January 31, 2020
Address by Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald to the IIEA

Address by Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald to the Institute of International and European Affairs; Friday, 31st January 2020

‘Ireland and the EU after Brexit: A View from Sinn Féin’

“Having Sinn Féin Ministers in government, north and south, is the best way to protect Ireland’s interests in the next phase of Brexit negotiations, and as we move toward a unity referendum.”


Go raibh maith agaibh. 

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, 

It gives me great pleasure to join you here at the Institute today.

I am grateful for the welcome and for the opportunity to speak on ‘Ireland and the EU after Brexit’ and to give a Sinn Féin perspective on the challenges we face as an island, now and in the time ahead.

Today marks the end of an era.

Britain leaves the European Union after forty-seven years of membership; having joined with Ireland back in 1973.

No Member State has ever left the EU before now.

So, we are in unprecedented times.

I have always said that if the British people wish to leave the EU, we wish them well.

That is their choice.

However, it has to be said that the narrow self-serving agenda of some leading Brexiteers has not only has not only divided British public and political opinion, but has economic implications and challenges for us all.

That being said, it would be reckless to ignore the very real problems with the European Union that drove so many British people to a Leave position.

The European project is far from perfect.  

Too many ordinary working people feel that the EU does not work for them, but against them.

There is a view that the EU has strayed from the orginal vision of a community of nations, working in partnership and solidary, for the greater well-being of citizens.

The privatisation agenda, growing federalism and the eroding of State sovereignty, as well the push for a militarised EU, are all issues that have left European citizens alienated from the EU.

This has created a distrust of European policymakers.

That is not good for the future of the European Union; which I truly believe can be a powerful force for good in the world – and can improve the lives of workers and families in every State.

We have to change direction.

We have to put citizens first.

There is a growing momentum amongst progressive political movements to achieve this change of direction. 

I believe that Ireland, particularly in a post-Brexit era, can be to the fore in shaping this new direction.

A social European Union is possible – one where economic equality, democracy and sovereignty; accountability and a commitment to peace and demilitarisation are embraced as strengths.

A European Union that stands as a genuine beacon for justice and acts with purpose when human rights are attacked – whether that is internationally – or within the EU itself, as we have seen in Catalonia.

Brexit should be seen as catalyst for positive change in the EU. 

A watershed. 

A new departure.

There is onus on EU decision makers not to stick their heads in the sand.

There is onus to seize the moment.

The European Union will only thrive on the basis of inclusivity, respect for nationhood and crucially on the basis of delivering real, tangible benefits for citizens.

I am confident that we can achieve such a European Union.

But we have to be up for it. 

We have to truly want it. 

I believe that Ireland’s future is best served within this reformed European Union.

All of Ireland, north and south. 

A United Ireland.

Last week the five main parties in the northern Assembly refused to give consent to the British government to legislate on its behalf in relation to Brexit.

It is no surprise that this objection is shared by our colleagues in the Scottish and Welsh administrations, who also refused to give their consent to similar requests made by the British government. 

Brexit is not an orange or green issue.

The majority of parties [Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens], and a majority of MLAs and MPs in the North continue to oppose Brexit.

Neither the people, nor their political representatives, have consented to the North leaving the EU today.

People who consider themselves to be Irish, British, both or neither, will lose practical benefits and entitlements.

There is a justifiable anger about this.

The European Union has been a partner for peace in Ireland.

It has provided substantial political and financial aid that has led to greater economic and social progress on an all-island basis.

The negotiation and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has been facilitated by both the Irish and British governments membership of the EU, and the Peace Process has benefitted from that.  

While the Good Friday Agreement does not expressly require either Ireland or Britain to retain membership of the European Union, the Agreement clearly assumes continued membership of the EU by both States.

The Brexit referendum campaign in 2016 did not take account of Ireland, or the unintended consequences for the political, social and economic progress of the past twenty-two years. 

Consequently, the border in Ireland became a key part of Brexit negotiations.

While we now have a Withdrawal Agreement, a revised Political Declaration and an Irish protocol that mitigates the worst excesses of Brexit, let us be clear – there is no good version of Brexit for Ireland, North or South.

I do not intend to rehearse the last three years.

But I do want to say that, while our party’s our objective is the reunification of Ireland, we developed a policy and worked hard to make the case for designated special status for the North within the EU since 2016.

