Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at Queen’s University Belfast
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It’s great to be back in Belfast. This is my first visit as leader of the Labour party, and I am delighted to have the chance to be here for the next couple of days to reach out and talk to people from all communities and all backgrounds to discuss their hopes for the future and listen to their ideas about how all communities can continue to work together to build on the achievements of recent years.
I’d like first of all to thank Queen’s University for inviting me to speak this morning and in particular Professor Richard English for his kind introduction.
It was fascinating to talk to Richard earlier about the work being done at Queen’s, especially on a subject I am personally keen on: international engagement and dialogue.
So it’s an honour to receive such a warm welcome from a university which is open to students from all cultures, ethnic groups and social backgrounds who are all helping to make Queen’s a world leader across a range of fields.
For many people this university has been, and continues to be, a cradle of free speech and a champion of civil rights.
This is an iconic institution whose notable alumni include Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, former Irish President Mary McAleese, as well as former first minister Lord Trimble – which brings me on to what I want to focus on today.
Twenty years ago this week, the people of both Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland voted in a referendum to accept the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. That vote changed the course of history on this island and represented the clearing of the final hurdle of a long and difficult process that opened the door to two decades of sustained peace.
Today I want to look back on those twenty years, look back at the sacrifice and courage shown at all levels of society that paved the way for something that had once seemed impossible. That was the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
We all need that spirit again. Stormont and Westminster parties, the British and Irish Governments, business and unions. If we want to secure twenty more years of peace, and greater prosperity for the many not the few.
It is wonderful to be able to say that many young people across Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain do not remember a time when the bloody hand of conflict held a grip on our respective lands. Communities from Derry to Omagh to Warrington were afflicted by the plague of violence for a generation, leaving deep and long lasting scars for all those who lived through those troubled times.
All too often in that period, the willingness to use force and reach for weapons instead of dialogue and diplomacy inflicted unnecessary suffering on innocent people. So as we rightly celebrate the anniversary of the end to those years of violence, it’s important we remember the effort and determination it took on all sides to get where we are today.
I stand here as leader of the British Labour Party, a party that is proud of the part it played in helping to bring peace and stability to this region. Something many believed could never be achieved.
The transformation we have seen in Belfast alone since 1998 is remarkable. I visited this city long before today’s peace became a reality, and have witnessed the very visible and cultural transformation that has taken place here.
Of course, first and foremost that is down to the determination and creativity of its great people. But it is also drew on a new confidence that emerged in the late 1990s, culminating in a political agreement that was skilfully crafted to create a framework to allow all sides to rebuild communities, develop the economy and foster social justice across society.
So what is it about the Good Friday Agreement that has so far proven to be durable? How did this treaty help convince people and underpin a cross-community consensus to put down the weapons and work together?
Primarily, I believe the main reason the agreement has proven robust is because it was built on the back of the spirit and determination of the men and women of these communities, who were no longer willing to tolerate the pain and division from which the Troubles had grown. And in turn this spirit fostered a courage that grew across all parts of society, from political leaders to working class communities. All had to be prepared to take risks and make sacrifices. All had to be willing to compromise. All knew the conflict must be brought to an end.
Of course there are some names that stand out during that period. Plaudits have been given in recent months to leaders on all sides who worked to broker the peace, and today I want to add my own words of respect, starting with Lord David Trimble and Reverend Ian Paisley. Both men who made brave efforts to bring their communities onside, and ultimately to embrace peace. I must also mention John Hume, a man who has dedicated his life to his people, civil rights and peace.
Those examples were set alongside heroes of mine, such as Inez McCormack, a woman who throughout her life overcame numerous obstacles to bring about change to her society. In 1976 Inez became the first female full-time official at NUPE, and then later became the first female president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
Inez used her work through the trade union movement to play a pivotal role in the peace process, and we should never forget the campaigns she led to stand up for the rights of the most socially excluded in society. It’s also right for me to pay tribute to both Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, men who led the Republican movement from conflict to negotiation and diplomacy, arts they both mastered in the cause of peace.
I can’t think of a greater sign of the progress made over the last two decades, when at Martin’s funeral last year, not only were there people in attendance from republican and nationalist communities, but also representatives of the loyalist and unionist side, including First Minister Arlene Foster.
It is also right to recognise the work of the British and Irish government leaders of the time, whose determination made the impossible possible. For that, both Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair should both be given credit for their work.
