Eastwood launches plan for EU Special Status
As you might have guessed, it’s no co-incidence why we’re here in Newry.
Newry knows a thing or two about borders and therefore it knows a thing or two about the danger and the damage of a hard Brexit.
That knowledge is not rooted in high level economic or social forecasts.
It is rooted in people’s everyday knowledge of this place – a place which has known a border and has watched it disappear.
It is rooted in the rawness of reality.
There will be many long and layered debates involving Brexit in the time ahead.
Ultimately though, it will be the daily experiences of local people here, which will be at stake in the months and years ahead.
What is true here in Newry is also true across every road, river and field along the 300 mile border that runs from here to my home town in Derry.
In fact it is true across every border and boundary across and around both the islands of Ireland and Britain.
In the North we are currently engaged in the intensity and the heat of an election campaign.
However we must all bear in mind the broader political horizon and the dark clouds which are amassing upon it.
Elections, even snap elections, fall into a certain level of political routine.
I think we all understand - there is nothing routine about Brexit.
By any standard it was a seismic event on the political Richter scale - perhaps the biggest political event since the partition of this island in 1921.
Brexit was a moment of true change because it is a moment of lasting change.
Its aftermath and aftershocks will continue to be felt for generations to come.
It is a decision taken against the will of the 56% people here in the North but it will nevertheless shape both Britain and Ireland.
Its magnitude cannot be understated – that is why it is so important that politics rises to the challenge of shaping it in a way which protects our interests.
Planning a post-Brexit Ireland
In her Lancaster house speech in January, Theresa May belatedly set out her vision of what Brexit will look like in Britain.
It is now our job and our duty to set out our own vision as to how a post-Brexit Ireland will look like.
As set out in the Northern Ireland Assembly, at the all-island forum and at Westminster, the SDLP believes that the interests of all of our people are best served through securing special status for the North.
Special status means that the vote in the North last June is respected.
Special status means that the political authority of devolved institutions are respected, giving them the opportunity to shape Brexit in their respective regions.
Special status means that our economy, our society and our political agreements are protected.
Special status means that what we have, we hold.
The document we launch today will be the first of many papers the SDLP will publish and submit as part of the extensive and varied set of negotiations in the years ahead.
There is an extensive amount of work to be done and this paper will be one of many.
Before going into some of the detail and proposals in this document though, I do want to make something very clear today.
Given the scale and depth of its significance to this island and its future - Brexit will be top of the SDLP agenda in post-election negotiations.
Brexit will be our number one priority.
It is our number one priority now and it will remain our number one priority.
Retaining the four freedoms
Central to this document is retaining access to the four freedoms which we currently enjoy as members of the European Union and its single market.
We believe the North should retain access to the free movement of people, goods, services and capital.
This is in line with the proposal of the Scottish Government.
These freedoms are central to the whole European project to which the North remains democratically wedded to - these are the freedoms which provide us with the invisible border we currently enjoy.
They are also the freedoms which will cause the most economic and political damage if removed.
We cannot afford to lose them.
As the Irish Ambassador to Britain, Dan Mulhall, laid out with great clarity to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster last week, even if one or two of these freedoms were removed and even if political consent was achievable in establishing a new border – it would be near impossible to enforce.
1.85 million cars, 177,000 lorries and 208,000 light vans are recorded crossing the border each month.
They don’t all travel through the M1.
The weight of these statistics tells its own story.
Only an army would be capable of enforcing a new border and no-one wants to transport, what are now memories, into the reality of modern Ireland.
All the complexities and all the discussions on the freedom of trade and travel boil down to these political realities.
Therefore if Theresa May is serious about a frictionless and seamless border on the island of Ireland, if she is serious about no return to the borders of the past - then she must yield to preserving the four freedoms in Ireland.
Only then will her Brexit mantras possess any meaning.
If, as events unfold across Europe and the Article 50 negotiations begin, she is determined to pursue a hard-Brexit in Britain – any new border must be around the island of Ireland and not across it.
