‘Most defining period since 1998’ – O’Neill
The political process here faces the most defining period since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Sinn Féin Deputy Leader Michelle O’Neill has said.
Addressing the Welsh assembly in Cardiff today, the Sinn Féin Vice president also described the backstop in the Brexit withdrawal agreement as “an Irish solution to an English problem”.
Michelle O’Neill said: “Make no mistake - this is the most defining period since the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998.
“We will defend our interests at every turn and the withdrawal agreement is the least bad option for Ireland.
“The four Remain parties, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance and Green Party represent the majority in the North and we believe that there is no such thing as a good Brexit.
“We recognise that the majority of people, businesses and civic society do not want Brexit either.
“We have a shared responsibility to protect jobs, economic stability and people’s livelihoods.
“At the very least, this means avoiding a hard border, protecting the Good Friday Agreement and hard won peace of the past twenty years, and staying within the Single Market and a Customs Union.
“Therefore as a basis for this, we maintain that there is a pressing need for the backstop as set out in the Withdrawal Agreement to be banked.”
The importance of building an all-Ireland economy has also been hastened by the Brexit process, Michelle O’Neill continued.
“I firmly believe that we need to develop and nurture, build and grow the All-Ireland economy where we develop closer regimes and models of integration,” she said.
“In light of Brexit it is imperative that the island of Ireland redoubles our efforts to develop and rebuild a modern, competitive and sustainable economy where we open doors to trade, investment, tourism and jobs but also develop and invest in our indigenous industries.
“We need to improve our competitiveness through investing in our public services and infrastructure on an All-Ireland basis.”
PUBLIC LECTURE BY MICHELLE O’NEILL MLA, SINN FÉIN VICE-PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ASSEMBLY WALES, 10TH DECEMBER 2018
It is a special honour to be invited to join you here in Cardiff and to address you this evening.
I would like to thank Richard and his colleagues at the University for the invitation, and for your hospitality.
Before I get into my main remarks, I wish to acknowledge that these past 20 years since 1998 have seen Irish-Welsh relations enter into a whole new and entirely positive era.
The advent of devolution and the emergence of the Welsh Assembly have provided a focal point for political relations.
Since then Ministers and politicians from Ireland North and South have had Welsh counterparts with whom we could work with through the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and Ministerial-level meetings of the British-Irish Council, where friendships have been fostered and strong partnerships built.
Beyond politics our two Celtic nations share a strong and historic culture, heritage and tradition which I believe we all value and cherish very much.
These relationships I feel now more than ever, need to be prioritised, safeguarded and nurtured as we face the present realities and challenges to come with Brexit.
During the course of this decade from 2012-2022 we are marking the centenaries of key seminal events which have shaped modern Irish history over the past century and defined our relationship with Britain during this time.
A relationship characterised by colonialism, rebellion, partition and political division, towards peace, reconciliation and renewed co-operation and mutual respect.
Let me put this in context.
While the devolution settlement ushered in by New Labour in 1998 was a Welsh, Scottish and Irish phenomenon – how we reached this point in Belfast was very different and historically painstaking.
Because it was in fact the culmination of a peace process where after decades of political conflict the IRA announced ceasefires to enable All-party talks to begin, including the British and Irish Governments with critical support from both the Clinton Administration and the EU, which eventually led to a new political, constitutional and institutional context and framework being negotiated – known as the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998.
The only party not to support the Agreement and who actively campaigned against it was the DUP.
This Agreement provided an alternative to conflict and the basis for building a new democratic society and the peace and reconciliation of a deeply divided society.
The declaration by the parties at the start of the Agreement says, “We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of the relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between these islands.”
The agreement was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of citizens across the island of Ireland, in referenda held North and South.
The Agreement enshrines the ‘principle of consent’ which affirms the legitimacy of the aspiration to a United Ireland while recognising the status quo to remain part of the “United Kingdom”.
It states that...
“it is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a United Ireland, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”.
The Agreement allows those born in the North to be British, Irish, both or neither.
The Agreement is made up of three strands, together representing the relationships that exist within and between the islands of Britain and Ireland.
Strand One provides for the NI Assembly and Executive at Stormont where elected political parties could share power.
Strand Two provides for an All-Ireland North/South Ministerial Council and 7 cross-border bodies. All Ministers in the North and all Ministers in the Irish Government meet in plenary and sectoral formats to develop co-operation between both parts of Ireland. These institutions were predicated on both the British and Irish Governments being members of the EU.
Strand Three provides for the British-Irish Council to promote relationships between Ireland and Britain and includes the Governments of Wales, Scotland, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man, the North of Ireland and the British and Irish Governments.
Prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, security checkpoints existed on the border between the North and South of Ireland.
British Army military installations, which had been built and reinforced from the 1970s onwards, were symbols of division and conflict.
