Belfast Telegraph

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood addresses Fianna Fail ard fheis [full text]

Colum Eastwood has addressed the Fianna Fail ard fheis for the first time since the two parties formed a partnership. Below is his full speech:

I’m delighted to be speaking before you all today.

Whether at an Ard Fhéis, a local pub or a family sitting room, I don’t think any arena of political conversation can escape talk of Brexit.

It is the be all and end all of political thought and energy on both the islands of Britain and Ireland.

In the early days of the peace process, my fellow county man Seamus Heaney famously spoke of hope and history rhyming – yet Brexit has acted to transform that sentiment into the hope that history will not repeat itself.

Speaking in such historical terms is often a politician’s favourite currency and too often just a favourite convenience.

However I think we all know and feel, politicians and people alike, that this is not such a moment.

This is different.

The Brexit vote was a moment of true change because it was a moment of lasting change.

The future chosen by the English and Welsh peoples is not the future chosen by the Irish and the Scottish.

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.

A hard border in Ireland threatens to bring existential threats to many of our industries - it threatens to position us as a permanent economic backwater.

This is particularly true for communities west of the Bann and along the border – communities already economically neglected.

All of us instinctively know that this can’t be allowed to happen but all of us must equally understand the reasons why.

In 1998 these two parties, this island, and all our people chose an agreed future.

It was a future based on reconciliation, it was based on deepening co-operation and it was based on the idea that time would allow old divisions to dissolve into fading memories.

It was primarily based on openness – including an open border.

So we must be clear and calm in stating that any hardening of the border, will be a deliberate violation of our political process by the British Government.

They have simply no right.

In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement is sovereign.

Both of our parties know this truth – we were the Agreement’s architects – we built it.

That Agreement belongs to the people of Ireland and we are the only people with the right to change it.

There are increasing numbers of politicians on both islands carelessly queuing up to rip it apart. 

We cannot and we will not allow it.

But we don’t need a new border in Ireland.

We must maintain full economic alignment across the island and into European markets.

This must be the agreed backstop.

The backstop is not our first choice, but it is our ultimate protection.

The only people who will actually end up delivering that backstop are the hardened Brexiteers, ideologically determined to inflict economic self-harm.

Choosing empty rhethoric or an empty formula

Let me also say this – there is no point saying you oppose Brexit if you’re not prepared to turn up and vote against it.

This country is in the middle of a national emergency.

In Britain, Theresa May’s majority is disintegrating before our eyes.

How can anyone use the pretence of patriotism to avoid their responsibilities to protect the citizens of this country?

I say this to Sinn Fein – its still an empty formula, get in there and do your duty to this country or be forever defined by empty rhetoric.

A New Ireland

The new partnership between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil is based on a common analysis that business as usual is not an option.

Extraordinary times call for more than ordinary measures.

Brexit encompasses change on every level.

The current political stew is bubbling with issues of identity, belonging and culture – it’s no longer just the economy, stupid. 

Brexit has changed everything in this regard - and will continue to change everything.

We are coming together to shape the change before us. 

People across this island are also alive to that change and are speaking openly about it.

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.

A new and reconciled Ireland will only ever be built by fully recognising the changing island of today.

For our young people especially, the picture of their world is no longer reflected in the murals of our past.

Old political certainties and old majorities are no more.

On an island of new minorities the only option is to build a broad coalition for change.

That changed Ireland won’t be built upon the rubble of our history - it will instead be based on the values we invest in modern nationhood.

The purpose of a New Ireland can’t be guided by a blind obsession with historic wrongs - it should be about creating opportunity for our emerging generations.

A New Ireland capable of delivering prosperity and fairness for all.

However, we will only succeed in reaching that New Ireland if we first provide it with definition and detail.

And no referendum should be called until that work is done.

There will be a special place reserved in hell for those who call for a border poll in Ireland with no plan and idea on how to actually deliver it. 

Unionism

In speaking of a New Ireland we must always be conscious of all the peoples with whom we share this island.

I am all too aware that talk of a New Ireland risks sending some in our community to the hills - and I am sensitive to that fact.

But I also know unionism is not limited to, nor is it defined by, the politics of fear and division.

There are many within the unionist community who are willing to engage and who are willing to explore new possibilities. 

But we all have a duty to tell our unionist neighbours –

You belong to this place every bit as much as I do - therefore you have the very same right to shape the future of this island.

They also need to hear that while we want to shape the change ahead, we want to make Northern Ireland work right now.

Partnership

A key role for our new political partnership is to begin that conversation with unionism.

We recognise the deep divisions that exist across our community and we know that it will take real leadership to begin to bring our communities together.

Building a positive narrative of nationhood

Those of us who believe in a New Ireland need to offer a credible and positive vision - we will not protest our way into one.

Those who have cynically framed the inflammatory narrative that unionism as a whole is unchanging, doesn’t believe in rights, and can’t be worked with – those people need to be faced down.

That cannot be the basis of our vision - this is not 1968 and we are not 2nd class citizens anymore.

I for one am tired of hearing that argument.

We diminish ourselves by its repetition and we diminish the progress which has been secured by previous generations.

If we can’t provide a place of opportunity and belonging for our unionist neighbours - then it simply isn’t worth having.

Good Friday Agreement

For over 2 years now, politics has been locked in a cycle of frustration and failure.

But we should never give up hope – because history tells us that cycles are there to be broken.

We know this because 21 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement broke the cycle of conflict and division which had cast a shadow upon the Irish and British relationship for some 800 years.

Now is not the moment to give up on the Agreement that our two parties were so key to delivering.

Now is the moment to fully embrace it.

To do that we have to talk to each other.

Problems aren’t solved by shouting slogans.

Our difficulties won’t be resolved by setting preconditions for Stormont or even talks.

We need to engage with Unionism now and we need to engage with them in the institutions that were designed for such engagement.

I particularly want to this today.

Nationalism on this island must not be seduced or misled into the narrative that Stormont is a convenience but not a necessity.

There is no hope of reconciliation without an Assembly in Stormont.

There is no hope of delivering integrated economic and social progress across this island without an Assembly at Stormont.

There is no way of fully protecting our people against the devastating consequences of Brexit without an Assembly in Stormont.

And for any real republican, there is no pathway towards a New Ireland without an Assembly in Stormont.

Both the SDLP and Fianna Fáil are coming together to ensure that we return to the vision we imagined and built some 21 years ago.

We will fight to ensure that government returns to the North and that our people are no longer left voiceless and powerless.

Conclusion

On my journey down this afternoon I was looking through the clár for this Ard Fhéis.

This evening I noticed that two events will be celebrated and commemorated – the establishment of the First Dáil and the legacy and life of Taoiseach Sean Lemass.

There is something appropriate in the fact that historic commemorations and current historic events are chiming and converging.

But whether it is 100 years ago, 50 years ago or now - 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.

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