And finally, there is another person I also want to give special mention of today, somebody who, when remembering the anniversary of the Belfast agreement, is not always given the accolades she deserves. That is Mo Mowlam. Mo’s determination was vital in securing a lasting peace; her role, indispensable in bringing people together.
Only a few months ago I read an article by Mo’s stepdaughter Henrietta Morton, who expressed concern that Mo’s role was often downplayed. So on behalf of the Labour party, I want to make clear we will never forget Mo’s contribution, and neither, I think, will the people of Belfast or Dublin.
Of course there are many others we should thank, who like those I have mentioned all had one thing in common: they were willing to talk, to negotiate, to respect their opponents and walk in the other person’s shoes.
Many of you will know, since 1983 I have represented a London constituency with a large Irish community, which led me to take a keen interest in the politics of Northern Ireland. I worked with colleagues in parliament – including the SDLP – and met people from across the spectrum, campaigning for peace and justice in Northern Ireland.
In 1993, Ian Paisley was expelled from the House of Commons for telling the truth: that the then Northern Ireland Secretary had told a falsehood. Now, of course, all MPs are honourable and you cannot accuse another MP of lying. So the Speaker expelled Ian Paisley. When an MP is expelled, there is a vote to endorse the expulsion. Reverend Paisley voted against his own expulsion, and I joined him – much to his surprise.
I remember the scene as I walked with him through the lobby. He looked me up and down with a sharp glare, before saying, in that unforgettable gravelly voice: “What are you doing here?”
You see, I have always believed that to bring about real change, to end conflict, to bring communities together, you have to talk to people with whom you don’t agree. In 1998 we were fortunate to have leaders who were prepared to put that principle into practice.
Of course the Good Friday Agreement was not just about one day. I think we all knew at the time that the hardest part wouldn’t be reaching an agreement, but instead it would be how we would implement that agreement, sustain it and create a peace that would truly last.
For that to happen, it was essential we recognised the traditions of each community, and recognised and respected the identity of people on either side of the divide. This was and still is important for strong and healthy long term relationships here, across communities and across borders.
Perhaps where the agreement was at it boldest was in its radical reform of Northern Ireland’s political and institutional structures, as well as in creating a framework for North-South relations, and the relationship between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. That gave all parties a basis to find a route out of a generation of conflict together.
For all the current problems and deadlock, there can be no doubt that devolution and power-sharing have given every community a voice and helped maintain the peace process.
Of course there are still plenty of disagreements, passionate debates and high emotions. But the Good Friday Agreement has allowed those conflicts to be played out in a democratic structure, underpinned by rights for all rather than through violence.
The agreement was also crucial in giving a commitment to and I quote: “the mutual respect, civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community”. That sounds like something which today we might take for granted, but let us not forget that many communities before and during the Troubles were denied those basic human rights, and conflict inevitably dehumanises each side in the eyes of the other.
The reforms of key internal institutions also helped build trust. And the idea enshrined in the agreement that public bodies must demonstrate they are delivering equal opportunities across communities was and remains hugely important, as was the establishment of the human rights committee in protecting minorities from discrimination.
We must also not forget the weight the agreement gave to recognition of the suffering caused by violence in Northern Ireland’s past. And the move to establish the Northern Ireland Victims Commission helped both to promote reconciliation and preserve the memory of victims.
All of this brought a new beginning and laid the ground for the vital work of decommissioning of arms and the removal of military infrastructure.
But, as we stand here today in celebration of twenty years of peace, we must also recognise we are standing at a potential crossroads. It is right we celebrate the achievements, not least as it is those achievements we must use as a springboard for the 20 years to come.
We must neither be complacent, nor reckless. So I want to send this message to the people of this island: Labour is as committed to the Good Friday Agreement as we have ever been. It has served us well for twenty years and, with commitment and determination, will provide us with the framework for the next 20.
And with that in mind I want to make a plea to all parties and all sides. We must do all we can to make power sharing work again in Stormont. We need all sides to come together and make devolution work again. That means tough choices. It means compromise and give and take. But we owe it to the people of these islands not to allow political disagreements to open the way for any return to the grim days of the past.
Look at what Stormont has achieved. You resisted many of the worst aspects of this government’s punitive social security policies using the powers provided by devolution. There is so much more that could be achieved. From a full-scale upgrade of the Northern Ireland economy and investment in good jobs for all communities, to the historic step of equal marriage.
