Before Private Members' business I was saying that as a Northern Nationalist, I am acutely aware of the importance of the new cross-Border bodies as institutionalised expressions of my Irish identity. Partition was used to try to cut us off from the rest of the Irish nation. Unionists did their best to stamp out our nationalism and, the educational system, to the extent it could organise it, was oriented to Britain and we were not even allowed to use names such as Séamus or Seán. When my brothers' godparents went to register their birth, they were told no such names as Séamus or Seán existed in Northern Ireland and were asked for the English equivalent. Many people do not realise the extent to which an alien loyalty was imposed on people. As a Member of Parliament in Stormont in the late 1960s, I tabled parliamentary questions on the number of employees of central Government, local govern ment and its committees who were forced to take the oath of allegiance to the Queen as a precondition to getting a job. This applied even to what could be described as menial jobs such as brushing the streets, cleaning the drains or as we call them in the North cleaning out the seoch. The Unionists went to this extent to stamp out our nationalist identity. I am sorry to say it was not only in the North that our Irish identity was questioned. Some in this State questioned our Irishness and there are some who still do. Partitionism over the years of separation became a fact of life, sometimes in the most unexpected quarters, as I found through personal experience including an occasion in this House. We Northern Nationalists were a nuisance and were disrupting the nice cosy arrangement in a State which in many respects is the Northern equivalent of a Protestant State for a Protestant people. Successive Governments of different complexions were good at verbalising on republicanism but in practical terms ignored us until we forced them to pay attention in the last 1960s.
These new arrangements will be a challenge not only to Unionists but to those of a partitionist mentality in this State. There may be some truth in the assertion, not always a jocular one, that the best future for a new Ireland might be a 32-county new Ulster. I do not know how things will evolve, where working together North and South, Unionist and Nationalist will take us. I cannot be sure where we are going. I hope it will develop towards greater unification on this island, but by consent, which is crucially important. Consent is central and fundamental. Without it there is no way forward but there is no inevitable future. The late Cardinal Conway, in the aftermath of Sunningdale, put it very well, I thought, when asked on an RTE programme about the way forward. Catholics and Nationalists were involved in Government in the then power sharing Executive. Asked to comment on what effect that would have, would the fact that Catholics and Nationalists were being treated as equals reconcile them to the Northern State or would it have the opposite effect, spur them on to a united Ireland and give them greater confidence in working towards that goal, the Cardinal, with whom I had my disagreements, was very wise when he replied he was prepared to leave the answer to those questions to history. I think we have no alternative but to do that.
I congratulate the officials on a job well done. I have long admired the expertise and dedication of the State's officials in their dealings with the North. I remember when they first started to arrive in 1969 and for some of them it was very strange, an alien place in which it required courage to operate. They travelled North taking the views of everyone. Some of them have deservedly reached very high ranks in this State and in the EU as well, for which I congratulate them. The Northern Ireland civil servants, some of whom I knew very well in their previous capacities, deserve credit for the way in which they have adapted to the changing conditions over the years. When I think back to the attitude of Northern Ireland civil servants in the 1960s and 1970s, I marvel when I meet them today at the way in which they have changed. I also welcome the co-operation of officials who in the past, certainly in the post-Sunningdale era seemed more concerned about their own empires in this jurisdiction and in the Northern jurisdiction than about the new possibilities. That was a fact of life. It looks as if it has changed and I hope it has. I give credit to the Taoiseach and to my party leader, Deputy Bruton when as Taoiseach he made it very clear publicly and privately that he would brook no attempt to retain positions to continue with empire building at the expense of new developments.
We were told by the Minister for Foreign Affairs that Armagh is the likely location for the ministerial council. I am not surprised at that. Mr. John Taylor was utterly opposed to the Council of Ireland in 1974 but like a good constituency man and a resident of Armagh he is very much in favour of the headquarters of the Council of Ireland being in Armagh. Séamus Mallon has a constituency interest in Armagh as well and it is likely that the location of the headquarters of the North-South ministerial council is a foregone conclusion. The British-Irish intergovernmental conference will replace the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference established in 1985. It will look after devolvement matters. I hope its role in this respect will decrease as time goes on, as the representatives of the two traditions work together in Government to solve the political, social, economic and cultural problems and this should encourage them together to seek the return of devolved powers.
Irish Nationalists and republicans ought to get back from London any power they can, especially as regards policing, the next big difficulty facing the process. Only when policing is returned to the hands of people in Northern Ireland will it have a proper policing system, and it will eventually come. Any administration which cannot enforce its writ is a eunuch – the late Brian Faulkner believed that, and he was right. If real power is to be shared in Northern Ireland, these functions should be returned there.
Since no one else has done so, I praise the officials at Maryfield. They had a tough task and a difficult life. It was a hardship posting which was called, for good reasons, "the bunker". I pay tribute to those who served, at considerable stress to their brains, hearts and, in some respects, livers, and for the job they did in circumstances of some danger to themselves.
In that regard I emphasise the importance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, because what has happened now would have been more difficult, perhaps impossible, without the British-Irish context established in that Agreement. The Unionists learned an important lesson then, because it was the first time they realised their writ would not run despite their efforts on the streets.
The British-Irish Council, described by some as the "Council of the Isles", involves Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands and provides an interesting new context. I am a member of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, which is already considering making changes to its operation. I hope the Unionists will join us at long last.
This is an historic day which reminds me of a passage in White's A History of Italy, describing how over the course of a century the Italians clawed their way to the top of the mountain to reach a plateau where they expected to find a completed city but instead found building blocks. To some extent that is the position we are in today. I am also reminded of what Mr. John Hume, M.P. keeps saying ad nauseam: “Now is the time for the spilling of our sweat and not of our blood”.