Ivana Bacik key note speech at Labour Youth’s Tom Johnson Summer School in Belfast

Ivana Bacik TD
02 July 2022

Comrades, I am delighted to be here.

And it’s great to see so many friends.

Congratulations to the National Youth Executive – and Conal O’Boyle and Aideen Blackwood, in particular – for putting together an interesting and stimulating programme. “Re-imagine Belfast”.

So far, you have re-imagined how we honour the legacy of civil rights activists of the 20th century; you have re-imagined citizenship on our island; you have re-imagined how we protect our planet; you have re-imagined how to treat those with addiction issues, who are so mistreated in our criminal justice system today.

Your energy and your ideas drive our great Party, to re-imagine a better Ireland, and to put those socialist and social democratic ideas into action.

I know that Labour Youth have consistently shown a real determination to see the immense contribution of Tom Johnson properly recognised and acknowledged.

I commend you on that.

It is a job well done.

Thank you too to Conal O’Boyle for bringing the event North of the border.

That’s as it should be.

Tom Johnson himself was no stranger to Belfast or to Dublin.

And this summer school should be at home in either city, or indeed in any other city on this island.

Thank you too to the participants who have made it such a great weekend.

I speak to you as a Leader of a Party that in 1949 won seven council seats in this city.

The Labour movement, in its many guises, has a proud tradition both north and south of the border.

Indeed, much of unionist reaction in the early days of the northern state, like the abandonment of PR, was about containing support for the Labour movement as much as containing nationalism.

But the success of Labour as a political party or as a trade union movement, has undoubtedly been deeply affected by the partitioning of the island – just as every aspect of our economic, political and social system has been.

When people ask us why we support the SDLP in northern elections, I think the answer is two-fold.

We are ultimately Connollyite republicans who believe our nation would be better united.

And we also recognise the labour tradition within SDLP – a tradition which represents a meaningful, left-wing alternative to those who speak rhetorically about a United Ireland and who try to monopolise the Wolfe Tone tradition.

We also share a strong commitment to the achievement of a social Europe and a recognition of the vital importance of the European project and the EU to the future of this island.

We in Labour stand for a real republic – one which values equality and redistribution more than just semantics; one which can see beyond sectarianism; one which recognises that true equality is based on pluralism.

Indeed, it has been Labour, since the late sixties, that has led the declericalisation of Irish society south of the border.

It was our Labour TDs and Senators – representatives like the late great Mervyn Taylor, whom we honoured recently in Dublin – who supported and campaigned for the secularisation of our society, long before it became either popular or electorally advantageous.

Behind that strategy, was our Wolfe Tone republicanism – the understanding that before we could contemplate asking others of different traditions to join us, that we needed to create a secular republic.

Economic development – and the democratisation of that economy – is critically important.

We are similarly proud of Labour’s role in economic modernisation and securing greater protection for trade union rights.

We are also wary of so-called anti-partition campaigns that are strong on volume but bring little to the table.

Merely speaking about something is no guarantee of its advancement.

If there are people from outside the nationalist canon who are prepared to look afresh at constitutional arrangements, it is in spite of, not because of, the 30 years of futile carnage.

Rather it is the modernisation of Ireland, its internationalism, its multilateralism, and its economic success that is being juxtaposed against the deeply regrettable apparent  decline in similar values in Britain – although of course I am hopeful that the election of a British Labour Government can change that.

I want to talk tonight – as you have today – about the legacy of John and Pat Hume.

It is hard to see the Humes as  part of any other family other than the social democratic and socialist family.

It was great to see Hume restored to centre stage in the recent concluding episodes of Derry Girls.

I think it was Eamon McCann who said you can get republican tours of Derry where his name is not even mentioned!

Yet the scale of his intellectual victory over irredentist republicans is without historical parallel.

Today we talk about him as a peacemaker.

Yes, he was.

He was firmly located in the broader civil rights tradition of the sixties.

To talk about John Hume as simply a peacemaker risks sanitising him.

He was anti-violence yes, but he also sought to understand what drove it.

Together with and hugely supported by Pat, John took risks for peace.

He also was courageous enough to rewrite the canon of Irish nationalism.

