By Ben Folley
As we approach the general election, the government’s foreign policy adventures continue to cost votes, just as they did in 2005. The Chilcot Inquiry and the appearance of not only Tony Blair but potentially Gordon Brown just weeks before election day do not help Labour, whilst in Afghanistan the ongoing deaths of British soldiers and uncounted Afghan civilians continues to gnaw away at the Government, as serious questions remain about the credibility of its ally governing Kabul.
But one thing Labour can continue to point to as a foreign policy success is the Good Friday Agreement and the development of the peace process in the north of Ireland. Today we can see how negotiation between unionists and republicans will result in policing and justice powers being handed to the devolved administration. This is the latest step in a process that has seen a far reaching equality agenda to end discrimination; historic power sharing and inclusivity; and the end of violence, including the decommissioning of arms by paramilitaries and demilitarisation by the British Army.
Now there is the regular sight of face-to-face discussions by republicans and loyalists, governing together in Stormont, confirming that the future of Ireland will be resolved by an inclusive political process.
At an important and timely conference opening a discussion on Irish unity here in London later this month, a central element of the discussion will be about Ireland’s constitutional future -in the context of the Good Friday Agreement – with senior leaders from Ireland including Gerry Adams, from the SDLP and academics such as Lord Bew and former loyalist politician Davey Adams. British politicians, including Ken Livingstone and trade union leaders from Britain and Ireland and others will also participate to discuss Ireland’s constitutional future.
The focus in the British media has not been on Ireland’s current situation, but rather on the sentiment that all is now settled. The process is far from over. The Good Friday Agreement created structures that have yet to be fully tested and implemented – the current agreement is just the latest step in further doing so. But as power is further devolved to the Assembly, another historic constitutional process is unfolding whereby Stormont increasingly engages with the structures of Government in Dublin. The North-South Ministerial Council provides an all-Ireland framework for political discussion, without the interference of Britain. Joint discussions now take place on transport infrastructure linking areas historically underdeveloped because of partition, of schools that can serve communities on both sides of the border.
Some of the other political parties of the south, almost all of whom state their support for a united Ireland, have started recruiting members in the north and are starting to think about organising on an all-Ireland basis. Both Fianna Fail and Irish Labour have started recruiting in the north, perhaps preparing for a united Ireland in future.
Sinn Fein can only welcome the development where more parties identify the island as a single political entity. And here in Britain we should start to consider it a possibility. So we must start to consider if the people of the north voted for unification with the south of Ireland, as the Good Friday Agreement provides for, how would Britain hand over power? How would the Home Office here hand over its responsibilities to its Dublin counterpart? Would the Ministry of Defence hand over its military bases to the Irish Defence Forces? Presumably sterling would cease to become legal tender and the northern economy, integrating into the rest of Ireland, would convert to the Euro.
The development of the political process has been a long one that has required brave politicians in Britain to foresee a different future and challenge orthodox thinking. In the early 1980s when Gerry Adams assumed the leadership of Sinn Fein to embark on a political strategy for Irish reunification, it was Ken Livingstone as leader of the GLC who advocated direct discussions with Sinn Fein, whilst Thatcher sought to silence them. Now, such discussions are commonplace.
The conference ‘Putting Irish Unity on the Agenda’, taking place in London at the TUC on February 20th, will be a good opportunity to continue this discussion. It is Britain that has historically held jurisdiction in Ireland and it is vital that we understand and discuss how and why we should leave when the people demand it. This conference will provide that opportunity.
For more information and to register for the even, visit londonirishunityconference.org.