Statement on recent developments in Northern Ireland

Statement on recent developments in Northern Ireland

Full Transcript:

This is a welcome opportunity to debate these issues in the context of what was a very happy day for all of us looking north, with the return of the Assembly, the restoration of the Executive and the decision of the DUP to re-enter power-sharing. It is fitting to congratulate Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly on their appointments as First Minister and deputy First Minister, respectively. It is something we all enjoyed viewing.

It was a good day for Irish politics and politics across these islands.

The Green Party, like Sinn Féin and People Before Profit, is an all-island party. For that reason, during the elections in 2020, I was up in Belfast, knocking on doors and canvassing. Unfortunately, no Green Party candidate was returned in that election and the Northern Ireland Assembly is much the poorer for that, but we will be back, I am sure. While I am no expert on Northern Irish politics, the sense I got from people I encountered on the doorsteps was clear and palpable. What they were looking for was for politicians to get on with it. They were looking for a politics that was going to work for the people. It is a straightforward demand from people who elect their Parliament or their representatives, that said Parliament or Assembly gets on with the work of governing in the way it should.

As I said, I am no expert on Northern politics and other people have raised issues that are specific to the context in the North but I want to focus on a number of cross-Border issues that occur to me. The education committee yesterday had a really useful exchange on North-South mobility among students. The numbers are really poor and are far lower than I would have expected. The OECD has done some very good work on this. In particular, the number of people from Northern Ireland who are travelling to the Republic for their university education is not where I would like it to be. There are several practical reasons for that, including the cost of accommodation and the timing of CAO applications but there was no real opportunity to tease out those when we did not have a functioning North-South Ministerial Council. At present tertiary education is not within the scope or remit of the North-South Ministerial Council and it was not possible to change those terms while there was no functioning Executive. This is something the chair of the education committee raised with the Tánaiste previously and finally we might see movement on it. We would all agree that having North-South student mobility can be only a good thing. It gives students more choice as well as helping to build connections and understanding from one jurisdiction to the other.

Zooming out a little and applying a wider lens, in the same conversation on North-South mobility for students one of the things identified was that the public transport systems do not speak to one another. For students in Donegal attending university in Derry, for example, or students from Dundalk travelling to Queen’s University, the challenge is that the transport systems do not talk to each other. That is because we have a transport Minister here in the Republic but we have not had a functioning Assembly. Our Minister has not had a counterpart to whom he could speak in the Northern Assembly. We saw that play out with the all-island rail review when we had to sit on that document for a long time simply because there was not a functioning Assembly in the North.

Another case in point is biodiversity and natural heritage, an obvious area where cross-Border co-operation can yield benefits. Only last week the Government here published the national biodiversity action plan but we know that nature does not recognise borders. The foxes in the fields, the starlings in the sky and the fish in the stream care not at all about which jurisdiction they are inhabiting. It would be far more beneficial to our natural world across this island if we moved to protect our biodiversity on an all-island basis.

Zooming out again, the recent developments have opened up an opportunity, as Deputies Lahart and Tully said earlier, to have a wider discussion on the future of all of the people living on this island. It is a pity, and I say this as a member of an all-island party, that many of us have allowed this conversation to be co-opted by Sinn Féin. I do not mean that as any criticism of Sinn Féin, but we have allowed the definition of a republican to become narrower than it should be in a constitutional republic. As I said, I am not criticising Sinn Féin because it is a core issue for that party, in the same way that nature, biodiversity and care for our shared environment is a core issue for the Green Party. Any debate is improved by participation and the wider that participation is, the more nuanced and reflective the debate is likely to be. We should reclaim the term republicanism and apply it more broadly. Rather than stepping away from the issue, we should lean into those conversations that are going to become more and more necessary in the decades to come.

When I think of the long term I am very influenced by the thinking of Professor Tadhg O’Mahony. I refer to his thinking in a more general sense, not specific to Northern Ireland. He says that if we are debating the decisions of today and tomorrow – we see this in the Chamber all of the time – then there is almost always disagreement. If we say that tomorrow we are going to do X, then in the normal push and pull of politics, somebody will find another point of view to put forward. However, if we apply a 50-year lens and we ask where we want to get to, very often a degree of consensus emerges around that longer-term vision. That means that on a cross-party basis and taking the long-term view, we can agree on where we want to get to and then work backwards. We can ask what steps we want to take to arrive there. I do not think saying things like a united Ireland is “within touching distance” is useful. It plays well to one community but there is another constituency in the North, in particular, that would be quite alienated by that kind of language. However, if we apply that 50-year lens, maybe all of the people living on this island would be able to find some sort of consensus in terms of what the future holds. Perhaps not, but it would be a more fruitful discussion than just thinking about today and tomorrow. If we apply that long-term thinking and begin from the point of a shared understanding and work backwards, what could we do? What could we apply that thinking to?

Deputy Tully spoke about Brexit. That is something we should learn from in the contrast because we do not want to repeat the mistakes of history. The Brexit proposition, which only narrowly got across the line – it is worth noting it did not have majority support in Northern Ireland – was nebulous. People woke up on the morning after the vote, realised they had Brexit and asked what it was going to look like. We do not want to be in that situation. We would all agree that the Brexit process has been shambolic, so let us not repeat that. If we can agree that a united Ireland is at least a prospect within the next 50 years, then surely it is prudent to begin the forward planning and to begin to figure out what we think that might look like. It would surely make far more sense to do that than to hold a referendum and then wake up in the morning and ask “What now?”. The challenges that prospect gives rise to are significant. The logistical, cultural, and political challenges would be very real. I spoke about education earlier. Think of the challenge involved in taking two education systems and working towards a point of convergence. That is, more than likely, a multi-year project and not just logistically. We would also have to think philosophically about what we want our education system to do. The same would apply in health, transport and every other sector of our society. While there are real challenges, there are real opportunities as well. For example, if we retained a devolved government in the North, if that is something the unionist tradition would like to have, what possibilities would that hold out for the reform of local or regional government in other parts of this country? If we had a re-empowered southern assembly, for example, that had actual powers, how beneficial could that be to our democracy in general?

A central question we have to address is how we view this process. Deputy Lahart spoke about this earlier. Are we talking about the 26-county Republic simply subsuming the Six Counties and making some sort of accommodation within its existing structures, laws and Constitution or do we take the opportunity to start again, to create a new Republic, developed together by all of the traditions on this island? What would that re-imagined Republic look like? How would we use that opportunity if it was handed to us? This is the much more exciting and inclusive possibility but we would certainly need to have the groundwork done.

That is not a possibility you can fully investigate if you wake up the morning after a referendum and ask yourself “what now?”. I very much welcome the recent positive developments in restoring the Executive in Northern Ireland. It is a clear response to those voters I met in 2022 who wanted their politics to work for their communities. We know that history does not stand still. In my view, we have a responsibility both North and South to look to the future, to apply that long-term lens and decide if this is something that we want as all traditions on this one island. If this is something we want, then let us begin the forward planning now so that when we wake up the morning after the night before, we are ready to move forward.