Former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, says the people of Ireland have the right to decide their own future.
Labour Briefing readers have a proud historical record – of which I am also proud to have been part – of supporting the peace process in the North of Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, the right of Ireland to self-determination, and indeed the rights of Irish communities here in Britain.
Now, we have a duty to again be making the case that the people of Ireland have the right to shape their own future, as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement – through a border poll.
In May, we saw the outcome of the inquests into the deaths of the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre. The coroner found that all ten of those shot dead between 9th – 11th August 1971 – in the days following the introduction of internment without trial – were ‘entirely innocent of any wrongdoing’. For fifty years the families knew the truth, but for half a century that truth was hidden from the British public.
Internment and the use of military force against civilian populations was part of a long litany of failed British policies in Ireland. Perhaps the greatest policy failure of all, however, was not fifty but a hundred years ago.
This year marks the centenary of the partition of Ireland but there is little sense of jubilation. Earlier this year, polling conducted for the BBC found that, even within Northern Ireland, only 40% consider it a cause for celebration. On both sides of the border, most people now believe that Ireland will be united at some point in the next 25 years.
Westminster politicians saw partition as a way to ‘get Ireland done’. By dividing Ireland it was hoped that the divisive ‘Irish Question’ could be removed from British politics. The fruits were bitter. Fifty years of discrimination under what amounted to a one party Unionist regime was followed by three decades of conflict, in which more than 3,500 people were killed.
The sectarian nature of the state that was built from partition is still visible at the so-called ‘peace lines’ in Belfast and other towns and cities that were recently the site of fresh disturbances. But twenty-three years ago, in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement began to lay the ground on which peace could be built. Central to that agreement was the right, guaranteed to all the people of Northern Ireland, to identify as Irish or British or both and to pursue through peaceful and democratic means their future aspirations for the island.
It placed on the Secretary of State a responsibility to organise a referendum should it appear likely to lead to constitutional change and, across Ireland today, that conversation is growing louder.
The part it played in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement is arguably the most important achievement of the last Labour government. Alongside others from right across the labour movement, I am proud of the part I played in insisting – even in the most dark and difficult days – that dialogue and negotiation offered the only path to peace.
With a Tory government content to wallow in its own apparent ignorance, the labour movement in this country, along with civil society and the Irish community, has an enormous part to play in supporting the kind of dialogue that is every bit as necessary today. Raising the level of understanding about Ireland in Britain can help to ensure that the failures of the past are learnt from and not repeated and put pressure on the government to do the right thing and live up to its commitments.
It is time to make good on the promises made in 1998. A whole generation born after the Good Friday Agreement are now adults while there are people in their forties today who were not yet old enough to vote when it was signed. The people of Ireland have the right to shape their own future. It is surely time for a border poll.