23 February 2023 Edition
A shared and better future
I was 20 years old and a young mother when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I remember vividly the sense of hope and optimism that a brighter, more peaceful future was on the horizon.
And from that point I got in behind the politics to help build the peace and as a representative of the Good Friday Agreement generation, I have been working towards that ever since.
It is of course a political accommodation. Through the establishment of the political institutions, the power-sharing Assembly and Executive, and the North-South and East-West bodies, it has helped the process of bringing people together and provided a peaceful alternative to 30 years of conflict.
This was complemented by the demilitarisation of British Army security apparatus and checkpoints and free movement across the whole island which was within the European Union. This transformed the lives of those living and working in the border counties.
While we all remember the GFA and its huge achievements, it is worth reminding ourselves there have been six further political negotiations and agreements since then, all aimed at cementing peace and delivering on the key commitments from the Good Friday Agreement itself.
This has been painstaking work, but quite necessary to ensure commitments made were followed through on.
Fast forward to 2016 and the Tory Brexit was forced upon the people of the North without the consent of the majority who voted in the referendum to remain.
The outworking of that has damaged our power-sharing institutions and created huge political setbacks for our society here.
The hard Brexit pursued by the Tories and championed by the DUP ruptured British-Irish relations causing major political divergence between the governments.
This resulted in London and Dublin losing their ability to act jointly in their stewardship of the Agreement, and the north was then squeezed causing a destabilisation of politics and the economy.
The reliance of the British Tory government on the DUP to keep them in power through the Confidence and Supply arrangement removed any pretence of the ‘rigorous impartiality’ required of them under the Good Friday Agreement.
The fact is that the relationship from London to Dublin under Tory leaders David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss became entirely self-serving and unpredictable.
They attempted to undermine the Protocol, which was put in place to prevent a hard border and protect the all-island economy, and in turn undermine the Good Friday Agreement itself.
Given the key role played by the United States in achieving the Good Friday Agreement, the Joe Biden Administration and wider Irish-America has been adamant that despite Brexit, the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Ireland must be preserved, and should it be damaged there is no prospect of a UK-US post-Brexit trade deal.
• EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen
There is little doubt that the so-called ‘special relationship’ between Washington and London had become strained under successive dysfunctional and chaotic Tory governments.
However, what has fundamentally forced things to change now is the outbreak of war on Ukraine, the global energy crisis and rising cost of inflation and its economic impact, all of which has demanded that allies come together in their national interests.
The new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is desperate to undo the damage that his government has done to the British economy.
The reality for the DUP, who have fallen in and out of cosy relationships with the Tories before being quickly dropped, is that power-sharing with Sinn Féin and the other Executive parties is the only show in town.
Direct rule from London is no longer a viable option, and if Stormont was dissolved what would in fact emerge is a British-Irish partnership approach with real input from Dublin.
Brexit has caused a permanent cleavage and divided even British public opinion who see very little of the promised benefits coming through.
The 'Windsor Framework' deal struck between the EU and British government is a positive development and will help give certainty to local businesses and the economy.
Sinn Féin consistently made it clear to British Prime Ministers and the EU Commission President throughout this process that the fundamental principles we wanted to safeguard were no hard border on the island of Ireland, protecting the Good Friday Agreement, and safeguarding access to the EU single market for the whole island.
People rightly want to see parties working together around the Executive table, delivering for them, focusing on their future and unlocking economic opportunities that make a difference to the lives of everyone. Sinn Féin is committed to that.
Since the collapse of the Assembly in May 2022, the DUP embarked on a blockade of the Assembly and Executive that has only served to punish workers and families who are struggling with the cost-of-living.
It has blocked parties working together to fix the huge challenges in our health service, including tackling waiting lists and hiring more doctors and nurses to take the pressure off our exhausted health and social care workers.
People are now starting to look towards the future, beyond Brexit. They want a good standard of living, more and better jobs, a first-class health service and all the benefits of EU membership. The loss of these benefits can only be replaced through reunification.
An unstoppable conversation is taking place right now about the future, and more and more people from all backgrounds and none are starting to look at what that means, and they are helping to shape the conversation.
The debate on reunification has been reframed because of Brexit, and reunification is now seen as a part of a wider process of European integration. Having one part of the island of Ireland inside the EU and the other outside is not a durable or realistic position.
And the EU have been clear that a reunified Ireland would have automatic entry into the European Union.
• The new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is desperate to undo the damage that his government has done to the British economy
I see no contradiction in power-sharing and making politics work for everyone in a genuine and practical way, and which also takes account of the substantial differences between our continuing, and equally legitimate, political aspirations.
While I am the first nationalist to become First Minister, I do not seek to serve only one section of society.
I intend to be a genuine First Minister for all, irrespective of what tradition you come from, or where your allegiances lie. I will work to reach people where they are with an open hand and I am hopeful that they will respond with an open mind.
A quarter century on from the Good Friday Agreement we must all settle for a shared future. We have spent a century apart. It’s time to work together for the benefit of everyone.
• Michelle O’Neill is the Vice-President of Sinn Féin