The Common Travel Area, full EU membership, and the peace process combined have meant that for the past 20 years both customs posts and immigration checkpoints on the Irish border have become unnecessary.
People’s daily lives in the border region have been transformed.
The invisible border on the island of Ireland has become the greatest symbol of peace.
Any reversal will have huge adverse economic, social, political, security impacts on people both in border communities and on the island as a whole.
This was recognised by all parties across the political divide on the back of the referendum in 2016.
The irony today is that DUP Leader Arlene Foster along with the late Martin McGuinness wrote to Theresa May on 10 August 2016.
This is part of what they said which in fact sums things up well…
“Dear Prime Minister,
“Firstly, and most obviously, this region is unique in that it is the only part of the U.K. which has a land border with an EU member state.
“There have been difficult issues relating to the border throughout our history and the peace process.
“We therefore appreciate your stated determination that the border will not become an impediment to the movement of people, goods and services.”
They go on…
“It is equally important that the border does not create an incentive for those who would wish to undermine the peace process and / or the political settlement.”
BRITISH WITHDRAWAL FROM THE EU
It is clear to everyone that when Brexit was conceived by the Tories, Ireland was never considered.
The implications of dragging the North out of the EU while the South remains did not feature in the 2016 debate.
Now the consequences have become clear.
The return of a hard border in Ireland has become the main obstacle to the deal which is on the table.
Tory Brexiteers, the DUP, and the parliamentary Opposition at Westminster are all opposing that which avoids a hard border - the “Backstop”.
The backstop is an insurance policy and our bottom line.
From my perspective the “backstop” is an Irish solution to an English problem.
We do not want Brexit.
There is no good to come from Brexit.
Make no mistake - this is the most defining period since the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998.
More than 30 million people voted and 51.9% voted Leave.
I fully respect the right of the British people to leave the EU, including 52.5% here in Wales.
But we in the North of Ireland voted by a cross-community majority of 55.8% to Remain.
The DUP do not speak for the people of the North.
We will defend our interests at every turn.
This deal is the least bad option for Ireland.
The four Remain parties, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance and Green Party represent the majority in the North and we believe that there is no such thing as a good Brexit and our preference is for no Brexit at all.
We recognise that the majority of people, businesses and civic society do not want Brexit either.
We have a shared responsibility to protect jobs, economic stability and people’s livelihoods.
At the very least, this means avoiding a hard border, protecting the Good Friday Agreement and hard won peace of the past twenty years, and staying within the Single Market and a Customs Union.
Therefore as a basis for this, we maintain that there is a neccessity for the backstop as set out in the Withdrawal Agreement to be banked.
We support the ‘Backstop’ contained within the Withdrawal Agreement because it gives a legal guarantee that ‘…unless and until’ a subsequent agreement is in place in regards to the future relationship agreement by 2020 the backstop kicks in.
Let me be clear - the Withdrawal Agreement, and its impact on Ireland, in particular the North is by no means any more than a moderate and primitive deal.
By contrast, we believe that a no deal situation would be catastrophic for our economy and society.
It would mean us all crashing out of the EU on 29 March 2019 with no terms of departure, and literally over a cliff-edge with supply shortages and many businesses unable to trade, resulting in job losses and a serious economic downturn.
We become a “third country” with practically no access to the EU single market; a physical hard border or EU frontier being put in place in Ireland; and World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules being applied.
All of this presents a serious threat to business and households, and creates an uncertain future for everyone.
The underlying strength of the Welsh economy will be tested to the limits as will our own as we face the inevitable chaos a No deal would force upon us.
I firmly believe that we need to develop and nurture, build and grow the All-Ireland economy where we develop closer regimes and models of integration.
In light of Brexit it is imperative that the island of Ireland redoubles our efforts to develop and rebuild a modern, competitive and sustainable economy where we open doors to trade, investment, tourism and jobs but also develop and invest in our indigenous industries.
We need to improve our competitiveness through investing in our public services and infrastructure on an All-Ireland basis.
Now, they say a week is a long time in politics, and it is of course only Monday!
So, with all eyes fixed on Westminster tomorrow – when we will see whether the Withdrawal Agreement stands or falls when MPs vote.
What matters is where we go to from here.
And there are a number of scenarios that could unfold and cannot be discounted.
Westminster votes down the 585 page withdrawal agreement?
Theresa May withdraws the Agreement and attempts to reopen negotiations on the political declaration?
She seeks to extend the Article 50 process?
Tory MPs trigger a vote of no confidence in her and have a leadership contest?
She calls a snap General Election or a Second referendum/People’s vote?
The DUP collapse the Confidence and Supply Agreement?
None of the above and by 29th March we face a No deal crash out?
I do not believe that any of these options offer anything other than uncertainty and chaos to what is a deepening crisis.
