A large crowd attended a half-day conference in Derry on Tuesday to discuss the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Among those in attendance at the discussion event, which was organised by the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), was a delegation of AOH members from America.
The panel of speakers included Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson MEP and Mitchel McLaughlin MLA, as well as party chairperson Declan Kearney, and Brian Dougherty from St Columb’s Park House.
Sean Pender and Dan Dennehy from the AOH delegation also spoke at the event and read out a number of messages specially written for the Derry audience by Congressman Ritchie Neil, Congressman Christopher Smith, and Senator Robert Menendez.
All speakers praised the significance of the Good Friday Agreement and the progress of the peace process to date but all agreed that it still needs to be implemented fully.
Addressing the event, Mr Dennehy said; “This was the greatest diplomatic effort of Ireland, the United States and Britain in the last 20 years and we have all felt the benefit. The AOH and Irish America will not stop campaigning until it is fully implemented and we see peace and justice across the island of Ireland.”
Mr McLaughlin said the Good Friday Agreement has transformed politics in the North and has the potential to transform the entire island.
“Every day since the Good Friday Agreement, and the political structures that emerged from it, problems have existed and have been solved. There are many examples of co-ordinated action and co-operation that has resolved key social and economic issues. “I would argue that partition is the most important aspect of our conflicted history. The Good Friday Agreement did not offer a solution to partition but it did provide a mechanism by which it could be resolved.
“That is the reason why Sinn Féin is bringing forward our border poll campaign at this time. It will not be a one day event. It will be a process spread over a number of months and possibly years and involve discussion of a wide range of economic and political issues,” he said.
However, Mr McLaughlin also acknowledged the results of such a poll would not be in favour of a united Ireland at first.
“I do accept that if it happened tomorrow the answer would be no. Until the majority of people in the North vote for constitutional change we will work assiduously to change the status quo,” he said.
Ms Anderson said the economic benefits of a united Ireland could not be ignored.
“The British state, political unionism and the 26 county government have engaged in scaremongering around the cost of Irish unity. Anti-republicanism has mobilised against it.
“Once it is carefully considered, the vast majority of people on the island will see that a united Ireland not only makes political sense but financial sense as well. We are all too aware of the crippling impact of partition,” she said.
Ms Anderson also challenged the British government to release the figures on the cost of the subvention to the North from Westminster.
“The claim that the North is totally reliant on British state subvention is over-emphasised. We cannot get accurate figures from the British government,” she said.
The MEP also dismissed suggestions that the North would merge with the existing 26 county state. “In a united Ireland we would have a national community made up of many national identities but with the same right to expression of culture and the same rights and civil liberties.
“It will be a new national republic based on social inclusion and equality,” she said.
Brian Dougherty from St Columb’s Park House gave a unionist perspective and said that unionism needs new leadership.
“I find in my work that if I were to ask a young person or even an adult what their concerns are they are not about the state of the union.
“It is unfortunate and disappointing what has happened to unionism in recent months. As someone who grew up with middle-class unionism I feel very disappointed.
“Unionism has been trying to have its voice and the flags protest is part of that. It has not been voiced well or productively but it was the only voice they had,” he said.
Mr Dougherty also said the concerns of unionists must be taken into account.
“If the catholic community are serious about a border poll and unionist engagement then listening to unionist concerns is an important part of that.”
Sinn Féin chairperson Declan Kearney said more dialogue between republicans and unionists is needed.
“Myself and other republican leaders have said we need to listen to what unionists are saying and be flexible about that they say and allow our thoughts to be influenced by that.
“But of course it is a two way street.
“Seeking to persuade the hearts and minds of others about our vision for the future must mean that republicans are willing and have the confidence to open up our own hearts and minds,” he said.