Thursday, June 16, 2005

"Anti European Feeling in NI is Depressing" - Alasdair McDonnell

Alasdair McDonnell SDLP South Belfast MP in his maiden speech at the House of Commons said: "Northern Ireland returned three anti-European MEPs last June. That the EU remains one of our strongest supporters of the peace process and the move towards stability in Northern Ireland was established beyond doubt only one week ago, when, despite last June's verdict, the European Commission announced a further £97 million of Peace II funding. We in the Social Democratic and Labour party, along with my colleagues in this House, recognise and welcome that support, and we remain equally strong in our commitment to Europe." More here

Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South, SDLP) Link to this | Hansard source

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for this my first opportunity to address the House as a Member of Parliament. I have been told that the long-held tradition is that a new MP should praise his predecessor, and I realise that this may be more difficult for some than for others. For me, it represents a particular challenge. My predecessor, the Reverend Martin Smyth, was MP for Belfast, South for some 23 years—since 1982. Given that Martin is a former grandmaster of the Orange Lodge and was an outspoken and constant critic of the Good Friday agreement, it would fair to say that he and I operated very much at opposite ends of the Northern Ireland political spectrum in almost every way. He is, however, an honest man and consistent in his views, and the efforts that he put into trying to frustrate the progress of the Good Friday agreement are worthy of note. His attempts to undo the agreement were in no small way instrumental in my victory on 5 May, and for that I am extremely grateful to him. Despite our many differences, I wish him well in his retirement.

I am pleased to contribute to this afternoon's debate on the future of the EU, and perhaps I will have a greater opportunity to do so on another occasion. Britain's attitude to Europe has long fascinated me, and that fascination remains after some of the events during today's Prime Minister's Question Time. As an Irishman and a member of a political party that fully embraces the ideal of European unity, I have looked at Britain's relationship with Europe with great frustration. It depresses me that a nation of many millions more people and with much greater financial power than most could not learn from the experiences of a simple country such as Ireland, whose financial power and political clout is much less, but which has benefited greatly from the social, political and economic opportunities offered by the EU.

For me, having listened to today's discussions, there is too much talk about putting Britain at the heart of Europe, and then facing the other way and starting to walk. At times in my despair, I am reminded of the apocryphal newspaper heading from early in the previous century, which stated, "Fog in channel—continent isolated." Given certain comments made in the House today, it is clear that some still consider the continent isolated. That remains one of the most depressing attitudes that we can experience in modern political life.

However, it is perhaps more depressing to consider what is happening to Northern Ireland in terms of attitudes to Europe. Despite unprecedented levels of EU investment in our region, totalling more than £3 billion, Northern Ireland returned three anti-European MEPs last June. That the EU remains one of our strongest supporters of the peace process and the move towards stability in Northern Ireland was established beyond doubt only one week ago, when, despite last June's verdict, the European Commission announced a further £97 million of Peace II funding. We in the Social Democratic and Labour party, along with my colleagues in this House, recognise and welcome that support, and we remain equally strong in our commitment to Europe.

In a maiden speech, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of my local interests. Although I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this august Chamber and to contribute to today's debate, the truth is that I would much prefer to be back on the ground in Belfast, working in the local devolved Assembly to bring peace and to strengthen the peace process that has been working there. I would prefer to be in Belfast, delivering real change for my constituents and making the Good Friday agreement work, but it is here that I must be, because of the intransigence, cynicism, lack of imagination and insecurities of other political movements in Northern Ireland. Because of the absolute absence of any democratic accountability in Northern Ireland, it is here that I must be. Because the Government have shirked from their commitments under the Good Friday agreement and have at times chosen the way of shady side-deals and secret promises, it is here that I must be.

I am here without apology as an Irish nationalist. Like many Irish leaders before us down the centuries, my party and I choose to stand here and to fight our corner honestly, and to argue an honourable case. With no other forum in which to hold the Government to account, and no other way to address the many serious issues facing my constituents, we stand up for them and fight for their needs. It saddens me deeply that five out of Northern Ireland's 18 MPs do not have the courage to do the same and to be here to argue their case.

I stand here and fight for a better deal for my constituents because all the people of Belfast, South—nationalists, Unionists and those of neither persuasion—deserve no less from me. In Belfast, South, I am privileged to serve a constituency that encapsulates much that is good, and which perhaps better than any other illustrates the many and varied issues that are holding Northern Ireland back. It is the home of some of the most successful business and professional people in the country, and it also includes some of the areas of greatest deprivation and social need. It contains some of the most fiercely loyalist, and some of the most staunchly provo, districts in Northern Ireland.

