Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Statements
I welcome the Tánaiste and compliment him and his team on the great work they have done over the past three and a half years. Any time I visit Westminster and my British colleagues ask me what I think of Brexit, I always say we view Brexit as the British accidentally shooting themselves, but in our foot. It is a difficult situation. Somebody referred to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, giving the subject of history special status in the junior cycle. It would be worthwhile for some MPs at Westminster to read up on Irish history and its complications. Nevertheless, that does not represent the vast majority of British MPs and Lords, who understand the complications of Brexit. Moreover, there is a generosity towards the island of Ireland, which I greatly appreciate. Similarly, in this House and the other, there is a generosity towards Westminster. We have come an awfully long way since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement, and we are in a much better space.
We have very good friends at Westminster. There are Lord Dubs and Conor McGinn, and I note that in the past half an hour Lady Sylvia Hermon has announced she will not seek re-election. We need people such as Lady Hermon in the constituency of North Down, who was a voice of reason. I hope that whoever takes the seat will be as balanced and measured as she has been since she became an MP in 2001. That such people will not stand is not a good sign. While it is a unionist or Alliance seat - certainly not a nationalist seat - I hope that whoever takes it will look out for the island of Ireland. While Lady Hermon fights her corner and believes in the union, given that is her background, she has always been open, measured, reasonable and understanding of different points of view, which is welcome.
As I have noted in the few times I have visited Westminster, we work closely with our Sinn Féin colleagues there, who do not take their seats, which is fine. The three SDLP MPs, namely, Alasdair McDonnell, Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie, work closely with us, along with the two Ulster Unionist Party MPs, namely, Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan, and the Sinn Féin MPs. We work closely together to try to articulate a view from Ireland. I wish Ms Ritchie every success in the House of Lords. People attacked her on Twitter but hers is a measured voice we need. She was previously the leader of the SDLP. I wish her every success. It is a bit like our two colleagues in the House, Senator Ó Donnghaile, from one background, and Senator Marshall, from another. They bring a voice from the North from two sides of the equation. It is welcome and it informs us of the nuances of the North and the wider island of Ireland. I always talk about Northern Ireland and have always had an interest in it. My greatest day was the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, and Margaret Thatcher introduced something that gave us a say in Anglo-Irish affairs and that led to the Good Friday Agreement because it opened the dialogue.
For many years, including during the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women travelled to the UK. We built the roads, taught the children and cared for the sick. While we were well treated, there was no political dialogue between the two countries. It could not have happened in any other place in the world. There was such an impact. My father, grandfather and many others' fathers worked there, but there was no dialogue. Is it not wonderful that we can now travel to London, visit Westminster and talk to our colleagues? The Tánaiste and the Taoiseach can meet the British Prime Minister or the British Foreign Secretary. I was once told that if members of the Government travelled from Dublin to London in the 1950s or 1960s, they might have to wait three or four weeks to have a meeting with a third undersecretary at the British Foreign Office.
That has changed since our accession to the EU in the early 1970s. It gave us a parity of esteem with our nearest neighbours. Unfortunately, some of those neighbours have not yet accepted that Ireland has moved on from the point of, as another speaker noted, there were just 11% of exports to the UK. We want to be friends. Whatever happens in the next few weeks or months, we will do our best to work with our friends in the UK to get the best deal possible. Nevertheless, we are committed Europeans and Europe has given us a roadmap to a new, prosperous Ireland. Our membership of the EU has helped to break down the divisions on the island of Ireland and those between Ireland and the UK.