THE restoration last Saturday of the political institutions and the election of Michelle O'Neill as First Minister marks an extraordinary turning point in the process of constitutional change for the North and for the island of Ireland. It is a significant new chapter in the transitional process of change that began with the peace process. Last Saturday something  fundamental happened.

In its century of existence the northern statelet reflected the ethos and wishes of those who ruled us. It was born out of colonialism, occupation, conflict, sectarian division, fear and partition. Under successive unionist and British regimes it relied for its survival on special powers, structured inequality and discrimination. Up to this point the northern state has had 11 unionist Prime Ministers and First Ministers and a succession of largely mediocre British Secretaries of State who saw their role as shoring up unionism and defending partition and the union. Last Saturday that changed. A republican is now First Minister. Structures foisted on us to block this from ever happening have crumbled.

In 1998 the  Good Friday Agreement began the challenging process of unraveling all of this. It provided for a level playing field on which all of the political parties can present their analysis, promote their policies and advocate for their objectives – Irish unity or union with Britain – while requiring that they accept the outcome of the democratic process. 

On the core issues of Irish unity or the union the Agreement recognised that it is for the people “of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.”

The Agreement also provides for referendums North and South and if in the future the people vote for Irish unity there is a “binding obligation on both governments to introduce and support in their respective parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish.”

Of course, British governments are not renowned for honouring commitments. Last week, following his deal with the DUP, British Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris claimed that any change in the North’s place in the union “would absolutely depend on the consent of both communities.” Not true. Any change will depend on a democratic majority in a referendum voting for unity. 

That places a significant onus on republicans who want maximum constitutional change and a new Ireland – united and independent – to engage positively with those who do not share our vision of the future or with those who are unsure what that future should look like. 

Michelle O’Neill will carry out her duties and responsibilities honestly and with diligence. As First Minister she will advocate for every citizen and for every family irrespective of their attitude to the union or Irish unity. She will defend the right of every citizen, of every family, to choose their preferred future. But as a committed Irish republican activist and leader, she will also work to advance the objective of Irish unity. These are not contradictory positions. They are complementary.

Michelle’s speech to the Assembly is evidence of this. It was a confident, well delivered, wide-ranging manifesto for change for the future. It spoke of the need to deliver “for all our people, for every community” and to make “life better for workers, families, communities.”

Michelle acknowledged that the new Executive will “face great challenges” and it will. Not least because of the stranglehold British governments – Tory and Labour – have over the North. Among these she identified the rising cost of living, patients waiting for treatment and support, workers on the picket lines, the need for childcare supports, social and affordable housing, key infrastructure development projects, the climate crisis and Lough Neagh, and using the Windsor Framework to advance the all-Ireland economy. She identified the epidemic of violence against women and girls and said she would prioritise a new strategy to tackle this.

She expressed her sorrow for all the lives lost during the conflict. And she committed herself to the work of reconciliation.

Michelle spoke for all of us who have watched in horror the Israeli government’s genocide against the Palestinian people when she called for an immediate ceasefire. For dialogue and peace.

Last Saturday was a good day.Everyone who made a stand over the decades or in more recent times should be proud of the progress we have made. Inevitably there will be many challenges. The Tories in London are not our friends. And the Executive is a coalition of parties with widely different opinions. But with goodwill and respect we can make it work.

Alex bows out

Before the business of electing the Ministers my friend and comrade for many years, Alex Maskey, finally got the opportunity to step back from the Ceann Comhairle’s oiffice.

Four years ago years Alex was elected Speaker and he did that job intelligently, fairly and patiently. His time was up in 2022 but because the Assembly was suspended Alex continued to play that role for the last two years. 

He took a number of very worthy initiatives even though the Assembly was suspended. They  included a Youth Assembly made up of 90 young people aged from 13 to 18. He also convened a Women's Parliament and an Assembly for Citizens  with Disabilities. 

He met foreign delegations and hosted others interested in the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. Last year he was front and centre in Parliament Buildings for the 25th celebration of the Good Friday Agreement.

The respect and esteem in which he is held was evident at the weekend in the unanimous words of praise and thanks he received from all sides of the Assembly.

It was a far cry from Alex’s first entry into elected politics in 1983. In June that year he was Sinn Féin’s first Belfast City Councillor. He ran a gauntlet of abuse from unionists. They refused to talk to him. They tried to shout him down, sounded horns, blew rape whistles, threatened him. He was the target of constant harassment by the British Army and RUC and the victim of several assassination attempts by unionist death squads, including one in which his friend Alan Lundy was shot and killed in Alex’s home, and another in which Alex was gravely wounded. Undaunted by all of this, Alex went on to become the first ever Sinn Féin Mayor. 

Alex has committed himself  continue his activism and to the goal of Irish unity and to the principles and objectives he has dedicated his life to. So, well done Alex and well done also to Liz, an activist in her own right. She has been by his side through all of these years.

Ádh mor oraibh, a chairde.

Ivor: a visionary and a doer

Ivor Browne died last week, aged 94. I admired him a lot. And I’m glad to say I met him a few times. He was one of the world’s leading and pioneering psychiatrists. As President Micheal D Higgins said he "left a profound mark on the understanding and attitudes to mental health in Ireland".

A visionary and a doer, Ivor dismantled mental institutions and developed community clinics. He was a revolutionary. Professor Brendan Kelly said his legacy was "the additional liberty enjoyed by thousands of people who avoided institutionalisation as a result of the reforms which Ivor came to represent".

He spoke up on behalf of the political prisoners, especially the Armagh women political prisoners. Speaking out in 1985 against strip searching he said: “Strip searching is a rather violent procedure and tremendous intrusion on a human being... In Ireland clothes are almost a part of a person’s body. To invade this is a violation. It is a violent act, and I think, in this sense rapacious.”

Ivor was also a musician and a co-founder in 1959, with Garech Brown, of Claddagh Records to record Irish traditional music, song and poetry.  Claddagh is still thriving and wonderful elements of our rich heritage are preserved thanks to their vision. 

Ivor was also SNQ – sound on the national question. He did great work in Derry in the 1970s and afterwards  by assisting the development of  community models for human development. 

My condolences to Ivor’s family. His life was a life well lived.