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Before a Border Poll a New Ireland Forum should happen

7 July 2018

Statement by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

Speaking at a party seminar commemorating the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, in a keynote speech, Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin outlined his views on the future of our island saying that before any border poll is held, a New Ireland forum should be held to consider what unification would actually mean.

Deputy Howlin said:

"The possibility of a hard Brexit, with the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal, could change everything. Any certainty about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future in our lifetimes is gone. But there is no solution and much risk in the idea of a border poll won by only a handful of votes. That would be a recipe for a deepening of social division and potentially a renewal of violence.

"The problem with the DUP and Sinn Féin, in many respects, is not that they are too different to work together, but that they are too similar. They are both identitarian parties, but they represent rival identities that are not compatible. The solution cannot be for one identity to triumph over the other.

"Which is why there is a pressing need for an alternative to identitarian politics. And the alternative to focusing on tribal identity is to focus on fulfilling people’s civil and economic rights. If everyone can be assured that their rights are secure, they can be secure in their multiple identities, even as minorities.

"We need to find agreement now, well in advance, about who should be sitting around the table to negotiate if ever there was a vote for a reunited Ireland. So my proposition is simple. Let’s talk…

"Obsession with a border poll is divisive and unhelpful. It is also rooted in a narrow and backwards looking view of Ireland, based on tribal identities. People’s energy would be better spent on re-establishing the institutions of the Agreement.

"I want to propose a formal meeting of all willing political parties, in a revised New Ireland Forum, to discuss what Peter Robinson has suggested: How would we handle a border poll in favour of unification?

"A New Ireland Forum should also challenge ourselves to contemplate what unification with the people of Northern Ireland would actually mean.

"Our vision is for every person on this island to have their rights vindicated, to have their material conditions improved, and to have a political system that is fully responsive to their needs and their identities."

ENDS

Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement

Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda, 7 July 2018

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD, Leader of the Labour Party

1968.

All over the United States, African-Americans protested to achieve civil rights.

On the fourth of April that year, Martin Luther King was tragically assassinated.

And a week later, the US signed its Civil Rights Act into law.

In Birmingham, Conservative MP Enoch Powell made his now-infamous “rivers of blood” speech about immigration from former British colonies.

In the same year, the UK passed its Race Relations Act.

Protests against the Vietnam war.

Riots in Paris.

The invasion of Prague.

There was also a growing consciousness of what we now call globalisation.

There was new attention paid to famine in Nigeria and other countries.

The Apollo 8 manned mission to the moon sent back the first views of Earth, which among other things helped to promote consciousness of our planet’s fragility.

And two technological developments sowed the seeds for our ever-more interconnected global economy: the first Boeing 747 took flight and a new company was formed, called the Intel Corporation.

It was impossible to predict in 1968 where all of these trends would lead.

At the heart of all of this upheaval was generational change.

A shift from authoritarian, conservative attitudes about how society should be organised, and indeed of who should be included in society,

To a more rights-based and liberal attitude, that recognised the plurality within each society, and the connections between societies.

But it was no easy change.

It was hard fought and hard won,

With setbacks on the way.

And the struggle for civil rights still continues,

With many injustices and inequalities still not resolved.

But we rightly mark the 50-year anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland.

In 1968, inspired in part by events in the United States and Paris, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association organised street protests and brought injustices in Northern Ireland into global consciousness.

Then, as now, housing was a concern.

But the primary concern in 1968 was unfair and discriminatory allocation of public housing.

Since before 1968, civil society groups such as the Society of Labour Lawyers published documents alleging discrimination in Northern Ireland and the Campaign for Social Justice wrote letters to MPs and issued pamphlets.

However, when these calls failed to result in any meaningful change, the decision was taken in mid-1968, inspired in part by events in the United States and Paris, to organise street demonstrations.

Public demonstrations were organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (the NICRA).

These were hard to ignore.

The demonstrations put pressure on the Unionist government.

And they brought international attention to what was going on in Northern Ireland

The demonstrations were often banned.

And Loyalist groups staged counter-marches, in part due to a suspicion that Republicans were using the campaigns as a ploy for Irish unity rather than reform of Northern Ireland.

A significant moment was when a march by 400 people on 5 October 1968 was broken up by baton-wielding RUC officers.

The incident was filmed and was broadcast worldwide on television.

The excessive use of police force caused outrage and the next event attracted 10,000 marchers.

Many people pinpoint this event to the beginning of the conflict.

Ten days later, the Nationalist Party withdrew from its role as official Stormont opposition.

