‘A NEW IRELAND, A NEW EUROPE’
ADDRESS BY SINN FÉIN PRESIDENT MARY LOU MCDONALD TD, IRISH ASSOCIATION FOR CONTEMPORARY EUROPEAN STUDIES, TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN, FRIDAY 30TH NOVEMBER 2018
It is very good to be with you here this morning at a critical and crucial juncture for both Ireland and the European Union.
It should go without saying that Ireland is a proud, ancient European nation.
Dublin, my home town, is a proud European city.
I am a proud Dub, a proud Irishwoman and a proud European.
I am a former Member of the European Parliament and let me say from the outset that I believe Ireland’s place is in Europe.
I make these statements at the outset because some paint Sinn Féin as a Eurosceptic party.
We are not. We are a Eurocritical party.
Distilled down, that amounts to supporting what is good and in the interests of Ireland and the EU, and opposing what is not.
It is to be a critical friend when required and an ally in times of need.
To be a Republican is to be an optimist - to look beyond today and towards tomorrow.
We believe that a better Europe is possible - a Europe that reflects the shared Republican principles of equality, solidarity and sovereignty.
These principles are crucial as Ireland and the EU face into the future.
The most immediate issue is of course Brexit.
Brexit is a particularly Tory phenomenon.
Partly driven by nostalgia for an Empire long lost and imperial power ended.
As former US secretary of State Dean Acheson declared in 1963 "Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role".
And partly driven by a right-wing; reactionary agenda opposed to progressive change, opposed to the Working Time Directive, the European Court of Justice and the European Convention on Human Rights.
What was an extreme position on the EU became mainstream when mixed with jingoism and racism.
Brexit was born.
This presents two profound, existential challenges for Ireland and the EU.
On a European level there is the outworking of a growing disjoint between the European institutions and their polices on the one hand, and the hopes and aspirations of citizens on the other.
On an Irish level, Brexit again demonstrates the failure of partition.
Both of these challenges must be met.
We need a New Ireland - a united Ireland - and we need a new Europe - a social Europe.
I don’t need to remind people here that voters in the north voted to remain within the European Union, and Sinn Féin was part of that campaign.
Our island did not feature as part of the debate surrounding the Brexit referendum in Britain; which was triggered by a squabble amongst the Tories.
Ireland was, at best and as ever, an afterthought.
No thought was given to our peace process, to the Good Friday Agreement, or economy and the social and cultural fabric of our island.
But those who voted on this island - citizens in the north - recognised that it did not make sense for any part of our island to be outside the European Union.
That is why the electorate in the north - from all backgrounds - voted to remain.
Many a staunch unionist recognises that all-island trade, commerce, co-operation and movement are vital to our collective economic capacity and for progress.
Citizens recognise that it makes sense for Ireland - in its entirety - to be part of the same trading bloc and the same single market; with the four freedoms that ensue.
To be a part of Europe.
That is what the people of the north want.
That is what the people of the south want.
That is why, since the Brexit referendum result became clear, we in Sinn Féin have been unequivocal in stating that Brexit presents the most serious social, economic and political threat to our island in a generation.
We have been clear in stating that the Irish government’s approach to negotiations had to be guided by the fact that citizens in the north voted to remain and that democratic verdict had to be respected.
While others said to accept Brexit and just get on with it, Sinn Féin representatives in Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels persevered.
We first put the case for a special deal that would take cognisance of the unique circumstances that present themselves here on our island.
To ensure there is no return to a hard border, to ensure citizens’ rights are protected and to ensure the Good Friday Agreement is upheld in all its parts.
The Withdrawal Agreement, agreed by the European Council, and approved by the British Cabinet, is not perfect and the political declaration on the Future Relationship remains aspirational.
However, it must be acknowledge that the Agreement on offer is one that mitigates against some of the worst aspects of Brexit.
There are other issues to be ironed out and things to be clarified in the time ahead - to ensure that rights are protected.
In a very practical way that means we must ensure that basic rights which we all now take for granted are guaranteed into the future.
It is disappointing that the Irish government has not extended the franchise for the additional European Parliament seats the State has been allocated to the north. I hope that in time, we can rectify that situation.
