Sinn Fein fringe meeting at Labour Conference 2023

Debate on Border Poll as Good Friday Agreement Discussed at Labour Conference


“The Good Friday Agreement was a triumph, towards a new era of peace & reconciliation.”

Michelle O’Neill

By Matt Willgress, Labour Outlook 

Hundreds attended a Sinn Fein fringe meeting during the Labour Party Conference on 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and looking forward to the next 25 years in Ireland this week in Liverpool. 

Michelle O’Neill MLA was the first speaker and reflected on how she was just 20 when the GFA was signed. 

We need to remember that “The GFA was a triumph, towards a new era of peace and reconciliation,” but unfortunately now the Tories have recklessly undermined this in many ways over the last 13 years. 

These actions and decisions have enabled the DUP boycott and shut down of Government for the last 18 months, and the reality is that this shutdown has a massively negative effect on people’s lives in the North of Ireland, especially within the context of vicious Tory austerity. 

But whilst the Tories may not want to face it, the current reality is that political unionism has lost its majority, and Sinn Fein was the largest party at the last Assembly elections. 

She concluded by saying that welcome changes to Government in Britain and Ireland could well be coming, making this a vital moment in Irish history. Now, “We have to look forward to the next 25 years… working together for a better future.” 

Baroness Angela Smith was the next speaker, emphasising that “There should be local ministers in charge in Stormont … doing the jobs they were elected to do.” 

She emphasised that we can’t underestimate the effect of the GFA and how this has transformed lives in the North, but now, “The current Government have taken the GFA and peace in Northern Ireland for granted” and that’s a big point, especially when the impact of Brexit has also been profound. 

Looking ahead, the framework of the GFA remains broadly supported. She believed a Labour Government will be much more engaged than the current Government, working to get the institutions up and running again. 

Addressing another matter, she spoke of how “The Legacy Bill is an appalling piece of legislation,” which is opposed by all parties in the North and Labour is committed to repeal. 

She summed-up that it has been forced through, doesn’t help the situation, and doesn’t build trust. 

Hilary Benn, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was the closing speaker. 

Reflecting on how significant the GFA was, he remarked how there was a time when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing power would have seemed impossible, but “the extraordinary achievement of the GFA” led to it happening. 

Now though, there has been no Government of the North for most of the last six or seven years.  

He outlined issues he felt Brexit had led to, and why the Windsor Agreement was now here to stay in his opinion. 

Joining Baroness Smith in addressing the Legacy Bill, there is “palpable anger” on the streets of Belfast, across all communities. He confirmed Labour would repeal it. 

Moving forward, the priority was to get the institutions back up-and-running, in the spirit of the GFA. 

A far-reaching Q and A also took place on topics as diverse as how Labour will seek to work differently to the Tories, the joint Euros football bid, and the need for improved and productive relations between the two islands. 

I asked a question on how the GFA provides the possibility of a united referendum and if Labour’s position would not be best to be neutral in any referendum in terms of advancing the causes of peace, Co-operation, democracy and self-determination. Additionally, a local Councillor criticised Keir Starmer’s recent comments that a border poll was not on the horizon, and a further contributor criticising the Labour leader for earlier saying that he would campaign on behalf of the Union in a future border poll. 

Hilary Benn said that what Keir Starmer said regarding a it was not on the horizon was a matter of fact but did not directly address the issue of Labour’s stance in any such referendum, just commenting that he and Keir Starmer would not have a vote ! 

Michelle O’Neill meanwhile felt the “decade of opportunity” was indeed coming up – and it was clear most of the meeting attendees agreed.

Sinn Fein fringe meeting at Labour Conference 2023
Sinn Fein fringe meeting at Labour Conference 2023

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