By coincidence, while John McCallister didn’t have the opportunity to speak at the UUP conference today, he did get an invite to address Sinn Fein’s Towards a New Ireland – A new phase of the peace process conference in London this afternoon.
If my comments at any time seem unduly harsh or perhaps unfair, be assured that such is not my intention. I am here in good faith to promote political dialogue and debate which will aid reconciliation and mutual understanding in Northern Ireland.
… but then questioned Sinn Fein’s definition or need for a “New Ireland”.
The New Ireland?
It is somewhat strange that Sinn Fein has described this conference as “Towards a New Ireland”. I say strange because for the overwhelming majority of people on the island of Ireland …
We now live, post-1998, in the New Ireland. We no longer live on an island scarred by conflict. We no longer live on an island in which there is undisguised hostility between Dublin and Belfast. We no longer live on an island in which economic, social, cultural and political relationships stop at the border.
We already live in the New Ireland.
The New Ireland in which shared interests produce close co-operation between Belfast and Dublin. Shared interests which find institutional expression in cross-border bodies. The New Ireland in which the vast, overwhelming majority of citizens share democratic values and reject the path of violence. The New Ireland in which we realise that the intricate network of relationships in these Islands is not something we can – or desire to – opt out of. It is in this context that Sinn Fein’s campaign for a border poll is distinctly odd.
A mere 15 years into these new relationships and new institutions, why should we even consider a border poll … Not least when opinion polls indicate a near complete lack of desire for significant constitutional change? Why seek to inject a toxic dose of 1950s politics into the institutions and relationships of the New Ireland in the 21st century?
John McCallister reminded the London audience that one of republicanism’s founding principles was “the belief in popular sovereignty”. He described it as “an honourable principle”.
The referenda on the Good Friday Agreement were an act of popular sovereignty. The institutions of the Agreement were created and are sustained by the overwhelming consent of the people of the island of Ireland. Contrast that overwhelming consent – that exercise in popular sovereignty – with the latest opinion poll indicating that only 3.8% of people in Northern Ireland want a United Ireland as soon as possible.
Popular sovereignty can be uncomfortable for politicians of all persuasions, but the will of the people, North and South, has been given clear expression. The institutions created by the Agreement, the new relationships established by the Agreement, are grounded in the will of the people. And it is not the will of the people to replace the existing constitutional settlement on the island of Ireland with something different.
… The call for a border poll may satisfy the demands for ideological purity, but it fails in heeding the will of the people, in building on the achievement of 1998.
There is another important and destabilising aspect to the campaign for a border poll. Perhaps I can illustrate this by pointing to two words missing from the publicity associated with this conference … ‘Northern Ireland’.
The inability of Sinn Fein representatives to utter these two words is not merely cosmetic. When Her Majesty the Queen spoke in Irish at the reception in Dublin Castle, it was not merely cosmetic … It was a historic declaration of respect for the nationalist tradition.
When the discourse of unionist representatives embraces both ‘Londonderry’ and ‘Derry’, it is not merely cosmetic … It is a sign of respect for both traditions in the Maiden City. The respect I mention in these two examples both contributes to and is an expression of a desire to build a shared and reconciled society.
The campaign for a border poll … The inability to utter the phrase ‘Northern Ireland’ … These suggest a hesitancy on the part of Sinn Fein when it comes to building a shared and reconciled community in Northern Ireland.
Be reminded delegates:
Perception is, of course, important in politics. Its importance is greatly magnified in a divided society. The perception outside of the republican constituency is that the border poll campaign … And the continued inability to speak of ‘Northern Ireland’ is suggestive of a lack of vision on the part of Sinn Fein when it comes to the political challenge facing us over the next generation.
John McCallister acknowledged that “Sinn Fein has travelled far from the 1970s and 1980s” but hoped “that the journey is not yet over”.
In fact, for the sake of our society, the journey cannot yet be over.
Many at this conference will disagree with me.