It’s people that matter – not territories.  How often did we hear it?

And because people matter, so to do their economic circumstances – you cannot eat a flag!

There is no more republican sentiment than that.

John Hume was inherently critical of Irish nationalism’s failure to address unionist opposition to its unity project, in both its constitutional and republican guises – from Home Rule to the War of Independence.

We need to be careful that there is no slippage back from that.

There isn’t anything inherently natural or pre-determined about any political settlement on the island – unionist or nationalist.

But if we are to live in peace with each other, under any constitutional settlement, it requires respect and allegiance for any constitutional arrangement.

In 2022, there are no planters and there are no Gaels.  There are only those who by accident of birth or act of choice call this island home.

It is also important to note that the most recent significant electoral advance demonstrated a rejection of the orange-green binary at a scale never seen before.

Further showing that you can be British Irish in the same way you can be Nigerian Irish and Polish Irish – or indeed Czech Irish!

Our national identity is not set in 1916.

It is a living breathing phenomenon, unrecognisable today from what it was a century ago and what it will be in another century.

Does this new society make the constitutional debate redundant?  It does not, in my view.

Changing understandings of identitie, and differing perspectives on the constitutional settlement, are baked into the Good Friday Agreement, our political guiding star.

The principle of Consent is at the core of that Agreement.

That may be the legal test – but the moral test is greater still.

The consent of the maximum number possible, from all traditions, new and old, for any new constitutional settlement must be our goal.

In terms of timing to gauge that consent, for what it’s worth, I think the thirtieth anniversary suggestion, set out by former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, is not an unreasonable one.

What I do know, however, is that we are not ready for a referendum on unification yet.

We have yet to do the work necessary to enable people to make an informed choice about their future, on both sides of the border; to protect our island’s most marginalised communities from the consequences of a hasty campaign, or the vanity project of any one group seeking ideological victory

It is a challenge that should not be taken for granted.

Our state is a century old and we are proud of what we in Labour have helped it become.

As the oldest political party in the state, having recently celebrated our 110th birthday, we can be very proud of our socialist legacy and our contribution to the democratic processes that have shaped our State since its formation.

We have, as I said, made significant progress even over the last fifty years, and we must be ambitious to make more.

But a united Ireland – a shared island – will require us to think differently about the future of our society and our identity. That challenge should not be underestimated.

I’ve heard people say, unionists in particular, “tell us what this new political arrangement will look like.”  It’s a fair question and it won’t be confined to unionists.  After Brexit, none of us will be keen to take steps into the unknown.

It is perplexing that some of the loudest adherents of unity have been so slow to put a vision on the table for the future.

If that is because they are afraid of alienating parts of their base, it only serves to illustrate  the enormity of our task.

Its critical therefore that we have answers – or if not definitive answers, as such things may not be possible, that we have considered all options.

I am on the record as supporting the use of deliberative democracy -citizens’ assemblies – to address these issues.  The evidence shows their important role in unlocking complex problems.

But it would be wrong to think that their members or secretariats are in a position to do the complex analysis that is required before we even think of solutions.

We need also to consider how such assemblies may be initiated and constituted.

I think it is reasonable to assume that many of those who identify as Unionist may decline to participate.  It would be, in fairness, an understandable, if regrettable position for them to adopt.

It will be important however, that we, as advocates of change, would not take this non-participation as an opportunity to purport that the assemblies can come to views representative of all traditions on the island.

It is because many Unionists may not be around the table that the impetus is on us all the more to seek to acknowledge and understand their perspective.

In effect the assemblies (I use plurals deliberately because we may need more than one) can most likely only reflect the views of those advocating for change – the people responsible for assembling our position or putting our case forward in a referendum on unity.

This might be particularly helpful for example, in aligning the views of change advocates north and south of the border.

Ultimately, whatever proposals are arrived at, if they are to serve as an ‘offer’, will have to enjoy broad political support across the entire island.

That being the case, there will need to be considerable work done in assembling the arguments for change, and the solutions to the issues that will inevitably arise from doing so, in advance of the establishment of such assemblies.

