London meeting says: Build support for the Good Friday Agreement

By Michelle Gildernew MP in December News Bulletin

GildernewAt the end of November I chaired a public meeting in Westminster, hosted by Sinn Féin, with a wide range of speakers all expressing concern over the current growing crisis in the political process. Against the background of a lack of progress in the current talks – explored by Declan Kearney and others elsewhere in this bulletin – we felt it was necessary to begin a more visible and vocal discussion with those who want to build support for and defend the principles of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

The fact that we had a packed room for the meeting underlines how people in Britain, in the political parties, in the Diaspora more broadly and in progressive organisations such as the trades unions, share those concerns. My party colleague Conor Murphy MP set out Sinn Féin’s assessment around the current stagnation – the assertion of an anti-agreement axis aimed at blocking political progress. He reiterated Sinn Féin’s position, that the British government was failing to live up to its responsibilities in relation to the Agreement, and was playing partisan and party politics with the peace process.

Joining him on the platform were a number of political representatives who had each played a key role in the development of the GFA. Baroness Angela Smith, a former Labour Minister for the North, spoke strongly of how hard fought for the Agreement was and the huge mandate it had won in the referenda. She said the current government ‘failed to get’ what was necessary in building and progressing the process. Previous governments had persevered, ‘stayed and talked to people’ but she failed to see that kind of commitment from the current government.

Former Assembly Speaker and current Lib Dem peer, Lord John Alderdice, expressed frustration at the current impasse and discussed how a ‘historic relationship of this kind has to be worked at’, focusing on the fundamental principles of parity of esteem. Along with Lord Dubs, he warned of the dangers of collapsing the political institutions, and that doing so would not simple mean a return to direct Westminster rule, but a more joint approach, between London and Dublin. Pointing to the upcoming Westminster election, he said those in civic society with concern ‘should not wait until May’ but that it was vital to ‘engage communities as a whole on how we build a fair community for everyone’.

Jennie McShannon, of Irish in Britain, reiterated her organisations commitment to the GFA, and that of the All-Party Group on Irish in Britain. She said the Irish community in Britain were hugely invested in the peace process, which had ‘completely changed’ their experiences. She shared concerns at the current stagnation and pointed to the dangers ‘of treating the north like a region, rather than something specific’. She also pointed to concerns at the impact on social cohesion of economic cuts and the impact of the welfare reform agenda, which had already had a devastating effect within Britain on the Irish community and others. She underlined the need to address the specific needs and concerns of women and to ensure a ‘gender strand’ in a post-conflict situation.

Lord Alf Dubs drew attention to the lack of media attention and therefore awareness of the current situation. Echoing Angela Smith’s points, he said the ‘none of us want 15 years of progress to be thrown away.’ He drew attention to the need to back the basis of the Haass proposals, and criticised the government for failing to do so, just under a year ago.

After a lively discussion from the audience, the meeting proved an important first step in ensuring that the pro-Agreement majority began to step up its activity in order to put some pressure on in the run up to the Westminster election in particular. As the current talks approach their end, with little prospect of a change in direction from the unionist leaderships or the British government, that pressure and support for the Agreement becomes even more important. And in the coming weeks and months post-Christmas break, Sinn Féin MPs will be in London and other cities in England, Scotland and Wales, to make the case and to work with others to ensure that the progress we all support is not held back.