In November, all marches were banned except for “customary” parades, which meant that Loyalist parades continued.

In mid-November, the Nationalist Party conference adopted a policy of civil disobedience.

Some reform measures followed, including an ombudsman to investigate complaints against government departments, allocation of housing based solely on need and some reform of local government.

On Monday, 9 December 1968, Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill made his famous speech about Ulster standing at the crossroads.

But by 1969, the British government had deployed troops on the streets.

The Provisional IRA had begun its activities.

As we all know too well, on “Bloody Sunday”, 30 January 1972, the British Army shot dead 13 demonstrators and injured another 14.

And many other dark days followed.

Thousands of people were killed.

And many more bear the physical and psychological scars of the violence.

In the journey from 1968 to here,

Through all the pain inflicted by the conflict,

There have always been two paths open to Northern Ireland.

The path of conflict, which was followed for thirty years, from 1968 to 1998,

Or the path of democracy and civil rights, which was properly cemented by the Agreement in Belfast on Good Friday 1998.

Within that Agreement, the aims of the Civil Rights Movement were finally given full recognition.

While the results have not been perfect, and violence continues to occur, the twenty years since then have allowed Northern Ireland to enjoy the benefits of prosperity, and it has become a model and inspiration for other conflict zones around the world.

And, in other times, that might be the conclusion of the story.

But we are not in ordinary times.

Part of the framework that held Northern Ireland’s peace together was, of course, membership of the European Union.

And the vote for the UK to leave the EU, despite Northern Ireland’s majority in favour of Remain, has caused a great many people to wonder about the constitutional implications for Northern Ireland.

One researcher, Dr Paul Nolan, estimates that by 2021 there will be more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland.

And this is a consistent trend, with 57% of schoolchildren categorised as Catholic against 37% Protestant and 12% Other.

But as his report rightly indicates, this should not be taken to mean support for a united Ireland.

A sizeable proportion of Northern Ireland’s Catholics are, for the time being, content to remain in the UK.

And the binary categories of “Catholic” versus “Protestant” allow for a crude headcount that oversimplifies what is a much more nuanced situation.

Many people are placed into one or other category based on their upbringing, not due to their religious faith or personal identity.

I will make a different prediction, here and now, about social change in Northern Ireland.

Within ten years, the majority in Northern Ireland will be the people who consider themselves neither Nationalist nor Unionist, in the sense of allegiance to tribal identities.

It is not just the case that Unionists are going to find themselves in a minority, but the combined public identification with tribal Unionists and Nationalist politics is going to fall below 50 per cent in the very near future.

I base this on the yearly Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey carried out by academics.

In 1998, a third of people declared that they considered themselves neither Nationalist nor Unionist.

By 2017, this had risen to 45% of people.

Part of the dividend of 20 years of peace is that people – especially those who never knew the worst days of the conflict – have not had to pick sides.

That has given this non-aligned group space to grow.

Whereas for previous generations, picking sides was often mandatory,

Because the middle ground was thin and perilous.

But very soon, this third group – the middle ground of Northern Ireland political opinion – is going to be the majority.

It points to the well-known problem with the requirement for parties in Stormont to choose one of the tribal labels, and the institutionalisation of these tribal divisions in the Petition of Concern and other power-sharing arrangements.

While these were doubtless necessary in 1998, they were never a permanent solution.

It is a very open question how the people in this growing third group are going to vote in terms of support for political parties, or support for Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.

They are by no means politically unified.

They surely include conservatives and liberals, social democrats and others.

Many of them are, quite obviously, Catholic or Protestant by upbringing, but that is no guarantee of their constitutional preferences.

Some commentators use the labels small-n nationalist and small-u unionist to identify this group.

But I think that’s a mistake.

Such labels assume that the whole world of Northern Irish politics must forever revolve around the single axis of tribal identity.

It simply isn’t so.

To give just one example, there have been socialists and social democrats in Northern Ireland since before partition, who are more concerned with economic rights and the material conditions of working people than they are about the constitutional question.

There has been a lot of debate since the Brexit vote, trying to determine whether or not sentiment in Northern Ireland has changed about the possibility of a united Ireland.

There is anecdotal evidence of a softening of attitudes.

There are Unionists discussing the possibility of a border poll for Irish unity, who would never have countenanced the idea before.

Former Ulster Unionist communications director and commentator, Alex Kane, writes about the realisation among Unionists that “The once-unthinkable needs to be thought about.” He calls on Unionists to embrace equality and inclusion issues, as there has never been a time where the middle ground is more open to serious arguments for Irish unity.

