SPEAKING NOTES NORTHERN IRELAND
The Good Friday Agreement has been the cornerstone of the fragile Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Any efforts by Brexiteers aimed at undermining the agreement are extremely unhelpful and risk undoing decades of hard work. We do not want to return to the days of “the Troubles”. In this context we need also to be reminded that while the levels of violence post Good Friday Agreement have disappeared from our TV’s and media, the reality is that in excess of 150 people have died in that 20 year period as a result of paramilitary activity. The lack of agreement on reforming an Assembly in the North has many consequences in this regard. Just before Christmas, a Department of Finance briefing paper set out how there could be “significant staff reduction” across the wider justice system including in the PSNI and the prison service – shocking stuff at a time when paramilitary threat remains alive. Only last week it was reported that the Chief Constable of the PSNI said he feared that a fortified frontier or a hard border which would have to be policed around the clock would put his officers’ lives in great danger from anti-peace process paramilitaries. He outlined that there is still an on-going threat from hard-line factions from the New IRA and also those using the names of the UVF and UDA who have split from those who bought into the dream of the peace process. He said that in 2017 the PSNI in relation to their counter-terrorist operations made many arrests.
Any attempt to water down or dumb down the Good Friday Agreement’s existence is a retrograde step and I might suggest that these Brexiteers who attempt to do such do not have a grasp of the importance that the Good Friday Agreement has had in creating the All Ireland Economy, encouraging communities to face each other North and South to create an Island for all.
We cannot speak of the Good Friday Agreement without focussing on the legacy issues that exist on all sides of the divide especially in the North of Ireland. Having had frequent visits as part the work of my Joint Committee, it became abundantly clear to me that if you didn’t know whether people were coming from a nationalist or unionist perspective that the issues they have are identical. The legacy issues have become generational. Those involved now have families and those families are suffering. And on and on it goes.
We need a voice for the North to pave a way forward so that the framework of legacy institutions provided for under the Stormont House Agreement can be implemented.
The failure of the parties in the North to form a functioning Executive comes at one of the most critical times in the North’s history. While the MLA’s in the North still take home their salaries, they are doing nothing to represent those who elected them other than local issue politics and this is shameful. While the issues of Brexit are critical for the North they refuse to play a part in working to avert a hard border. In fact it is my view, that neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin wish to return to Government for their own separate reasons.
The clear lack of urgency by both the Irish and British Governments together with the protracted deep freeze of over a year of an impasse between the DUP and Sinn Féin is feeding into the zero sum politics that currently exists. This, despite the urgency of a voice on Brexit, the need for leadership as opposed to one-upmanship has debased real politics. It is incredible that so many democratically elected Northern Ireland Representatives cannot put aside or park those contentious issues to enable them deal with the greatest threat facing these islands.
According to a Report published in December, the gap in fortunes between the economies of Northern Ireland and Ireland will increase in the next two years as Brexit looms. The EY study added that Ireland’s GDP is expected to grow 4.9% this year compared with 1.4% for Northern Ireland. The report goes on to say that the state of the economy of Northern Ireland is not helped by the absence of a devolved Government. The Report states that the economy in Northern Ireland remains challenged owing to inflation, reducing consumer spending and the absence of a government disrupting state spending programmes.
In relation to Brexit and the Border, in Theresa May’s recent speech, she said “we chose to leave…. we have a responsibility to find a solution”. Is this the Royal “We”?
The context and legal standing of the solutions which were put forward on December 15th were unclear and I welcome the proposal to put this text in a legal format.
Mrs May also spoke about “Hard Facts” she needs to listen to those on the ground about the hard facts.
On the 29th of March 2019 the UK are due to leave with a suggested 2 year transition period. The reality is that what Theresa May is seeking in any deal is what all other EU members would like to have but we all understand the fundamental purpose of the EU which is to have a cohesive trading block, but also about peace and prosperity for all of that block.
The kind of Brexit that the UK is heading for is very different to the one that was promised in the UK Referendum.
The speech has not moved beyond vague aspirations with no serious proposals. Talk of a deep and special partnership but what does this mean? Why would the UK want to damage Northern Ireland?
The reality is that May is chasing between rhetoric and reality with a wishlist plan already rejected by the EU and even if it could be achieved would leave us with arrangements nothing like being in the single market and with no apparent upside for Northern Ireland.
This island faces an immense challenge when Britain our closest trading partner, co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement exits. The implications of Brexit for the region and the impact of the absence of a Northern Ireland assembly to push forward the government spending programme cannot be underestimated.
What we need now is respect, trust, engagement to find workable solutions (not just words), and all sides need to recognise that there has to be compromise.