Now is the Time to Develop a New Agenda for Northern Ireland
 

Twenty one years ago an agreement was reached about a shared future for all traditions on this island.

It provided a mechanism to solve constitutional issues.

It insisted on equality and respect.

It guaranteed inclusive government.

And most of all it offered hope not just for the end of violence but for a new era of prosperity.

Every piece of progress achieved then and since then has rested on foundations put in place by democrats determined to challenge even the toughest of problems.

Progress was not achieved by accepting current limits – but by looking for a new agenda.

The achievements of the Good Friday Agreement have been immense and deserve to be celebrated.

Unfortunately the reality is that today there is a deep and pervasive crisis which is causing far too many people to lose faith in politics and to believe that progress is impossible.  This is a crisis which has been made worse by Brexit but has been steadily growing for most of the last decade.

It is over two years since the main institutions of the Agreement were collapsed.  Northern Ireland has been left without a voice at the very moment that its future is at the centre of international debate for the first time in two decades and its elected representatives have no say as cuts to essential services are being implemented.

The simple fact is that today Northern Ireland has no credible agenda for its economic development, for tackling entrenched poverty and for breaking the cycle of tension and mistrust.

Over the past seven years I and other Fianna Fáil representatives have been consistent in pointing to the likelihood of a destructive deadlock and the threat which this posed to the progress which was being taken for granted.

The combination of a highly partisan duopoly in Stormont and disengaged governments could end up in no other way than the dead-end crisis which even they can no longer deny.

Northern Ireland remains the least developed region on these islands. It contains pockets of entrenched poverty which receive no serious assistance for development.

Sinn Fein and the DUP took us from a situation where there was genuine public enthusiasm about devolved government, to one where the public has grown cynical about institutions which, when actually working, have been characterised by secrecy and lack of accountability.

The North/South dimension, agreed in 1998 as a potential driver of shared growth and improved services was reduced to occasional photo-opportunities for ministers while a proposal for expanding North/South bodies is late by eight years.

And from Dublin and London there has been a clearly failed policy of “just let them get on with it” which ignored the fundamental role which the governments had played in achieving progress.

Finally, added to this has been Brexit – an issue which has taken Europe from being a force for unity in Northern Ireland to a divisive and sectarian one with the largest parties using it to promote their own priorities and not those of the people.

We believe that it is the duty of all who seek to represent the people to try and find a new way forward and not to accept that this destructive cycle will continue.

It was against this background that a discussion was begun a year ago with the SDLP about how we could cooperate.

In the dramatic breakthroughs of the 1990s and the following years our two parties played the central role in promoting a unified vision for democratic republicanism on this island.

Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern, John Hume and Seamus Mallon – as well as many others – kept their eye on the prize of a shared vision for peace and progress between Irish people of all traditions.

In the face of frequent abuse in the early stages of the peace process and at critical points later on, their cooperation delivered not just a new agenda but, as Seamus Mallon so powerfully put it, a new dispensation not just for Northern Ireland but for Ireland as a whole.

Fianna Fáil and the SDLP have shared much and have achieved much over the years. So it was obvious that we should discuss ways that we might work together at this time of crisis.

The focus of our discussions has, at all stages been on how to develop a new agenda for Northern Ireland and for Ireland as a whole.  There is a desperate need to shift the focus away from an obsession with who holds power and onto the much more important issue of what is done with that power.

In our discussions we shared our analysis of the current state not just of politics in Northern Ireland and the island as a whole but the social, economic and cultural impact of the dead-end we have reached in the last two years.

We shared our joint understanding of the need for a new agenda which rebuilds basic trust in the idea that progress can be achieved for all parts of our society.

Within Fianna Fáil I have had ongoing conversations with our members and representatives about our priorities.

There is overwhelming pride in our tradition as a party which has been willing to seek new ways forward, from Lemass’ visit to Stormont up to the breakthroughs of the Reynolds, Ahern and Cowen years.  They want to see this tradition renewed by responding to the challenges of this moment as ambitiously as we did to those of the past.

There is also overwhelming admiration for the SDLP for its bravery, vision and leadership at critical moments – for the fact that in the face of dramatic odds it has remained a powerful voice for a nationalist and republican vision of our future.

It is a non-sectarian party which has proven time and again that it puts people before politics.

Its heroes are our heroes.

That is why we are very happy to agree the partnership which is being announced today.

Our absolute focus will be on trying to reinvigorate the agenda for shared peace and prosperity on this island.

Through a programme of joint working groups, research and public engagement we will work together on proposing alternatives for critical issues.

Obviously Brexit will be the first priority.  Under the best possible scenario we will be entering into two or more years of discussions about Northern Ireland’s relationship with the EU.

The backstop is, as EU leaders keep saying, not a permanent solution yet no one appears to have been working on a permanent solution.

Fianna Fáil members of the Oireachtas and SDLP elected representatives will begin their work within weeks.

And then we will look to widen the agenda into vital issues of common concern.  Economic development in Northern Ireland and the Border region needs a new approach because current policies are manifestly not working.

We need a new agenda for social protection, shared services, North/South bodies and many other areas, and this work will be progressed.

At all stages this work will reach out to people of different traditions and none.

I think it is important to say that during our time in office Fianna Fáil showed an unmatched ability to talk to people across communities.

We have never for one moment stepped away from our core belief that a united and republican future is the best way of serving the interests of all who live on this island – but equally we have shown how it is possible to disagree on this while working together on other issues.

Unlike another party which has done so much to despoil the proud name of Irish republicanism, we don’t see equality and mutual-respect as a “Trojan Horse” it is an unmoveable value.

This is a partnership which will be shaped by our members and will be focused on substance.

At this dangerous moment we simply cannot just accept business as usual.  We must accept that there is a deep crisis and a new way forward must be plotted.

A new agenda which responds to the needs of the people of all parts of this island – which can show that we don’t just have to accept the permanent cycle of partisanship, underdevelopment and crisis – is urgently needed.

I am proud of the fact that our parties have agreed to share this work and I look forward to its impact in the months and years ahead.