Belfast solicitor Niall Murphy organised the Beyond Brexit conference at the Waterfront Hall on Saturday, this is part of his speech to the audience…
What has motivated everyone here to travel to Belfast today is our concerns about the future amidst the political turmoil in Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels.
For many inside, and many more outside this room, who have lived through, or were born into political conflict in Ireland, we collectively invested our future hopes and aspirations in the Good Friday Agreement and it being implemented and thereby open up a new chapter in the history of Ireland.
The conviction of wider nationalist, democratic and progressive opinion in 1998 was that the GFA would ensure a break with the past and guarantee us and future generations peace, guaranteed rights, equality and respect in an Ireland which continued to democratically transform itself.
Nearly twenty-one years on, the GFA has still not been fully implemented. Some sections of political unionism still oppose its very existence. Many of the political fault lines within our politics and society remain unresolved. Our hard-won peace process and its political architecture have too often been taken for granted. We may have peace, but we have not seen enough progress.
When over 200 Irish citizens from the north signed an open letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in December 2017 it came at the end of a tumultuous and politically defining year.
That January the Good Friday Agreement political institutions collapsed amidst the political and financial scandal of RHI. It served to confirm the growing view of northern nationalists that political unionism was not committed to proper power-sharing through the denial and refusal of equality, rights and respect towards the section of the community to which we belong, rights such as: access to justice; marriage equality: language rights.
It would seem that there can be no regulatory alignment on this island, and Bangor must be as British as Finchley, unless you are gay and want to be married or seek to live a life through the medium of Irish with statutory protection.
This contempt mobilised the nationalist and republican electorate: in turn the unionist political majority in the Assembly was ended. Increased unionist belligerence continued, and then, the nationalist constituency sent a stark message during the subsequent Westminster election, that it was turning its back on Westminster.
However, the political process in the north had already been seriously destabilised due to the result of the EU Referendum in 2016, when a majority of people in the north voted to remain in the EU.
The British government ignored that democratic result and the emerging negative implications of Brexit became major talking points across the island.
Every report and expert assured us that there will never be a hard border in Ireland and that the Good Friday Agreement was constitutionally sacrosanct as an internationally binding agreement. Yet, within the past week, we have been told by Theresa May that the Good Friday Agreement is up for negotiation and the European Commission have confirmed that a no-deal Brexit will bring a hard border in Ireland and yesterday Leo Vardakar advised the World Economic Forum that there may be soldiers on the border.
This culmination of events and concerns motivated me and others to make the first direct public appeal in late 2017 to Leo Varadkar to stand up and speak out in defence of Irish citizens' rights in the north.
We felt it was essential that Irish citizens in the north heard reassurance from the Irish Government that the reality of abandonment experienced by our parents and grandparents would not be visited upon our generation.
The back page of your programme today carries an assurance from the Taoiseach that: “To the nationalist people in Northern Ireland, I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these negotiations. Your birth right as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens, will be protected. There will be no hard border on our island. You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.”
This assurance cannot simply be a historical quote. It must be a living commitment. It must mean that there can be no hard border on our island. That my children will not have to endure the ignominy of being stopped at Newry or Derry, when travelling to Croke Park for a match, or to Donegal for a holiday.
One of the objectives of this conference today is to assert to the Irish Government that we are their citizens, bearing their passport and that we insist on our full access to citizenship, but rights, human rights are for all. No citizen in the north should endure a diminished sense of their citizenship as a result of Brexit. Everyone benefits when rights are protected, and all traditions and communities are respected and valued.
Today’s conversation is about all of that. We seek to provide a space for a discussion to begin. It has to begin somewhere. And when we are told that now is not the right time, I ask then when is the right time. So, if not now, when?
Nelson Mandela once observed that, “If you wait for textbook conditions they will never occur.”
We believe this is the right time to have a conversation about the future. Failure to encourage and embrace that potential would be reckless and irresponsible.
In the challenges which will immediately confront us in the coming weeks and months we will require a unified and coherent mobilisation of broad northern nationalist and progressive voices.
Our children and new generations deserve a future better than the past which we endured. I wouldn’t have believed you, had you said a few short months ago that my small club [Naomh Éanna] would be in an All-Ireland final in two weeks time, but the unexpected can overtake events. I have seen how history and identity, timing and preparation and the taking of opportunity can reshape history and positively define and improve lives.
Tapaidh an déis. Míle buíochas daoibh go leir.