25 February 2010 Edition
London conference a great success
Putting Irish Unity on the agenda
Over 500 people came together last Saturday in London for what was by far the broadest and largest political event held to discuss Irish unity in Britain for many years. ‘Putting Irish unity on the agenda – a conference to open the debate’, was organised by Sinn Féin to open up a new national discussion in Britain on the issue, involving all points of view.
The conference saw a large cross section of the Irish community in attendance, travelling from as far afield as Liverpool, Leeds, the Isle of Man, Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow to hear politicians including Sinn Féin MPs Pat Doherty and Conor Murphy, the SDLP’s Conall McDevitt, Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, Salma Yaqoob from the Respect Party and also cultural figures including GAA star Jarlath Burns, writer Ronan Bennett, academics Professor Mary Hickman and Professor Paul Bew and leading author on women and Ireland, Margaret Ward.
Opening the conference, Pat Doherty MP said: “Our goal is simply stated; an end to the partition of Ireland, an end to the Union with Britain, and the construction of a new national democracy, a new republic on the island of Ireland and reconciliation between Orange and Green.”
The conference was the fourth Sinn Féin has organised among the Irish diaspora, with two in the U.S. and one in Canada last year. However, Pat Doherty highlighted the importance of the London conference in putting pressure on Westminster, saying “in any effort to advance a United Ireland the diaspora will play a crucial role, and none more so than here in Britain”.
He was upbeat about the prospect of reunification.
“I recognise that at a time of conflict in Afghanistan, controversy over the war in Iraq, economic recession and of serious problems within the British political system that, Ireland is not at the top of the political agenda in Britain,” he said.
“But those who understand the rights of the Irish people and the negative role successive British governments have played in Ireland have a duty, to put Irish unity and independence on that agenda and to argue for reunification.
“And don’t think it’s impossible or can’t happen or it’s too high a hill to climb. Last week we celebrated 20 years of freedom for Nelson Mandela. There was a time when people thought apartheid wouldn’t end or Mandela would never be free or there would always be a divided Germany or that there would never be peace in Ireland. In recent weeks many thought that a deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP was impossible.
“Well, apartheid has ended. Mandela was President of a free South Africa. Germany is united. The war in Ireland is over. And we reached agreement with the DUP at Hillsborough.
“So, nothing is impossible. You just have to believe and strategise and work hard and the impossible can be achieved. So, let me invite all of you to join with us in this historic endeavour.”
Doherty’s point about the diaspora was emphasised by Lord Alf Dubs, Chair of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, when he said the Irish in Britain had the potential now to have important political clout, with greater opportunities to do so than at any point during the past 40 years. Jarlath Burns said the GAA had always organised on a united Ireland basis, across the country. Margaret Ward made critical points about women’s rights, and how Ireland could not be truly free without ensuring that all people, and in particular women, also won equality on all aspects of life, including reproductive rights.
Diane Abbott, chairing the first session, was not the only person to comment that there was a perception in Britain that the Peace Process meant ‘things were sorted out’ in the north of Ireland and it was no longer a topic for debate. She highlighted the fact that the Good Friday Agreement had not only created a power-sharing government but also a constitutional route to a united Ireland. The agreement commits the British government to legislating for Irish unity, should there be support for it in future in the north.
Professor Mary Hickman said nationalists should not simply outvote unionists in any border poll, they had to be brought into the process. Sinn Féin stressed the importance of dialogue with unionism, a point returned to as a key issue throughout the day. Indeed, David Trimble’s former adviser Lord Bew, and former UDP politician David Adams were invited and agreed to speak at the event. Reflecting on that, Pat Doherty said Sinn Féin recognised the need to address the concerns of unionism, and that their vision for a united Ireland was one with “the right to equality and parity of esteem for all cultural traditions”.
The conference brought together, for the first time in a number of years, and re-energised, people who have long supported and campaigned for a united Ireland, but there were also many young people taking up the issue for the first time and others who were engaging for the first time. The final session saw thoughtful contributions from former shadow spokesperson for Labour, Kevin McNamara, and Salma Yaqoob won huge applause after her contribution in which she said she was hugely optimistic about Ireland’s future self-determination, which inspired others, and drew the lessons from Ireland for conflict resolution throughout the world.
Ken Livingstone restated his long support for Irish self-determination and for inclusive dialogue to solve political problems, and he situated Ireland’s future in the wider global context. Author and screenwriter Ronan Bennett won big applause as he rounded off the final plenary, by simply putting the point that if people asked what the arguments were for Irish unity, he felt the question was more simply that there were no real arguments why there should not be.
Closing the conference, Conor Murphy stated how important it was for people in Ireland that those in Britain do not think, with the Peace Process, that everything is now resolved. Judging by the large turnout, the engagement of the audience in the debate, and the buzz around the building, Saturday’s conference has started a major new discussion here in Britain on the need for Irish unity.
“Irish unity will no doubt have a different meaning in a 21st-century global economy, Ken Livingstone speculated, than when he first campaigned for dialogue with republicans at the height of the armed conflict a generation ago – let alone in the context of a possible breakup of the rest of the United Kingdom, as others suggested from the floor.
“But the conviction voiced by Sinn Féin leaders and SDLP assembly member Conall McDevitt at the London conference that Irish reunification is inevitable is surely right. The crucial question on this side of the Irish sea is whether Britain will help that process or hinder it”
Seamus Milne, writing about the conference in the Guardian on Monday, in an article titled ‘Irish unity is inevitable’
• Kevin McNamara, Salma Yaqoob (Respect), Ken Livingstone, John McDonnell MP, Professor Mary Hickman, and Pat Doherty pictured at the London Conference