Former DUP leader, Peter Robinson, has called for generational border polls in order to take the issue out of day-to-day politics. While he says he is confident support for the Union would win, others are not so sure.

Prime Minister Theresa May herself has been reported as not certain that a border poll would keep Northern Ireland in the UK.

Although two of her Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland have said that the conditions to trigger a border poll have not been met.

The result of any such poll clearly hinges upon the opinions of those in the silent political middle ground.

A range of opinion polls have tried to tease out people’s attitudes.

Some of them, most recently a poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft, shows 44% in favour of a united Ireland if there was a referendum tomorrow, compared to 49% who would opt to remain in the UK.

Most polls show fewer people, between a fifth and a quarter, in favour of a united Ireland.

But the possibility of a hard Brexit, with the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal, could change everything.

Any certainty about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future in our lifetimes is gone.

But there is no solution and much risk in the idea of a border poll won by only a handful of votes.

That would be a recipe for a deepening of social division and potentially a renewal of violence.

As John Hume has argued, the problem lies in the notion of trying to unify the territory of Ireland whereas our focus should be on unifying the people, all of the people, on this island.

We need to present a vision of Ireland’s future that is attractive to, and accommodating of, all of the traditions on this island.

Nationalists and Unionists, certainly.

But also the many other people who have different issues and concerns that a unified Ireland would need to address.

We will never arrive at a unification of the people of Ireland if we continue to defer to the rigidity of identity as the political axis of Northern Ireland.

And not just identity, but dichotomous identities of British or Irish, Nationalist or Unionist, Catholic or Protestant.

That leaves no room for others, first of all.

It leaves no room for those who regard themselves as equally or somewhat British and Irish

Or for someone who identifies as of Christian faith rather than belonging to any specific denomination.

The hardest dichotomy to resolve, of course, is the polarisation of Nationalist versus Unionist.

From an absolutist perspective, Northern Ireland’s constitutional status can only be either in the United Kingdom or united with the rest of Ireland.

But what we are seeing is that this tribal political division of capital-U Unionist versus capital-N Nationalist appeals to fewer and fewer people in Northern Ireland.

The risk for the DUP and Sinn Féin, in equal measure, is that they end up representing nothing more than “identitarian” politics.

And I use that term purposefully.

Across Europe, we have seen the rise of political groups asserting a nativist identity.

The problem with the DUP and Sinn Féin, in many respects, is not that they are too different to work together, but that they are too similar.

They are both identitarian parties, but they represent rival identities that are not compatible.

The solution cannot be for one identity to triumph over the other.

But such would be the inevitable result of one-dimensional politics.

Which is why there is a pressing need for an alternative to identitarian politics.

And the alternative to focusing on tribal identity is to focus on fulfilling people’s civil and economic rights.

If everyone can be assured that their rights are secure, they can be secure in their multiple identities, even as minorities,

whether Catholic or Protestant,

Gay or Straight,

White, Black or Asian,

British, Irish or uniquely Northern Irish.

Civil and economic rights are the means to unify people.

This is why a letter was signed by 105 civic unionists in the Belfast Telegraph calling for an inclusive debate on rights and equality.

Signatories include Irish language advocate, and Loyalist, Linda Ervine,

And former Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt.

Their letter calls for a truly inclusive and open dialogue about how to build a better society for everyone.

And they voice their frustration with the fact that “civic unionism, pluralists and other forms of civic leadership have been rendered invisible in many debates focused on rights and responsibilities”. 

Their focus on a better society – based on liberty, equality and justice for all – echoes the Democratic Programme written by Labour’s Tom Johnson for the 1918 Dáil.

The Democratic Programme envisaged every citizen, by right, having a fair share of the nation's product and an improvement in their working and living conditions.

From the outset, the Irish Free State and later Republic of Ireland, both failed and succeeded in making itself a home for everyone who lived there.

There were many failings in terms of a far too close and unhealthy partnership between the fledgling State and the institutions and philosophy of the Catholic Church.

But progress was made on a number of fronts, not least the provision of education for all, and an improvement in people’s material conditions, which has always been central to Labour’s agenda.

Paul Gosling and Pat McArt write about the need for a conversation on Ireland post-Brexit.

They make a very interesting observation that neatly summarises the need for us in the Republic to reflect and re-think our own history and assumptions.

I want to quote you a section about people who have contributed so much to the fabric of modern Ireland:

“Without Edward Bunting much of our music and folklore would be lost.

Wilde, Yeats, Beckett, O’Casey brought our literature to the world.

