I appreciate the presence of the Tánaiste to take this Topical Issue matter.
The scale of the challenge facing Northern Ireland was laid bare during recent weeks. The rampant violence, lawlessness and intimidation we have witnessed is symptomatic of a problem which has come to the fore on the streets of Belfast in a profoundly depressing way in the course of the past week. There have also been unwelcome incidents in Derry, Armagh and elsewhere. As I see it, if politics in Northern Ireland is not demonstrably and tangibly about bread-and-butter issues it turns very quickly into shouting and roaring about flags, emblems, parades and all the things that have scarred public life in that area for far too many people for far too long. All of us in this House recognise that this part of Ulster was deprived of normal politics for many decades.
If loyalist gangs are able to burn the offices of political opponents, issue death threats, close schools early and cause economic havoc in the run-up to Christmas without sanction, all ostensibly in support of a proposition from Unionist parties that was democratically defeated in Belfast City Council, there is something seriously wrong within the leadership of Unionism. This leadership must demand the ending of all street protests once and for all. Every political party must condemn in the strongest possible manner this totally unacceptable behaviour. Similarly, if republican politics in the North has not evolved beyond the point at which a change in the timetable for flying a British flag and the naming of playgrounds are celebrated as major victories, serious questions should be raised about the kind of leadership that is being given and how much serious thought is going into defining republicanism in a post-Good-Friday-Agreement world. That is unless, at some level, it suits the dominant leadership of the Unionist and Nationalist blocs that their society, the media and the political establishment continue to be seized by the images and rhetoric of flags and emblems. Some would ask whether it is entirely unreasonable to worry that arguments about flags and emblems are being tacitly encouraged as a distraction from the fact that politicians are not delivering on the issues that make an actual difference to the quality of people’s lives. Those who are interested in real politics wonder where are the campaigns to highlight the fact that Northern Ireland suffers from unforgivably high levels of child poverty and economic inactivity.
Throughout my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, small businesses and retailers are struggling to keep their heads above water. For them, Christmas is the make-or-break time when they need to make sales. Similarly, for the workers they employ it is a chance to make a few extra bob for the Christmas holidays or to secure their employment for the coming year. I can only begin to imagine how disastrous closing down Cavan or Monaghan town for a week in the immediate lead-up to Christmas would be for jobs in my area. This is exactly what is happening in Belfast city centre. How many families are quietly and helplessly seeing their livelihoods being threatened in Belfast as this failure of politics continues?
Our party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, expressed an opinion on what is happening in the North only to incur a raft of the usual criticism from both dominant political parties in Stormont, parties that seem to be content with the frozen status quo. The peace process is not about two permanently opposed entrenched blocs occasionally flaring up into violence. It must be – and is – about more than that. The Good Friday Agreement was achieved with the work, effort, commitment, diligence and tenacity of so many people on this island, as well as the work of Mr. Blair, who was head of the British Government at the time. The aim of the peace process was always intended to be more than just an absence of violence. The people of the North deserve a political system that delivers progress and demonstrates that politics works. In other words, it is about making their lives better.