Some of my constituents have enjoyed the benefits of relative economic success, while many more live under the yoke of paramilitary crime syndicates and are brutalised daily by gangs of one hue or another. The malaise that hangs over much of Belfast, South is the same one that hangs over Northern Ireland. It is a malaise born of economic stagnation, cynicism about our politicians and a general disillusionment with the breakdowns and the stop-start methods of the peace process. It is a malaise that is exacting a terrible human toll. I give a simple example. A generation of young men has been cut down by one of the highest suicide rates in Europe. In my constituency alone, we can treat only one third of those presenting with mental illness, an issue which we discussed earlier today. The development of mental health services in Northern Ireland has fallen well behind the rest of the UK. This is particularly so in, for example, certain inner-city areas in my constituency that have levels of deprivation and poor social cohesion that are among the highest in Northern Ireland. Inner-city deprivation results in higher mental health needs, but community mental health services in Belfast, South are inadequately developed, and staffed far short of the levels required to meet the range of mental health needs.

The disillusionment with our political process to which I referred has been encouraged by—and, in turn, encourages—parties whose strength comes from fear and division. It is an attitude that has served those parties well, but it serves no one else. As the parties of division have succeeded, our shared public services—the bread-and-butter issues that reflect the needs of our ordinary people—have failed. Be it the health service, schools, the infrastructure or the economy, we are seeing the direct and devastating effects of political failure. While the extreme loyalists and provos play their political games, everybody else suffers.

It might not be entirely clear to the House what a failure direct rule can be for us at times, but I would like to give two simple examples of what happens when accountability slips and is removed—examples that should be close to the heart of this Government. In Northern Ireland we have good schools and excellent teachers who are struggling to educate a new generation of our children to practise reconciliation, to build a future, to break the cycle of underachievement, resentment and violence, and to dare, perhaps, to hope for a better future. I am aware that the Government were once elected on a platform of education, education, education, but I regret that in Northern Ireland our education budget has been cut.

At times we hear of difficulties across Britain, and criticism of the Government that I often do not accept: I support the Government and most of what they do, and I do not like some of the allegations that are made. Let me, however, give a second example. Our region struggles with planning policy perhaps more than any other. We have a city, Belfast, that needs a co-ordinated urban regeneration policy. Perhaps I could refer briefly to what Sherlock Holmes might historically have described as the Sprucefield John Lewis case. Developers sought permission for a massive 500,000 sq ft development 11 miles from the city. I was satisfied that it would never go through—that the application would be thrown out—as was the chief executive of our planning service. Unfortunately, our new local environment Minister had other plans. Barely a fortnight into the job he called a press conference and announced that the project would go ahead, devastating the heart of the city and Belfast, South in particular. My constituents are bewildered, to say the least.

Various factors have combined to bring the SDLP to this point. I have already mentioned the parties of division, but I am sad to say that at times another factor has been the attitude of Government. Last year, Government decided to sideline the SDLP in negotiations. Much time and energy was devoted to the parties of division. By sidelining the SDLP, Government sidelined the party of inclusivity and pluralism. It was never going to work, and when it failed the SDLP was expected to throw out the Good Friday agreement and cobble together a shady deal. We are not interested in a shady deal. We believe that there is a future in Northern Ireland. That is what we are working for here, and that is what we are prepared to fight for here.

We in the SDLP have shown, I think, that we will not be ignored. We stand up to militant thugs on the ground at home, and we will stand up politically everywhere else for what we believe in. For centuries Irish Members of Parliament have been returned to this House to make a case for justice, equality and peace in Ireland. The SDLP is proud to have three Members here, and to continue that honourable tradition.

Our party has played a major role in bringing the region to where it is today, bringing about the peace process, and bringing about the stability—or relative stability—that has been created. We stand closer today to achieving the goals that have been sought for centuries, the goals of justice, equality and peace, than at any other time in our history. I must warn the House, however, that Northern Ireland stands on the verge of something much less positive.

My colleague and great friend, the former Member of Parliament Seamus Mallon, has talked of the balkanisation of Northern Ireland. That is a nightmare for all of us. If the parties of division have their way, we will all live in single-community ghettos. I assure the House that the SDLP will stand up to those who would seek to establish such an apartheid society.

When we began our struggle 35 years ago, marching for civil rights—it continued until the time of the Good Friday agreement, as we sought justice, equality and fairness—we wanted to create a pluralist, tolerant society where every child would be cherished equally and our towns and cities would be shared places welcoming all. In that struggle, we will continue to fight for justice on behalf of families such as the family of Pat Finucane. We will continue to stand beside families such as the McCartney sisters as they resist mob rule and thuggery, and provide an example for all of us of decency, a high profile and courage.

Belfast, South reflects many of the problems of modern society in Northern Ireland, but it is a constituency from which I believe we can all draw some hope. It is one of the very few areas left in Northern Ireland where people from both main traditions can live genuinely in mixed communities and work together. It is a constituency where, despite some high-profile setbacks, we are welcoming in new immigrants from diverse ethnic backgrounds across the globe—from eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. I look forward to working every day during this Parliament to encourage all that is good in my constituency, and to shine a light on that which might be rotten. I will stand up as best I can to those who would divide, instil a fear or hold back our potential.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for enabling me to make my first speech to this august Chamber.

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