30 Oct 2008

British-Irish Council speech in the Scottish Parliament 29 October 2008

The Scottish diaspora and the homecoming have been mentioned, and there is no doubt that the homecoming will be significant.

We take great pride in the number of people who identify with their Scottish ancestry and with Scottish history although they were born elsewhere—indeed, some of those people, such as Rod Stewart, identify themselves as Scots.

We take great pride in that, so it is sad that there are still some people in this country who condemn others in this country as traitors for aligning themselves with the Irish diaspora.

We have some way to go to face up to problems that are being addressed as part of the British-Irish Council process and the Good Friday agreement process.

Margo MacDonald said that the British-Irish Council sounds like a political talking shop, and I am sure that many members of the public are wondering why we are spending half a day discussing it.

However, Ted Brocklebank and Jamie Stone put the issue in its proper perspective.
Jamie Stone talked about the north of Ireland.

I do not know whether members watched the television programme last night that was presented by Eamonn Holmes, who was born and brought up in Northern Ireland.

He talked to people who grew up in Northern Ireland and went on to make it big in show business and television about what it meant to grow up in such an atmosphere.

He drew a sharp contrast between what it was like to be young in Northern Ireland in the past and what it is like in the current environment, in the absence of fear, guns and intimidation.

A product of the Good Friday agreement of 10 years ago that we should celebrate is that people in these isles can grow up in a much safer and more secure environment than the one in which previous generations grew up.

However, the process has not finished.

Last night's television programme, which showed the peace wall in Belfast, demonstrated that communities are still divided and that fear and suspicion remain.

There are still people who do not talk to one another.

There is a legacy of the suspicion of sectarianism, which we have sometimes seen in this country and which we must deal with here.

We should use the product of the peace process—the Good Friday agreement— to reinforce the benefits that we in this country can gain from it and we should try to consolidate the gains that have been made in Northern Ireland.

Ted Brocklebank was right to talk about our shared history.

He talked about the contribution that migrant workers made in Scotland and the contribution that Scots and Irish people made elsewhere in the world.

We have shared experience and knowledge of the consequences of migration here and in Ireland.
Is it not better to discuss the issues together than to allow some of our communities to inflict violence and mayhem on others?

Margo MacDonald: I agree with much of what Hugh Henry said. However, does he include in the lessons that we can learn from one another the lessons on multiculturalism that might be learned by Irish people, who are perhaps just that bit behind us? I set my question in the context of the homecoming. We share with the Irish a diaspora that includes many people with dark skin, who are the descendants of slaves in the southern United States and the West Indies. Those people are part of our diaspora, too.

Hugh Henry: I would not want to suggest that the Irish are behind us in multiculturalism, although they have perhaps come to some of the issues of inward migration later than we did.

The British-Irish Council allows us to share knowledge, experience and best practice.

As a minister, I was involved in some discussions on the problems inflicted by illegal drugs on all our societies, including Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man—places that members might not immediately think of as experiencing problems with drug abuse.

We can pass on to them some of the experience that we have gained.

Indeed, we can show some of the other Administrations that we are ahead of the game in many issues, but we can also be big enough to accept that there are things that they have done before us—recovered assets in the Irish Republic, for example—from which we can benefit.

Unfortunately, procedural issues need to be addressed as part of the sharing of experience.

I hope that the cabinet secretary can give us some further information on the working relationship between the BIC and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and on whether there will be a permanently staffed secretariat.

If we can contribute anything to making the body work better, we will all gain from it.

Aileen Campbell is right: 10 years of shared practice has been significant.

The Labour Government at Westminster took a courageous step, not just in devolving power in the United Kingdom but, carrying on from the previous Government, in engaging in the peace process in Northern Ireland.

We are living with both the consequences and the opportunities that those courageous decisions have brought.

Although, as Margo MacDonald suggested, the British-Irish Council sounds like a political talking shop, the fact that we can point to stability and security in Northern Ireland, the like of which has not been known for generations, certainly makes that political talking shop worth while.