Charles Stewart Parnell, Wolfe Tone, Thomas Davis, were all towering political figures.

The Irish language revival owes much to Douglas Hyde.

It has to be acknowledged all the above – and many, many more – made a massive contribution to our shared history.

What is rarely mentioned is all were Protestant.”

Gosling and McArt make a valid point.

Many of us, in the Republic of Ireland, have been fed a version of our history that pretends Irish people have been a mono-cultural Catholic Gaelic people.

Yet we all know about the contributions of Protestants and others to Ireland’s history.

It would be a grave mistake to imagine that everyone who lived in the Irish Free State when it was formed were all Gaelic Catholic Nationalists.

Of course, it was not the case.

But we perhaps have to remind ourselves of this more often, not least due to the smothering effect of clerical influence over public affairs for most of Ireland’s independence.

The Irish Free State incorporated everyone who lived there.

As well as our Travelling Community, there were always many minorities.

Over 100,000 people were born outside of the Free State territory.

The Census records show that there were people born in practically every European country, and from every continent.

The majority, of 2.7 million, was certainly Catholic, although even then there were those who railed against the institutional Church or were Catholic in name only.

220,000 people professed other religions,

Mainly Protestants denominations, such as the Church of Ireland obviously, but also 32,000 Presbyterians.

And, of course, Ireland had a Jewish population, of fewer than 4,000 individuals in the 1920s.

The earliest reference to Jews coming to Ireland was in the Annals of Inisfallen record for 1079.

People with a Jewish background have played an equal part in the creation of modern Ireland, including three TDs one of whom was Labour’s own Mervyn Taylor, Minister for Equality and Law Reform from 1992 to 1997.

Far from being a uniformly Gaelic country, fewer than a fifth of people spoke Irish in the Free State, around 540,000 people.

And only in recent years have we finally begun to fully recognise other minorities that have always been present in Irish society, such as people of different sexual orientation.

We couldn’t have imagined Ireland in 1968 from the position of 1918.

We couldn’t have imagined how much further we have come in the fifty years since 1968.

So what might Ireland look like in 2068?

If there is to be a single all-island Irish state by 2068, it will not be built on the basis of a singular Irish identity.

Rather, a new Irish State would have to recognise the even greater diversity of its people.

A rights-based approach, rooted in the impartial rule of law and constitutional protection for minorities, is the best way to achieve that.

Including protections for people with conservative views rooted in their religious faith.

Labour holds a unique political position in Ireland's history.

We led the campaign to roll back our confessional state and fought for people's rights and recognition of their diversity to be enshrined in law.

How can we imagine a new all-Ireland State, based on rights and equality?

Peter Robinson makes another very important point.

We need to find agreement now, well in advance, about who should be sitting around the table to negotiate if ever there was a vote for a reunited Ireland.

So my proposition is simple. Let’s talk…

Obsession with a border poll is divisive and unhelpful.

It is also rooted in a narrow and backwards looking view of Ireland, based on tribal identities.

People’s energy would be better spent on re-establishing the institutions of the Agreement.

But we can’t ignore the fact that the prospects of a border poll being called within a few years have increased greatly.

We need to prepare for it.

The Irish Labour Party has a long tradition of working closely with our sister parties and trade unions in Northern Ireland.

Labour is well placed to be a voice for reconciliation and pragmatic co-operation across the island of Ireland.

We are abiding by the terms of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

The principle of consent is sacrosanct with respect to Northern Ireland's future constitutional status.

Today, only a minority in Northern Ireland may wish for a United Ireland. But that consent can shift, and Brexit may cause it to shift considerably.

Let’s find ways of talking across the old tribal boundaries, with a focus on improving the lives of all the people on this island.

But I want to propose a formal meeting of all willing political parties, in a revised New Ireland Forum, to discuss what Peter Robinson has suggested: How would we handle a border poll in favour of unification?

A New Ireland Forum should also challenge ourselves to contemplate what unification with the people of Northern Ireland would actually mean.

Our vision is for every person on this island to have their rights vindicated, to have their material conditions improved, and to have a political system that is fully responsive to their needs and their identities.

I will personally meet with any political party in Northern Ireland or Ireland who is willing to have a serious discussion on these issues.

I would especially welcome opportunities to meet and discuss with civic unionists, political Unionists and Loyalists, without any assumption that for them such a meeting would change their constitutional preferences in any way.

Labour an internationalist party in the European Social Democratic Family, is ready and willing to play its part, now, having regard to all the complexities on this shared island, to envisage and work to build a future that includes everyone.