councils into mini-Stormonts and we have to debate every issue under the sun. It just poisons our politics even more. What is important at a council level is working together and delivering for people. Our council is involved in some exciting projects. Councils were reorganised in Northern Ireland in 2014. There is still a Lisburn-Castlereagh split on our council and a back and forth as a result. It requires people to be more geographically aligned than they are party aligned on some issues, which is an interesting development. That work happens on a daily basis. There are things being delivered for people.
We need to be careful around the three-stranded approach of the agreement. We must ensure that we go back to first principles. The concern of any unionist will always be that the strand 1 issues are for the people of Northern Ireland. The issue we have currently with forums, or whatever it is, is that it is all framed in the narrative around the unity debate. That is where the danger lies from a unionist perspective. I would also like to point out that there are bodies that exist, the North-South Ministerial Council, for example, which are not functioning the way they should be. I also wish to highlight that North-South co-operation has to work both ways. There has been frustration in Northern Ireland during the pandemic, which was something that none of us ever saw coming, that, frankly, some of that co-operation has not been there at times. It is the case in respect of the issues around passenger locator forms, the sharing of data and the hoops that had to be jumped through for that to happen. If some of the measures that were brought in relating to travel restrictions were introduced in Northern Ireland, they would not have been accepted by politicians in the Republic.
I caution that we have work to do. Politicians have to set the example. That leadership starts at ministerial level. If people turn on the television news and see politicians not being able to agree on issues in times when they should 100% be in agreement, that sets the tone for everything else that follows. I accept that certain people want to frame all things North-South on a constitutional basis. Bodies that exist can be used for engagement and we need to make more of. We should do that. We will not shy away from talking to people. However, we also have to respect the other relationships within Northern Ireland and east-west, which are under increasing threat currently, according to the views of many unionists. That is critical for us all moving forward. We need to get back to the first principles to begin with and move from there. Now is not the time to make giant leaps. Relationships are in a fragile state.
We need to get back to basics in that regard. Part of the reason I am attending this meeting is to speak, listen and get the views of committee members. That is what we need to do. I appreciate that significant work was done behind the scenes by Irish Governments over many years and there were many conversations. As a unionist and looking to the South and to Dublin, I know people who understand Northern Ireland and the fragility of those relationships but there are others who simply do not understand that or, frankly, do not care about it. If they did, they would not have said or done some of the things they have said or done. We all have to be careful with the language we use. There is a lot of focus on unionists at the moment and the rhetoric that some unionists may be using. That works both ways. It is about getting back to first principles and having those conversations, which do not need to be publicised or broadcast, because there are opportunities. People will speak and listen. Everyone in the unionist community in Northern Ireland to whom I have spoken wants better for the people. They want better education, better jobs and better housing. We cannot frame everything simply on a North-South basis within the constitutional-----
I thank Mr. Hughes for his contribution. To follow up on it, the committee intends to travel to the North at the appropriate time. We will take Mr. Hughes up on the points he made. It was an excellent contribution and it is exactly what the committee needs to listen to.
We now move to the Fine Gael slot. I am conscious that Deputy Tóibín is also present. I want to get all members in if I can.
Senator McGahon, who was going to go first, is on a phone call. I thank him because this meeting was his idea. It has been a positive meeting. I will be selfish and say that the one thing I would like to get out of the meeting is for relationships to be formed and followed up on a more regular basis, either through the committee or personally. Mr. Hughes touched on one of the questions I intended to ask, which is whether there is a disconnect between perceptions in the South and what is happening in the North? Are we in the South in touch in that regard? I want the meeting to be about asking questions and listening to responses. Although there may be a perception in the South that everything in the North is seen through the constitutional lens, all of us do not see everything through it. It is important to acknowledge that the dynamics are shifting but that we share an island and, whatever constitutional change may bring, we have to commit ourselves to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, working together and having North-South co-operation.
What three things do our guest consider important at the moment that may not have been discussed? What is coming up for them as important issues? Is legacy an important issue for their generation of politicians? Do they consider that we need to find a framework that works to move on? How significant is the legacy of trauma in their everyday political work?
