Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Northern Ireland: Statements
I welcome the fact that parties in Northern Ireland are meeting as part of a sincere effort to get the Assembly up and running again. People in Northern Ireland need political leadership to fill the vacuum on Brexit, but also for day-to-day public administration in health, education, housing, transport and other services. It is now 866 days since the Assembly last met. In the same period of time, our own Parliament has overseen a referendum on the eighth amendment and passed legislation to permit abortion. Dáil Éireann passed 100 new laws in this period of time, including a crucial law to prepare Ireland for Brexit, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, protections to tenants in the rental sector, the creation of technological universities, improved law on domestic violence and so much more. Stormont, however, has been dormant. New laws and ministerial decisions in Northern Ireland have not happened, leaving public needs unmet. It is time for all parties to put aside any and all conditions and to simply get the Assembly up and running again.
Beyond the bread-and-butter issues of good governance, Northern Ireland also needs political leadership on the constitutional issue. A leading unionist commentator, Mr. Alex Kane, has argued that unionists need to prepare for an inevitable Border poll. That does not only apply to unionists. As I said last year, we all need to engage seriously with this possibility. Underpinning Mr. Kane’s logic is the stark reality, as pointed out by Mr. Matthew O’Toole, a former Downing Street official, that unionists have not had a majority of the vote in Northern Ireland since 2005. However, the absence of a unionist majority at European, Assembly or local government level in Northern Ireland does not automatically mean that it has been replaced by a nationalist majority. As Mr. O’Toole argues, a large and growing number of people identify with neither of these labels. For the first time, people in Northern Ireland are being required to weigh up the benefits of remaining in a changing British Union versus remaining in the European Union.
It is in that context that a Border poll represents a very uncertain prospect for unionists. Mr. Kane seeks answers to several pertinent questions. Unlike the Brexit debacle, would an Irish Border poll be preceded by a detailed proposal on what would be the result of a "Yes" or "No" vote? Would there be a transition period or financial contributions from the United Kingdom? Would a vote for a united Ireland revoke and replace the Good Friday Agreement? What would happen to the National Health Service and other much-loved institutions in Northern Ireland? We cannot answer all of his questions today but the issues raised show why it is vital that we have much more dialogue and public debate now, rather than on the eve of a Border poll, or, more worryingly, the morning after.
For some time, I have called for the re-establishment of an all-Ireland forum to discuss what a unitary Irish State might look like. Any such forum should be constituted in a way that does not imply any consent for Irish unity, but which provides a space in which unionist perspectives can be heard unconditionally.
I agree with Mr. Seamus Mallon that nationalists must aim for reconciliation within Northern Ireland, working with unionists to build what he calls a shared home place. However, in my view, that shared home space must be for the whole of the island. Our challenge is to imagine all of Ireland as a shared home space for everyone living here, including the many people from minorities and new communities.
A 50.1% in favour of or against unity would be decisive. That is the nature of voting systems. However, a much larger majority in favour of unity would be greatly desirable, which is why we must prepare and why dialogue and detailed analysis is important now. One such detailed analysis carried out by the trade union economist Dr. Tom Healy makes an important observation about the standard of living enjoyed in Northern Ireland compared to that in the Republic. Dr. Healy concludes that there is a rough parity of living standards on the island of Ireland. I will provide the economic underpinning for that conclusion. It is an important consideration for anyone who wishes to make the economic case for a united Ireland. Stronger public services are an important part of the equation that explains how living standards in Northern Ireland are kept at a level similar to those in the Republic. Northern Ireland has a stronger welfare state than in the Republic in terms of public housing, public transport and, of course, the National Health Service. This is why we need to be able to guarantee the continued existence of the NHS in Northern Ireland. That means universal healthcare free of charge at the point of need and based on medical need rather than privileged access to private health insurance. However, running a parallel system of healthcare on part of the island would be a ludicrous concept in a unitary Irish State. The only logical response would be the establishment of a universal healthcare system for the whole country. Sadly, that is far from being achieved, given Fine Gael’s reluctance to make serious progress outlined on a cross-party basis in the Sláintecare report. However, it is not just the NHS. All functions of government must be considered. Northern Ireland has different policies in education, housing, environmental protection, commerce and social welfare, as well as very different military and policing traditions. Local government in Northern Ireland is not organised on a county basis and we cannot automatically impose that upon people.
Unifying Ireland is a far more complex undertaking than simply the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from Northern Ireland. Trying to unify Irish laws and institutions against the resistance of a large unionist minority would be very difficult to put it mildly, and completely unacceptable in my view. I do not agree with the premise of a question posed by Mr. Alex Kane, who asked whether there will be a mandatory power-sharing provision to protect and promote British and unionist identity. This question makes the mistake of assuming that everyone in the Republic of Ireland is automatically nationalist in a comparable sense to Northern Ireland. On the contrary, there have always been "others" across Ireland, including socialists, who do not agree with the ideology of ethnic nationalism. There are many versions of Irish identity and Irish patriotism, including Ireland’s Anglo Irish and west British identities. There is no longer any risk of Northern Ireland being subsumed into a one-dimensional Catholic nationalist Ireland. Our culture and identity is much more complex and nuanced and now recognised as such. We should rightly celebrate our age-old institutions and traditions and we should teach all dimensions of Irish history, culture and language in our schools, including Northern Ireland’s traditions.
What should bring us together is a common interest in our island’s environment, society and economy. We are all in this together. By recognising everyone’s fundamental equality, we can be work towards uniting the people. Why not create an all-island and all-party forum to have this dialogue in a respectful, patient and non-coercive way to build greater understanding between all strands of political thinking on the island? I do not expect Mrs. Arlene Foster ever to vote for a united Ireland, but I believe we can create an Irish state that honours all traditions on this island. In an agreed Ireland, our citizens would never belong to one ethnic group or nationality. We would embrace a new vision of inclusiveness and diversity. One in nine people living in Northern Ireland and one in eight in Ireland was born elsewhere. Our island’s population is a vibrant mix of people from around the world. By embracing this diversity and recognising everyone’s fundamental equality we can be united as a single people, as are Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders. We must forge an agreed Ireland which recognises the complexity and diversity of modern society and which acknowledges the role of immigration and emigration in shaping this. We must evaluate and acknowledge the positive contributions of the deep British influence on Ireland in terms of our way of life, legal system, architecture and, of course, language. Working together, we can imagine a confident, prosperous island at peace with Britain and secure as part of Europe. That is an offer we should make to everybody on this island.