Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Northern Ireland: Statements
I am glad to commence the statements on Northern Ireland this evening on behalf of the Government and in place of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, who is participating in the talks at Stormont as we commence this debate. It is of course very important that we all take account of this ongoing process in our contributions this evening and refrain from making comments on very specific issues on which the two Governments are working with the parties to seek, in a very short timeframe, fair and workable compromises to secure an agreement to get the devolved institutions and the North-South Ministerial Council operating again.
The absence of these vital institutions of the Good Friday Agreement since the collapse of the Executive in January 2017 is of grave concern to the Government, as it is to the British Government. As the House is aware, since the Assembly election of March 2017 the Government has, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement with the British Government, worked through successive phases of talks in a number of different formats to seek to support the political parties in Northern Ireland in reaching an agreement to operate the devolved institutions again. Unfortunately, earlier phases of talks did not produce the necessary agreement between the parties, and the people of Northern Ireland have had no devolved institutions to represent their interests and to make decisions on issues that are of importance to people’s lives and livelihoods across the range of areas of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
While there is no Executive in place, the North-South Ministerial Council also cannot meet and deliver on its vital role under the Good Friday Agreement to oversee and develop North-South co-operation on matters of mutual interest on the island of Ireland. The challenges raised by the UK decision to exit from the European Union have made the absence of the devolved institutions and the North-South Ministerial Council even more serious, leaving Northern Ireland without a formal voice to represent the interests of all sections of the community there on this most fundamental and difficult issue. The Government has continually sought to support engagement and a way forward between the political parties in Northern Ireland on the outstanding issues that need to be resolved to get all of the institutions of the agreement working again, as they must.
In addition to the successive phases of talks, in July last year, the Government and the UK Government convened again the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference as the institution of the agreement that serves to promote bilateral co-operation on all matters of mutual interest within the competence of both Governments. The conference has met on three occasions - in July and October last year and again last month - with participation for the Government by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister for Justice and Equality. The conference is a valuable setting for the two Governments to discuss supporting political stability in Northern Ireland and other issues within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement including east-west co-operation, security matters, rights and citizenship issues, and legacy issues, and it has been agreed that it will meet again in the coming months.
Specifically on the issue of dealing with the legacy of the past, I confirm to the House the Government’s continuing commitment to getting the comprehensive framework provided for under the Stormont House Agreement implemented as soon as possible. Victims and survivors have waited for far too long already for a system that is fit for purpose and that can meet their legitimate needs and expectations. The Tánaiste has emphasised to the Secretary of State the urgency of definitively moving ahead to legislating to get the Stormont House bodies established and up and running. Legislation will also be required in this jurisdiction to provide for co-operation with the legacy bodies. The drafting of legislative proposals for consideration by the Government and Oireachtas is advancing, led by the Minister for Justice and Equality.
In April, the talented young journalist Lyra McKee was callously killed as she was going about her work in Derry. I take this opportunity to acknowledge, on behalf of the Government, the life and career of Lyra McKee, whose life was cut short so brutally and needlessly. Our thoughts remain with Lyra’s partner, Sara Canning, her family and friends, and those who dearly loved her. Lyra was a brave, bright and brilliant person who exemplified the spirit we need today.
Her ambition to change her society for the better through her career, through telling her story and supporting others to do the same must be the example and the inspiration that political leaders call on in the days ahead in Northern Ireland so that we can collectively implement again the principles and the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
Unfortunately, we also saw last week the attempted murder of an off-duty PSNI officer in Belfast, with responsibility claimed by a tiny number of people who would seek to drag us back to the violence of the past. The police investigation into this attempted murder is ongoing and will receive the full support and co-operation of An Garda Síochána. Like the awful killing of Lyra McKee, this attack on the PSNI was an attack on the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement itself which has been endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South. Such mindless violence has been repeatedly rejected by the people of this island. That is why it is so incumbent on all political leaders in Northern Ireland to ensure that the mandate they have been given to operate the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement is implemented in accordance with the principles of partnership, mutual respect and parity of esteem at the core of the agreement.
The outpouring of public feeling that rightly followed Lyra McKee’s death saw a very clear demand from people in Northern Ireland for their political representatives to engage and get the political institutions working again. On 26 April, to try again to secure a way forward, the Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister announced a new phase of political talks in Northern Ireland, involving the five main parties, together with the British and Irish Governments. On 7 May, the Tánaiste and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, convened these talks in Belfast. This is a short process, focused on the key issues that are central to restoring the institutions and with the aim of achieving rapid progress.
