25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, local election results show it’s time to prepare for Irish unity

In the online discussion at Arise Festival 2023 titled 'The Good Friday Agreement at 25 – Time for Irish Unity', panellists Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew MP, John McDonnell MP, and Geoff Bell from Labour for Irish Unity discuss the evolving political landscape in Ireland, reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Fein's recent electoral success, while debating the future of Irish unity.


Source >> Labour Outlook

“As Irish republicans we are clear: the Irish people have the right to self-determination; we have the right to determine our own future without outside interference, peacefully and democratically.”

Michelle Gildernew MP

By Sam Browse, Arise Festival

As this year’s Arise Festival gets into full swing, the month-long programme of events turned to the issue of Ireland with ‘The Good Friday Agreement at 25 – Time for Irish Unity’, featuring Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew MP, John McDonnell MP, and Geoff Bell, of Labour for Irish Unity and the author of The Twilight of Unionism.

The online discussion, Chaired by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’s Rachel Garnham – a long-time supporter of the cause of Irish reunification – came weeks after the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and as Sinn Fein swept the board in the latest round of council elections. The republican party gained 30.9% of the vote as compared to the DUP’s 23.3%, winning more council seats for the first time in the history of these elections.

WATCH: The Good Friday Agreement at 25 – Time for Irish Unity? A session at Arise Festival 2023.

Michelle Gildernew MP began with the events marking the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement, saying” ‘of course it’s right that we celebrate what happened in 1998, but the people that I talk to want to know what’s happening now and what’s happening next. The most recent local elections in the North have demonstrated once again that change isn’t just possible; it’s already happening.”

“The parties that pushed narratives that were locked in the past found themselves out of step with where people were at. Sinn Fein went into the campaign with a positive message of making politics work and that positive leadership resonated with the public.”

Referring to the refusal of the DUP to take part in the power-sharing Executive in Stormont, she said “as first Minister designate, Michelle O’Neil has demonstrated her commitment to being a First Minister for everyone. In this respect, the continued denial of democracy in the North remains unacceptable and intolerable. It’s clear to anyone paying attention, whether they’re in Belfast or Dublin, Brussels or London, that the Assembly and the Executive must be reformed.”

“The people had their say last year. No single party can be permitted to act as a barrier to this democratic expression and the DUP should take its place in the Executive among other parties.”

John McDonnell followed, and said “this is all about the debate for the future and it’s so exciting. The potential is enormous. I think there is such a potential for building this new Ireland that Michelle was talking about. We have to go out there and win it”

Examining the reasons for the collapse for the DUP collapse, he said “clearly there are issues of demography here, and Brexit split unionism, but actually the absence of the executive and the DUP refusal to engage has demoralised their own support. People have walked away from them because they want to engage in a constructive form of politics, talking about the future. That’s why I don’t think we can expect a united Ireland to emerge inevitably; it has to be worked for.”

“I come at that as a socialist. James Connelly was arguing that there’s no use putting a green flag above Dublin castle if the capitalists and the financiers still rule – unless we start the work on creating a socialist state. I think that’s what the potential is in Ireland, now.”

Geoff Bell, Labour for Irish Unity, provided some context to these results, reminding the audience that in the 60s “the leading unionist party in Northern Ireland was winning 70% of the votes in Northern Ireland.”

“Today, at the last election, the leading unionist party won 23.3% of the votes and the latest academic surveys have shown that the nationalist vote was 43-44% and the total unionist vote was 39.3%. There’s another survey which has predicted that if people vote as they did in the last council elections, the DUP would be reduced to only five MPs at Westminster.”

Pointing to the historic origins of unionism as an ideology emerging out of imperialism and the idea of British superiority, Bell argued that the government still adhered to privileging unionism and unionist voices over other voices in the North.

He said, “they have lost two elections in the last fourteen months and yet the British government is quite content to say the self-government of Northern Ireland cannot proceed without the unionist’s say so – and indeed, the British government has refused to criticise them for holding up the Assembly.”

Challenging both the government and the Labour Party for their refusal to countenance a border poll, he said “we should be encouraged that the reactionary idea of unionism is declining, but we also have to say that the idea that the Irish people have the right to rule themselves is now probably more supported than it has ever been in Britain.”

As Michelle Gildernew put so well, “as Irish republicans we are clear: the Irish people have the right to self-determination; we have the right to determine our own future without outside interference, peacefully and democratically. That is a central component of the Good Friday Agreement.”

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