I am all too aware that our political opponents – particularly in the heat of an election campaign – will ignore this, however it is important and fair to say that we worked constructively with the Irish government and pro-remain parties in common cause in defence of our shared interests. 

It was Sinn Féin that secured cross-party consensus in the Dáil in February 2017 for the special status position.

The fundamental areas we have worked hard to secure include;

 – Safeguarding the peace process and protecting the Good Friday Agreement; 

– No customs checks or tariffs on this island;

 – Continued access to both the Single Market and Customs Union; 

– Preservation of the North/South and East/West elements of the Agreement which are critical to co-operation, better integration and public service provision; 

– Stopping any unionist veto at Stormont;

– Securing the citizenship provisions core to the Good Friday Agreement, which recognise the birth right of all the people of the North to identify themselves, and be accepted, as Irish or British or both, as they may so choose. 

We will continue to work with all parties to maximise benefits that are in our national interests in terms of the future relationship.

Boris Johnson’s assertion that he will not extend the transition period give us cause for concern.

Negotiating a future relationship in eleven months is a tight timeline and represents a risk of ‘no-deal’.

We must avoid this.

Because we must prevent barriers to trade and commerce.

Our objective is to avoid slowing business down or putting the cost of doing business up; East/West or North/South.

And we do not want consumers paying the price.

If the British government and the EU reach December 2020 without a deal, the Withdrawal Agreement will still be in force. 

However, if no extension is requested by Boris Johnson, then this means we are back to a crash out scenario and default to World Trade Organization rules.

The provisions for avoiding a hard border through the protocol on the island of Ireland must come into effect.

There cannot – and will not – be any land border on this island.

Failure to comply with the Withdrawal Agreement could see the European Commission begin infringement proceedings against the British government at the European Court of Justice.

The Protocol affirms that the Good Friday Agreement should be protected in all its parts. 

Sinn Féin and the other parties in the northern Executive and Assembly will ensure that the British government and the EU lives up to these those commitments and responsibilities throughout negotiations.

We now have a restored power-sharing government and a fully functioning Assembly, North/South Ministerial Council, and British-Irish Council.

These institutional arrangements must continue to operate with much more vigour going forward than they did before.

Although Sinn Féin and the DUP are fundamentally at odds on Brexit, Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster as joint heads of government in the North are determined, along with the other parties in the Executive, to work together in common cause to face the Brexit challenge.

On the day that the new Assembly sat earlier this month, Michelle O’Neill said;

“This is a defining moment for politics.

“From today, the parties undertake to cooperate in every way we can in order to rebuild public trust and confidence in the Assembly and the Executive.

“Our mission must be to deliver on health, education and jobs for everyone across the whole community.

Michelle went on to acknowledge that while people across the North – of course – want restored government to deliver good public services, the political landscape of the island is changing, and that cannot be ignored.

Because there is now a conversation on Irish unity underway across this island.

There is no contradiction in declaring and delivering on our firm commitment to power sharing with unionism, while also initiating a mature, inclusive debate about new political arrangements that examine Ireland’s future beyond Brexit.

There is equally no contradiction for unionism to work within existing constitutional arrangements, and taking its place in the conversation about what a New Ireland will look like.

A clear choice has opened up.

It is a choice between a narrow, inward-looking vision of Brexit Britain or an open, inclusive vision of a New Ireland.

It is no longer a question of if – it is a question of when – a referendum on Irish unity will be held.

In April 2017 you will recall that the EU made an important declaration.

They said that in the event of Irish reunification the North would automatically re-join the EU as part of a United Ireland.

So, for many people from all traditions and backgrounds Irish unity is seen as the best way to stay within the EU.

Many of those of a British or unionist identity are now considering the merits of reunification;

Not to become Republicans, but to remain European.

This is backed up by the unprecedented number of people applying for Irish passports.

People are acting in their own interests, and are coming to the conclusion that their interests are best served in a New Ireland that is part of the EU.

Sinn Féin is fully invested and committed to the Good Friday Agreement’s political framework.

The commitment to a referendum on a united Ireland is within this Agreement.

It cannot be cherry-picked.

I am not proposing – despite what some may suggest – that we hold a referendum tomorrow, or next month.

I have set out very clearly and consistency that I believe that a five-year timeframe is realistic and sensible.

I have also said that we must start planning now.

Because the simple reality is that Brexit has exposed the failure and undemocratic nature of partition.