I refer to "others". I like the move away from binary politics to much more pluralist politics and giving everybody a voice. When people say they do not wish to go back to the way things were, sometimes that relates to the absence of peace, but it also needs to relate to binary politics. In terms of "others", what are the solutions there? Some 23 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, what are the solutions with regard to giving "others" their own identity?
I apologise for leaving the meeting. My pharmacy phoned me with a date for my vaccination. It was an important call to take.
I thank Mr. Carlin, Ms Groogan, Mr. de Faoite and, in particular, Mr. Hughes for taking part in the meeting. It is a meeting I suggested a couple of months ago. I refer to the comments of Ms Begley. I turned 30 a couple of months ago and I am still telling people I am not 18. It is good to get people from our generation here to speak about this issue because in recent months the committee heard from many people on the Good Friday Agreement but they are from a totally different generation. It is good to have the perspective of people who grew up as part of the Agreement generation.
My questions are for all our guests. One of the biggest aspirations of John Hume was the concept of unity. How does that concept of unity fit in with the current circumstances, particularly in the context of Brexit? As Senator Currie stated, it is not a binary conversation any more; it is much more pluralist. People are having these conversations based on a much wider political identity for Ireland than unionism or nationalism. In that context, what is currently the biggest barrier in Northern Ireland to a potentially united Ireland?
I was struck by the remarks of Ms Groogan in respect of being an "other". What is the best way, in her view or that of our other guests, to stop people of our generation, that is, those under the age of 30, falling into the same nationalist or unionist trope? What is the best way to suggest there is another path and it is the middle of the road?
As a member of Fine Gael, I wish to ask a few questions. The key message from many of those who addressed the committee was the future of the Northern Ireland economy. The biggest disadvantage it faces is the fact that a significant number of graduates leave Northern Ireland to work elsewhere. I understand that Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of early school-leavers in Britain and Northern Ireland. There is a significant deficit as many people who do not have a third-level education stay in Northern Ireland, while those who do have such qualifications leave. Another issue that was strongly raised is that of infrastructure deficit, particularly as one goes across the North to counties Derry, Donegal, Fermanagh, Tyrone and so on. If we can address those issues, we can make a much happier community that is more satisfied in terms of employment, has a higher standard of living and, I hope, much more unity of purpose.
Mr. Stuart Hughes:
There is quite a lot to cover there. I will try to be as succinct as possible.
As regards the question on perceptions, it is always an interesting issue to consider. It works both ways. I often think about this as one who lives 100 miles from Dublin. I visit Dublin three or four times a year and, in traditional middle-class Protestant fashion, usually to attend a rugby or cricket match. We travel down and have a great time and then get the train home. I often wonder how often I would visit London if I lived 100 miles from it. I suspect it would be far more often. I hope to go to London this weekend. It relates somewhat to perception. Culturally and socially, it is not that unionists do not recognise that there is another part of the island on which we live; of course, we do. I am sure it is the same for some people in the South.
Our backgrounds and the way we were brought up and live means that the rest of the island does not feature as heavily in our psyche. It is worrying in some ways, and that goes both ways. However, more people from the Republic of Ireland have probably visited Northern Ireland in the past six weeks than in almost the past six years. I hope that will help perceptions, especially of Belfast and ensure that it is seen as a modern, vibrant city.
My gut feeling on this issue is that there is a lack of understanding across the board and that works both ways. There are exceptions. I go back to what I said earlier. We must be careful about what we say and how that is perceived. We had another instance of that yesterday, and not from somebody in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. The chair of the Northern Ireland affairs select committee at Westminster showed appalling judgement for somebody in that role. If we continue to see people, whether at Westminster, Dáil Éireann or in Stormont, making statements they know or should know are not going to be accepted by people and are going to inflame tensions, we are not going to get anywhere in changing those perceptions either. We will just end up getting into this game of saying: “There are those unionists giving out again because somebody said something about bonfires”. It might be the case, but in this instance it was because what that chairman said was stupid.
