Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Northern Ireland: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to speak on these statements on the North in the Dáil. Far from suggesting anybody should butt out, be quiet or be reticent in our discussion on the North, on the contrary, it is incredibly important that the Oireachtas has ongoing engagement on progress, dilemmas and politics in the North. I only wish debates on matters in the North were more regular. I have said before that I await the day when every political party is truly national and stands for democratic election right across the island, including in the Six Counties.
It is true to say we face many immediate challenges, with the chaos in Westminster, an impending Brexit deadline and talks to re-establish the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in what can only be described as very challenging political circumstances. There is an onus on all of us in short, medium and longer terms to make political progress and transformation all across the island, including in the North, a core part of our political programme. There is an onus on all parties and all of us to plan, strategise and build for Irish unity in all its dimensions. It is incumbent on the Irish Government to lead on these matters. While the island remains partitioned, Irish citizens in the North nonetheless demand and expect exactly the same respect and rights as their co-citizens living in these parts.
It should make no difference if one lives in Newry or Dundalk, or in Derry or Naas. People are people and rights are rights. British citizens in the North are due the same equality and respect as all others, for that is the cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement. Whether one is British or Irish, or both, or neither, one is due equal treatment and respect with the equivalence of rights, North and South. That is hardwired into the agreement. The vast majority of people, North and South, endorsed the agreement in 1998, and a generation has grown up since then.
Lyra McKee was one of that generation, a generation for whom conflict was in the past and for whom the expectations of inclusion, prosperity and equality are the norm. Lyra McKee was killed by those who oppose the Good Friday Agreement and offer nothing but injury, death, imprisonment and heartache. They cannot and must not succeed. It is the responsibility of us all - Deputies, parties and members of the Government - to realise the potential and promise of the Good Friday Agreement for that new generation. That work must be above party politics. It is the people’s agreement, the people’s peace process, and it is our duty to protect it and deliver on it.
The institutions of the agreement are interlocking and interdependent. The success of one is dependent on the success of others. These institutions should be re-established and delivering prosperity, equality and public services for all citizens. That is beyond doubt. It is the expressed desire of both Governments and all parties to re-establish the institutions and have them working.
On 2 June, the Taoiseach said in a joint statement made with the British Prime Minister: "The Secretary of State and the Tánaiste believe that there is a genuine but narrow window of opportunity to reach agreement in the immediate period ahead and that it is essential to continue and intensify talks to this end." The window is indeed narrow. Last Friday, Ms Theresa May stood down as leader of the Tory party and remains in a caretaker capacity until the election of her successor at the end of July. The British Government remains in power only with the support of the DUP. We have the Brexit deadline of 31 October looming on the horizon. Therefore, the window for reaching agreement is indeed narrow and the political circumstances are considerably complex. With determination and generosity among all, however, we can succeed.
Sinn Féin is committed to reaching agreement and those who have met us in recent weeks and months are aware of that. Functioning, stable, all-party, inclusive institutions delivering for all in society are the only way forward.
Most of the issues are already matters of agreement and simply require implementation. An Irish language Act was agreed 13 years ago at St. Andrews. I remember it because I was there. It was an agreement between the British and Irish Governments. It was explicit and obliged the British Government to, "introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language". That was 13 years ago.
Gaels in the North, after decades of being treated as second-class citizens, rightly expected the British Government to deliver on that promise. It is both symbolic and practical. It is required to protect the Irish language, particularly for Gaeilgeoirí, but it is about much more than that. This is about identity. Gaels in the North trusted successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments to stand over that commitment but it has not been delivered. The Taoiseach said that Irish citizens in the North would no longer be left behind. Irish citizens in the North expect the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and all of us to make good on that promise. The refusal by the British Government, at the behest of a section of unionists, to honour the agreement is a calculated and deliberate put-down to those who value the Irish language and culture and an undermining of the political process. It provides a cover to those in unionism who opposed, and still oppose, the Good Friday Agreement.
Confidence in the political process has been further eroded by the British Government’s refusal to put in place the agreed mechanisms to support victims of conflict in their search for truth and justice. Instead, elements of the British Government are seeking an amnesty for the actions of their forces including the killings in Ballymurphy and on Bloody Sunday. They continue to refuse to hand over all information relating to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
We now have a system of unequal rights. Marriage equality is a right enjoyed by Irish citizens in the rest of Ireland and by British citizens in Britain, but is blocked and has been blocked consistently in the North. The petition of concern was introduced to safeguard the rights of a minority. It is an essential element of the checks and balances of the Good Friday Agreement but it has been abused to block equality and that is wrong.
We cannot waste time reopening agreements already made; this process must be about delivery. Progress is possible and necessary. It will be found in implementing existing agreements, respecting the equality of all and recognising that rights for one section of the community do not diminish the rights of others. Success must be felt by all in society. This is not about winners and losers, victory or defeat. It is true to say that we have faced greater challenges in the past and that with generosity and imagination we have found a way forward. Sinn Féin’s negotiating team has engaged fully and will move to the next phase with a determination to resolve outstanding issues.
The Irish Government is not just a referee or arbitrator in this process. Members of the Government are signatories, sponsors and the co-equal guarantors of the agreements and the rights of citizens. It is not a case of determining which rights are upheld or what parts of the agreements are set aside. In this State we have the protections of the Bunreacht na hÉireann. In the North, it is the Good Friday Agreement and the 1998 Act that provide the constitutional protections and status of the North at this time. It is about securing rights and the implementation of agreements. That is the basis for re-establishing the institutions.
The window of opportunity is narrow. The chaos in Westminster, the fact that the British Prime Minster is stepping down and the renewal of a deal between the DUP and the Tories make the process of reaching agreement difficult but not impossible. At the end of this process we must have an agreement that will deliver sustainable institutions, operating to the highest standard and delivering for all. Failure is not and cannot be an option. Undermining previous agreements is not an option either and refusing citizens’ rights can never be an option. One either honours agreements or does not. Rights are either safeguarded or denied. If this phase of the talks cannot resolve outstanding issues, then both Governments must act to make good their commitments; it is as simple as that. The Government must act to remove the issues of difference and provide the route back to the institutions in line with the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements. Sinn Féin will do all in its power to reach an agreement. All parties and both Governments must do likewise, for that is what we owe the Good Friday Agreement generation and ourselves. We all must demonstrate that politics works, that agreements made must be honoured and that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement can and will deliver peace, prosperity and equality for all.