It is a political problem that requires a political solution. 

Over the past number of elections in the north the notion of a perpetual unionist majority – the very basis of partition – has disappeared. 

Demographic shifts are evident. 

A public conversation in now underway on the constitutional future of the whole island.  

The issue of Irish Unity has taken on a new dynamic because of Brexit. 

Political momentum is moving in that direction. 

Sinn Féin wants a new and agreed Ireland. 

However, Sinn Féin does not own this debate.   

Everyone is being challenged to rethink their economic futures. 

Citizens are looking to see where their best interests are served.  

The people of this island should have a choice between Brexit and reunification. 

So, in government I will seek to begin such preparatory work, in parallel with civil society conversations that are now well underway.

We need to consider how we help our neighbours from a British, unionist identity into this conversation without surrendering that identity or allegiance.

The New Ireland I want is not for nationalists and republicans alone, but for everyone who shares this island and everyone must feel that they belong. 

In considering this, we should remember that the north would be uniting with a pre-existing State within the EU – where Article 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann anticipates reunification, and in the context of an international agreement that guarantees continuity of protections; as laid out in the Good Friday Agreement. 

It is clear that the building of a new, agreed Ireland will require the participation and co-operation of all the people of Ireland.  

In particular, it is evident that an Irish government must commit themselves to this objective.  

I will do this.

The British government also has a duty to join in developing the necessary process that will recognise this reality and give effect to the requirements as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement, and to make the required investment of political will and resources. 

I believe that the incoming government must enter into discussions with the British government in order to create the framework and atmosphere necessary for this purpose. 

It will be necessary for negotiation and discussion to take place prior to a referendum, because we must avoid a repeat of all the mistakes we witnessed in Britain.

In government, Sinn Féin will press for such engagement.  

The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is a mechanism to facilitate this discussion.   

The Conference – as you are aware – was set up under the Good Friday Agreement to promote bilateral co-operation between both governments. 

Costing reunification and carrying out an examination of new political arrangements – fully respecting obligations and commitments under the Good Friday Agreement – is also crucial.   

This should include implementing outstanding commitments under the Agreement in advance of a referendum. 

I would seek to establish a national forum to carry this necessary engagement and consultation. 

We would also establish a Constitution Unit within government, with responsibility for North/South relations, political dialogue and negotiation, planning and preparation for a referendum on Irish unity. 

When an Irish unity referendum is secured – and won – there must also be a period of preparation and transition for the island of Ireland to become a reunified State.  

This period between a referendum and reunification will see further negotiations between Dublin, London, and importantly the European Union.  

The governments – as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement – are committed to work together constructively in light of the outcome of the referendum in the best interests of the people of the island of Ireland.  

Following a vote for reunification, agreements will be needed between the Irish and Westminster governments, setting the parameters for Ireland’s transition to reunification.  

These will set out the precise reunification timetable. 

There are ways in which the EU can ensure that the transition to Irish unity, and maintaining membership of the EU, are supported.

That could start now by affording observe status to northern MEPs.  

It will also, in my view, require an all-Ireland party to play an active role in these discussions.

Having Sinn Féin Ministers in government, north and south, is the best way to protect Ireland’s interests in the next phase of Brexit negotiations, and as we move toward a unity referendum.

The Good Friday Agreement gives people the opportunity and choice to decide our future together. 

Brexit is a threat to Ireland’s future political stability and economic prosperity. 

These challenges require new thinking and a radical and innovative response to forge a new relationship. 

During the course of this decade, we are marking the centenaries of key, seminal events that have shaped modern Irish history over the past century and have defined our relationship with Britain during this time. 

A relationship characterised by colonialism, rebellion, partition and political division, and over the past twenty-two years by peace, reconciliation renewed co-operation and mutual respect. 

As we approach the centenary of partition let us not refight old battles. 

The future will be forged by political leadership. 

It will certainly require creativity, imagination and innovation. 

We must succeed.

The best hope for future success is to bring the people of our island together. 

This is a defining period in our history and the history of Europe. 

It is a time for big ideas.

For inclusive conversations.

For ambitious plans.

And for generosity. 

I believe we are entering a decade of opportunity where the freedom to choose our own future will be decided by the people on this island.

It is a time to bring people together in harmony and friendship.

It is a time to transform this country.

It is a time to unite all of the people who share this island.

And to seize, what is, the opportunity of a lifetime.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh. 

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