I want to make it clear again – this is not a statement of blind stubbornness - it is a recognition of reality.
It is the only position which is practical and achievable on this island.
It is the only pragmatic solution. It is the only possible solution.
Securing the Agreement
This document also gives outline and warning to the serious political implications which Brexit will enforce in the North.
As I said last September at the British Irish Association in Oxford - a post Brexit world may also be a post Good Friday Agreement world.
One of the great dangers of the next number of years is that the standing and strength of our devolved institutions is undermined by the British Government.
Although the Supreme Court disagreed that there is a legal requirement to gain legislative consent from the Assembly, it remains our view that it is a fundamental political requirement to allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to reflect and defend the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
It is equally unacceptable that protections and standards currently derived from European legislation may be removed by Westminster and any future attempts at restoration may be vetoed by the actions of one party in the Assembly.
A further potential erosion of the Agreement involves the complex constitutional balance which holds together our peace and our politics.
As previously referred to by the Taoiseach, there must be certainty regarding potential future constitutional developments on this island and membership of the European Union.
In the event of a successful referendum for a united Ireland, those resident in what is currently Northern Ireland must have immediate access to the European Union as part of Ireland, a full member state.
Clarity and certainty must also be provided as to the application of multilateral treaties and the extent and reach of international responsibilities and protections.
Enhancing North-South structures
Another significant aspect of the Good Friday Agreement facing threat from Brexit are the North-South institutions - structures designed to break down the barriers which impede prosperity and integration across Ireland.
This document and our proposal for special status would recast the North South institutions and bring them into a new phase of their development.
One of the great failings since the signing of the Agreement has been the continual relegation in the stature and significance of the North South institutions.
They have, in effect, been geared to ‘go slow’ over the past number of years.
Our proposals would finally see the North South institutions come into a place of prominence.
Throughout the many political negotiations of the past, the North-South institutions have been viewed by unionism as purely a nationalist commodity.
In the event of Brexit I would strongly and genuinely urge unionism to reconsider that past view.
From agri-food to foreign direct investment, from fishing to environmental protection, the North-South institutions are designed to make us all better off.
North South made sense before Brexit – it makes even more sense now.
Securing European Representation
The SDLP also propose that the relationship between Brussels and Northern Ireland is enhanced and deepened.
That of course means at an official level, with an upgrade in status of the NI Bureau representation in Brussels itself, as well as an enhanced presence for the EU Commission in the North.
This will be vital, particularly for our farming, third level education and community sectors, as we seek to retain access to European programmes and funding.
However, this representation and presence must not stop at officialdom.
We must also retain a democratic link with the European Union.
Again, this is a statement of the practical.
Northern Ireland will contain the largest density of European citizens who may face living outside of the boundaries of the European Union.
No corner of Ireland should be left without representation whether in the European Parliament or at the Committee of the Regions.
The SDLP is therefore proposing that the European elections go ahead in Northern Ireland as scheduled in 2019 – regardless if they go ahead in Britain or not.
Securing a Government to secure our interests
The sheer scale of Brexit and its consequences will define and dominate politics for the foreseeable future.
Yet here in Northern Ireland we are faced with a collapsed government who failed to even produce a government document on Brexit.
It is becoming clearer by the day that Sinn Féin and the DUP seem happy to allow the British Government to enforce direct rule after this election.
We should all be clear as to what that means.
Brexit may mean Brexit but consent means consent - James Brokenshire’s word and actions carry no consent from the people of Northern Ireland.
He does not and cannot speak on our behalf – yet Sinn Féin and the DUP are determined to hand him that power.
The only way to stop that is by electing an alternative government – a government that can work together.
The only way to retain the voice of the Northern Ireland Executive at the Brexit table is by electing an alternative government.
This is the stark choice for voters as we enter into the final stretch of this campaign.
It is yet one more reason to Make Change Happen on March 2nd.