By any objective measure this is an exceptionally serious moment for Northern Ireland, for North/South relations and for relations with the United Kingdom.
The core building block for twenty years of progress is endangered and there remains a threat of new economic and social divisions.
The breakdown of three weeks’ ago is not an isolated event. It is the logical conclusion of practices over a lengthy period and the additional instability of the disastrous decision in an English-driven referendum. Because we have been denied a full debate on Brexit negotiations in recent weeks, I will address this issue later in this statement.
The specific issue which appears to have been the cause of the failure to agree to establish an Executive is dramatically smaller than the long list of issues which have been overcome in the past.
It is not in the same universe as getting the Agreement in place in the first place, getting the armed wings of political movements to decommission, establishing a police service with cross-community support, achieving the devolution of policing powers – or many other much more intractable problems.
There is simply no way of avoiding the fact that the cycle of dysfunction and breakdown which we have been pointing out for years now is the cause of this crisis. And only when the underlying problems are addressed will we be able to deal with it.
The draft agreement which was leaked to the media has not been confirmed by either government and it is not sure that either government actually has a full copy of it. However it appears to be a reasonable and balanced compromise. In it Sinn Fein completely reverses its position on the core issue which it cited when collapsing the institutions. This is welcome.
Where once the Heating Initiative and Arlene Foster were so fundamental that the Executive and Assembly had to be brought down, now they are barely worth a mention.
I can certainly believe that an agreement between the two parties at negotiator level was blocked subsequently by the DUP’s wider leadership. In this it is quite similar to the situation when an agreement reached by the late Martin McGuinness was blocked by the wider Sinn Fein leadership. The game of claim and counter claim then was just as loud.
Fundamentally, the DUPs objections are worse than flawed, they are based on a refusal to address what is an important issue in the broader agenda of respect for diverse backgrounds. The procedure of three acts representing one overall policy is highly convoluted.
However, the net effect of what is being proposed is a reasonable accommodation, which respects the Irish language and actually strengthens the distinct tradition of Ulster Scots. If subject to a balanced legislative process and implemented without sectarian intent, it has the capacity to take this issue away from the political sphere.
Is dona an mhaise go bhfuil an Ghaeilge tarraingthe isteach i lár easaontais i mBéal Feirste le roinnt blianta. Tá sé sin ag imeacht go mór ó spiorad Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta agus comhaontuithe eile ina dhiaidh sin nuair a bhí Fianna Fáil páirteach go díreach sna cainteanna sin. Chreideamar riamh gur bealach é cultúr agus teanga le hathmhuintearas a chothú idir traidisiúin éagsúla seachas deighilt a chothú.
Is mian liom a rá freisin nuair a bhí mise ag bunú coiste reachtúil chun maoirsiú a dhéanamh ar ábhar a chur ar fáil do scoileanna Lán-Ghaeilge gur chuir Sinn Féin in iúl dom go raibh siad i gcoinne obair an pháirtí a cheangal leis an ngné uile-Éireann.
It is appalling that Irish has been allowed to become seen as a sectarian issue. This goes against the reality of a history where Irish was absolutely not a means of dividing people. The Church of Ireland produced the first printed book in Irish. For centuries Protestants have been key leaders in every stage of the protection of the memory of Gaelic traditions, including the language revival.
My first visit to Northern Ireland as a Minister was to look at Irish-medium education in West Belfast and to discuss additional supports for teacher training to serve Irish-medium education. I also made funding available for supporting Irishlanguage teaching materials which could be shared with schools in Northern Ireland.
Nothing approaching the current party political divide was present at the time.
The offensive and sectarian statements which some DUP politicians have made about Irish are reflective of a dramatic move backwards. While the recent speech of Arlene Foster was temperate and encouraging, the aggressive pushback against a simple piece of legislation should lead that party to reflect more.
To be fair, it is true that the comment of the last Sinn Fein leader that the equality agenda is “the Trojan horse of the republican movement” has caused immense long-term damage. However he did not speak for the overwhelming majority of people and those comments are no excuse for blocking this legislation.
It must also be said that the use of petitions of concern to block marriage equality is a clear abuse of a process which was purely designed to protect legitimate community interests. The idea that it can be used to prevent people from getting married is offensive – and we would certainly support any reasonable agreement which delivered marriage equality through overriding the illegitimate use of the petition of concern.
This said, it remains the fact that should these issues be overcome there will be another issue along sometime soon which may lead to a similar breakdown. This is because unless we change the fundamental dynamic of discussions and engagement or the cycle of crisis, resolution, complacency and renewed crisis will continue.
This is the fundamental challenge – how do we stop simply doing the same thing again and again? How do we return to the dynamic which previously had delivered major breakthroughs and which had broad support in all parts of this island and in Britain?
