Excess of 500 attend Irish Unity Conference in London
February 20, 2010
I want to begin dedicating my remarks this morning to Redmond O Neill who was a vocal advocate of Irish unity and a champion for the Irish community in Britain.
I want to thank my colleagues in Sinn Féin who have worked very hard in recent months in planning today’s event.
I also want to thank all of our contributors.
We have a very wide range of differing views and opinions on the issue of Irish unity and I’m sure that this will guarantee productive discussions in all of the seminars.
And finally, I want to thank all of you for coming to listen to the contributions, to participate in the debates and I hope become active in promoting Irish unity.
Today’s event is the latest in a series of such conferences which Sinn Féin is holding with the Irish diaspora and is about creating a debate around the issue of Irish reunification.
Last year we held two conferences in the US, one in Canada and a smaller introductory meeting here in London.
More are planned for the future, including in Ireland.
But the diaspora is very important. In the construction of the peace process the progress we achieved would not have been possible without that support, especially in the US.
The international support which the diaspora helped generate was and remains very important.
So, in any effort to advance a United Ireland the diaspora will play a crucial role, and none more so than here in Britain.
Here the Irish community has the potential to directly influence a British government and to persuade British political leaders of the imperative of facilitating Irish reunification.
What do Irish republicans mean by Irish unity?
Our goal is simply stated; an end to the partition of Ireland, an end to the Union with Britain, and the construction of a new national democracy, a new republic on the island of Ireland and reconciliation between Orange and Green.
Irish republicans also have a vision of a new society, a new Ireland, that is democratic, inclusive and based on equality.
A society which shares its wealth more equitably, seeks the well being of the aged, the advancement of our young, the liberation of women, and the protection of children, and will deliver the highest standards of services and protections for all citizens.
Republicans want to create a new relationship between the peoples of these islands which puts behind us the negative consequences of our past relationship and history, and is based on respect.
At the heart, at the core, of our United Ireland will be citizens.
Citizens with rights – the right to a job; to a home; to a decent standard of education and of health care.
The right to live in a safe environment; to equality in the Irish language; and to participate fully in the democratic process.
The right to equality and parity of esteem for all cultural traditions; of those from faith communities and none; for traveller or settled.
The Proclamation of 1916, which is the mission statement of Irish republicanism in the 21st century puts it best even now after almost 100 years:
‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’
So, these are our goals.
Putting them on the political agenda here in Britain and internationally is an important part of the work of advancing the objective of Irish unity.
The reality is that for more centuries than any of us care to contemplate Britain’s colonial policy in Ireland has been the source of conflict.
Partition, sectarianism and division; and the great hurt between the people of these islands have their roots in Britain’s occupation of Ireland and the strategies it has pursued to sustain that occupation.
Partition was not just a line on the map; it was the construction of a system of political apartheid which relied on discrimination and denied democracy and justice and created the context for conflict.
The peace process has delivered an end to war and that is to be welcomed and applauded.
However, resolving the many complexities resulting from centuries of occupation and partition was never going to be easy.
And for Irish republicans the underlying cause of conflict persists – the British government’s claim of jurisdiction over a part of Ireland.
It is this denial of the Irish peoples’ right to self-determination, freedom and independence which is the core outstanding issue which must be resolved.
Sinn Féin’s focus is on achieving this.
The Sinn Féin peace strategy, out of which grew the peace process, recognised this.
In the opening paragraph of our strategy paper ‘Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland’ which was first published in 1992 , it states:
‘A peace process, if it is to be both meaningful and enduring, must address the root causes of the conflict. For our part we believe that a genuine and sustainable peace process must be set in the context of democracy and self-determination.”
All that we have done in the years since has been rooted in this view.
The Good Friday Agreement
The Good Friday Agreement is a key part of this. It is an accommodation – not a settlement.
The St. Andrews Agreement and the recent progress achieved in the negotiations with the DUP at Hillsborough are complementary to this.
They are all part of a process of change.
And all of these agreements must be seen in their all-Ireland, all-island context.
The journey we are on is one in which the lines which divide us in Ireland will be increasingly blurred until we reach a point where they become meaningless.
In the meantime Sinn Féin seeks to use the opportunity that has been created to develop a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of life on this island and of the advantages that Irish unity can bring to all of the people.
In this regard the institutional elements of the Good Friday Agreement and of St. Andrews are important mechanisms to be built upon as we seek to move forward.
These are already creating change and building connections and greater co-operation across almost every area of life you can think of; health, education, infrastructure, tourism, the environment, justice and policing, agriculture, and much, much more.
There have been significant all-Ireland transport developments, such as upgrading of Dublin-Belfast Enterprise rail link, Irish Government multi-million Euro investment in City of Derry airport, substantial Irish Government funding for new road infrastructure between the Port of Larne and Belfast for east-coast corridor, major ongoing all-Ireland road projects to link Dublin and the North West, and the re-opening of the Ulster Canal.
In addition, measures have been introduced to promote equality of opportunity, to defend Human Rights, and to ensure effective scrutiny of policing.
The Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement put in place mechanisms and arrangements which seek to do that.
These include political matters, institutional arrangements, human rights, equality, policing, justice, language and culture issues.
As well as the crucial issue of constitutional matters.
And it does all of this in an all-Ireland context.
These Agreements are also significant instruments of change; real change in real ways in peoples daily lives.