The Taoiseach’s Shared Island Unit has been a hugely positive initiative in this regard – and other academic and policy initiatives are also examining some of the practical issues involved in developing the process and the groundwork preparatory for holding a referendum.

These will be vitally important.

Many people will vote in a unity referendum on issues of identity, but others will vote on economic and social issues – reflecting what they think is best for their families and their children.

While the obvious issues of identity and symbolism regarding an anthem or a flag can most often be the subject of commentary, there are much more challenging questions that require thought and deliberation.

What does an all-island national development plan for infrastructure look like?

How will we deal with the economics of any new arrangements?

What public holidays might be marked in a new dispensation?

What will housing, health and education systems look like?

Not just slogans, realistic and affordable solutions.

It is easy to talk about a new Ireland – but that Ireland will be built on the foundations of our current systems.

President Michael D. Higgins – our dear friend and former colleague – recently called the housing crisis in this jurisdiction “a housing disaster”.

When we dream of a new Ireland – a fair and equal Ireland – we must be realistic about the infrastructure with which we currently live – infrastructure which is inadequate to meet the real needs of families and individuals on so many fronts.

On housing, on childcare and on healthcare – we know that this infrastructure has suffered from the hegemony of the two-party system of the past century.

To that end, I support the views that say that this work needs to be an all of Government agenda.

The best way to do this is to revive the old Green and White Paper tradition of assembling the evidence and identifying both problems and solutions before proceeding.

The Green Paper brings together the broad range of issues and the White Paper focuses on possible solutions.

I think that this process would help identify the issues that require discussion and deliberation at open and transparent citizens assemblies.

It would bring together the academic and policy work being done at the moment, and address areas that are not being adequately addressed.

For our part, in answering these questions of “bread and butter” issues, we in Labour must speak with clarity about the “bread and roses” solutions which are available to us.

We must continue to advocate for strong state investment – in housing, childcare, transport, health, and across the public services.

For example, this week we sought real, tangible and immediate action from the Government to address the serious and significant issues that autistic people and children with autism face in accessing education and healthcare.

The same crisis exists in Northern Ireland where so many children with special education needs are without a school place for this September. So both North and South we must make the same arguments for more state intervention to deliver decent public services.

We are sometimes insufficiently appreciative of the potential of our public services and state institutions – but they have helped us through both Brexit and Covid.

They helped deliver and mould the peace process too.

This, in my view, is another issue where they can make an important contribution.

I’ll say this though too.  This issue sits alongside other issues of immense importance.

There are so many other challenges to be faced now.  Bread and butter issues – in particular the cost of living crisis so appallingly exacerbated by Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine; the housing disaster; the rising prices of food, energy and fuel, of childcare and of healthcare.

That’s why I have repeatedly called for targeted economic measures to be introduced now to address the vicious cost of living crisis affecting so many households.

That is also why it is vital to restore a functioning Executive in Stormont – so that Ministers, in both jurisdictions, can act now to help people with the surge in prices.

Because we know that Ireland needs a pay rise.

And of course we also know about the existential challenge of Climate Change.

Climate change will not wait for us to solve this issue.

Climate change is no respecter of borders or inclined to take a back seat to other problems.  It is all encompassing.

Thus our discussion on the constitutional future of this island must be carried outin recognition that it is only one of many challenges currently facing us in both jurisdictions.

We must recognise that new constitutional settlements are inevitably complex and potentially difficult and so we should proceed with deliberation and optimism.

But proceed we should – and we must.

What I am convinced of is that generosity will be at the heart of any successful transition – whether the Just Transition we need on Climate Change, or the transition required to deliver a united island.

We don’t want to swap the majoritarianism of the past for a new one.  We know where that gets us.

The Good Friday Agreement needs to be worked in all its aspects, by all.

There is much to be done and Labour will approach the task ahead constructively and honestly.

Arguably ours is the only tradition that has ever enjoyed significant cross community support.

For that we were viewed with suspicion in the past.

But our history also affords us the opportunity to make a unique contribution to this debate  – and that is what we will do.

And I hope that my words this evening will provide some grounds for reflection, not just on our history, but on our shared future on this island.

Thank you.

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