SDLP Leader’s address to European Leaders on Special Status for Northern Ireland
Thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to speak here this afternoon.
On the flight from Dublin yesterday I was thinking about a strong and slightly curious religious tradition which links this city with Ireland.
Back home, there remains devotion to a small religious statue in this city – a statue some believe can guarantee good weather.
As far as I know the statue goes by a different name here but back in Ireland it’s known as the Child of Prague.
It’s still not uncommon before a wedding that prayers are offered up to the child of Prague in the hope of guaranteeing good weather for the big day.
It’s safe to say it has varying degrees of success – as you may well know, we’re still blessed with plenty of rain in Ireland.
As we gather here in Prague, it is also safe to say that all of us are facing into the stormiest political weather seen for a very long time.
That old Irish tradition I’ve described might seem very unusual these days but I would hazard a guess that in the last year, as unprecedented event has followed unprecedented event, there may have been a few unlikely candidates finding themselves tempted to pray for better political weather.
It’s just been that kind of year.
As 2016 draws to a close, all of us in political life are searching and struggling to find a pathway toward a sunnier political environment.
Whether with Brexit, the American election and the elections yet to come in France and in Germany, politics is facing a time of severe turbulence and uncertainty.
We should not lull ourselves into any false sense of security.
This is no El Niño type set of events, it is not intermittent.
It will not only cause havoc for a time, quickly pass and then blow us all back into normality.
This is a new reality not going away anytime soon. We are now living with a new normal.
The beginning of a new history
Across the western world, liberal democracies are facing a dark and difficult moment.
Unlike in the 90s, politics is no longer speculating about the end of history – instead the wheel has turned and we are once more witnessing the beginning of a new history.
The broad canvass of politics is painting itself anew.
If our values and our beliefs are to play a part in that unfolding future, then now is the time to get active in politics.
Unless confronted and challenged, the dead-end populist and extreme politics which we have seen multiply and mushroom will dig in, form roots and grow.
There are deep and difficult complexities at the heart of the unfolding political events and the drift towards authoritarianism which we have all witnessed with such concern.
Many of them involve reactions to intense globalisation as well as sentiments of cultural loss and displacement.
However, there is one choice crystallising itself as this new politics unfolds across different nation states.
Instead of the traditional alignments and tensions between left and right, electorates are being asked to choose between an open and a closed world.
The choice is this - turn the clock back and retreat into protectionism and isolation or choose differently and renew, reimagine and rebuild the institutions of partnership and co-operation.
That is what is at stake in the time ahead - two very different visions leading to two very different futures.
From the SDLP’s position we are clear – the only future worth knowing is one which chooses co-operation.
Now is not the time to give up on that core belief.
Francois Mitterrand once said that ‘when one has the will one can succeed in joining peoples who have been brought close by history.’
If co-operation and integration was a clear necessity in Europe after the horrors of war, we should find the capacity within ourselves to renew our belief that it remains a clear necessity now.
We are fighting for a future which understands that national identity need not be narrow.
Modern nationalism believes in pooled sovereignty, believes in cooperation between countries for the common good and believes in international institutions.
That is why we remain so committed to the European Union - at its best that is what it continues to represent.
This is the kind of politics which the people of Ireland, north and south, have chosen to stay loyal to.
Fighting for special status
In fighting Brexit in Ireland, that is the future we are fighting for.
That is the political choice we are making.
That is why we in the SDLP are continuing to fight to gain special status for Northern Ireland in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
Northern Ireland should not be forced into the same deal cobbled together by a dysfunctional and divided British Government.
We should not be forced into following a future we did not vote for.
If forcing a hard Brexit in Ireland is permitted, Northern Ireland will contain the largest density of EU citizens of any region who will find themselves, unwillingly, living outside the European Union.
This will have been despite the fact that a clear majority, 56% of our people, voted to remain.
That requires careful thought.
It will be an historic and dangerous breach of what European citizenship means.
My plea to you is this – do not let that happen.
Do not abandon us into following a fate not of our choosing.
If the ideas and ideals of the European Union are to demonstrate resilience, the rights and wishes of European citizens in Northern Ireland must be upheld.
Through the European Institutions, through your own national governments and parliaments - stand up and fight for our right to belong in Europe.
Allow us to retain access to the single market, retain the customs union, retain freedom of movement across the island of Ireland and retain our access to European funding programmes.
Fight to allow us to retain that which we already have and fight to allow us to retain that which we have democratically voted for.
Fight to allow us to retain all that European citizenship means right now and all that it can mean in the future.
Building a politics of belonging
Let me finish on a positive note.
I am unshakably optimistic that the idea of Europe, of co-operation for the common good, is still there to be won.
We should always retain faith that there is nothing wrong in Europe that cannot be cured by what is right in Europe.
In the time ahead, all of us in this room have a responsibility to refresh and reimagine a continent, an economy and a society which can succeed in providing belonging to all.
That will be achieved by building bridges, not by rebuilding the walls of the past.
If we fail to actively stand up for that future, then we will be left with only one option.
All of us, religious and non-religious alike, had better reach for the nearest Child of Prague and start praying hard for better political weather.