Of course, unionists have a different perspective.
They want to maintain the union.
For this reason some elements of political unionism are opposed to this new dispensation.
They seek to minimise, to dilute and to delay its potential or to oppose it entirely.
And that is their right.
But the Good Friday Agreement has for the first time created a level playing field on which nationalists and republicans, and unionists and loyalists can play out our different positions and let the people decide.
The Good Friday Agreement clearly recognises that it is for the people of the island of Ireland to determine our own future – to exercise our self-determination.
In the event that a majority of people in the north prefer a sovereign United Ireland then the British government will legislate for it.
The agreement also sets out the mechanism by which this will happen – by means of a ‘border poll’.
So, when a majority in the north and a majority in the south opt for Irish re-unification, the constitutional process to bring that about will kick in.
The Good Friday Agreement therefore provides for a constitutional route to Irish unity.
That is a significant achievement.
Sinn Féin seeks to build on this by working in partnership with others of like mind in Ireland to build political support for Irish reunification.
There is a responsibility for all parties in the Oireachtas and particularly for the government in Dublin to actively work for reunification.
And we have to persuade unionists – or at least a section of unionism – that such a development makes political, social and economic sense – that it serves their self-interest.
For unionists, a new Ireland offers a real hope of stability and influence and prosperity.
Within the current British system unionists make up less than 2 per cent of the population.
They are a tiny minority presence on the margins of a British system which doesn’t really understand or care about them.
They have no significant influence within the political system.
In a new Ireland unionists would make up 20% of the population and be able to exercise real authority and real power and real influence.
Sinn Féin is also currently engaged with unionists and especially with disadvantaged unionist working class areas, to a greater extent than ever before.
We need to address the genuine fears and concerns of unionists in a meaningful way.
We need to look at what they mean by their sense of Britishness and be willing to explore this with them and to be open to new concepts.
We need to look at ways in which the unionist people can find their place in a new Ireland.
In other words it needs to be their United Ireland.
So, there are many issues for republicans and unionists to talk about.
Sinn Féin’s vision of a new Ireland is of a shared Ireland, an integrated Ireland, an Ireland in which unionists have equal ownership; an Ireland in which there will be respect for cultural diversity, and a place in which there is political, social, economic and cultural equality.
There is no desire on the part of Irish republicans to humiliate unionists.
Nationalists and republicans want our rights, but we do not seek to deny the rights of anybody else.
What we seek is justice for all - privilege for none.
One example of this approach at work is the effort, emerging out of the recent negotiations with the DUP, to construct a new process for dealing with the issue of contentious parades.
Like the agreement on transfer of powers on policing and justice, which will take power from London back to Ireland, so too this new process will see power taken from London and given to the Assembly in Belfast.
This is an important development.
Irish republicans accept that the Orange Order is a part of who were are as a people.
The Irish national flag is of green for nationalists – orange for unionists and white for peace between the two.
I have met representatives of the Orange in the past. I would like to meet more in the future.
I want a dialogue between us that can help each of us understand better the beliefs of the other.
I accept absolutely that Orange marches have their place in our society but it must be on the basis of a respect for the rights of each other.
Can we resolve the issue of contentious parades?
I believe we can.
Can we achieve a United Ireland? Yes.
There was a time when it was argued that a United Ireland wasn’t practical because the south was an impoverished state and why would anyone want to join that?
When the southern state was doing well Irish unity was dismissed by some because it would mean ‘taking on responsibility’ for an impoverished north!
Today the south is in trouble economically, while goods and services are cheaper in the north. So the cry goes up again – why? why would the north join with the south or vice versa?
The answer is at once simple and complex.
The border is more than just an inconvenience.
It is an obstacle to progress and while its adverse affects are most clearly felt in the communities that straddle the border, it also impacts negatively throughout the island.
On an island the size of Ireland, with a population of about 6 million – it does not make economic sense to have two competing economies, with two governmental administrations and a host of duplicating services.
Consequently, the delivery of public services is restricted and inefficient.
There are two competing industrial development bodies seeking inward investment, with no coordination in supporting local industries.
We have two arts councils and two sports councils and three tourists’ bodies.
This is not efficient.
So, let’s co-operate and connect and harmonise.
Let’s eraze the lines of separation.
And let’s co-ordinate and plan and strategise for a better future.
It is also important that we put the issue of Irish reunification on the political agenda here, in Britain.
I recognise that at a time of conflict in Afghanistan, controversy over the war in Iraq, economic recession and of serious problems within the British political system, that Ireland is not at the top of the political agenda.
But those who understand the rights of the Irish people and the negative role successive British governments have played in Ireland, have a duty to put Irish unity and independence on that agenda and to argue for reunification.
And don’t think it’s impossible or can’t happen or its too high a hill to climb.
Last week we celebrated 20 years of freedom for Madiba. For Nelson Mandela.
There was a time when people thought apartheid wouldn’t end or Mandela would never be free or there would always be a divided Germany or that there would never be peace in Ireland.
In recent weeks many thought that a deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP was impossible.
Well, apartheid has ended.
Mandela was President of a free South Africa.
Germany is united.
The war is over in Ireland.
And we reach agreement with the DUP at Hillsborough.
So, nothing is impossible.
You just have to believe and strategise and work hard and the impossible can be achieved.
So, let me invite all of you, as well as people across Britain in all of the elected bodies to join with us in this historic endeavour.