Bernie McGuinness with Jesse Jackson and her son Fiachra
Despite the recent attacks in London and Manchester the streets around Westminster were packed with people, including many who were obviously tourists, enjoying the bright sunshine and the sights. The attacks have added a new edge to the area around Britain’s Parliament Buildings and Whitehall. There are many more visible and heavily armed police officers and police vehicles. There are also a formidable series of heavy metal barriers at major road junctions that can be moved into place with the clear purpose of sealing the centre of London off in an emergency.
The newspapers, television news and social media, were dominated by the horrific scenes from the catastrophic fire at the Grenfell block of flats the previous day. As we arrived into London Theresa May was visiting the scene of the disaster but twitter was already carrying reports quoting local people angry at her for not meeting grieving families, residents and survivors. Jeremy Corbyn, who also visited the scene, was being widely praised for his compassionate engagement with ordinary citizens and his obvious empathy at their plight.
As the media fallout continued it emerged that a year and a half ago the Tories voted against a Labour amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill which would have made it a requirement for landlords to ensure that any homes they are renting should be fit for human habitation. The Tory legislation, which was eventually passed with the support of DUP MPs, was part of a process of deregulation which is being viewed by many as contributing to the Grenfell fire.
The fire came on the back of a bad couple of weeks for the Tories. Theresa May had called her snap election believing she would win more seats. Having promised ‘strong and stable’ government Mrs May returned with less MPs and her own status as Tory leader and Prime Minister severely weakened. She immediately turned to the DUP and its ten MPs to provide a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement to sustain her government in power. The reaction from the media in Britain was one of almost universal shock. The record of the DUP and its homophobic, sectarian, ultra conservative, anti-climate change and creationist philosophy became front page news and dominated social media.
The implications for the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the current talks to restore the political institutions were at the top of our agenda when we met the British Prime Minister in the Cabinet Office. Mary lou, RG and I were joined by Michelle O’Neill, our new MP for Foyle Elisha McCallion and Stephen McGlade.
I opened our contribution by offering our sympathy at the loss of life in the Grenfell tragedy. I then proceeded to set out the context for the current crisis in the political institutions in the North, including the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the allegations from within the DUP of corruption. I handed the Prime Minister a copy of Martin McGuinness’s resignation letter. It succinctly explains the issues behind the crisis, including the years of disrespect and obstruction within the institutions by the DUP.
Michelle and I both bluntly told Mrs May, James Brokenshire, the British Secretary of State, and their officials that the British government is in default of the Good Friday Agreement. We told her that in our view the government and the DUP have refused to implement key agreements on language and equality rights and dealing with the legacy of the past. I told Mrs May that there could be no deal without a stand-alone Irish Language Act based on best international protocols for indigenous languages.
The British side voiced the usual clichés about wanting to encourage the parties to reach a deal but we told them that the issues at the heart of the crisis are not simply Sinn Féin issues or DUP issues. Equality, Irish language rights, marriage equality, the Bill of Rights are all British government issues and Irish government issues also, and they have to meet their obligations.
Michelle O’Neill challenged Mrs May on austerity, the one billion cut from the North’s budget and argued for funding for public services and capital projects. With the Brexit negotiations due to commence on Monday we also raised the imposition of Brexit, against the will of the people of the North who voted against it. Mrs May repeated the meaningless rhetoric about not wanting a return to the borders of the past . We urged her to look at Sinn Féin’s proposal for designated status for the North within the EU. It is a proposal that would not impinge on the constitutional status of the North.
We warned Prime Minister May that doing a deal with the DUP in order to hold on to power carried with it huge risks. Sinn Féin will oppose any pact that undermines the Good Friday Agreement and we will look to the new Taoiseach to oppose it also as a co-guarantor of the Agreement. In her contribution Mary Lou Our referenced the demographic changes that are taking place in the North and the increased interest in Irish unity. We told Mrs May that a referendum on Irish unity is inevitable and that she and her government had to prepare for it.
At the same time, we made it clear that our objective in the talks is to reach an agreement with the DUP and the other parties on restoring the institutions. But this will only happen if they are sustainable, viable and properly resourced. That means resolving all of the outstanding issues, and the British government providing a financial package that addresses the austerity cuts to the block grant that the Cameron and May governments have been responsible for.
As I write these few words there is still no clarity around the DUP and Tory pact. The Brexit negotiations have begun and the talks to restore the institutions have recommenced following the Westminster election. With the June 29th deadline next week and the marching season about to kick-off there is only a short window to agree a restoration of the institutions.