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Mary McAleese at the DCU Brexit Institute hosted by Arthur Cox

Mary McAleese addresses DCU Brexit Institute

This morning (Friday March 29th), former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, addressed a DCU Brexit Institute Conference hosted by Arthur Cox.

Ms. McAleese spoke of how she believed that Theresa May’s deal is the only hope for closure and the best hope for an orderly Brexit, and how on both the EU and Irish sides of the negotiations there has been a laudable farsightedness, a clear sightedness and a solidarity which has been very reassuring and important to the future of the European Union.

She addressed directly the consequences of plantation and partition and how they are now directly affecting the Brexit negotiations and of how we as a country must learn from the mistakes of Brexit and prepare for the possibility of a border poll and what may come after it.  

She also spoke of how the Good Friday Agreement may not have passed if the possibility of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union had been on the table and of the importance of the assurances and deal secured by then Taoiseach Enda Kenny that “under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and under the terms of the Irish constitution, if partition of this island was ended, then Northern Ireland would seamlessly re-enter the European Union.”

Excerpts from Ms. McAleese’s speech are below.

“We in Ireland have cause to know only too well the centuries long shelf life of immensely disruptive decisions.  I’ll give two examples, like plantation and partition. Westminster has watched in surprise, as though those two overlooked hens have come home to roost very lively.  A seventeenth century decision, an early twentieth century decision, both of them them now deeply implicated in the withdrawal agreement. It’s worth remembering that because Brexit itself is an immensely disruptive decision which is going to cast a very long shadow.

[The process of Brexit] has been like watching a political form of necrotising fasciitis as it has devoured time, effort, good will, patience, reputations, relationships, engendering huge volumes of work, of anxiety and again, no obvious end in sight.  We know that it has rendered the word ‘meaningful’ completely meaningless.


When we joined the [European] Union, that union forged between once waring and bitterly divided neighbours, the joining of the union proved crucial and hugely beneficial to Ireland, at many levels.  Some think that we joined the union simply and solely because we were tied to Britain’s purse strings and there is an element of truth in that but there’s another side of that story that is often forgotten, and it’s that we joined the union in order to diversify, in order to try to reduce our dependence on Britain and we did that very successfully but we still nonetheless of course, are deeply tied into the United Kingdom, economically, culturally and politically.  But among the benefits, none has been more subtle and also more real as the gradual recalibration of the relationship which had historically been very difficult, between Ireland and the United Kingdom, between the colonised and the coloniser, who around a European table instantly became equals and partners with a shared future, a collaborative future ahead of them. Day after day, year after year, since 1973, in thousands upon thousands of encounters between politicians, civil servants, representatives of civic society, of industry, commerce, education, the arts, trade unions, professions, agriculture, Erasmus students, and a list about forty six years long, the Irish and the British crafted, at a human level, a formidable new rapprochement.  Even was war raged in Northern Ireland, and indeed manifested itself in England, manifested itself here in the Republic, and eventual ease and mutual comprehension grew between the Irish and British, a new found respect and a reconciliation emerged, and between them, thanks to those human relationships which were much healthier than they had been in previous decades, between us we were able to lay the foundations for what we became our joint stewardship of the peace process and of the international treaty that is the Good Friday Agreement.

And we would want to be in absolutely no doubt about the importance of our shared membership of the European Union in promoting healthier and more effective relationships between Ireland and the United Kingdom.  And we would also want to be in no doubt that in the future, the absence of that everyday contact, day in day out around the many manifestations of the Union table, that will be an irreplaceable loss, that will, in my view, reveal quite baleful effects unless we infill with something equally strong, the baleful effects of its absence will become evident over the years ahead.

The important thing to remember about the Good Friday Agreement, is that it never contemplated much less provided for the situation in which the United Kingdom would withdraw from the European Union.  Indeed, had such an idea been in contemplation, had such an idea been tabled, I’d say there is considerable doubt as to whether the Good Friday Agreement in its present format would have gotten over the line.

