News & Media

Contribution to Dáil Statements on Northern Ireland

7 March 2018

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Brexit, Northern Ireland and Justice

Check against delivery 7th March 2018

As of this time last year there were 37,611 people on the housing waiting list in Northern Ireland.

23,694 deemed to be in housing stress.

11,889 of those are deemed to be homeless.

Despite our housing crisis, there are more homeless deaths in Belfast than there are in Dublin.

And yet Northern Ireland is being denied a Government to tackle these problems.

As of June last year there were over 250,000 people in Northern Ireland awaiting an appointment to see a consultant.

Of that 250,000 nearly 65,000 are waiting over a year.

There are 110,000 people awaiting a diagnostic text.

72,500 people are waiting in patient or day care.

And yet, for a full year, the people of Northern Ireland have been denied a Government.

Now we know in this House that solving these problems isn’t easy, but solving them without a Government is immeasurably more difficult.

The economy suffers too. 

An EY economic eye report in December put growth in Northern Ireland at less than a third of that of this State.

That means jobs, living standards and the future of young people there – whether nationalist and unionist are falling further behind with every month that goes by.

And that’s before the lunacy of Brexit starts.

Yet it hardly merits a thought, and certainly hasn’t merited a Government.

To analyse the blame game of who is responsible for the failure to establish the Executive is effectively to be joined to it.

Pointing out the contradictions in the positions of either side leaves you open to the charge that you are party to one side or another.

We have one side pursuing a Brexit deal in the House of Commons that they have no mandate for from the people of Northern Ireland.

Belligerent to the point that they are supporting a Brexit deal, designed by England, an anathema to the regions, that British Government studies suggest will hit Northern Ireland hardest.

A side terrified of conceding advances on any issue, because to do so is automatically viewed by hardliners as a defeat.

The other party, as is its wont, eschews its responsibility to ensure Northern Ireland’s voice will be heard, protests at the border, reminds others of their duty but won’t show up where they can make a difference. 

Too happy with a European backstop position that annoys the British and Unionists but can’t see the damage the east west border will do to the economic wellbeing of both north and south.

Afraid to take it seats in Westminster to vote on an issue of existential importance to the island of Ireland.

What seems clear is that we’ve reached a point where both sides cannot be satisfied with what satisfies others. 

Almost by definition.

So for too long the people of Northern Ireland have been now left without a say in the critical Brexit talks that have been underway over the last year.

Unfortunately the two main parties have diametrically opposed positions on that, but a functioning Executive and devolution would at least provide the political structures needed to address the fallout.

At precisely the time when the island of Ireland most badly needed to make its voice heard in these discussions, that will not now happen and no blame game changes that hard reality.

So we are a long way from the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

The middle ground has been demoralised and side-lined whilst hardliners exploit issues for sectarian electoral advantage.

The Governments are responsible too.

We’ve all known that the pending disaster that is Brexit, would crowd out other issues.

So it is with Northern Ireland.

The sight of the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister - rushing to Belfast to be joined in an outcome they weren’t sufficiently involved in, to know was still in jeopardy would be comic if it wasn’t so tragic.

If it didn’t have such deep and disturbing social and economic consequences.

The backlash and recriminations that followed from the most recent failure to secure a deal makes it less likely for a compromise to be reached in the coming weeks and months.

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the lack of progress now towards restoring a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland is hugely disappointing.

Now it appears it Northern Ireland will remain without devolved government for the foreseeable future.

The breakdown also has implications for Ireland.

Ultimately, these are people’s livelihood's we are talking about.

What we have been lacking on Northern Ireland is political will and a significant cause of that is the confidence and supply deal, and the enhanced role of the DUP in Westminster.

It may be time now for a new approach to ensure that the institutions are set up again.

If republicans believe they cannot have faith in London because of interparty Westminster arrangements there, then we must be imaginative.

Direct rule cannot be countenanced.

However, there have been calls for a British Irish Intergovernmental Conference, most vocally by the SDLP.

It hasn’t been convened since 2007.

Principally, because the institutions have been functioning.

However it is clear that the bones of a deal between the two parties had the potential to be agreed a fortnight ago.

That deal should be put on the table at such a conference.

It should be agreed between the Governments that the most difficult parts of it, namely Irish language, legacy bodies and marriage equality should be implemented through a package of legislation in Westminster.

By removing those road blocks, it would create the space for a devolved executive to return.

The two governments, as guardians and guarantors of the agreement have the responsibility now to forge a new path forward.

We must get parties back to the table under the umbrella of getting back to work for all the people in Northern Ireland.

Unionist fears and Nationalist concerns are well founded.

They always have been.

But they took a step of courage in the past.

Another step, with a new generation of political and civil leaders, must be taken now.