Perhaps even some other
pro-Union supporters will disagree with him too! unioinists
I hope, however, that out of our disagreements and debates can come a shared commitment to building a Northern Ireland for all, in the New Ireland and in a new era in the history of these Islands.
Gerry Adams was also due to address the Sinn Fein conference today. His remarks were trailed on the party website last night. The advance speech makes no reference to Liam Adams’ trial or the questions surrounding Gerry Adams alleged inaction in reporting the abuse of his niece.
The situation in the north has changed out of all recognition. Today power sharing and peace, have replaced inequality and conflict. The Good Friday Agreement has created a new dynamic, a new political dispensation. For the first time we have an agreement that is comprehensive and inclusive…
Unfortunately there are still those – within the unionist leaderships and the British political system and on the fringes of nationalism – who are resistant to change. Since the Agreement was reached 15 years ago they have fought a rearguard action seeking to destabilise, to dilute and to obstruct its implementation.
He cited examples of inaction: no Bill of Rights, no Irish Language Act, no north-south consultative forum, and a reneging on the commitment to hold an inquiry into the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane.
On the trouble around flags protests:
Recently in parts of Belfast we have seen the most naked sectarian elements of unionism stirred up for short term political purpose. There has been months of organised sectarian violence on the streets of Belfast.
Hundreds of members of the PSNI have been injured, some seriously. Three weeks ago a young woman was shot five times by the UVF in East Belfast. The PSNI have accused that organisation of “involvement in drug dealing, all forms of gangsterism, serious assaults and intimidation.”
Unionist leaders failed to stand up to this at a time when decisive positive leadership may have made a real difference. In stark contrast when so-called dissidents killed PSNI officers and British soldiers Martin McGuinness stood shoulder to shoulder with Peter Robinson and the Chief Constable to condemn those actions in assertive, clear and robust language. There was no equivocation by Martin. No delay. He showed leadership.
That’s what unionism needs. Positive leadership to build the process; to take a stand against illegal marches, sectarianism and violence, and the provocative actions of the Orange Order in Belfast. I retain the hope that such leadership will develop.
Gerry Adams welcomed Peter Robinson’s remarks at the Co-Operation Ireland GAA dinner.
Sinn Féin holds out the hand of friendship to unionists, including the Orange, and former unionist paramilitaries. We do so on the basis of equality and partnership.
There is a need for the First Minister to join with the Deputy First Minister and others to build an entirely new dispensation.
A “new dispensation” as a result of the Haass talks perhaps?
Sinn Féin is committed to building a new society and achieving a new Ireland that is representative of all the people of our island.
That includes the unionists. Peter Robinson expressed the need for respect. I agree with him completely. The GAA has indeed played a very significant role in encouraging better community relations.
One thing that most sportspeople have for their rivals is respect. Politicians could learn a lot from that ethos.
The Sinn Fein president recited a list of questions as he explored what was acceptable community behaviour around flags, targeting places of worship, sectarian hatred, and a tolerance of criminality in loyalist and republican gangs.
Citizens of London or Dublin would not have to endure that which is foisted on the citizens of Belfast and other places and defended or tolerated by some political leaders. Solutions are needed to resolve these difficult issues of symbols, marches and the past. But this will only be done if leaders lead.
It needs political will. I believe this is a time to refresh the peace process; to develop a new phase. A new phase which tackles the past; seeks to repair broken relationships; promotes reconciliation and maps a new course for the future.
The recent decision by the Constitutional Convention to recommend that Irish citizens in the north and overseas can vote in Presidential elections is a positive development. There is now a clear onus on the Irish government to act on this recommendation.
Citizens in the north who wish to vote in Presidential elections should be accorded that right. But that is only part of what is needed. This new phase of the peace process means harnessing the power and influence and expertise of the diaspora. It also means giving the diaspora its right, like citizens of other states, to vote in Presidential elections.
Gerry Adams finished:
I invite all of you and who of you who are not Irish but would like to be to join with us in this great historic task of building a new Ireland that this new phase of the peace process is opening up.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.