During May, a series of working groups were convened to discuss in detail the key issues central to making progress: the programme for government for a new Executive; greater transparency and accountability in the institutions; the reform of the petition of concern; measures to increase the sustainability and stability of the institutions; and issues of rights, language and identity. The work of these groups was steered through leadership-level round-table discussions, with the participation of the Secretary of State and the Tánaiste on behalf of the two governments.
There has been constructive engagement by political parties in the process since it commenced and it is clear that all of the parties want to see the institutions of the agreement operating again on a sustainable basis. There has been broad consensus on some issues, but key issues still remain to be resolved. The Tánaiste and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland believe that there is a genuine but narrow window of opportunity to reach agreement in the period immediately ahead and that it is essential to continue and intensify talks to this end.
In a further joint statement on 2 June, the Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister welcomed the constructive engagement in the process so far and underlined that it is imperative that the parties move without delay to engaging substantively on the shape of a final agreement. Accordingly, the two governments last week supported an intensification of the talks and there was direct engagement on outstanding issues by the leaders of the five political parties. The Tánaiste and Secretary of State, Ms Bradley, are intensively engaging on behalf of the two governments in the talks at Stormont again this week and as I speak are encouraging the party leaders to move towards a final agreement.
People want to see real progress made. There is no patience for anything except urgent and determined progress and openness to new thinking. Ultimately, it will be for the parties to rise to the challenge of finding an agreement. This will be difficult, but the two governments believe that this can and must be achieved in the period immediately ahead to get the devolved, power-sharing Assembly and Executive and the North-South Ministerial Council functioning again. The Government will continue to do everything in its power, in accordance with its responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. I look forward to hearing the views of colleagues in the House.
I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. With no disrespect I say it is regrettable that the Taoiseach could not have made it into the House this evening to discuss this important issue with the other party leaders. We do not often get an opportunity to get even a short debate like this on such an important issue.
That said, everybody who wishes Northern Ireland well wants the current talks to succeed. Fundamentally the price of failure would be further to undermine decades of progress and leave Northern Ireland exposed during a new period of chaos and uncertainty in London.
The biggest problem in these talks is the extent to which parties appear reluctant to back away from positions they have adopted over time and the reluctance to be seen to have compromised. The unwillingness to admit error or to reconsider strategies is always at the core of deadlock and, as always, flexibility the only way to break free from the deadlock.
The issues involved are serious and the lack of basic trust between the two main parties which have created this impasse cannot be underestimated. However, these issues are nothing compared to those which we overcame in the past. Only if we can return to the way these negotiations were handled in the past will we have a chance of moving forward.
There have been many blockages and suspensions in the past, but this one has been unique in a number of ways. Most importantly the cause of the deadlock bears no relationship to the fundamental parts of the peace process and the reluctance of the governments to act with either urgency or ambition has been regrettable. There have been many claims of urgency but little evidence of it having any impact.
Exactly 883 days ago the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland were collapsed because of a heating scheme. No amount of revisionism and holding up the importance of other issues can take away from the cold hard fact that the people of Northern Ireland have been deprived of a voice on Brexit, on budget cuts, on equality issues and on the future of health and education because of a heating scheme which appears to have lost nowhere near the amount of money first claimed. Rather than wait for an independent review to gather all evidence, and in light of an electoral opportunity, it was decided that representative institutions were to be sidelined.
For most of the past two and a half years there has been an inexplicable reluctance to show genuine urgency and the issues and political circumstances to be addressed have continually changed. During most of this time my party’s position has been based on the need to convene genuinely inclusive talks which respect the full range of political views in Northern Ireland and which see the governments accept their responsibility to lead the process. Unfortunately, the decision not to try anything new until after the planned Brexit date of 31 March has meant that we are today at a moment of great uncertainty, with the return of stability or basic commitment to Northern Ireland in London at very best uncertain.
The current talks are very welcome. It appears that by ending the complete dominance of the talks by the chief antagonists there has at least been space for the dissatisfied majority in Northern Ireland to have its voice heard. The destructive cycle of bilateral exchanges has thankfully been abandoned and there is an opportunity for new ideas to be tabled and for the largest parties to be challenged.
The issues which are today stated as being the reason for the largest parties failing to agree are absolutely important. Equality is not something which should be negotiated; it should simply be delivered.