Irish citizens in the north must continue to be guaranteed access to the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice.
Irish citizens in the north must continue to enjoy access to third-level education across Europe and access to the EU health insurance card.
There is no good Brexit.
Even if the least worst option of the Withdrawal Agreement is passed, it will still be a bad day for Ireland, north and south.
For a new generation, Brexit again raises the undemocratic nature of partition on this island and the jeopardy partition presents to Irish national interests.
Brexit has been an accelerant of the united Ireland debate, but it was a debate that was underway and will continue post-Brexit.
Brexit, alongside socially progressive movements such as the campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, the campaign for marriage equality and the campaign for language rights have opened up a new political space and new conversations about the future.
These are not traditional orange and green issues.
These are the spaces between, and across, traditional constitutional positions.
Citizens are looking to the future to see where there best interests are served.
Change is in the air.
Over the past two elections in the north the unionist majority has gone.
The notion of a perpetual unionist majority - the very basis of partition - is gone.
The Good Friday Agreement provides for peaceful and democratic change.
It obliges both the British and Irish governments to legislate for future change, if the people so choose.
In the coming years the demographers tell us we will see a nationalist voting majority in the north.
There will be a border referendum.
We want to win that referendum, and to win it well.
A new and united Ireland cannot simply be about welding the north to the south.
It has to be about building a New Ireland.
To take the best of both States and build anew.
To build a country that will be home regardless of whether you are British, Irish, both or neither.
It is all of our jobs to make the transition to a united Ireland a success for all the people who share this island, and the EU will have a role in that.
The European Council - in April 2017 - made a decision that a united Ireland will enjoy full membership of the EU.
That is welcome and that must be respected.
The EU has been a positive force in supporting the Good Friday and other agreements.
They have supported the peace process through structural fund investment, Peace Funding and Intereg funding.
The EU was also a positive force for good and investment when it came to German reunification.
Although of a different scale and dynamic, we believe that support from the EU is vital to ease the transition to Irish unity.
The EU has, thus far, stood outside the reunification debate as it related to two Member States.
In the event of Britain leaving the EU, it is not beyond reason that the EU could become facilitators of Irish reunification.
So we face into the challenge, and the opportunity, of building an Ireland for all our citizens and an Ireland of shared opportunity, and shared prosperity.
The same challenge and opportunities are facing the European Union and they are not new.
The exit of Britain from the EU could be seen as the loss of a critical friend or the loss of an awkward partner.
I will leave that to your judgement.
But it should be recalled that when Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry into the then six nation common market in 1964, he remarked how Britain’s economy and culture - as a maritime nation - with a Commonwealth and Colonies - was incompatible with the common market.
He did, however, leave the door open when he said; “It is very possible that Britain’s own evolution and the evolution of the universe might bring the English, little by little, toward the continent.”
And he encouraged British political leaders to take the courage to “moor alongside the Continent”. Well fifty years on it seems that ship has sailed.
Britain did of course join the then EEC with Ireland and Denmark in 1973.
However that tension was always there.
At times it was a good thing.
We had a critical friend with a different vision for the EU than other nations.
But 1973 was a different time.
The world has changed and the EU has evolved, and not always in a good way.
The scales of the tensions were played out in the Lisbon Treaty, when for the first time provision had to be made for the eventuality of a nation leaving the Union.
The European Union is once again at a defining point.
The battle of ideas for the future of the EU is well underway.
For some the old adage of; “never let a good crisis go to waste” pertains as some call for greater political and economic integration, further development of an unaccountable bureaucracy, and worryingly, a military power.
That is to miss the lesson of Brexit.
While Brexit is the product of a particular English set of circumstances, disillusionment with the European project is widespread.
The EU is no longer seen by many citizens as a vehicle for co-operation, but has become associated with elites, with power and control.
We were a test case of European solidarity during the recession and the economic crisis, but European governments protected their own interests and punished ordinary people for the failing of successive governments and financial institutions in this State and elsewhere.
That was wrong and we will continue to pay for that for generations to come
Rather than accept - or even contemplate - that EU policy is alienating citizens, the European political establishment seems determined to plough on regardless; with more of the same.