That is the reality of the situation here and why we must be careful. We must deal with this issue of perception by engaging with each other and by encouraging people to visit. It is possible to get a better perception of a place outside of politics. I am that annoying guy in the bars in Belfast who starts talking to all these southern tourists who have been coming up in recent weeks. My mates abandon ship, but I love those kinds of conversations because those are normal people behaving as if they were anywhere. Regarding the biggest barrier to unity, that is not a question for me to address. I imagine, however, that I am probably a part of that barrier, but it may be a question for others to answer regarding what they see as the barriers. I thank the Chair.
I thank Mr. Hughes. We are short of time and under serious pressure because of the two-hour rule. I apologise for having to interrupt speakers. Mr. Carlin, Ms Groogan, Mr. de Faoite and Ms Eastwood will speak next, and then I will call Deputy Tóibín. That should bring us to the end of our time. I call Mr. Carlin.
Mr. Ryan Carlin:
Regarding perceptions, as an Irishman who grew up in Derry and who now lives in greater Belfast, the perception I have when people in the South, or the establishment parties of the South, as we will call them, look to the North is that our Irishness is regarded as almost second class. We are not considered of the same strand. Often people will ask what can be done to make it easier for unionists and what can be done to engage with unionism. However, a massive cohort of people who also live in the North do not just consider themselves to be but actually are Irish citizens. I often think that our voice is misrepresented or left unheard. Therefore, it would also be great to see more engagement with people of an Irish background. I do not want to use the terms "unionist" or "nationalist", and some parties represented here designate themselves as "other". Therefore, we are in a relatively new position where people who have voted for those "other" parties do not seem to have an opinion now on whether they are in favour of Irish unification or of the union. They most certainly do, however, and recent polling in January has shown that only 7% of people said that they did not know whether they wanted Irish unity or to keep the union with Britain.
It is also important to recognise that people might not designate themselves as nationalist, and I know plenty of people who have moved away from doing that. There are obviously negative connotations with the term when we look at English or British nationalism and sometimes people here do not designate now as either nationalist or unionist. However, they certainly do still believe themselves to be Irish. Emma de Souza often says that she does not designate. She is not a nationalist or a unionist, but she strongly considers herself to be Irish and went to the courts to assert that point and reinforce the Good Friday Agreement in that regard. I wanted to make that point, because sometimes we get caught up in believing that because people may not vote for parties that designate as nationalist or unionist that they may no longer have an opinion on the constitutional question.
Turning to the economy of the North and its integration, as well as educational access, which was also mentioned, those aspects are vitally important. Many people leave the North and do not seem to ever come back. Drawing on my professional background, the technology sector is growing in the North and seems to be blossoming.
Ms Áine Groogan:
When it comes to perceptions, one of the main points I want to impart to the members concerns the complexities of identity. I am not nationalist and I am not unionist. I absolutely am not and I do not take a position on that. However, I do consider myself to be Irish, and Northern Irish as well. I will be blunt, though. I lived in Dublin for four or five years when I was at college. I lost count of the number of times that I was told I was not Irish. As someone who considered myself Irish all my life to that point, it blew my mind to go to Dublin and then be told that I was not Irish. I had many conversations with people there to try to help them to understand the reality of Northern Ireland and what it has gone through over the years and what that experience means now. Therefore, I believe there is a massive disconnect across the Border, including looking southwards as well.
Senator Currie spoke about trauma and that is a massive issue that we often do not deal with. The leader of my party, Clare Bailey, often says that what we have had in Northern Ireland has been a political process and not a peace process. She states that because we have failed to confront and deal with the legacy of our past. Inequity and division are still rife. I refer to our school and housing, which are still segregated. We live segregated lives, physically and psychologically. Of course, we also still have the issue of paramilitaries, who often masquerade as community representatives, continuing to coercively control entire communities. Intergenerational trauma is threatening another generation coming into its own now. We have seen it happening. We have all seen the much-quoted statistic about the number of deaths by suicide in Northern Ireland since 1998 being greater than the total of those who died during the Troubles. That is a shocking state of affairs and it is something I deal with day in, day out. I do a great deal of case work as a councillor and in my day job. I see many people every day who have been left completely traumatised. It is a trauma that we never deal with and that we have just doubled down on it many times.