The DUP’s reluctance to allow the people of Northern Ireland to have the same rights as are enjoyed by people in every other part of these islands undermines its core position on most other issues. Equally its use of the petition of concern in order to block equality measures is an absolute abuse of a measure intended to protect minorities against discrimination.
What has poisoned relations on these issues has been the perception that they have stopped being cross-community issues and have started to be presented as party issues. When Deputy Adams described the equality agenda as “the Trojan horse of the republican movement” he caused immense damage and so too has been the way in which these issues have been brought in and out of the agenda depending on what suits one party at a particular moment.
The fact that these issues that were irrelevant to the collapse of the institutions are now presented as the only reason for the collapse is widely understood as party tactics rather than a sincere commitment to the issues themselves.
On the other hand, the childish and profoundly insulting approach of some within the DUP to cultural and linguistic diversity has caused real damage, which remains in spite of a welcome apology by the DUP leader and, indeed, the strong heritage, particularly of Church of Ireland clergy, mainly Presbyterian academics, in terms of the preservation of the Irish language in an earlier era. It would mark a major step forward if the largest parties were candidly to admit their roles in the deadlock and to accept that some of their actions have caused real hurt and division.
Fundamentally, these talks cannot succeed if the largest parties are motivated by wanting either to claim a win or to avoid admitting to changing anything in their positions. Last week’s so-called intensification of talks lasted 25 minutes and apparently simply heard reasons there would be no flexibility. We have to break this cycle of entrenched positions and regular breakdowns, and the only way to do this is for those parties to be willing to take a risk on a new approach. The fact is that a simple restoration of the Assembly and Executive would, even if for a limited period, at a minimum allow the democratic voice of the people to be heard. Let the Assembly majority have a voice against Brexit, against cutbacks to schools and health services and in favour of equality and diversity. How could this possibly do anything other than mark a positive development? It requires other moves before legal measures can be implemented, but the democratic legitimacy behind these policies would be a powerful demonstration of the will to move forward.
The contest for leadership of the Tory party and of the British Government is a new obstacle to progress. With the sole exception of the comments of one candidate, who apparently has little or no chance, the comments of leadership contenders relating to Ireland have been in equal parts superficial and ill informed. They have yet to address the fact that their policy priority of Brexit has real consequences for this island, consequences that cannot be wished away “by closing your eyes, picking up some magic beans and believing in Britain", as the British Home Secretary put it yesterday.
We cannot allow the next few months to be lost because of a London-derived paralysis. It falls to our Government to insist on genuine urgency in the meetings and on the discussion of alternative strategies and policies, and that parties be obliged to address the scale of public disquiet concerning budget cuts and decisions imposed by British Ministers. These talks must not be suspended. They must be kept going and the public must be given honest accounts of what has been considered. We need an end to the system of duelling briefings from the largest parties, which have been the only sources of information on discussions.
It is necessary, unfortunately, to reply to the constant harping which has been heard here from one party seeking to silence others in the Dáil by claiming that we have no right to speak about the North. Leaving aside the twisted mindset that this involves, we have every right to speak here about these issues. In the face of incredible provocation, over many years we showed our determination to work for peace and development. We were not told to butt out when one party here was constantly calling and asking us to intervene. I do not remember being told to stay quiet when I was co-chairing all-party talks in Northern Ireland and when I was delivering sustained progress in those and other talks.
The problem in this House is that, over the past eight years, a habit has developed of talking about the North only when there is a crisis, such as the appalling murder of Lyra McKee, which the Minister of State correctly addressed in his speech. The issue is not that people should butt out, it is that it falls to everyone here to challenge the right of others to control the debate on Northern Ireland.
Enormous damage has been caused by the absence of democratic institutions in Northern Ireland since January 2017. It is long past time that the people elected to serve in democratic institutions were allowed to get to work.
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.
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.
The killing of Lyra McKee in April sent a shockwave across Northern Ireland. Lyra was one the so-called ceasefire babies, promised a life free from sectarianism and violence. Instead, since the ceasefires there has been an institutionalisation of sectarianism and what a British Secretary of State termed "an acceptable level of violence". Between 2006 and 2015 there were 1,100 bombings and shootings and 787 paramilitary-style punishment attacks. Some 160 people have died in the violence since 1998.
