‘Europe is central to ideals of Agreement’

Foyle SDLP MP Mark Durkan. DER1815MC134
Foyle SDLP MP Mark Durkan. DER1815MC134
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Foyle MP Mark Durkan has warned of the dangers posed to the Good Friday Agreement by Brexit.

Speaking in the House of commons during the Brexit debate the former SDLP leader said the real guarantors of the peace process were the people of Ireland when they voted by referendum in May 1998 to choose and underpin the agreement.

“Neither of the two main parties in this House had a vote in that referendum, and nor did the two parties in Washington – so let us be clear on who the real guarantors are,” he said.

“ In the context of a debate in which we are told we have to go by the imperative of the referendum that took place on 23 June last year, let people recognise that there is still an imperative that goes back to the joint referendum, that articulated act of self-determination by the Irish people, who chose to underpin and agree to the Good Friday Agreement.

“The former NI Secretary of State Owen Paterson says he does not want uncertainty, but as far as the Good Friday Agreement is concerned, the uncertainty is being created by Brexit.

“Neither he nor anyone else in this House should be surprised when they start to hear that the negotiations that take place after the Assembly elections will not just deal with the questions of scandal, the lack of accountability and transparency, and the smugness and arrogance displayed by the parties in government, but will go to the core of the implications for the Good Friday Agreement as a result of Brexit.

“The fact is that although the Good Friday Agreement has been wrongly dismissed by others, the EU is mentioned in it.

“It is there in strands 1 and 2 – one of the most expansive references is in relation to the competence of the North South Ministerial Council; it is there in strand 3; and, of course, it is there in the key preamble of the agreement between the government of the UK and the government of Ireland, which refers to their common membership of the EU.

“As John Hume always predicted, that provided both the model and the context for our peace process.​

It is no accident that when John Hume – who drove so much of the principles and method into the Good Friday Agreement – was awarded the Nobel peace prize how many references he made in his speech to the signal role of Europe and the special contribution it had made and would make, and to the role that the experience of common membership of the EU would play.

“That is why he said: “I want to see Ireland – North and South – the wounds of violence healed, play its rightful role in a Europe that will, for all Irish people, be a shared bond of patriotism and new endeavour.”

When he enunciated those words in 1998, he was not talking about a new concept. We can look across the Chamber and see the plaque commemorating Tom Kettle, a former Member of this House who gave his life in the First World War.

“He said: ‘Used with the wisdom that is sewn in tears and blood, this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain.’”

“That reconciliation was best achieved and best expressed when we had the Good Friday Agreement, which was so overwhelmingly endorsed in this House and in the referendum of the Irish people, north and south of the border.

“We know that some people did not endorse it, and that some people have held back their endorsement and refused to recognise that referendum result. Some of them are the same people who are telling us now that we have to abide by the referendum result in respect of Brexit and that we have to ignore the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland in respect of remaining in the EU. It is the same as when they said that we had to ignore the wishes of the people in Northern Ireland in respect of the Good Friday Agreement.

“No-one should be under any misapprehension that there are implications for the Good Friday Agreement. When we hear this lip service that we get from the government, the rest of us are meant to lip sync along with it and talk about frictionless borders and the common travel area.

“As a supposed co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the UK government are meant to have a duty to protect and develop that agreement. Indeed, various Ministers have told us that they have no intention of allowing Brexit to undermine the agreement. If that is so, there should be no difficulty in having that commitment in the Bill.

“Those sponsoring and supporting this Bill do so arguing the need to respect the outcome of the referendum on 23 June. We make no apologies for highlighting the primacy that has to be accorded to the overwhelming endorsement in our referendum, when, on 22 May 1998, nearly 72% of people in Northern Ireland and 96% in the south of Ireland voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement.

“Any future UK-EU treaty must make explicit reference to upholding the fundamental constitutional precept of the Good Friday Agreement, which is the principle of consent that affords a democratic route to a united Ireland if that ever becomes the wish of a majority of people in Northern Ireland. In the case of any such future referendum, no uncertainty whatever must hang over Northern Ireland’s direct admission to the EU as a consequence of a vote for a united Ireland. Nor, indeed, must there be any uncertainty over Ireland’s terms of membership of the European Union.

“Let us remember that the key precept of the principle of consent and the democratic choice for a united Ireland, as reflected in a referendum in 1998, was the key point that turned it for those people who had locked themselves on to the nonsense idea that they supported violence sourced from a mandate from the 1918 election. That was the key for quite a number of people to say, “Physical force has no more place in the course of Irish politics.” Physical force is now parked because the Irish people as a whole have, in this generation, by articulated self-determination, upheld this agreement, and that gives them the right, by further articulated self-determination, to achieve unity in the future. Anything that diminishes or qualifies or damages that key precept will damage the agreement. People need to know the difference between a stud wall and a supporting wall: just knocking something through because it is convenient and gives a bit more space might be grand and might do, but if at ​some future point, when other pressures arise, things start coming down around us, people should not complain. We have to be diligent and vigilant on these matters.

“We need to remember that the Good Friday Agreement is based not just on the principle of consent but on the promise and the exercise of trust and reliable adherence. We have a situation now where this Parliament is not being seen to keep its side of what was assumed to be the bargain and the understanding in the compact ​between all the people of Northern Ireland and the people of Ireland, and between the governments of these islands.

“Some hon. Members of this House have hummed to themselves that Brexit has no implications for the Good Friday Agreement – and that as long as they say that they will consult Ministers that they do not want border posts – and no other damage has been done. They do not understand the politics that went into the agreement, and they do not understand the politics that will upset the workings of that agreement because of the implications of Brexit.”