While the consequences of partition for the North were uglier and more violent, this was only because the numbers stacked up very differently and because there were those who believed the Border could be eradicated from the map through terror, destabilisation and economic misery. Although I favour the unity of all Irish men and women within a polity generous enough to accommodate them all, I share the Taoiseach's analysis on the timing. I agree with him that we will not see Irish unity in our lifetime. An eventual Sinn Féin acceptance of that reality will be as seismic for that party as was the realisation by Fianna Fáil that the days of single party government are over.
The reasons for that timeframe are plain enough for all with eyes to see. I repeat again my central critique of Sinn Féin's position and note that its members daily confirm the validity of that analysis. Sinn Féin's myopia prevents it from seeing that the real problems on this island will not be cured by an end to partition between North and South. They derive from the endemic partitions within Northern Ireland itself. Sinn Féin members have said and done nothing to demonstrate awareness and acknowledgement of the crisis around them, namely, the cantonisation or even Balkanisation of Northern Ireland. Moreover, they have done nothing to persuade the people of the South that the best solution to Northern Ireland as a failed political entity would be to collapse that failed, dysfunctional and still violent entity into this State. If the communities that make up Northern Ireland cannot function together, why should we believe they would function better by smothering them within a largely uninterested Southern embrace?
On any rational analysis, Northern Ireland as a demonstrably functioning entity must be shown to exist and have the capacity to exist on an ongoing basis before anyone thinks about Irish unity, rather than the proven failure of the North being a reason for thinking about the unity of this island as a whole. The reality is that even with most guns silenced for most of the time, Northern Ireland is a bitterly divided society and is becoming ever more so. There is increasing evidence of a hardening of separateness between both communities and of a society that is becoming more divided by tribal identifications. In parallel with efforts to restore the political institutions, we need a real effort on all sides to tackle the sectarian divisions that have increased rather than diminished since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
A devolved government and assembly may contribute to normalisation but of themselves cannot provide a comprehensive solution. That requires time, patience and space, as other Members have noted. It will be at least a generation before we see a loosening of the grip on the North of the legacy of sectarianism and its bitter and corrosive divisions. Hence, talk of Irish unity before that first happens is absolute hogwash.
I repeat my belief that Sinn Féin and the IRA have a genuine contribution to make to political progress on this island. However, that contribution involves not simply the delivering up of arms, seven years late, that should never have been acquired or used in the first place, it also requires a genuine commitment to reconciliation between neighbours. If republicans want to unite this country, they must recognise as a task for them the need to address rather than exacerbate the structural divisions within Northern Ireland, such as where people live or where they send their children to school.
However, instead of recognising the depth of the challenge presented by deepening sectarian division, Sinn Féin has decided that now is the time to launch its Thirty-two County campaign to "rally for Irish unity" and "make partition history". It is bizarre that the movement that has done most in this country's history to copperfasten partition should consider itself in any way suited to set about the task of uniting this country and making partition history and that its members, of all people, could now remove all those bitter and enduring consequences of the IRA's campaign of violence and destruction and of enduring and ever more entrenched divisions. The campaign to "make partition history" is calculated to increase the trend towards intercommunal hostility which makes power-sharing within Northern Ireland difficult, if not impossible and, consequently, it further delays the day of Irish unity.
The second reason the present Sinn Féin strategy is wrong is that, as the SDLP pointed out in its document, A Better Way to a Better Ireland, the best model for the political institutions of a future united Ireland must involve two Governments on the island. In this way, if and when the people of Northern Ireland vote to secede from the United Kingdom in any future referendum, sovereignty for Northern Ireland will merely switch to the Irish Government, with all the institutions created under the Agreement remaining with the Irish, rather than the British, as the ultimate sovereign authority. Therefore, this is all the more reason to concentrate on bedding down those institutions as in any scenario they are here to stay. However, I repeat the basic point that speculation about events that will not happen for quite some time does nothing to address the immediate challenges we all face in resolving conflict, combating sectarianism and establishing reconciliation between all people in the North.
In general, there has been a strong bipartisan approach to the issue of Northern Ireland in this House, especially since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The principal Opposition parties have never sought to make political capital out of Northern Ireland, although we have largely been kept in the dark by the Government about its approach to developments recently. Against this background, I must record my disappointment at two recent initiatives on the Taoiseach's part, namely, the use of a political platform at the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis to unilaterally announce the reintroduction of military parades to commemorate 1916 and the premature, inappropriate and divisive invitation to elected representatives from the Northern state to sit in this Chamber as if, for all practical purposes, they had been elected to it.
