On Monday 13 February I travelled to Cork for the latest in a series of Brexit Response meetings held by Fine Gael. I shared a panel with An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Dr. Mary Murphy from University College Cork.
Over 500 people packed into the Clayton Silversprings Hotel in Cork to hear how the Irish Government intends to tackle the significant challenges that Brexit presents. I delivered a speech which touched on the issues for Northern Ireland-implications of Brexit for the border, business and the need to safeguard the principle of consent enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
There was an in-depth question and answer session during which the audience put their questions to the panel. Many people were concerned at what Brexit might mean for their jobs and the future opportunities of their children.
It is clear that Ireland’s place in the European Union is more important now than it ever was. The EU Referendum vote in Britain will pose significant challenges for the entire Island of Ireland and we must tackle these challenges together.
Please find below the speech I made on Monday night.
Cork, Speech on Brexit, Monday 13 February, 7pm
I strongly advocated and campaigned for a vote to remain within the EU. Long before the 23 June 2016 I had a nightmare that we would sleep walk out of Europe. Unfortunately my worst fears came true and we have been dealing with the fallout and uncertainty of the outcome ever since.
I salute the Taoiseach and many of his colleagues for attempting to unpick much of the uncertainty through the excellent and engaging All-Island Dialogue which took place on November 2 last year. I look forward to attending the upcoming session on Friday (17 February) as we continue to find a way to navigate through the choppy seas of Brexit.
Europe and Peace
In the aftermath of last June’s result I led a delegation to Brussels to meet with a range of MEPs and key thinkers in Brussels. Many were depressed, in shock, despairing and uncertain about the future.
The one time I saw a spark of interest was when I mentioned the unique and outstanding contribution the EU had made to securing and sustaining peace in Northern Ireland. People lit up when I referenced just what some of the EU peace monies did to transform our region. It is clear that Northern Ireland is seen as the Jewel in the crown of the EU and we must invoke that special relationship in these perilous times.
I have never pretended that the European Union was perfect or that it does not need reform—even radical reform—but the EU has delivered for Northern Ireland. It helped to deliver parity of esteem and prosperity for all sides of our community, and it has helped to bring peace in difficult times.
European investment and access to the single market has done so much in the past 25 years to remake my city, Belfast. It is a world-leading city that faces the 21st century, having had a difficult 20th century, not least because of the hard work of hundreds of people who came to Belfast from across Europe to work and contribute positively to our society, and to help to build a better economy, in the process building prosperity. In my South Belfast Constituency I was proud that 70% of my constituents voted to remain in the EU, with a 70% turnout.
Peace in Northern Ireland culminated in the Belfast Agreement, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South, had at its heart the principle of consent and was underpinned by a presumption of membership of the EU by Ireland and Britain. The EU is also referenced in the agreement in relation to the competence of the North South Ministerial Council.
Last week in the House of Commons my SDLP colleagues and I strongly advocated that there should be a commitment by Parliament that Brexit should not be allowed to undermine the Belfast Agreement or its provisions. Just as those who would argue that the EU referendum result needs to be respected, those same people need to respect the fact that the people of Ireland overwhelmingly endorsed the Belfast Agreement and its terms.
Our fears will not be alleviated by clichéd platitudes from the Prime Minister and Secretary of State that there will be no return to the borders of the past-we need much more certainty than that, particularly when our peace and security is in the balance. With 30,000 people crossing the Irish border every day for work we need effective coordination between Dublin, London, Belfast and Brussels to sustain reasonable access to their livelihoods.
Leaving the Customs Union would necessitate customs checks and therefore restrictions on travel at the Irish border. We need to look at an option of Northern Ireland having a “Special Customs” status whereby it is treated as within the Customs Union for goods/services travelling solely within the island of Ireland. There is a precedent for this in the German town of Büsingen which is treated as part of Switzerland for customs purposes. It is essential to our small businesses trading across the border that we remain within the Customs Union and to our exporters that we remain within the Single Market.
Any future British-EU treaty must uphold the principle of consent inherent in the Belfast Agreement, which allows a democratic route to a United Ireland if the majority of people in Northern Ireland desire it. In the case of such a referendum taking place, there must be no uncertainty around Northern Ireland’s direct admission to the EU as a consequence of a vote for a United Ireland.
Role of Europe
My SDLP colleagues were proud to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in the commons two weeks ago and we are determined to fight for the best deal for Northern Ireland. With the current imbalance in the Conservative Party and the continuing turmoil in the Labour Party we will be looking to you, our neighbours in the South to support us. Europe also has a crucial role to play.
Our relationship with our neighbours in Europe is more important now than it ever was. In August of this year I was invited to speak at the ‘Digital Day’ of the Inter-Celtic Festival in Lorient, France. I was struck by the French people’s interest in the unique circumstances of people living in Northern Ireland and had an insight into just how much Europe values one of the jewels in its crown-peace in Northern Ireland.
At the festival I met the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain and other French Assembly members who were very concerned about the impact a British withdrawal from Europe will mean for the wider European family. Off the back of these conversations Paul Molac, a French Assembly member invited me to address the French Assembly on 8 November for a debate on Brexit. This debate was packed and again underlined the intense interest in the predicament of Ireland, both North and South in light of Brexit.
Two crucial dates loom large on the horizon. In June 2019 we have the European Election and July 2020 sees the end of the current budget and the start of the new budget. So realistically we are facing three to four years of uncertainty and instability.
So what is the role for the European Union during this period of uncertainty? Europe needs to reassure many people who are feeling insecure and frightened about their future prospects. The EU must address;
- The disentangling of Britain from the EU
- Negotiating a new relationship between Britain and the EU
- Re-working a new Europe which is in sync with people’s needs and expectations
What I am doing
The Independent Council on Europe has been meeting over the last couple of months. I was keen to set up such a body in the aftermath of the EU Referendum result. I did so because of the amount of anger and anxiety constituents displayed at a number of public meetings I hosted in South Belfast and beyond. The Council is made up of people from the business, voluntary, community and political world who are determined to get the best deal for Northern Ireland following the EU Referendum result on 23 June of this year.
Steve Aiken MLA, former CEO of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce Chairs the Council, Ian Parsley, Head of the European Movement NI is Vice-Chair and I hold the position of the other Vice-Chair. In 2017 the Council intends to hold a number of seminars on the sectors that will be impacted most by Brexit and try to identify what we can do to mitigate the worst aspects of Brexit for people living in Northern Ireland. We also intend to visit Brussels shortly.
We will continue to do all we can to promote special recognition for Northern Ireland as a European Place of Global Peace-Building. From Brussels, London, Dublin and Belfast there is a duty of care to protect and safeguard the Northern Irish Peace Process, to ensure good relations between the UK, Ireland and the EU and to promote international peace-building in these extremely challenging times.