REFERENDUM ON A UNITED IREAND
I have been meeting with the Prime Minister since she took office to make our voice heard, and make it count throughout these negotiations.
I have also met a number of times with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier alongside the other pro-remain party Leaders in the North to make it clear that we speak for the majority of citizens and businesses and that the DUP do not.
I have lobbied the member states of the EU27 for two years.
I met the Ambassadors of the current EU28 to Ireland on Friday in Dublin, including British diplomats.
And what I have said to them all is that Brexit and the GFA are mutually incompatible.
And that a referendum on a united Ireland is an obvious option to be on the table.
We have told Mrs May that the constitutional question must be put to the people by way of a unity referendum contained within the Good Friday Agreement if the onset on her Brexit disrupts the finely balanced arrangements agreed and endorsed in 1998.
There is a growing sense that circumstances are now rapidly changing which will inevitably lead to the final break-up of the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom which Theresa May and the DUP say they are committed to preserving.
People from across society in the North, including those of a British identity, are now seriously questioning what will be the merits, benefits of staying within the union after Brexit.
Recent polling data tells us that almost half of voters in the North would support a united Ireland if Britain leaves the EU under the current Withdrawal Agreement, and that 1 in 4 unionists think the DUP would be wrong to reject Theresa May’s deal.
We see the vast numbers applying for Irish passports as a practical example of how people will move to rightly look after their own economic self-interests and those of their families.
The Good Friday Agreement provides a peaceful democratic pathway to Irish Unity.
The issue of Irish Unity has taken on a new dynamic because of Brexit.
Demographics are changing and so too is the political landscape.
This cannot be ignored.
The former Leader of the DUP Peter Robinson back in June acknowledged this in remarks he made giving a public lecture at Queens University back in June.
The Good Friday Agreement gives people the opportunity and choice to decide our future together.
How we live together.
How we work together.
How we share our island together.
The political momentum on change is moving in that direction.
Sinn Féin wants a New Ireland, a fairer Ireland, and a united Ireland.
But let me be clear – Sinn Féin does not own this debate.
There are many, many within the unionist community who look at Brexit with the same fear and trepidation as nationalists and republicans – because I am engaging with them.
The EU has declared that in the future, and in the event of Irish reunification the North would automatically re-join the EU.
So I think it is fair to say that those of a British and/or unionist identity are starting to assess all of this.
This is not to say they are not British or have given up their allegiances, but I do believe that they are being challenged to rethink their economic future.
Be in no doubt that a Unity Referendum is coming, and we are preparing for it.
I see no contradiction in declaring and delivering on our firm commitment to power sharing with unionism in the Stormont Assembly – and I hope we can get into talks and find a way back there soon - while also initiating a mature and inclusive debate about new political arrangements which better serve all of us who share this island.
Similarly, there is no contradiction in unionism working the existing constitutional arrangements while taking its rightful place in the conversation about what a New Ireland would look like.
It is a time to hear all voices within this debate.
As an Irish republican leader part of my task is to give leadership, win elections, to increase our political strength to realise our ambition of being in government north and south, to win progressive political victories every single day, and ultimately to win Irish unity.
But I must persuade our neighbours of the benefits, rights and entitlements they could enjoy – and far from me being prescriptive about what they can or cannot have – I want to shape, build and share power not only at Stormont, but on all All-Ireland basis alongside them – in their own right.
This Conservative Government and the DUP have weakened the Union and are its greatest threat.
This unprecedented folly has created the biggest constitutional crisis in a century.
It has exposed the undemocratic nature and failure of partition in Ireland which created an artificial future which has and will remain contested.
The fulcrum of the Brexit crisis is the border in Ireland.
Brexit, alongside socially progressive campaigns for women’s abortion rights, the campaign for marriage equality and the campaign for Irish language rights have opened up a new political space and new conversations about the future.
The DUP are on the wrong side of it all.
But, these are not traditional orange and green issues.
These are the spaces between, and across, traditional constitutional positions.
Citizens are looking to the future to see where there best interests are served.
Change is in the air.
Over the past two elections in the north the unionist majority has gone.
The notion of a perpetual unionist majority - the very basis of partition - is gone.
It is no longer autonomy through devolution that people are considering, but Irish unity - not to become republicans, but to remain Europeans - and the opportunity to stay in the Union, through separation from Britain.
Not only is this possible, but quite probable in the time ahead.
At the beginning of this address I spoke of the fact that during the course of this decade we are marking key seminal events which have shaped modern Irish history over the past century.
As we approach the centenary of the partition of Ireland let’s not refight old battles of the past.
Let’s create a new relationship between Britain and the New Ireland, and our people.
Make partition history and let the people decide our own future.
I am now keen to hear your perspectives and over the next 30 minutes have an exchange.