One of the most moving moments I experienced as Mayor of London was the first St Patrick’s parade we held in the city.
We knew that there was strong support for recognising Irish Londoners’ immense contribution to the city by making the celebrations an official part of our annual calendar, but even we were astonished by the massive response.
Tens of thousands kept joining the parade and eventually we had to shut Trafalgar Square as it was full to overflowing. This moment symbolised the sea change that there has been among Irish people not just in London, but across the country, which has accompanied the peace process and the Good Friday and subsequent Agreements.
The recent agreement at Hillsborough was the latest step forward in what has been an incredible positive advance, which many thought could never happen. Unparalleled opportunities for peace and reconciliation have been created, and the basis for addressing the deep rooted discrimination and exclusion in the north of Ireland, and for a new, inclusive arrangement. Despite the current economic crisis, affecting all of us and hitting Ireland particularly hard, there still exists immense good will and the prospect of economic prosperity in place of conflict and division.
A clear lesson of Ireland’s peace process is that dialogue and inclusivity, to address the heart of any problem, is the key to resolving conflict. During the time of the 1981-86 Greater London Council and many subsequent occasions, I was attacked for advocating this approach in relation to Ireland. Later governments came to accept that developing a political process and solution through dialogue was indeed the way forward.
Whilst many conflicts throughout the world have unique issues, which require specific responses, this fundamental lesson applies to most of them – not least in the Middle East.
Through inclusive dialogue, based on democratic mandates, the Good Friday Agreement laid out a clear basis forward. The principle of self-determination and the recognition of the political legitimacy of those who want a united Ireland are also clearly enshrined. For those of us in Britain who have long supported this, there is a clear opportunity now to develop the discussion and to support and assist the process – and to affect what the government here does.
One of Labour’s great achievements in government has been the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. This carefully negotiated document works in many aspects, but in particular because it ensures power sharing and an end to any notion that there can be one-party rule, or reducing anyone in the community to second class citizens.
The Tories’ attitude to the north of Ireland has recently led to accusations that they are playing with fire amid concerns that they may tamper with the institutions agreed under the Good Friday Agreement. A future Conservative government threatening to attempt to alter or roll back what has been achieved would be making a very serious mistake indeed – and one doomed to failure. Instead, there clearly remains a positive way forward, building the Agreement and supporting that. As London’s largest ethnic minority, Irish people in London have a huge role to play, alongside other progressive people with an interest.
After decades of prejudice, anti-terror laws and anti-Irish vilification in some sections of the media and elsewhere, today it is infinitely more possible for Irish people to feel their voice can be heard – including on political issues relating to Ireland. In London, including all sections of our diverse community in the life of the city is absolutely important for the city’s life and future. Linked to that is understanding that we are not isolated, but, as a world in one city, injustice in any other part of the world affects us and all our communities here.
That is why I am particularly pleased to be participating on 20 February to join the discussion on Ireland’s future and how we, here, can support what continues to be a hugely positive progression in the relationship between our two islands.
Our guest writer is Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London; Ken will be among speakers at the conference “Putting Irish Unity on the Agenda — opening the debate” on Saturday 20th February, at the TUC, Congress House, Great Russell Street, central London
• For full details and registration visit www.londonirishunityconference.org