Speech by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams MP MLA to the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Swansea today
“I want to begin by thanking the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly for the invitation to speak here today.
Over the years this Assembly, through its committees and plenary meetings, has created a context in which parliamentarians from Ireland and Britain are able to come together and discuss issues of mutual importance.
This Assembly especially allows TDs and MLAs, from the two elected bodies on the island of Ireland, to come together to discuss all-Ireland co-operation and related subjects.
While this institution, through the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, predates the Good Friday Agreement, there can be no doubt that the focus of much of your work is rooted in that agreement and the political institutions that emerged from it.
This is very important. The Good Friday Agreement is a unique document. It was born out of centuries of British involvement in Irish affairs. This resulted in conflict, communal division and sectarianism, the partition of the island of Ireland, the partition of Ulster, and the creation of a unionist dominated state in the north eastern part of our country.
Partition was not just a line on the map; it was the construction of a system of political apartheid which relied on discrimination and denied democracy and justice. Resolving the many complexities resulting from this was never going to be easy.
The Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement put in place mechanisms and arrangements which seek to do that.
These include political matters, institutional arrangements, human rights, equality, policing, justice, language and culture issues, as well as the crucial issue of constitutional matters – and it does all of this in an all-Ireland context.
These Agreements are also significant instruments of change – real change in real ways in peoples’ daily lives. For this reason elements of political unionism opposed to this new dispensation seek to minimise, to dilute and to delay its potential or to oppose it entirely.
So, the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement continue to face huge challenges, not least in the failure of the British government to fulfil its obligations, for example on Irish language rights.
But for the purpose of today’s remarks let me focus on the issue that has dominated politics from before partition: the constitutional issue; that is, the relationship between Ireland and Britain.
The Good Friday Agreement clearly sets out the political realities. It recognises that it is for the people of the island of Ireland to determine our own future – to exercise our self-determination. In the event that a majority of people in the north prefer a sovereign united Ireland then the British government will legislate for it.
The agreement also sets out the mechanism by which this will happen – by means of a ‘border poll’.
So, there you have it. The people living on the island of Ireland can determine our own future, and when a majority in the north and a majority in the south opt for Irish re-unification, the constitutional process to bring that about will kick in.
The Good Friday Agreement therefore provides for a constitutional route to Irish unity. That is a significant achievement.
Sinn Féin seeks to build on this by working in partnership with others of like mind in Ireland to build political support for Irish re-unification.
There is a particular responsibility for all parties in the Oireachtas – and particularly for the government in Dublin – to actively work for re-unification.
We have to persuade unionists – or at least a section of unionism – that such a development makes political, social and economic sense, that it serves their self-interest.
There is already a growing awareness of the importance to our future prosperity and growth of the all-Ireland economy and of all-Ireland connections in health, education, energy, the environment and much more. These are commonsense arrangements which must be built upon.
Sinn Féin is also currently engaged with unionists, and especially with disadvantaged unionist working class areas, to a greater extent than ever before. We need to address the genuine fears and concerns of unionists in a meaningful way.
We need to look at what they mean by their ‘sense of Britishness’ and be willing to explore and to be open to new concepts.
We need to look at ways in which the unionist people can find their place in a new Ireland.
In other words, it needs to be their united Ireland.
So there are many issues for republicans and unionists to talk about.
However, it is worth noting that within the current British system unionists are fewer than two per cent of the population. They cannot hope to have any significant say in the direction of their own affairs.
As twenty per cent of a new Ireland, unionists will be able to assert their full rights and entitlements and exercise real political power and influence.
So Sinn Féin’s vision of a new Ireland is of a shared Ireland; an integrated Ireland; an Ireland in which unionists have equal ownership; an Ireland in which there will be respect for cultural diversity, and a place in which there is political, social, economic and cultural equality.
There is no desire on the part of Irish republicans to conquer or humiliate unionists.
There can be no place for revenge in the thinking or vocabulary of Irish republicanism.
Nationalists and republicans want our rights, but we do not seek to deny the rights of anybody else.
The real distinction that we have always drawn is between justice and privilege – justice for all and privilege for none.
This means, for example, that Orange marches will have their place in a new Ireland – albeit on the basis of respect and co-operation.
But the ‘Irish question’, as it has been described over the years by some, is not simply one for the Irish.
There is not only a democratic requirement on the part of the peoples of Britain to adopt a positive stance on how the Irish question should be finally settled, there is a moral imperative.
It is one thing saying that unionists should not be frog-marched into a united Ireland. It is another to adopt the position of silence in the face of whether or not a united Ireland should come into being – in whatever negotiated form that will entail.
The peoples of Britain have a duty to themselves, to unionists in particular, to the Irish in general, and even to the world, to stand up and speak their opinion on the issue of the re-unification of Ireland.
I believe that the economic and political dynamics in Ireland today make Irish re-unification a realistic and realisable goal in a reasonable period of time.
I invite the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly to join in this historic endeavour.
We have to persuade the British government to change its policy from one of upholding the union to one of becoming a persuader for Irish unity.
This also involves persuading the other political representatives of the peoples of these islands – whether in Scotland or Wales or the North of England or London or the Isle of Man or Guernsey – that their interests are also served by helping the people of Ireland achieve re=unification.
There are also common sense economic and social and environmental and health and many other reasons why Irish re-unification makes sense over partition.
In reality, the border is more than just an inconvenience. It is an obstacle to progress, and while its adverse affects are most clearly felt in the communities that straddle the border it also impacts negatively throughout the island.
The reality is that the economy of the north is too small to exist in isolation. The economies of both parts of the island are interlinked and interdependent. The delivery of public services is restricted and inefficient.
There are two competing industrial development bodies seeking inward investment, with no coordination in supporting local industries. We have two arts councils and two sports councils and three tourists’ bodies. This is not efficient.
There are some who suggest that because we live in a period of severe economic difficulty that Irish re-unification should be put off for the foreseeable future.
In fact the opposite is the case.
There is now a need, more than ever, for the island economy to be brought into being in the fullest sense and for the political and administrative structures to be instituted with that in mind. Many in the business community, north and south, already recognise this fact.
And all the indications are that the European Union also understands how the needs of Ireland can best be met by treating it as an island rather than as two entities on an island.
Geography does not necessarily determine politics, but neither can it be ignored in assessing what is the most effective approach to meeting the challenges of economic development and satisfying the needs of communities.
The Good Friday agreement is an opportunity to develop understanding and to advocate rationally the benefits of Irish re-unification. The institutional elements of the Good Friday Agreement and of St. Andrews are therefore important mechanisms to be built upon.
The Good Friday Agreement also proposed the establishment of an All-Ireland Civic Forum and an All-Ireland Parliamentary Forum.
An All-Ireland Civic Forum could offer a very important input for citizens throughout the island to discuss problems of a common nature. It could also enable a greater level of mutual understanding to develop.
As for an All-Ireland Parliamentary Forum, the important work of this body provides ample evidence of the benefits that would derive from the establishment of such a body.
So, my friends, if I was to reduce all of these remarks to one sentence, it would be to repeat what I have said earlier: there is a democratic requirement and moral imperative on the part of the peoples of Britain to adopt a positive stance on how the Irish question should be finally settled.
This means initiating and supporting measures to bring about the re-unification of the people of Ireland.”