Throughout the recent ‘Future of Europe’ debates - an initiative undertaken by the European Parliament - we have seen a chorus of European leaders outline their vision for the future of the European Union.
An alarming number of incumbents seem determined to further centralise European policy, and some openly advocate for the creation of a “true” standing EU Army.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have been the standard-bearers of such an initiative.
I do not consider it a coincidence that in their two respective countries nearly 17 million people voted for far-right parties and candidates in 2017.
That may be uncomfortable, it is most certainly regrettable, but that needs to be said.
EU militarisation is not only dangerous, it is paradoxical too.
Federalists love to cite how successful the EU has been as a peace project.
The same people see no contradiction in advocating for this great peace project, yet pour billions of Euros into arms, munitions and the development of military technology.
Irish neutrality is central to our national identity.
We know the cost of conflict.
Too many Irish lives were lost in imperial wars.
Our standing internationally is high and the reputation of our Defence Forces, as peacekeepers, is exemplary.
But successive Irish governments have chipped away at our neutrality.
In recent times, joining PESCO has represented the furthest shift from neutrality in the State’s history.
Our neutrality is not, and cannot, be for sale or placed on the table of any future EU negotiations.
The European Union needs to respect our neutrality and afford us the means of opting out from Common Defence and Security Policy initiatives.
Europe should concern itself with advancing the causes which nations need to collaborate on to resolve.
Workers’ rights, environmental protections, social justice, ethical trade and research and development are areas in which co-operation is not only desired, but necessary.
Working together and delivering in these fields will reap rewards for citizens and the standing of the European Union.
Conversely, what is not in the interests of Europe or its Member States is the seemingly insatiable thirst for additional powers and responsibilities to be drawn from nations and gifted to European institutions.
It is in the interests of all that decisions are made as close as possible to those they affect.
Those best placed to resolve issues facing Ireland are representatives elected in, and accountable, to the people here in Ireland.
The principal of subsidiarity must be respected.
A genuinely social Europe is one that is close to its citizens, completely transparent and acts exclusively in their interests.
That includes respecting the fundamental principal of the supremacy of national self-determination.
I believe in the European project, but I oppose those that say the future is greater co-operation on issues such as military adventures, NATO and economic policy.
I oppose the view that the future should see a greater and deeper concentration of power in a centre that is unaccountable and fails to respect national sovereignty.
I do, however, want to see a greater co-operation in tackling our shared concerns and in building a fair society.
Co-operation to tackle climate change and world poverty.
A level playing field for the rights of workers and citizens.
A refuge for those in need.
Ireland’s place is in Europe, but the EU needs to change.
We can construct a social Europe, where the undemocratic aspects of the current system are reformed, and in a way in which citizens and Member States have a greater say in formulating positive policy positions within the Union.
We want a social Europe of equals, of partnership and solidarity.
We in Sinn Féin want to shape an EU that is guided by democratic principles and based on the premise that it is by States working together as equals on matters of mutual interest that we can best serve citizens of the EU.
The lessons of Brexit in Britain must be heard and they must be learned.
Britain leaving the EU changes Europe.
At times, we have shared common approaches to the European Union.
We have acted together in our mutual interest.
In various negotiations with the European Union we were on the same side.
That will be no more.
Culturally the EU is going to change.
In essence, Europe is going to become more a bit more European.
What does that mean for us in Ireland?
Well, it means we are likely to become a bit more closer to Berlin, to Barcelona, or Bologna than Birmingham or Bristol.
Is that a bad thing? Maybe not.
But is it a challenge? It most certainly is.
It means reassessing our entire approach to Europe, from how we plan our education system - in order to properly equip our young people with language skills for example - to forming new allies within the EU architecture.
That is important work.
Above all, there is a need to look at the way in which Europe works and who it works for.
For its citizens or for the elites?
Will it be a force for peace in the world or a world force?
Change is coming and it is up to all of us to shape that change.
To build a New Ireland in a New Europe.
Central to this is the need for institutions to serve the people.
To act in solidary, to maintain sovereignty and to deliver equality.
That is true for a New and united Ireland.
And that is true for a New Europe.
It is not the case that we need more Europe.
We need better Europe.