The tragic death of Lyra McKee showed something else: it showed that ordinary people - Protestants, Catholics and others - will not tolerate an attempt to drive society back to the conflict of the Troubles. Protests and vigils initiated by the National Union of Journalists, local trades councils and Lyra's friends and family took place in Derry, Belfast, Omagh, Enniskillen, Strabane, Cookstown, Newry, Dungannon, Dublin, Glasgow, London and elsewhere in the aftermath of her death. These were very important events for giving expression to the widespread anger and revulsion over her death. Had the Irish Congress of Trade Unions acted to co-ordinate and develop this movement against sectarianism by calling lunchtime protests, it is likely that we would have seen protests in every major town and city in the North, demanding that there be "no going back", which became the slogan of the time. Unfortunately, that involvement did not happen.
Those who killed Lyra McKee were on the streets carrying guns because the agreement has not brought the promised peace dividend. Instead, they live in poverty and, in many cases, are exposed to regular harassment by the PSNI. As Lyra stated, "We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us." Derry in particular has high levels of long-term unemployment and child poverty. Some 95% of its young people stated that they saw no future for themselves in the city and could not envisage remaining there long term. This is what allows paramilitary organisations to find their small base of support. Of course, they offer no way out of poverty, but only increased sectarianism.
The main story of the local and European elections in the North was the rise in support for the Alliance Party and others. This is a reflection of the desire for a break with the politics of sectarianism. There is also very clearly huge demand and a desire for social progress in the North. Lyra was an LGBT activist, an advocate for better mental health and someone who would support the growing demand for abortion rights. So many people have commented on what is happening in the US, but Northern Ireland is still an episode from The Handmaid's Tale. The Alliance Party, of course, advocates the same type of neoliberal policies that mean poverty for working-class communities, and the party is not a solution. Alongside the DUP and Sinn Féin, it supported the introduction of Tory welfare reform which has left working-class families about €2,000 worse off each. At the same time, important jobs in the North are at risk. Bombardier's global bosses have announced their intention to sell operations in Northern Ireland. Bombardier accounts for almost 5% of the entire labour force of Northern Ireland and 10% of manufacturing GDP. The remaining 3,600 jobs are a drastically reduced figure, representing less than half the workforce of the 1990s. The Socialist Party agrees with the strong motion passed by Unite the Union at its recent conference, which stated:
Our union will do whatever it takes to defend jobs and skills at Bombardier ... We will continue to raise the idea and fight for the re-nationalisation of this company if that's the only way to protect our members and defend local communities. We will do whatever it takes to prevent a 'vulture' company swooping in to pick [only what it wants] while leaving the rest to waste.
The trade union movement as a whole must come to the assistance of the Bombardier workers.
At the same time, in the public sector in the North, workers are fed up with years of below-inflation pay offers. The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, NIPSA, which is the biggest union in the public sector, has begun an important ballot to reject a derisory 1.25% pay offer and changes to terms and conditions for its members. These struggles are not only essential to defend working-class people, but they also point to how people can be brought together in common struggle.
Of huge assistance in this would be the development of a party that can genuinely unite people across the sectarian divide, including dealing with issues that divide working-class people, in the spirit of solidarity and genuine brotherhood. The election of a Socialist Party member, Donal O'Cofaigh, as part of Cross-Community Labour Alternative in Enniskillen, was also a breakthrough for this type of anti-sectarian working-class politics, as was the success of other parties and candidates of the left. Socialist Party members will work with trade unionists and other activists to help ensure that a socialist alternative for working-class people is built to challenge the dead end of sectarianism and capitalism.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on Northern Ireland and its structures. This debate arises from the attempt in the past week or two to get the institutions back up and running and the discussions held in Belfast with the various parties to try to do so. Ultimately, the institutions must be got going again, and the Irish Government will have to be very strong in arguing for their reinstatement. Ultimately, the flaw in the Good Friday Agreement is that the British are seen as being neutral, when all their recent actions, including the DUP's support of the Government in Westminster, show they are not neutral and never have been neutral. That is the crux of the problem at all stages in the North as we now see it. The only way to get around this and defeat it is to get the structures and the assembly back up and running. Perhaps through the outworkings of that at some stage in the future we will see a future for politics in the Six Counties and a way forward might be shown. Our Government must be very strong in arguing with the British Government and putting its responsibilities straight on the line. It is part of the problem. It must be part of the solution. It must live up to the agreements, including international agreements, it has made. That is vitally important.