Of course this situation has been made dramatically more difficult by the impact of the appalling Brexit process, but this does not mean that we should simply throw our hands in the air and give up on the Northern institutions. The strength and importance of the Good Friday Agreement is the reason why Ireland has any real status in the Brexit negotiations and we have to expect that the some destructive Brexiteers will increase their pressure to undermine the Agreement.
Let no one be in any doubt, a unilateral movement by the British government to abrogate the Agreement would be a very dark moment in their history. It is an international agreement, assented to through referendums and parliamentary ratification.
It is reflected in the domestic laws of both countries and acknowledged by international organisations. Nothing in their Brexit referendum gives them the right to abandon the Agreement – and to do so would mark a dramatic move away from the rule of law and destroy the UK’s international status.
Democratic states which respect laws do not unilaterally abrogate solemn agreements.
Prime Minister May again last week stated that she is absolutely committed to the Agreement. Let us take her at her word and act accordingly.
The first thing that is required is that we re-establish some form of credible partnership with London as leaders of the peace process – not just guarantors and participants.
As part of a wider tetchiness, the Tánaiste and Taoiseach appear to be outraged at the idea that anyone should question them or the approach of their party towards the peace process in government. The Tánaiste in particular seems to believe that anyone who questions him “doesn’t know what they are talking about”.
Let me make this very simple, no one has the right to question our good faith in relation to Northern Ireland. For seven straight years we have been pointing to the inevitability of reaching this crisis point if the governments did not change their behaviour. We would much rather have talked about how great the progress was. But the facts simply did not support this.
The current government does not appear to understand the difference between the number of meetings you hold and the level of engagement. The fact is that no one can credibly claim that the scale and quality of engagement has been anything near what it was under the Ahern/Blair or Cowen/Brown leaderships.
A critical difference then was that there was no negotiating over the airwaves and there was no obsession with briefing before and after every contact. There is no comparable example of the fiasco of the visit of the Taoiseach and Prime Minister to Belfast which appears to have actually accelerated the breakdown.
Having in the past participated in relations between our government and the unionist parties, it is disappointing to see the current palpable lack of trust.
We have gone from a situation where I was allowed chair a Strand One session to one where key parties refuse to even attend a meeting with the Taoiseach.
Equally we have been too silent at the near systematic exclusion of nearly 45% of the Northern electorate from representation in talks.
I am surprised at the lack of self-reflection which we have seen from the Taoiseach and Tánaiste in terms of identifying failed dynamics in recent years and also how unhelpful it is that media briefing and statements are now so central to dialogue.
This is Deputy McDonald’s first participation in these statements as leader of her party. In the past her predecessor adopted the approach of angrily refuting the idea that Sinn Fein had any case to answer on any issue. High Court finding of sectarian behaviour, media revelations of funding abuses, sectarian comments about getting one over on the Protestants and so on were ignored but instead we got ever more elaborate attacks on the motivation of people asking the questions. I hope Deputy Macdonald will take a different approach.
The draft agreement does show serious movement in Sinn Fein’s position. If it had adopted a similar position a year and a half ago the Northern institutions would never have been collapsed.
I respect the right of any party to say that it will not go to Westminster. What is unjustifiable is the decision to block anyone else from going. The money and effort which was put into preventing any nationalist voice in Westminster, even to the extent of handing a seat to the DUP, may soon have a disastrous effect for Ireland if only a few votes are involved in rejecting a fair Customs solution for the Border.
However the Northern Institutions are quite different. At a moment when the radical Brexiteers are trying to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, the failure to have a working Assembly and Executive makes Ireland even more vulnerable. Given that Deputy Adams said that Brexit is the defining challenge of this age, allowing the Institutions to be re-established should surely be the priority?
The governments can surely come up with a mechanism for delivering the language legislation – which was in any event originally due to be legislated for in London. The same applies for marriage equality – with both Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party willing to ensure that non-government time is provided if needed.
A unilateral decision by Sinn Fein to return to the Assembly and Executive, even for a limited period, could dramatically change the dynamic of Brexit discussions. It would allow the anti-Brexit majority in Northern Ireland to have a voice and to provide the practical mechanisms which would be essential for any special economic or customs zone to function.
That is the hard reality – no backstop, or special zone can work without a devolved government in Northern Ireland.
What we can’t do is to keep pushing ahead with the same strategy and hope that things turn out differently.
My party believes that the governments should take direct charge. They should revert to the independently-chaired, all-party process and stop leaving everything in the hands of the two parties.
Whatever is wrong with the relations between the governments, there is a problem and they should acknowledge it.
The enormous agenda which is ahead of us is becoming more urgent by the day.
Whatever Brexit scenario becomes the final one will require huge work – ranging from a special economic zone up to the chaotic Brexit which the increasingly frantic hyper-nationalists in England appear attracted to.
The path of peace has involved overcoming enormous hurdles. The spirit of cooperation and common objectives – built in hundreds of contacts away from the media – delivered for this country. We urgently need a return to that spirit.