But it’s not just the political parties here that need to renew their efforts. Political parties in Westminster must also do more. We cannot take for granted that this sustained period of peace will last forever. It takes effort to keep things moving.
Stormont must be an example throughout the world of how dialogue, negotiation and diplomacy can defeat conflict. Now let’s show we can continue to build on that peace through democracy.
So if the current stalemate in Stormont cannot be sorted out in Belfast, I call on the UK government to reconvene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. We must step up to find a creative solution in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement that avoids a return to direct Westminster rule, and lays the ground for further progress for all communities.
But to secure future prosperity and peace on these islands, we also need to talk about Brexit, and the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in particular.
The British government is making a mess of these negotiations. Week after week it becomes clearer and clearer that they are too divided to make the right choices and too weak to get a good Brexit deal. They are negotiating with themselves, not the European Union. Driven by the free-market fantasists within their ranks, the reckless Conservative approach to Brexit is a very real threat to jobs and living standards here in Northern Ireland, and risks undermining and destabilising the cooperation and relative harmony of recent years.
So let me be clear, Labour will not support any Brexit deal that includes the return of a hard border to this island. We are also clear there must be no effective border created in the Irish Sea either. That is why Labour has put forward a plan that would go a long way to solving this issue, a plan for which I believe there is a majority in Westminster.
By negotiating a new and comprehensive customs union with the EU, which includes a British say in future trade deals, we can ensure trade on this island stays frictionless and free flowing and prevent communities being divided.
That, coupled with a new relationship with the single market, based on protecting and improving existing standards and rights, shows how Labour has the best plan to avoid the return of a hard border and achieve a Brexit deal that protects and delivers for all our people.
Tomorrow I will be visiting the border to talk to those communities who would be most affected by any change to current arrangements. And again I want to make a plea across both benches in Parliament in Westminster. Let’s not give up years of hard fought cooperation and stability for the pipe dream of race-to-the-bottom free trade deals with the likes of Donald Trump.
The Conservative government talks about how technology could avoid a hard border under their plans, and how new systems can provide checks and collect tariffs. But even if that were true, it misses the point. Opposition to the idea of bringing back a hard border to this land isn’t just about avoiding paperwork or tariffs, important though that is. It’s about deep rooted cultural and community ties. An open border is a symbol of peace, two communities living and working together after years of conflict, communities who no longer feel that their traditions are under threat.
Theresa May has a hard decision to make. People here need clarity. If she can’t face down the reckless ideologues in her own party, Labour will give Parliament the opportunity to do it instead. We will protect peace and prosperity by preventing the return of a hard border on this island.
Peace can and must be extended through real social and economic advances for all communities, with the state at regional and national level prepared to act to bring about a full-scale upgrade of the economy.
While many economic decisions for Northern Ireland are rightly decided in Stormont, a Labour government in Westminster would make sure that Northern Ireland has more money to invest in its people and its public services. We will make sure the people of Northern Ireland do not miss out.
We are committed to supporting manufacturing in Northern Ireland. And Labour’s recent pledge to reverse the decision to put the £1 billion contract to build the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships out to international tender will keep jobs and prosperity in Britain’s shipyards and could benefit Belfast.
Don’t listen to anyone who says we can’t build things in this country any more. Shipbuilding is no lame duck, and can have a high tech, high skilled and exciting future right here in Northern Ireland.
And as we leave the European Union, it is essential we not only make sure our manufacturers have access to markets and on-time supply chains. We also need to make sure the communities of Northern Ireland continue to have access to vital funding for energy, research, agriculture and cultural projects.
Leaving the EU should not be used as an excuse to reduce investment and opportunity. On the contrary, we must use powers returned from Brussels to intervene, upgrade and reshape our economy for the 21st century, to deliver real social and economic advances for all our communities.
So in conclusion, we all have a lot of work to do. I’m proud to be here in Belfast as leader of the Labour party, a party with a strong record in helping to deliver peace and greater prosperity.
I hope to use this visit to talk to people from different communities and listen to their concerns and hopes for the future. We are here to celebrate twenty years of peace, twenty years as an example to the rest of the world of how communities can turn conflict into co-operation. Let’s work together in the spirit of friendship, co-operation and hope for another twenty and beyond.
As Seamus Heaney once wrote….
“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme”
Let the history of the last twenty years and our hopes for the future guide us as we make the history of the years to come.