Good evening and welcome to the 80th Fine Gael Ard Fheis. The first to be held on-line.
Next time, as we embrace the ‘new normal’ post-pandemic, it will be hybrid with people attending in person and also joining us on-line. For now, a special welcome to everyone joining us from home.
A lot has happened since our last Ard Fheis. Brexit. A General Election. A pandemic. An historic coalition and a third successive term in Government for our party.
The theme for this conference is the ‘future’, an opportunity for us to discuss the Ireland we – the Fine Gael team – want to build after the pandemic is over.
So, I think it is fitting that we will start our programme tonight with a discussion on Northern Ireland and our future together.
Before I speak about that, I want to start with a few words of thanks – to Fiona O Connor and her colleagues on the Executive Council, to those on the Ard Fheis Sub Committee and to Headquarters staff who have worked so hard to prepare this event.
And I’d also like us to take this opportunity to remember some colleagues who we lost since we last met – Eddie Collins, Richie Ryan, John Browne, Liam Whyte, Terry Brennan, Tom O’Donnell, PJ Sheehan and his wife Frances. We also remember the many other former councillors, officers and members who have passed away.
So, Chairman, let’s turn now to the topic of the evening, Northern Ireland, and allow me start with a few words on the current dispute in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Fine Gael is a party that believes in free trade and multilateralism. We do not want and have never wanted any barriers to trade, North/South, between Britain & Ireland or between Britain & Northern Ireland. That’s why we, along with the majority of people and parties in Northern Ireland, opposed Brexit.
However, the decision to opt for a hard Brexit made it inevitable that checks and controls would have to happen somewhere and it is much better that these should take place at two or three ports and airports rather than at multiple border posts along 10 border counties.
There were alternatives, the UK staying in the customs union and single market, we said Yes to that.
A single customs territory as a default, the ‘backstop’, we said Yes to that too.
When all these were rejected, a Northern Ireland only solution, now known as the Protocol, was the only option and we said Yes to that too.
Under terms of the Agreement it can only be disapplied should the Northern Ireland Assembly vote to do so and there is no majority for that.
There should be no unilateral action either by London or Brussels. We fully appreciate the practical difficulties the Protocol has caused for some in Northern Ireland and disturbance it has caused for unionists.
We are also conscious, that the opponents of the Protocol, have not come forward with solutions that remove the need for checks while ensuring the single market is protected and our place in it is not undermined.
We remain committed to working through the European Union to find pragmatic solutions within the parameters of the Withdrawal Agreement. It can be done.
The vast majority of checks and controls can be removed if we all agree to maintain the same high standards when it comes to food and veterinary rules.
Ideology, pride nor nationalism, of any form, should not prevent us agreeing a solution. The consequences of failure for all of us are far too great.
With this in mind, I particularly want to recognise the role of our Deputy Leader Simon Coveney in ensuring that European unity remains solid and that the US administration is appraised of the situation.
Colleagues, a few years ago, I said that the tectonic plates were shifting in Northern Ireland. In the centenary year of its foundation, I believe that to be more true than ever.
The Assembly elections and the census tell us that in Northern Ireland there is no majority anymore. There are three minorities, one that defines itself as British and Unionist, another as Irish and Nationalist, and a third and growing middle ground, many born since the Good Friday Agreement, who refuse to be defined in this way. They see themselves as both Irish and British or perhaps simply Northern Irish.
What’s most revealing in opinion polls, even among the youngest voters, is that neither nationalist nor unionist parties have a majority due to this growing middle ground. It is one of the most encouraging things that has happened since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The future is not yet written and nothing is inevitable.
Delegates, I believe in the unification of our island and I believe it can happen in my lifetime.
It means the unification of the people of our island as well as territory of Ireland and it is a legitimate political aspiration. It is in our Constitution and is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement should a majority of people in the North and South vote for it.
The views of unionists must be acknowledged, understood and respected but no one group can have a veto on Ireland’s future.
We should be proud to say that unification is something we aspire to. It should be part of our mission as a Party to work towards it.
We can do so in many ways. First of all, we need to make sure that the Good Friday Agreement is working and working fully and that all of the institutions are functioning at their optimum level. While the North-South bodies and other institutions are operating I do not believe they are meeting their full potential. We can work on this.
As a Party, we need to increase our engagement with people and communities in the North. We can do this through our Northern Ireland Engagement Group under the leadership of Deputy Fergus O’Dowd.
As well as this, I believe we should establish a branch in Northern Ireland with the same status as a constituency organisation in our rules.
Not with a view to contesting elections, but with a view to recruiting members and building networks with liked-minded people including those in other parties. We need to reach out to all sides. And we need a presence on the ground to do so.
As Fine Gael Ministers we can advance the Government’s Shared Island Initiative through our departments;
- infrastructure projects like the Ulster Canal,
- cross border business parks,
- north/south research programmes and
We will also press for greater alignment, where it makes sense, on policies like minimum unit pricing for alcohol and improved workers’ rights.
I believe we as a party also need to develop our own vision of what unification should look like. We know the crude vision espoused by Sinn Féin, it’s not an inclusive one – a cold form of republicanism, socialist, narrow nationalism, protectionist, anti-British, euro-critical, ourselves alone, 50% plus one and nobody else is needed. That is not a 21st century vision.
Our vision should be different. It should be one that has the best chance of carrying the greatest number of people with us, North and South.
It should appeal in particular to that middle ground I spoke about earlier, to gain the support of people who identify as both British and Irish.
So, Unification must not be the annexation of Northern Ireland. It means something more, a new state designed together, a new constitution and one that reflects the diversity of a bi-national or multi-national state in which almost a million people are British. Like the New South Africa, a rainbow nation, not just orange and green.
We have to be willing to consider all that we’d be willing to change – new titles, shared symbols, how devolution in the North would fit into the new arrangements, a new Senate to strengthen the representation of minorities, the role and status of our languages, a new and closer relationship with the United Kingdom.
We also need to map out how we can take the best of both jurisdictions and apply them across Ireland as a whole, perhaps our welfare and pensions system, their NHS to give just two examples.
And also what might remain different, because unification is not assimilation, for example, perhaps education or maintaining two legal systems.
Until these questions are answered, until we have a clear proposition to put to the people on both parts of our island, then a border poll is premature.
But we have a duty to engage with each other and others to find answers these questions. And that is what we intend to do.
In looking for inspiration, we need only look at our own party’s history. To Griffith and Collins who negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty which envisaged a 32 county Free State, to Liam Cosgrave who negotiated Sunningdale and established the principle of cross-community power-sharing in the North and above all to Garret FitzGerald who took huge risks in adopting the principle of consent established the New Ireland Forum and secured a role for Ireland through the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
A hundred years ago, our party founded this State, and in the next century, I believe our party is best placed to unify our island.
I look forward to the debate.