A number of speakers have mentioned the tragic murder of Lyra McKee during the disturbances in Derry some time ago as being very difficult. The sad part about it is that the getting together again of the institutions will not, very quickly anyway, resolve any of the reasons she was killed. This is tragic, but the only option left open to the Governments is to ensure that the institutions are got up and running. The only thing we can do is to ensure that the parties we can influence here are on board to get the institutions going again. As a House we must be sure that our Government is strong in forcing the British Government to act in this regard. That is the key to this. If our Government can force the British Government to face up to its responsibilities, we might see the institutions up and running again and then - unfortunately, a very long way down the road - the causes of the conflict reduced somewhat. Ultimately, however, the only way we can reduce the cause of the conflict is by getting the British out entirely of the Six Counties. Then we can deal with the issues as they relate to ourselves and a 32-county Ireland. That is ultimately the only way in which this will be resolved once and for all.
I very much welcome these statements at this critical time. It has been more than 850 days since the Assembly last met in Stormont, and while Stormont lies silent, the political vacuum this creates is certainly not helpful. The Acting Chairman is a very active member of the Committee on European Union Affairs, which deals an awful lot with Brexit issues. He has seen first-hand in recent years the way in which we in our own small way are doing our best to try to ensure that the fallout from Brexit is minimised, whether for our farming community or any other community, whether tourism related or business related, that the lot of the people is protected, and that the negative impact Brexit would have is minimised. I see the vacuum created by Stormont's lying silent as not helpful to us. In the past a major point was proven in politics working.
I do not wish to pick out particular people but it would be remiss of me in a debate about Northern Ireland not to mention people such as the late Martin McGuinness, who, using political means and alongside many others, achieved so much in ensuring that the journey we were on in Ireland led us to a peaceful solution. This was achieved by using the political process. We saw first-hand the way in which at a critical time he was able to get on with people such as the late Ian Paisley. They got on for the betterment of the people of Northern Ireland and our part of Ireland. To this day we are reaping the benefits of the political work that was done by a great many people. I do not care whether they came from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Sinn Féin or were non-party or from the religious communities. These people all soldiered together to ensure that the bombings, the murder and the mayhem stopped, to a great degree anyway, and that could only be welcomed.
When I see what is happening in the North now and the fact that the Assembly is not working or performing, it is not welcome.
Looking at legislation and the strident moves that politicians are making not just in Dáil Éireann but throughout Europe, the political vacuum in the North is not helpful. I ask the Government to do everything it can through the respective ministerial roles to ensure we can assist in putting the Assembly together. Politicians should do what people want them to do; it is about them doing their work. I do not care what levels politicians are at, whether it is at local, national or international level, as all people want is politicians to perform their duties. It is not happening the way it should be at Stormont. I say strongly to the Government to put its shoulder to the wheel. We must all do our level best to ensure we get the Assembly up and running again, putting politicians back to work and doing what they should do and were elected to do in the first instance. They should be having debates like this one and hearing every person's view is very important.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute on this important matter. We speak about the North of Ireland, going back to our ancestors and history, and it should be a full part of our country. One objective that I share with many others is that we would again be one country under one all-Ireland government. In the context of Brexit, there are many possibilities that could have adverse effects on our Twenty-six Counties, and it is in that light that so many people are so concerned right around the Republic of Ireland. For the past six months nobody can understand why cattle are €200 per head dearer in the North of Ireland than they are in the South. We appreciate when buyers come from the North of Ireland for our cattle because at least it gives us a vital export market. When we see what factories are doing to farmers, particularly beef farmers around the country, live exports become very important for the farmers in our neck of the woods. They greatly appreciate buyers, whether they are taking cattle up to the North or across to Great Britain.
The great imponderable matter is what will happen if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. We can consider how unfair this would be, as the people in the North of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union. Brexit would affect small employers and exporters, as well as those involved in manufacturing. I have been told by employers in Castleisland, Killarney and mid-Kerry that if there is a hard border with tariffs, there would be severe job losses in parts of Kerry as well as every other part of the country.
We are very grateful for the cross-border directive initiative, which allows us to take patients who would not otherwise be seen here in the South of Ireland to the North. Patients in Cork and Tralee hospitals were put on waiting lists for a simple cataract procedure and have to wait four to six years to have this done, perhaps losing their sight in the meantime. I am glad that almost two years ago Deputy Michael Collins and I started using buses to bring people for treatment in the North of Ireland. We have brought so many people on those buses. A man who went on the first bus had been waiting for a cataract procedure for six years. In the early 1960s, his grandfather had that simple procedure done in Tralee general hospital. People would like to think Ireland has moved on and improved but we have gone backwards as we have to take people who are aged 90, 92 or 94 to the North for treatment. One man with failing sight went because the doctor would not sign the application to renew his driver's licence. He had his cataracts removed in Kingsbridge Private Hospital and got his licence a few days later. These are important issues for people and we are failing in that regard. It is great that we have the opportunity to restore people's eyesight rather than have them lose it.
