Ireland has long been a totemic issue for the left in Britain. I have been proud to support the cause all my political life. It is one the oldest and most important international liberation struggles.
The President of Sinn Fein observed earlier that twenty five years ago Mrs Thatcher imposed a broadcasting ban which meant that pictures of Sinn Fein leaders could be shown on television but the broadcasters could not use their actual voice. This resulted in the absurdity of actors dubbing the voices of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness and others.
But so many things have changed in that period in relation to the Irish struggle. Thames Television lost it television licence because it broadcast “Death on the Rock” a documentary about how three IRA were slaughtered in cold blood by British operatives in Gibraltar. Sinn Fein was routinely vilified at the very top of the Labour Party. Labour MPs like Chris Mullin who took up the cause of the Birmingham Six got no support from Labour party leaders. And you were never allowed to forget that the Tories were the Conservative and Unionist party.
That the climate of opinion in British politics on the Irish struggle has changed so much is obviously due to the work of the nationalist struggle but it also due to the work of the many activists and supporters in this room.
I give all respect to the work of skilled diplomats like Jonathan Powell, former Number 10 Chief of Staff, who is on the panel with me today. But without the grassroots struggle the Republican cause could never have made the progress that we have seen.
My parents were born in Jamaica when it was still a British colony. Perhaps in consequence I have always believed that the Irish struggle is best understood as an anti-colonialist one. And one thing we know from the history of British colonialism in Africa and the Indian subcontinent is how much suffering the completely arbitrary national borders imposed by the colonialists have caused. All over the world these borders have divided nations. They may have served the interests of colonialist, international capital and national elites. But arbitrary colonialists’ borders have caused untold suffering and bloodshed in the post-colonial era. That is why the border poll that Sinn Fein is campaigning for is so important. Nobody here needs reminding of the process b y which the border between the six counties and the rest of Ireland emerged.
Only when that border is removed can the whole island of Ireland come together to seek its social and economic destiny. Just as in colonies all over the world, the border is one of the final legacies of the British occupation. The current economic crisis means that it is particularly important that the whole island of Ireland can come together in a concerted push against the politics of austerity. A return to the sadness and personal tragedies of forced migration cannot be the answer to the economic challenge faced by the island of Ireland today.
It is also important that in working for a “New Ireland” to have a debate about women’s right. Women have played a key role in a nationalist struggle. But there is still more to do on women’s rights in general and reproductive rights in particular.
Those of us who have always supported the Irish nationalist struggle, will continue to offer our support as it enters a new phase. And I am proud to be on this platform today.