I mentioned the benefits system and how it treats people as well. It is an issue we must grapple with. We can talk all we want about looking forward and about ideas for a united Ireland or whatever. However, the reality is that we have not moved far enough from where we were in 1998. We have not done what we needed to do to move Northern Ireland forward. Therefore, to try to look ahead is like trying to run before we can walk. We must not lose sight of the fact that we are still dealing with the legacy of our past. We must deal with it. We cannot just pretend it is not there. However, there has been a complete unwillingness to deal with this issue in Stormont, Westminster and the Oireachtas. My perspective is that we need to establish an independent and international truth and reconciliation process. That is the only way we will move forward.
Regarding the best way to stop people falling into the nationalist-unionist divide, I would not frame it like that. It is within people's rights to have that as part of their political identity and aspirations. However, one major thing we spoke about earlier is integrated education. It must be our route out of this current situation.
I must call Mr. de Faoite. I am sorry for interrupting Ms Groogan, but it is because of the time pressure. I thank her for her excellent contribution. I call Mr. de Faoite, who will be followed by Ms Eastwood, and then by Deputy Tóibín.
Mr. Séamas de Faoite:
I thank the Chair. I reiterate my thanks to Senator McGahon for making this session happen. I hope this is the start of further engagement that this group can be involved in.
Taking Senator Currie's question first, I have to agree with Ms Groogan about perceptions of the North in the South. I lived in Clondalkin, which is not far from Dublin West, for ten years and I know the area quite well. Similarly, I had to deal with mixed and strange perceptions about the North from people in Dublin. That is a real mindset barrier that has to be challenged. Like Mr. Hughes, I believe tourism is a major opportunity to try to break down some of the misconceptions, and to allow people from the South to understand that Belfast as a region, in particular, has moved on significantly even in the past 20 years. We face not insignificant challenges that have to be overcome, but certainly the iterations of violence that we have seen on our streets are not an indication of how the rest of the city is or of the welcome we extend to people who come to visit.
Senator Currie asked about identifying three particular issues that are coming to the fore. All of us have witnessed challenges with the provision of healthcare over the past year because of the pandemic. We are particularly aware of them in the North because of the challenges we face with hospital waiting lists and the political failure to deal with these issues. We are told there is political consensus on reform but, quite frankly, sometimes there has not been the political will to deliver it or to provide the political support to the minister to be able to carry through some of the reforms to deliver the excellent healthcare service we need. The NHS has been spectacular in how it has responded to, and dealt with, the issues in the pandemic, but fundamentally there are 350,000 people on hospital waiting lists. Coming out of the worst stages of the pandemic, we have to deal with a serious crisis.
There is also a severe fear of us sliding backwards. I said in my opening contribution that I was born on the day a massacre occurred in my local community. I was told throughout my life that I would never have to experience the type of pain and suffering people in my area have been through, but I woke up one morning to find out that my friend had been shot dead on the streets of Derry. My generation was told we would never have to experience that pain. There is a sense and fear that with the continued emergence of paramilitary organisations, we are sliding backwards. Resources and support must be put into tackling paramilitarism and breaking the stranglehold that those organisations have over local communities, so nobody else from our generation of young elected representatives or the generation that follows has to go through that as well.
Ms Sorcha Eastwood:
I reiterate some of the remarks made by Senator Currie, and I thank Senator McGahon for calling for this session of the committee.
On the issue of perception, what I have found interesting during this short discussion is that sometimes people almost have gone back to framing the conversation as that binary of unionism and nationalism, and that when unionists and nationalists talk that it is all well and good. In fact, as Mr. Carlin said, many people have moved away from that. Certain, in the latest council elections in my constituency of Lagan Valley the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland topped the poll in every district. We then had a historic electoral result in the December 2019 general election. Basically, one saw there the change in communities across Northern Ireland. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is no longer something that people used to regard decades ago as a wasted vote. That has not been the case. Indeed, that move away from unionist or nationalist parties and people going for either our party, the Green Party, People Before Profit or whoever it may be is a good thing.
Many people will not recognise the priorities or some of the remarks in the conversation we have had this morning, valuable as it is. They want to talk about health, jobs and education. We often talk about rights, but often the rights of children are ignored in terms of extremely long waits for educational statements. We have the worst waiting lists in the UK. Our health and social care staff are stretched beyond belief. We need to do something that incorporates those issues into the mainstream, rather than the traditional shibboleths. As the old saying goes, people often move a lot faster than politics. I believe we are seeing that happening now in Northern Ireland, where people are moving away from that. That is to be welcomed.