There is an 82-year-old man getting his hip done today. He would have otherwise had to wait in pain for years for the procedure but tomorrow he will go to a hospital in Kerry to recuperate. It is desperate but there is an opportunity to treat those people who would otherwise be in pain. It would be disastrous to lose that option and we hope the cross-border initiative, under which people can be reimbursed for the cost of the procedure, will continue. As we all know, the Health Service Executive has let us down badly and many people are saying it fails people in every regard. We can see the problems with waiting lists and people on trolleys. No matter how much money is being pumped into the executive, it is not having the desired effect. The cross-border initiative is the one good thing about it.
Many of us desire for the Six Counties to be united with the Twenty-six Counties. We almost had that with the Good Friday Agreement. If anything should happen leading to a hard border between us and the people in the North of Ireland, it would be a pure disaster. I appeal to the Minister of State, as part of the Government, to ensure he does everything to prevent Brexit from happening. People right around the country are so fed up by what is going on and the indecisiveness of those people in England. They cannot make up their minds as to whether they are coming or going. If we were in their position, the whole world would laugh because of what is being done. Their actions are disastrous. They do not know what they want or how they will achieve it. They have said they are leaving and not leaving. They are seeking different conditions. There are people hopeful of becoming the next British Prime Minister and they are trying to sell the story that the European Union will give them new concessions or a better deal. They will not get it and the European Union will not change just because there is a new person in the British Prime Minister's seat.
I thank colleagues for their contributions. There was positive engagement across the House in this timely discussion on Northern Ireland. There was a shared commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and to supporting peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. That common concern and agreed foundation for all of our engagement on Northern Ireland is hugely important. In that context, this debate will continue to inform the approach of the Government. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste will continue to work with their counterparts in the British Government and do everything possible to ensure the ongoing process in Stormont has every chance of succeeding in the period immediately ahead.
As I noted in my earlier contribution, the Tánaiste is in Stormont again today, as he has been on numerous days over the past number of weeks, working with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, to encourage the political parties to reach honourable compromises on the issues that need to be resolved and to get the devolved institutions up and running and delivering again for the people of Northern Ireland, as well as the North-South Ministerial Council to deliver on North-South co-operation as mentioned by all Members.
The Government's commitment to achieving this is absolute and while three key issues remain to be addressed in the ongoing talks, we believe that a resolution between the parties is possible and must be achieved. This cannot be a drawn-out process. The demand for a local representative power-sharing devolved government in Northern Ireland is more pressing now than it has ever been previously. Decisions need to be taken by the new Executive and the issues that need to be dealt with by the Assembly are many, varied and urgent. There will never be a perfect time for an agreement on the issues in the current process. They will not be any easier in the future than now and could well be more difficult.
Members referred to the complexities of the issues that need to be addressed. The current talks are a genuine opportunity to get all of the institutions of the agreement working once again. I believe this opportunity must be taken. The Government has always supported and worked for the full implementation of the commitments of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. We will continue to offer that support. That is the basis on which the peace process moves forward with the task of reconciliation for all people on this island.
Similarly, the legacy of the Troubles must be addressed in a way that can meet the legitimate needs of victims through the establishment of the comprehensive framework provided for under the Stormont House Agreement in 2014. The current system is not working for victims and families nor is it supporting the broader societal reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The Government will keep working with the British Government to get the Stormont House framework established without any further delay. We see that as a vital part of the peace process.
For the days immediately ahead, the Tánaiste and the Secretary of State will remain intensively engaged on behalf of the two Governments in the talks at Stormont to encourage the party leaders to move towards a final agreement and to get the devolved power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland and the North-South Ministerial Council operating again. This will not be easy but the two Governments are committed and believe that this can and must be achieved.
Many issues were raised by Members from all sides of the House. One of the biggest issues we are facing is Brexit. We cannot allow Brexit to get in the way of ensuring we get the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running again. There was widespread support for that from all Members who contributed.
I thank the Members for their contributions, which I welcome. I will bring their concerns to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.