Firstly I want to thank the Irish Association and the Corrymeela Community for inviting me to participate in this panel, and to congratulate the Corrymeela Community on your 50th anniversary.

I wish also to commend the decision to mark the centenary of 1916 as part of this weekend’s conference.

After I was asked to attend this event to discuss 2016 & beyond I spent a little time thinking of what I should focus on.  There are so many big issues that need to be addressed in the time ahead.  International challenges like climate change, the refugee crisis, the future progression of the European Union.  

And there are big issues that need to be addressed on this island too; 18 years after the Good Friday agreement there remain lots of outstanding issues: the legacy issues from the conflict, an Irish language act, full equality for all citizens; there will undoubtedly be a fall-out from the results of the recent assembly elections.  In the south we have a coalition government that we’re told isn’t a coalition at all.  Communities across the island are reeling from an austerity agenda that has created havoc on families, public services and arguably on the fabric of society as we once knew it.  All matters, in their own right, worthy of focus in a discussion on ‘2016 & beyond’.

While I was pondering what I should concentrate on I decided to find out where exactly I was speaking so I typed Corrymeela, Ballycastle in Google maps I was duly informed that “this route crosses an international border”.  And, I pondered no more.  

Because, if we are, like so many forums in this centenary year, to have a discussion in the context of 1916 then surely at the heart of that discussion must be whether, or maybe how, we can collectively envision the building of an agreed, United Ireland.

The course of Irish history was changed in 1916. In many ways we are living with the legacy, not merely of the 1916 Rising itself, but of the British state response to that seminal event.

The Easter Rising was not just a blow for Irish independence but a defiant stand against empire and colonialism across the globe.

It was about democracy and egalitarianism. It was about a new world based on citizenship, social justice and freedom.

The Rising was part of the wider struggle of humanity against the old world order.

The 1916 Rising and subsequent war for Irish independence, set an example that was successfully imitated in many other colonies around the world.

Central to the 1916 Rising of course was the declaration of an independent Irish republic, based not on sectarian denomination or class but on citizenship and equality.  Despite what some may argue, or like to think, the Republic declared in 1916 was also a 32 county republic.

It is worth remembering that Ireland at this time was a single political unit and the ideals of the Rising were addressed to all Irish people.

But Civil War and counter-revolution saw the partition of Ireland and the suppression of the aims of the Rising.

Instead of the Republic, proclaimed at the GPO, two very conservative states were established on this island.

The Six Counties became a one-party state where nationalists were excluded from power and denied opportunity.  Irish identity was suppressed and nationalists were denied equality in housing, employment, and voting rights while Irish culture was criminalised and sectarian discrimination was embraced as Government policy.

All of this was imposed by force and underwritten by the British Government.

But the failure to realise the Republic proclaimed in Easter Week 1916 did not just negatively affect the North. It had a huge impact in the South too.

What developed in the 26 Counties, in place of the Republic, was a narrow, confessional state which excluded women, the poor and any trace of political radicalism.

A claustrophobic social and political atmosphere witnessed the censorship of books, repeated waves of emigration, economic stagnation and the overbearing influence of a conservative Church hierarchy on politics and social development.

Many of the political, financial and clerical scandals that we have seen played out in recent years are the result of this conservative political culture.

While major social progress has been made in recent years, typified by last year’s wonderful referendum result, delivering marriage equality, much more remains to be done.

Sinn Féin is seeking to build a real republic on this island for the first time, and we are not alone.

The financial crash and its aftermath has politically educated an entire generation of people in Ireland.

There is now an urgency among many young and not so young people to confront the shibboleths, hypocrisy and cant of the past and to build a much more open, progressive and equal society.

It is my view, and that of my party, that the undoing of Partition and the effects of the counter revolution are key to this.

There was never a better time to plan and deliver on an all-Ireland basis.

Thinking people from every background and persuasion know this makes sense for the economy, agriculture, healthcare, energy, the environment and many other sectors.

I firmly and passionately believe that building a united Ireland and an egalitarian Republic is in the interests of every Irish citizen, North and South.

But I also know that conviction and passion alone will not deliver such an objective.

A realistic approach to the political divisions that currently exist and a genuine commitment to a process of national reconciliation must be central to any genuine effort to unite the people of this island.

2016 and beyond

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