In terms of some of the thorny issues we have not mentioned, although Ms Groogan and Mr. de Faoite have mentioned tackling paramilitarism, we have tried to bring forward through the justice Department and the minister, Ms Naomi Long MLA, some of the issues around unexplained wealth orders, which seek to tackle the horrible symptoms of paramilitarism within communities, and the issue we still have of paramilitary attacks, one of which unfortunately took place last night in the North Down constituency. We still have those realities. We still have people erecting flags and banners and burning emblems. Those are some of the realities and, while they are not representative of the vast majority of people, they still occur. The issue of the wall in the mind that I spoke about earlier is evident. It is great to have these conversations and I believe it was Ms Groogan who said that we need to have some more of these before we start looking to other places, because there is no point in having these conversations if we cannot understand ourselves.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an coiste. I have a few quick questions. Regarding what Ms Groogan and Mr. de Faoite said about people in the South often not recognising the Irishness of people in the North of Ireland, sometimes the media on this island are also partitionist and the conversations we have are inward looking within the jurisdictions rather than about the bigger picture of the island as a whole. That could be a cause sometimes. Have the witnesses been contacted in their positions as elected representatives about foods, medicines or other products not being available due to the protocol? The feedback I am getting in the North is that elected representatives are not being contacted in general on that issue. It would be interesting to hear their experience of that.
On the issue of all-Ireland co-operation, regardless of what background we are from, there is no doubt sections of the North are massively economically strapped because of a lack of co-operation and because the Border is, to a certain extent, a man-made barrier to movement, trade and business. I did a study in the North a number of years ago among people from all the different communities and they said that if we fund, plan and deliver services together, they will be better services, will have a more positive effect on people and will be more efficient as a result.
Another contributor spoke earlier about he feels that he should not speak about Irish unity at present. It is shocking that the Tánaiste was castigated for expressing the view that he felt there would be a united Ireland in his lifetime. Surely we must get to a situation that if we articulate views on a united Ireland or the union between the North of Ireland and Britain in a respectful fashion, that is perfectly legitimate and welcome. When people say we should not mention something because it will create anger or could create violence on the streets, it is those two responses that are wrong and not the respectful conversation in which we engage in the first instance.
Finally, pluralism has to be the solution to many of the difficulties in the North and, indeed, in all of Ireland. The idea of pluralism is that we do not necessarily have to wear each other's clothes, but we can be who we are to our full extent. Everybody in their community or group has the right to reach his or her full potential without fear or favour from the state. It is not necessarily about blending into a new identity, but that the existing identities are perfectly right and proper and can be what they are to their full extent without any negativity as a result.
There are some observations for the witnesses.
If our witnesses wish to respond to the Deputy, they can send a note by email or by letter directly to him.
If you wish to communicate further with any of us you may do so through the clerk of the committee who will make sure we get it. Our difficulty now is that our time has expired. I thank Mr. Carlin, Mr. de Faoite, Ms Eastwood, Ms Groogan and Mr. Hughes for their excellent contributions. You have renewed our hope in the next generation. Your capacity, interest and dedication is clear to all of us. I look forward to further discussions when we visit the North and when you visit us again in this forum, the Dáil and the Oireachtas.
The meeting is adjourned until 9.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 13 July 2021 when we will meet Ms Anna Mercer, public affairs consultant, Stratagem and Professor Jon Tonge, professor of politics, University of Liverpool, to discuss the review of the Good Friday Agreement, institutional reform, the exploration of issues, including designation, petitions of concern, challenged function to the Executive and other ways to accommodate constitutional position and other relevant topics. Following the public meeting on Tuesday, which will end at 11.30 a.m., it is proposed to hold a private meeting, commencing at 12 noon, to deal with urgent business of an administrative, not political, nature, and in respect of legal advice as well. Members do not have to be on campus to attend this meeting.
I thank members for their presence today, which I hope has brought us good ideas and confidence in the future.