Colum Eastwood: United Ireland 'must provide a place of opportunity and belonging for our unionist neighbours or it simply isn’t worth having'
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said that any united Ireland must be welcoming to unionists or it is not worth having.
The Foyle MLA was speaking at the SDLP Party Conference at the Titanic Belfast on Saturday.
In a lengthy speech Mr Eastwood said he wasn't interested in talking about the past and outlined his thoughts on Brexit and the best way to return power-sharing to Northern Ireland.
He said that the only way to establish a new Ireland would be one that benefits all the people of the island.
"As we approach the centenary of partition - a triumph for some and a tragedy for others - meaningful reconciliation between the peoples of this island must remain our top priority," he said.
"A new and reconciled Ireland will only ever be built by fully recognising the changing island of today.
"We do not seek a New Ireland because we are victims of an old oppression - we seek a New Ireland because it offers opportunity for all."
"That is the only basis through which it will come to pass.
"The old truism of politics is that people will always opt to vote for something rather than against something.
"If we can’t provide a place of opportunity and belonging for our unionist neighbours - then it simply isn’t worth having."
Mr Eastwood called on the British and Irish governments to work together to restore devolution in Northern Ireland.
"I can genuinely only see one solution that has any hope of ending the current impasse," the SDLP leader said.
"Too often the mistake is made of believing that our political process is only internal to Northern Ireland.
"In fact, its real underpinning, its real foundation, has always rested on the relationships and agreements between the peoples of Ireland and Britain.
"The guarantors of these agreements are the Irish and British Governments. Together, they represent our ultimate insurance policy.
"The role of guarantor means different things at different times. There is a time for a watching brief and there is a time for facilitation.
"Now is a time for the guarantors to intervene actively and positively.
"If the parties here wouldn’t bring the deal over the line – then the two governments should do it for them.
"Since the collapse of the talks I have been calling on the Irish and British Governments, as part of the Intergovernmental Conference, to agree a package of legislation.
"I believe that package should include much of February’s draft accommodation.
He said that Northern Ireland would be forced to deal with the consequences of Brexit.
"The driving catalyst for that change and its instability comes from the decision of people in British to leave the European Union," said the SDLP leader," Mr Eastwood said.
Northern Ireland did not consent to that change. Nevertheless, we must deal with it and deal with its consequences.
"Brexit is now the ever-shifting water table beneath our feet – it is unsettling all of the political ground which rests upon it.
"No-one should be in any doubt - the instability of Brexit and the instability faced by the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are inextricably linked."
Mr Eastwood said Northern Ireland must remain in the single market and the customs union.
"We don’t need a new border in Ireland and we don’t need a new economic border in the Irish Sea. That was our position during the referendum, after the referendum and it remains our position now. But that position is only possible if both our islands remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union," he said.
"Anything short of these proposals, any hardening of the border, will be a deliberate violation of our political process by the British Government.
"They have no right.
"In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement is sovereign.
"That Agreement belongs to the people of Ireland and we are only people with the right to change it."
Mr Eastwood said that Northern Ireland had faced similar periods of political uncertainty in the past but had always gotten through them.
"For over a year now, politics has been locked in a cycle of frustration and failure," he told the audience.
"But we should never give up hope – because history tells us that cycles are there to be broken.
"We know this because 20 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement broke the cycle of conflict which had cast a shadow upon the Irish and British relationship for 800 years.
"Now is not the moment to give up on that Agreement – it’s the moment to fully embrace it."
He said the Good Friday Agreement was still relevant in Northern Ireland today.
"As change engulfs our islands, the three strands of relationships at its heart haven’t dated - they have truly come of age," he said in his closing remarks.
"If Good Friday 20 years ago was to be the final destination of slow learners - let us not allow it to fall victim to fast wreckers.
"The choice remains the same.
"The Irish and British peoples across this island can retreat from each other or we can again choose to work, live and govern together.
"In time, when we are forced to look history full in the eye, let us not say that we narrowed our minds and thus narrowed the horizon."
Belfast Telegraph Digital