Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

11 October 2023

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“This is the decade of opportunity” – Michelle O’Neill

• Hilary Benn told the meeting that ‘We need politics to start running again’

The British Labour Party gathered in Liverpool this year for their annual conference. Characterised, by the BBC’s Gareth Gordon, as “the most Irish city by a distance in England” it was nevertheless heartening to see upwards of two-hundred and fifty people turn-out on Sunday evening for Sinn Féin’s fringe meeting.

The meeting, titled ‘Good Friday 25 Years On: An Agreement for a shared future’, took place in the famous Adelphi Hotel. The site holds a notable place in Irish history. In August 1877, in a previous incarnation of the Hotel, the Adelphi played host to the annual convention of the Home Rule Confederation. It was at this convention, widely attended by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, that Charles Steward Parnell was elected to replace Isaac Butt as the leader of the Home Rule movement. A meeting that was later described by the Fenian historian, John Denvir as “one of the turning points in modern Irish history.”

While Sunday’s meeting might not achieve the same status, the evening nonetheless saw a lively political discussion. With the high level of attendance reflecting a renewed interest in Ireland amongst the broad British Labour movement.

The keynote speaker for the evening was Leas Uachtarán Shinn Féin and First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill MLA. She was joined on the top table by the British Shadow Secretary of State, Hilary Benn MP, and the Opposition Leader in the British House of Lords, Baroness Angela Smith. Proceedings were chaired by John Finucane MP.

The North Belfast MP opened the discussion by acknowledging the positive role played by the British Labour movement in helping to facilitate the political process that produced the Good Friday Agreement. 

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• Opposition Leader in the British House of Lords Angela Smith, Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill, Shadow Home Secretary Hilary Benn, and North Belfast Sinn Féin MP John Finucane at the annual Sinn Féin Labour party conference fringe meeting

Reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the seminal peace accord, John Finucane told the meeting, “Our Good Friday Agreement cemented our peace. It changed lives, it saved lives. Crucially, I think, for tonight’s discussion it contained core elements of equality and human rights protections for minority communities. And this is important. We all have a responsibility to present our vision of Ireland’s future in an inclusive manner. That is why the protections of the Good Friday Agreement are important as we progress.”

Michelle O’Neill’s keynote address focussed on the DUP’s ongoing boycott of political institutions in the North. The Sinn Féin Vice President reported, “Everyone has been more than reasonable in giving space and time to the DUP since the Windsor Framework was agreed. But there are clear limits to that, and public patience has now well and truly run out. The Windsor Framework came into operational effect last weekend. For not a month longer can we accept this drift, with no Government, nobody at the wheel, no ministers running departments while people languish crippled in pain on hospital waiting lists trying to get basic treatment and surgery.”

Commenting on the new political reality following the last assembly election, Michelle O’Neill vowed, “As incoming First Minister, I will never allow anyone, irrespective of who they are or where they come from, to be treated in the way that my parents or my grandparents were treated by the state. Those days are gone, and it is now time to move forward.”

She continued, “A quarter century on from the Good Friday Agreement, we have to look towards the next twenty-five years with a commitment to work together for everyone. To work for a more prosperous future for all the people of the island. That is certainly my focus and my commitment. I don’t see any contradiction whatsoever in being firmly committed to power-sharing with unionism and other parties, while as a republican and democrat also advancing the case for future constitutional change on our island.”

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• 250 people attended Sinn Féin’s ‘Good Friday 25 Years On: An Agreement for a shared future’ meeting.

The next speaker was Angela Smith who, before becoming Labour’s Leader in the British House of Lords in 2015, served as a British direct rule minister in North between 2002 and 2006. Commenting on the current absence of a northern Assembly, she noted, “I was told that I was only going to be a minister for three months and I was there for three-and –a-half years. As much as it was a wonderful experience for me, and I grew to love the place, it is not the way forward. There should be local ministers in charge, up in Stormont, and local representatives doing the job that they were elected to do.” 

The final speaker was the newly appointed Shadow Secretary of State, Hilary Benn. The Leeds Central MP told the meeting, “Brexit has a lot to account for in explaining the situation that we now find ourselves in. Because it was as plain as a pikestaff to everybody that, if Britain did vote to leave the European Union, there would be a question about the border.”

He went onto note, “The Windsor Framework is here to stay. I voted for it; the Labour Party voted for it. It represents another example of what we can do with determination and a willingness to compromise. Its not going to go away and we need politics to start running again.”

The speeches were followed by a lively round of questions and contributions from the floor. Many of those who spoke took issue with recent comments made by the leader of the British Labour Party, Keir Starmer, in relation to a potential referendum on Irish unity. In an interview with the BBC, the Labour leader remarked, “I don’t think we’re anywhere near that kind of question.” Adding, “It’s absolutely hypothetical. It’s not even on the horizon.”

In reply to the criticism of many in the room, Hilary Benn stated that the comments had been mischaracterised. The Shadow Secretary of State clarified, “to say ‘there isn’t going be a border poll ever’ is to breach the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. He didn’t say that. He didn’t and that’s really, really important. Now there are different views about when a border poll might happen, and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is absolutely crystal clear about the circumstances in which one will be held.”

In reply to questions from the floor Michelle O’Neill remarked, “I think, that it’s fair to say, that all we would expect from Labour would be respect for the Good Friday Agreement and that you fulfil the commitment that you signed up to at that time. I think that’s really important. Whilst we can disagree in terms of the timing because I certainly believe that this is the decade of opportunity. This is the decade in which we will be voting for constitutional change. I don’t see any contradiction in believing that whilst also being in an assembly working with partners. I think it’s actually an imperative.” She continued, “Regardless of if we disagree on the timing, the preparation work and the planning work must be happening now.”

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Contributions from key figures in the churches, academia and wider civic society as well as senior republican figures

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