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Theresa May must learn from the troubled history of Northern Ireland

3 min read

Overcoming the legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict must continue, says Karin Smyth MP.

On Good Friday 1998 I was on the way to Wales for the weekend when the news came on the radio that an agreement had been made in Belfast – something I never thought would happen. I was overjoyed.

The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement stopped me ever being a political cynic and may ultimately have led me to becoming an MP. 

I am one of the millions of British-born children of Irish immigrants. Growing up in London during the 70s and 80s wasn’t easy.  The violence and murder in Northern Ireland and on the streets of British towns and cities hung over communities and fuelled anti-Irish sentiment here. 

Next month (March) will see a big St Patrick’s Day celebration in London - a far cry from the low key Sunday morning St Patrick’s Day gatherings I experienced as a child in the 1970s - hidden because any gathering of Irish people was viewed as suspect.

We used to visit Ireland every year but we never crossed the border. My first visit to Northern Ireland was in 1985 for a wedding.  It was a shocking and tense experience – a 20-year-old woman travelling in an English registered car with her parents and then travelling with a group of young people from Northern Ireland resulted in very different border checks and experience.

The checks eased off in the late 80s and 90s as a result of the Anglo- Irish agreement and EU treaties, which opened up the beauty of Northern Ireland as a tourist destination. Culture and sport also transformed the reputation of Ireland to those living in Britain.  Riverdance, The Cranberries. Sinead O’Connor, Father Ted – Jackie Charlton and Mick McCarthy. Weekend trips to Dublin became popular and Irish bars started springing up across the world.  

The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement settled the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK – with the Irish voting to change their constitution. The absence of a border has enabled people to come together and live in peace. People in Northern Ireland can be British, Irish or both. It is a great example to the world of resolving long-standing, deep-seated conflict. 

Perhaps more significantly than that, it established mutual respect based on shared interests after centuries of conflict.

The broader interests of Dublin and London within the EU provided crucial underpinning for the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The Republic of Ireland has been our greatest ally in Europe but, as the UK prepares to leave Europe, this relationship will change. The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement is as important as ever.

The Prime Minister must do what John Major and Tony Blair did and  learn from this troubled history to ensure that: ‘we are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands’.

I didn’t imagine when becoming an MP that voices then on the fringe of politics in the United Kingdom and Ireland would be given so much influence when it comes to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and its legacy or that we could again be taken back in time when my country of birth and my country of heritage were pitted against each other.  The legacy of conflict will take more than one generation to overcome. It’s a task we must continue.    

Karin Smyth is Labour MP for Bristol South.

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