A New Exciting Future - Uniting Ireland
I want to welcome all of you here this evening.
Ba mhaith liom aitheantas speisialta a thabhairt d’ár gcomhordaitheoir ar Éire Aontaithe, Lucilita Bhreathnach agus an foireann a bhí ag obair leí le roinnt míonna chun na comhdhálacha seo a chuir le chéile;- ceann i mBaile Átha Cliath agus i gCorcaigh i Meitheamh, ceann i nGaillimh agus an ceann seo anocht i Newry agus beidh ceann eile sa tuaisceart i Doire in January.
This is the fifth of a series of conferences Sinn Féin has held in the last 12 months on the theme of ‘Towards a New Republic – I dtreo Poblacht Nua’.
It is our first conference in the North. Our goal is to raise awareness about the mutual benefits that Irish unity can bring to the citizens of this island. It is about encouraging a truly national and international conversation around the objective of a United Ireland, and to create open and inclusive platforms in which those with differing opinions can discuss and debate the issues.
At its core this debate is about the future. Of course, as John McCallister has reminded us, to plan for the future we have to deal with the past. Sinn Féin has never shied away from this whether on the issue of victims or on other matters.
Dealing with the past is not easy and there is little agreement at a political level about how we do this. But that should not be an obstacle to the future. Republicans, including the IRA, have acknowledged the hurt they have inflicted.
And Sinn Féin have put forward proposals to both governments, victims support groups and the other political parties, for an independent, international process for dealing with all of the issues arising from the conflict and with deference to all the victims, including victims of the British state and unionist paramilitaries, as well as the IRA.
I very much welcome John McCallister’s contribution here this evening and the presence of other unionists at this event.
Unionists are 20% of the population of this island - a real political force able to shape economic and political policy, and exercise real political power to the benefit of those they represent. They should use this power wisely.
I will resist the temptation to remind John of how this power was used unwisely and ruthlessly, though I do note that there has not been a fulsome acknowledgement, much less an apology for this abuse which benefitted neither unionist working class nor the rest of us.
The net beneficiaries were the unionist ruling class and the British establishment. Thankfully those days are gone. But they are only gone because good people made a stand and refused to accept anything less than equality. So, this journey continues. There is still a lot to be done.
Reunification is possible through reconciliation and all of us have a responsibility to deal with all the issues involved. Tonight’s discussion is part of a process for doing this. It should not stop tonight. Let’s find ways to talk about all these matters. To discuss the different possible governance arrangements - including perhaps federal arrangements - which could serve as transitional measures or as governmental systems in their own right.
Let’s talk about issues of tradition and identity; about Britishness and orange marches.
Let us also consider how we can celebrate and commemorate the many centenaries that will take place over the next decade. In their time the signing of the Ulster Covenant, or the 1913 Lockout or the Rising in 1916 were all viewed differently.
For some they were moments of heroic struggle. For others they represented a threat.
We have a collective opportunity to use these events imaginatively and in a way that encourages greater understanding and appreciation of the differing attitudes that exist.
It’s about creating a new society on this island that looks beyond partition and is inclusive and democratic and is built on equality and citizens rights. Like most political decisions the shape of partition was dictated as much by economics as by unionist objections. Before partition the north-east part of the island of Ireland was the most economically advanced. It was a net contributor to the British exchequer.
At that time Ireland exported £20.9 million in manufactured goods and £19.1 million of this came from the industries centred around Belfast.
It had the shipyards, the linen mills, the rope works, the tobacco factories and the engineering companies.
Partition also allowed for continuing British control and influence in Ireland. It defended British economic and strategic interests.
Both states created by partition have been characterised by economic failure, by emigration, by backwardness on social issues, by inequality and by the failure to protect the most vulnerable of our citizens.
On an island this small partition never made sense. It created a duplication of public and private services, two sets of currencies, and two tax systems, laws and regulations. Partition also ensured that the border region became one of the most disadvantaged parts of this island with higher than average unemployment levels, poverty, poor infrastructure and little investment.
Towns like Newry on this side of the border, and Dundalk on the other, were cut off from their natural economic hinterland. Economic development was stunted.
Greater co-operation and harmonisation and unity would transform the economic and political landscape. Imagine the financial and efficiency benefits if we had one education system, health service, energy network and investment practices?
Imagine a border region not plagued by differing rates in VAT, in corporation tax, in excise duties as well as currency.
Imagine how much better off citizens would be if we put in place a comprehensive all-Ireland Economic Recovery Plan which was able to deliver prosperity and sustainable economic growth. Imagine ‘Brand Ireland’ being employed creatively to grow our exports and create jobs. All of these things are possible.
For example, without anyone giving up their position on the union it is imperative for citizens in this border region that policy makers find ways of regenerating and maximising our potential from the Boyne to the Burren, from Newgrange to the Mournes.
There is an onus on politicians at Stormont and Leinster House to co-operate and work together. Within this area we have a beautiful coastal mountainy landscape replete with history, poetry and myth from neolithic times to the present.
In this immediate area it is ridiculous that the people of the Cooley peninsula and the Mournes do not have the benefit of a bridge at Narrow Water to bring them closer and to enhance the tourism and economic potential of the area.
Sinn Féin supports this project and we are working to achieve it. It’s all about political choices and political will. Of course, what some describe as the ‘constitutional question’ is about more than economics.
There is an imperative on those who want Irish unity to engage with unionist opinion. The context for this has changed in recent years and especially with the Good Friday Agreement. In a speech to the Assembly in June the British Prime Minister David Cameron said, ‘as the Agreement makes very clear’, the constitutional future of the north does not rest in his hands or those of his government but in the hands of the people.
As a unionist Mr. Cameron made his preference clear but he was equally frank that the British government will back the democratic wishes of the people whether ‘to remain part of the United Kingdom, as is my strong wish…or whether it’s to be part of a united Ireland’.
Later when he was privately challenged in my presence on this by the leader of the UUP the British Prime Minister stuck by this position. This is a stark contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s claim that the north is as British as Finchley!
It is also evidence of the potential for fundamental change that the Good Friday Agreement has created. Sinn Féin is for a new type of republic on this island – a republic which embraces all citizens – a republic in which unionists would not be the tiny 1% minority in a British state as they currently are.
I said at the beginning of my remarks that the debate around Irish unity is about the future.
There is an opportunity now, after generations of failure, to build something new and exciting and progressive.
I invite you to continue this journey with us.