After the peace process: Where Next for Sinn Féin?

Speech by John McCallister MLA, NI21 Deputy Leader, to Towards a New Ireland conference

A pro-Union member of the Northern Ireland Assembly addressing a Sinn Féin conference in London! Times have indeed changed. I will leave it to others to decide which change is the most symbolic – my presence at this conference, or this conference being held in the first city of the United Kingdom. Seriously, however, I do thank Sinn Féin for the invitation to address this conference and to share my perspective and analysis from a robustly pro-Union perspective. If my comments at any time seem unduly harsh or perhaps unfair. Be assured that such is not my intention. I am here in good faith to promote political dialogue and debate which will aid reconciliation and mutual understanding in Northern Ireland.

The New Ireland?

It is somewhat strange that Sinn Féin has described this conference as “Towards a New Ireland”. I say strange because for the overwhelming majority of people on the island of Ireland. We now live, post-1998, in the New Ireland. We no longer live on an island scarred by conflict. We no longer live on an island in which there is undisguised hostility between Dublin and Belfast. We no longer live on an island in which economic, social, cultural and political relationships stop at the border. We already live in the New Ireland. The New Ireland in which shared interests produce close co-operation between Belfast and Dublin. Shared interests which find institutional expression in cross-border bodies. The New Ireland in which the vast, overwhelming majority of citizens share democratic values and reject the path of violence. The New Ireland in which we realise that the intricate network of relationships in these Islands is not something we can – or desire to – opt out of. It is in this context that Sinn Féin’s campaign for a border poll is distinctly odd. A mere 15 years into these new relationships and new institutions, why should we even consider a border poll. Not least when opinion polls indicate a near complete lack of desire for significant constitutional change? Why seek to inject a toxic dose of 1950s politics into the institutions and relationships of the New Ireland in the 21st century?

The will of the people

To state the obvious – I am not a republican. But one of republicanism’s founding principles – the belief in popular sovereignty – is an honourable principle. The referenda on the Good Friday Agreement were an act of popular sovereignty. The institutions of the Agreement were created and are sustained by the overwhelming consent of the people of the island of Ireland. Contrast that overwhelming consent – that exercise in popular sovereignty – with the latest opinion poll indicating that only 3.8% of people in Northern Ireland want a United Ireland as soon as possible. Popular sovereignty can be uncomfortable for politicians of all persuasions. But the will of the people, North and South, has been given clear expression. The institutions created by the Agreement, the new relationships established by the Agreement, are grounded in the will of the people. And it is not the will of the people to replace the existing constitutional settlement on the island of Ireland with something different. In such circumstances, surely it is in the interests of all of us – in Northern Ireland and across the Island – to heed the will of the people. And focus our energies on delivering on the promise of the institutions and relationships created by the Agreement. In a shared Northern Ireland, in a reconciled Island, in Islands working in partnership. The call for a border poll may satisfy the demands for ideological purity. But it fails in heeding the will of the people, in building on the achievement of 1998.

Making Northern Ireland work

There is another important and destabilising aspect to the campaign for a border poll. Perhaps I can illustrate this by pointing to two words missing from the publicity associated with this conference – ‘Northern Ireland’. The inability of Sinn Féin representatives to utter these two words is not merely cosmetic. When Her Majesty the Queen spoke in Irish at the reception in Dublin Castle, it was not merely cosmetic. It was a historic declaration of respect for the nationalist tradition. When the discourse of unionist representatives embraces both ‘Londonderry’ and ‘Derry’, it is not merely cosmetic. It is a sign of respect for both traditions in the Maiden City. The respect I mention in these two examples both contributes to and is an expression of a desire to build a shared and reconciled society. The campaign for a border poll. The inability to utter the phrase ‘Northern Ireland’. These suggest a hesitancy on the part of Sinn Féin when it comes to building a shared and reconciled community in Northern Ireland. Make no mistake, this is the real challenge and the demanding work for the next generation of politicians and citizens in our part of these of Islands. Perception is, of course, important in politics. Its importance is greatly magnified in a divided society. The perception outside of the republican constituency is that the border poll campaign, and the continued inability to speak of ‘Northern Ireland’ is suggestive of a lack of vision on the part of Sinn Féin when it comes to the political challenge facing us over the next generation.

Post-peace process Sinn Féin?

The peace process has fundamentally transformed relationships within Northern Ireland, on the island of Ireland, and between our islands. These transformed relationships have, in many ways, out-paced our politics. Our citizens, our businesses, and our cultural figures are seeking ways to flourish in and through those transformed relationships. Their reality is a post-peace process reality. Our politics… well, we have some catching up to do. Now, yes, I know that there are challenges for pro-Union political opinion in adapting to the post peace-process relationships and realities. But I am not here addressing pro-Union political opinion. I am addressing Sinn Féin – the second largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. A party with a significant democratic mandate and with significant democratic responsibilities. I know Sinn Féin has travelled far from the 1970s and 1980s. My hope, however, is that the journey is not yet over. In fact, for the sake of our society, the journey cannot yet be over.

Let me illustrate this by asking you to imagine a hypothetical unionist political conference held in another great city in these islands. Imagine it took as its theme the promotion of the integration of Northern Ireland into the rest of the United Kingdom. The same old integrationist certainties from the 1980s would be on display. There would be no need to mention power sharing, or Irish identity or relationships with Dublin. That wouldn’t be needed because integrationist ideology bypassed all those parochial concerns. Such a conference would not be addressing – or listening to – 21st century Northern Ireland or 21st century Ireland. From the imaginary unionist conference let’s turn to today’s Sinn Féin conference. Are you really prepared to address – and listen to – 21st century Northern Ireland and 21st century Ireland? Or do prior ideological convictions, shaped in another era, continue to determine your interaction with the rest of us in Northern Ireland, Ireland and these Islands?

The example of London

I began by thanking Sinn Féin for the invitation to speak at this conference. And I meant it. This is how democratic politics is meant to work – free debate and the exchange of ideas. I robustly and vigorously disagree with Sinn Féin on a wide range of issues. But robust and vigorous disagreement is the lifeblood of democratic politics. So I’ll end with something to promote robust and vigorous disagreement. My belief in the Union is not about ascendancy or sectarian triumphalism. It is about securing the common good for the people of the society in which I live. Having a conference in London demonstrates something of my beliefs. This great city has been defined over centuries by monarchy and parliament. It is here that many of the decisions have been taken – both for good and bad – which have shaped the history of these Islands. This is also a city in which over 175,000 Irish people live and work. London GAA and London Irish are testimony to the presence of the Irish in this city. And on 17th March this year, 10 Downing Street was bathed in green light. This vibrant, dynamic city demonstrates what I believe the Union is about… inclusive and pluralist. Many at this conference will disagree with me. I hope, however, that out of our disagreements and debates can come a shared commitment to building a Northern Ireland for all, in the New Ireland and in a new era in the history of these Islands.