Queen's University speech

Below is the speech I delivered at Queen’s University on Thursday 11 November 2021.

Thank you, Professor English, for that introduction. And may I take this opportunity to welcome you to your new post?

I am the first Labour woman to do this job since the incomparable Mo Mowlam, so I know how Richard feels about having big shoes to fill. But I also know that your deep expertise and extensive experience will stand you in very good stead at the helm of this important Institute.

Northern Ireland is at perhaps the most critical point since Senator Mitchell signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. So, today, I want to address the peace process and its current threats.

I will say how I believe we should navigate them and outline the steps we need to take to reinvigorate the values that helped achieve peace 23 years ago.

This Institute is a perfect place to address this. The Northern Ireland peace process serves as an example for reconciliation and conflict resolution the world over. Yet while others around the world continue to learn from us, it feels like we have forgotten these lessons at home.

On the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Senator Mitchell reflected:

“On the day that I announced the agreement, I said it was an historic achievement — which it was.

“But I also said on that day that by itself the agreement did not guarantee peace, political stability or reconciliation.

 “There would be difficult decisions down the road for other leaders.”

Those words continue to ring loud and clear. Progress could never be assured simply through the passage of time. The agreement represents principles and relationships that need to be nurtured and renewed, time and again.

It feels to me that something of this has been lost in the intervening years. So the spirit of reconciliation that led to that historic agreement in 1998 must be rekindled.

When difficulties arise in Northern Ireland, it has always been the role of a responsible British government to show its leadership, by convening the parties and helping to rebuild bridges.

We don’t have a responsible government in Westminster that is capable of or interested in doing this at present. In fact, the lack of responsibility from this government towards Northern Ireland is breath-taking.

But the Labour Party has always taken our responsibility seriously. It was a Labour Government that helped negotiate the Belfast Agreement in 1998 – and we continue to take our responsibilities and commitments to Northern Ireland seriously in opposition.

So it is in the spirit of responsible leadership and our enduring commitment that I am delighted to have brought together all five main parties – alongside voices from the trade unions, women’s movement, LGBTQI+ communities, business leaders and civic society – to contribute to a publication on their hopes for Northern Ireland.

Many are of a new generation of politicians, leaders and activists. Whatever the differences, many of them profound, within that collection is a collective hope for a better future, and an undoubted optimism that Northern Ireland is in desperate need of today.

Because these are fractious and painful times for Northern Ireland. The prolonged and deep effects of austerity have undermined public services and held back social justice.

Political dysfunction has left power-sharing in a fragile state. And, of course, Brexit – and the way it has been mishandled – has been a seismic shock to the community.

It has reopened old divisions of identity and belonging that the Good Friday Agreement had rendered secondary to achieving peace and prosperity. Trust in the UK Government – an essential foundation of peace – has collapsed across all communities. Their reckless custody of the Good Friday Agreement has sewn division and undermined stability.

This is not a partisan point, nor one that gives me any satisfaction. Peace in Northern Ireland is too precious to be a plaything of partisan politics. The Labour Party recognises and pays tribute to the work done by John Major, who helped lay the ground for the Good Friday Agreement.

But we cannot ignore the damage that has been done. At the time of Good Friday, Senator Mitchell said: “The most difficult obstacle to overcome is the lack of trust.

It is hard won and easy to lose. Over recent years, that trust has been lost by a Conservative government more concerned about protecting its own political self-interest than acting in the national interest.

Northern Ireland has become little more than an arena in which Boris Johnson can indulge in an endless, public conflict with the EU, to try to mask his disastrous mishandling of Brexit.

And if reports are to be believed, Boris Johnson is about to take another huge risk with stability. With tension rising in Northern Ireland and a cost of living crisis across the whole of the UK – the last thing this place needs is more poisonous instability and the prospect of a damaging trade dispute with our nearest trading partners.

Because we have seen the damage this approach is doing. It is bringing the poison of division back to Northern Ireland.

Nationalists pitted against unionists. The EU against the UK. Corralling people to take sides. We know the dangers of that path. And that will never be the path to a sustainable solution.

That’s why jobs, stability and livelihoods in Northern Ireland depends on the EU and UK finding a deal in the days and weeks ahead. And the voice of Northern Ireland is increasingly clear – communities and businesses want a deal that lowers the barriers that the Prime Minister created.

Communities know that invoking Article 16 would not solve these problems. It would not end this dispute or this uncertainty – it would prolong and deepen them both. And it would have a chilling effect on foreign direct investment. People and businesses are pragmatic – they want solutions, not a stand-off.

So the government must not ventriloquise for people and for communities who they have shown little understanding of. I have heard and understood the concerns over the Protocol. – throughout all of the last year, I have been demanding solutions to lower barriers and make it easier for businesses to trade.

The principle of consent – that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland cannot be changed without the explicit approval of the people of Northern Ireland – has not been removed.

But I understand the concerns around the democratic deficit.

That must be addressed and we must navigate a way forward. Not in confrontation, but in partnership with the EU. Any other approach is unsustainable.

That’s why I have called on the UK and EU to bring Northern Ireland’s leaders and communities into the process to speak for themselves. It is simply untenable for a government in Westminster, that few in Northern Ireland trust, to decide the future of communities who are excluded from the room.