While it is worth considering how we should commemorate the birth of this State, and a military parade through O'Connell Street may well be one option, there are also other possibilities.
Ireland is an odd country in many respects, one of which is that most Irish people would be baffled were one to ask them what was our independence day. When did our State come into being? A brief version of the long answer is that we have had three States since independence. The present State came into being on 27 December 1937, 180 days after the enactment of the Constitution by the people in that year. Saorstát Éireann existed up to that date, having been set up in 1922 under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Before that the Irish Republic was established by a resolution of the First Dáil on 21 January 1919, which many people may regard as being our true independence day. A belief I share with most of my fellow citizens is that we in this House are successors to those who met in the Mansion House in 1919. It is ironic that while the armed uprising of 1916 is widely and extensively commemorated every year, the historic exercise in self-determination by the elected representatives of the people is largely ignored.
Regarding the second issue, the provision of speaking rights to Northern public representatives in the Dáil, I can do no better than put on the record the contents of my letter of reply to the Taoiseach, which I sent to him on the date I received his letter:
Thank you for your letter of 26 October regarding the recommendations of the seventh report of the All Party Committee on the Constitution. As you know, I am already on the record as having expressed concerns regarding claims made by Mr. Gerry Adams about the nature of the commitment he said that you had given him and your failure to consult with the Dáil on a matter of such national importance. Having received your letter I now, at least, have a clearer understanding of your thinking but I have to express my serious reservations about the course that you are proposing the Dáil should take. While the Labour Party favours the closest possible relationship between democratic institutions on the island, we would be concerned at any plans to go beyond the very tentative recommendations made in this area by the All Party Committee on the Constitution in its seventh progress report in 2002 and the context in which the committee envisaged any progress being possible.
It is very important that nothing should be done that would compromise the role of the Oireachtas as the sovereign Parliament of the State and it is equally important that nothing should be done that would threaten the restoration of the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland provided for under the Good Friday Agreement. You yourself draw attention in your letter to the view expressed by the committee in its seventh report that any such participation by any elected representatives from Northern Ireland in the Oireachtas: "Should take place on a cross-community basis with parity of esteem for the different communities in Northern Ireland."
Clearly, there would be a great danger in proceeding with any proposal that would be likely to be taken up by representatives of only one political tradition in Northern Ireland as this could create further political polarisation and potentially jeopardise future political progress. It is clear from representations we have had from political representatives of the Unionist tradition in Northern Ireland that they would have no interest in availing of such a facility and would regard such a move as potentially damaging to general political progress in Northern Ireland. I understand that similar views have been conveyed to the Fianna Fáil party.
This was certainly the case when I and some of my colleagues met the new leader of the Unionist party, Sir Reg Empey, and his colleagues, for example. He made his view clear and my understanding is that he was taking part in a round of meetings with the parties generally. My letter continued:
I believe that the absolute priority for all democrats on this island should be the earliest possible restoration of the democratic institutions provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. It is my strongly held view that proceeding with your proposals would not only make more difficult the restoration of the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland but might well make that objective politically impossible. In this regard, can I specifically ask you would you envisage proceeding with this proposal if it were clear that any offer of participation would be taken up by political representatives of the Nationalist community only?
It should also be noted that the Good Friday Agreement provides for a number of possible initiatives that would allow for closer interaction between members of democratic institutions on the island. Paragraph 18 of strand two of the Agreement said that the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Oireachtas should: "Consider developing a joint parliamentary forum, bringing together equal numbers from both institutions for discussions of matters of mutual interest and concern." The Agreement also envisaged the establishment of an independent consultative forum "representative of civil society" in both jurisdictions. Clearly, the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland could open the way to progress on both of these proposals. I believe that the best way to proceed might now be for you to convene a meeting of the leaders of the parties in the Dáil to discuss this issue further and to consider how the House as a body might contribute in general to closer North-South relations.
That remains my position and I still look forward to receiving the Taoiseach's response to my proposals for a meeting of party leaders.
With decommissioning achieved, we must not assume that all else will now fall automatically into place. We must not lessen our resolve to see the institutions re-established and the political vacuum filled. We must not shirk the challenge of creating a peaceful, democratic and lawful society in Northern Ireland. We must all hope that Sinn Féin has now decided to contest the democratic space on the same basis as the other parties in this House.