Potential of Good Friday Agreement must be realised - Begley
Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, it can be easy for people of my generation to under-appreciate the value of that historic accord.
But that would be a huge mistake.
We may not always appreciate it but the benefits of the Agreement are all around us and underpin the progress that we have made over the past two decades.
The peace process and the Agreement have made it possible for my generation to grow up in a society where republicans and nationalists are no longer treated as second class citizens.
A society where we have just as much right as anyone else to claim our stake and to take up roles and responsibilities within political and civic life.
A society that is now free of the discrimination and the smothering oppression that our parents grew up in. A society that has rid itself of the RUC, the apparatus of the British Army and the worst vestiges of the Orange State.
Of course we still have a way to travel to reach the kind of society that the vast, vast majority of people want to see. One that is firmly rooted in genuine equality, reconciliation and respect for all citizens.
In the Ireland of 2018, no-one should be treated as second-class. No-one’s rights should be denied.
It was wrong in 1968. It was wrong in 1998. And it is wrong now.
But it is precisely because we still have a way to travel that the Good Friday Agreement is still so crucial, now and into the future.
Our peace process is a journey, not a destination. And the Agreement is our guiding map.
It sets out the principles of fairness, equality and mutual respect that must guide us on the road to a better society. A rights-based society.
It also provides tangible political and human rights safeguards for all our citizens and as we have seen from the Brexit negotiations, it has frustrated the worst excesses of the Brexiteer agenda.
Had it not been for the Good Friday Agreement and the strong stance that Sinn Féin and the EU 27 have taken in defence of it, we would undoubtedly be facing the imposition of a new frontier on our island.
Brexit is simply incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement. The Tory government intends to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice; to withdraw from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights; and to repeal the Human Rights Act.
All of this threatens the core Human Rights elements and safeguards of the Good Friday Agreement.
The all-Ireland structures and co-operation created in 1998. The demilitarisation of the border counties. The whole logic of greater economic and social integration which has been a major success of the peace process would be grossly undermined by any new frontier dividing our island.
So by defending the Agreement. By demanding its full implementation, we are defending all of the progress we have made and safeguarding all of the potential that we can make.
We cannot abandon it. And we cannot allow it to be destroyed.
And no-one should be under any illusions that the Good Friday Agreement is under sustained attack.
For its own narrow, party political, and selfish reasons, Theresa May’s government has already made it quite clear that they are prepared to sacrifice our peace agreements and our futures on the altar of their reckless and right-wing Brexit agenda.
Equally, their pact partners in the DUP have never signed up to the Good Friday Agreement. They are opposed to the framework of equality and respect for mutual aspirations that it enshrines. So they – or at least significant elements within that party – see it as their mission to undermine and hollow out the agreement at every given opportunity.
This is then manifested in the anti-rights approach which saw the DUP collapsing the recent talks process and setting itself against equality for the LGBT community, for victims and for Irish speakers, despite overwhelming popular opinion to the contrary.
But the lesson of our history – and that of similar struggle around the world - is that the demand for rights. The demand for equality is undeniable and eventually – irresistible.
The past 14 months has shown that - even though they baulked at the last minute – the DUP were forced to compromise.
They will be again.
But only if we keep demanding equality. And only if we keep campaigning for it and keep voting for it.
And that means continuing to demand the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. That is the route-map to equality that the public – from all sections of society – want to see.
It is also the route-map to the peaceful reunification of our country.
The Good Friday Agreement commits a British government to hold a referendum on unity and to legislate for a united Ireland should a majority vote for that outcome.
Sinn Féin believes that a new Ireland - a fair Ireland, an Ireland of Equals – is in the best interests of all citizens. It will have a place for all citizens, regardless of creed or political allegiance, what language you speak or who you love.
No-one has anything to fear from that and everything to gain.
And it is abundantly clear – in the context of Brexit and Tory/DUP austerity cuts and through the growth of Sinn Féin - that more and more people are seeing the best future for themselves and their families in that new Ireland.
Therefore there should be a referendum on Irish unity within the next five years and we are calling on progressives and democrats to demand that the British and Irish governments agree a date for such a referendum.
Surely the people have a right to have their say.
Surely self-declared democrats would not stand in the way of a popular vote.
And running through all of this. The progress of our past and the potential of our future is a single common denominator – the Good Friday Agreement.
It is the agreement that ended the armed conflict. It is the agreement that opened up new horizons for a peaceful, reconciled and rights-based future.
It needs to be protected not imperilled and I would appeal to all progressive voices out there to raise them in defence of the Agreement.
It belongs to us all – then, now and in future generations.
There are good reasons why our peace process is held up as an exemplar by other regions around the globe. We cannot allow that to be jeopardised. We cannot allow the benefits, the progress and the potential for future generations to be destroyed by the narrow self-interest of the Tories and DUP.
Finally, shortly before his death and on the eve of the last Assembly election, Martin McGuinness reflected on the anti-agreement axis we were facing in that poll.
In his very last message to the public, he urged the people to choose Hope over Fear.
And that is what we must do again.
Choose Hope. Reject Fear
Protect the Agreement and enshrine a better future for all.
Go raibh maith agat.