And indeed it would only have gotten over the line had the provisions that the Irish government has now put into the withdrawal agreement been put into the Good Friday Agreement.  The most important of those provisions, ironically in my view is not the backstop. The backstop is absolutely essential but it is designed in the hope and expectation that it will never need to be used.  The most important protection for the Good Friday principles was obtained in the immediate aftermath of the referendum in Britain in 2016, when the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny secured the agreement of the European Union that if in the future, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and under the terms of the Irish constitution, if partition of this island was ended, then Northern Ireland would seamlessly re-enter the European Union.  This is quite a remarkable recalibration of the Irish unity debate. It’s a debate which is coming at us and provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. It’s out there, the when of it we do not know but nonetheless, it’s on the horizon, ahead of us. But the recalibration by that decision of the European Union is, it would be no exaggeration to say, of potentially massive proportions. Particularly given the strength of cross community support in Northern Ireland for remaining in the European Union.  Now I say potentially because the debate on Irish unity has focused on crude numbers essentially, and it will like all referenda, be won or lost by crude numbers. It has focused on the crude numbers of Catholics/ nationalists over and against Protestants/ unionists. And it has focused on the coming demographic changes which will in a relatively short time, give Northern Catholics a voting majority. And it has, in some quarters, been normatively presented as a righting of old wrongs, a redressing of the past, and indeed there has at times been a really unhealthy focus on the past.

Now we have this unexpected but very welcome in many ways opportunity to uncouple the crude numbers game with very strong elements of win/ lose about it, winners and losers.  We have instead now this opportunity to develop a wholly fresh focus on the future, making it a place of transcendence, where multiple identities can be respected, be accommodated, can grow to become one community, gathered around the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and the European Union.  That is quite a step forward. The impact of it and the import of it is not lost, particularly in Northern Ireland. Clear sighted people can now see that we are navigating, we’ve been nudged off the old trajectory, what I might call the “wrap the green flag around me” trajectory, into a much much healthier space where our focus is on let’s talk about what a shared future might look like, let’s hear the fears, let’s hear the imagination and creativity we can bring, and what decency we can bring to resolving those fears and those issues.  But one of the things we have to learn is to learn from the Brexit debacle, it’s a very very sobering lesson.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland, on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom or partition can be triggered by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

That’s in interesting reality, because what did Brexit teach us?  Here we had an epic, cathartic, watershed referendum entered into with virtually no pre-planning, no preparation, no testing of the waters of what was going on within the hearts and minds of the people who would vote.  We had public debate that in many cases failed to move beyond broad brush strokes. We had a public debate that left important players and issues entirely out of the equation, that totally ignored for example the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish border.  The Good Friday Agreement and the implications for the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish border were simply not known, not recognised.

Brexit has been an object lesson in how not to go about radical constitutional change.

The Good Friday Agreement promised that partition, could be ended if the people so decided by referendum, North and South.  Someday they will be asked to decide that, and those of us, and I am one of them, who believe that the truest and best potential of this entire island and all its people will only be realised when Northern Ireland and Ireland merge, and emerge as a modern, European democracy, inclusive of all, respectful of all.  We have a duty to ensure that the groundwork is laid, is laid well in advance that is is not convulsive but that it is convincing.

Long before any future referendum goes live, we need to do what Brexit has abjectly failed to do.  That is to delve deeply, objectively, consciousencially, in a considered way, into all the issues, whatever they are, the 5000, the 10,000 issues, that would be raised by the ending of partition and the creation of a new reconciled Ireland.  Those range across a huge spectrum, from fears over identity, to governance and representation, from flags and emblems and anthems to future relationships with the United Kingdom. From economics to escoterics, we need an army of scholars and lawyers and of intellectuals, and of people of good will, and we need a reservoir of credible good will to approach these issues in a respectful way, before they overwhelm us, as those very issues have overwhelmed and stimed Brexit.

Plantation or partition were not noble undertakings but they cast long shadows into the centuries ahead but no one then foresaw or cared about the long downstream human consequences, the alienations, the resentments, the changed flags, the futures, the violence, the injustices, the unthought out consequences.  We live with those consequences still and we try our best to make sense of them.

I am heart sorry to see the UK go, to leave the EU, things will not be the same.  The future experience will not be the one we envisaged.

I harboured a hope that somehow, the United Kingdom would step back from the brink and recommit to the ideal of the European Union, in my view the greatest and the noblest political undertaking ever envisaged and realised in human history.  That’s a description that is unlikely to ever be attached to Brexit.”


29th March, 2019
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