To say to the people of Northern Ireland – this is what we’ve decided: take it or leave it.

Northern Ireland must be involved in these talks and in the huge decisions being made about their future. Remember what is at stake in the days ahead, remember what we have to lose and remember that a deal must first and foremost be secured in the interests of the people and communities of Northern Ireland.

But we have to be honest about something else too – the divisions created by Brexit and the Protocol have been exacerbated because the promise of the Good Friday Agreement has not been realised – and because Northern Ireland is not a reconciled society.  Crises like these – both genuine and manufactured – will continue to deepen divisions here until Northern Ireland is truly reconciled.

I know, and you know, that people want progress, not division.

On Sunday, I was privileged to attend the premiere of Lyra – the extraordinary documentary about Lyra McKee – an extraordinary journalist, who was dedicated to telling the truth about the reality of life in Northern Ireland – and who, while she was on the streets of Derry doing her job, became the 160th conflict-related murder victim since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Lyra wrote powerfully about the suicides of the Ceasefire Babies.

Of how the inter-generational trauma of violence had seeped into the lives and the mental health of those who had never directly experienced the conflict. Of how those who should have reaped the greatest benefits from the peace were taking their own lives in a society still riven by grief. She wrote that “Northern Ireland is a beautiful tragedy, strangled by the chains of its past and its present.”

So, if we truly mean it when we say there should be no more deaths like Lyra’s – Then we all face an urgent challenge to make this place work. There are no alternatives than the bedrock of peace – to share power, and build a shared future. Anyone suggesting that there are viable alternatives is not being honest or realistic.

No matter the future for Northern Ireland there is no alternative than to genuinely share this place and to make it work for everyone. This will demand the courage and leadership that our predecessors demonstrated in bucketloads.

Leaders like Austin Currie who we last this week. Who took countless risks for the sake of peace and power-sharing. If we think the challenges we face now are insurmountable, let us reflect on the courage people like Austin showed and the sacrifices they made. In the absence of that courage today, there are those who are too eager to drift towards the siren calls of populism – of boycott and rejection – rather than steer a much braver course on reconciliation.

Such approaches will not tackle the issues that people face in their everyday lives:

  • Unacceptable health waiting lists.
  • Insufficient school places.
  • The housing crisis.

The scourge of paramiltarism and its coercive control over entire communities. And the silent epidemic of domestic abuse. We all know that these can only be tackled, hand-in-hand with reconciliation.

But there are those who believe that now is not the time to take forward that shared future – that the unfinished work of peace is too difficult, Northern Ireland too divided, the path ahead insurmountable – that the institutions have run their course and the principle of power sharing no longer can or should apply.

I profoundly disagree. In fact, the real danger, 23 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, is of “going round and round in circles, with one foot pinned to the floor”. That is why it is now high time we bring the people back into the process.

In this, I think back to the work of Mo Mowlam. She built relationships with community and women’s groups – the grass roots. She recognised that, ultimately, it was the people, not the politicians, who would push things forward.

That’s why we must urgently establish a Citizens’ Assembly to reach consensus on delivering the unfulfilled promise of peace – particularly on building a shared future, on reconciliation, on integrated education and housing.

There is a new generation coming of age in Northern Ireland.  They, like me, grew up after peace.

They want the promise of a shared society that John Hume and David Trimble imagined. They want, as Lyra McKee wanted, “a better life”.

There is overwhelming public support for integration – shared housing and education. What we lack – what they lack – is the mechanism to drive it forward. I believe a properly designed Citizens’ Assembly – as outlined but not delivered in New Decade, New Approach – could be the vehicle to do this.

It would be representative of the wider population by gender, age, race and community background. It would be properly facilitated with recommendations reached by secret ballot.

The results would be reported to the Northern Ireland Assembly. There will, of course, be doubters.

But I believe the evidence shows those doubts are misplaced. When it was trialled here, it received overwhelmingly positive feedback.  92% of those who took part agreed that their fellow participants respected what they had to say, even when their opinions differed.

And 65% of people in Northern Ireland said it would be a good way to make decisions on difficult outstanding issues. At the heart of this idea is one goal – to end the cycle of failure that has held back a shared society.

I believe the people can help do that. The echoes of 1998 are there. In the months leading up to that historic agreement, Mo Mowlam recognised that the real division in Northern Ireland wasn’t between communities – but between the many who wanted progress, and the few who didn’t.

The same is true today. Support for the Belfast Agreement among the people remains strong. They need to be brought back into the process, a process from which they have been shut out for too long.

Today’s politics too often seems fractious. There is a danger that the voices of division drown out the many who want to build something positive here. In October the great Irish Poet, Brendan Kennelly died.

He said:

“Though we live in a world that dreams of ending that always seems about to give in something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin.”

This moment demands that our generation begin again, matching the courage and leadership shown by John Hume, David Trimble and Mo Mowlam.  It demands the British government rediscover its responsibility, put aside the politics of division and commit to bringing people together in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland.

And it requires the people to be brought back inside once more, so that we can truly build the inclusive, shared institutions that they were promised. It requires all of us to recommit ourselves and to rekindle the spirit of 1998.

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