Mark Carruthers with the latest political news, interviews and debate.
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Hello and welcome to Sunday Politics.
European leaders have signed off the terms of the Brexit
negotiations with the UK, including an agreement with the
Taoiseach Enda Kenny that Northern Ireland can automatically
rejoin the EU if there's a poll in favour of a united Ireland.
So, is that a modest technicality, or the starting pistol being fired
for a new debate about the reunification of the island?
Plus, in a move both unprecedented and unexpected,
the campaign over abortion provision in the Republic took
a big step forward with a citizens call to the politicians for
a much more liberal regime.
So what might that mean for Northern Ireland?
We'll discuss that with our guests in Belfast and Dublin.
And my guests of the day, Patricia McBride and Sam McBride.
Hello. Yesterday, of course, marked yet another important stage in
Brexit, and the Irish border was front and centre.
This is all about the Good Friday Agreement.
Which makes it very clear that the six counties remain part of
the United Kingdom unless and until the people decide to make
a different choice by democratic means.
In other words, by referendum.
And that can only be triggered by the British government and
the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
In my view, the conditions do not exist now for border polls
to determine the outcome.
But the value part of today's decision is that if at some time in
the future that action is taken, a referendum triggered and a decision
made by the people of Northern Ireland, that not only would both
governments recognise it, but that the European Council would recognise
the entire island of Ireland then as being part of the European Union,
without Northern Ireland, which is currently in the European Union,
having to reapply under section 49 of the Treaty of Rome.
I think that's a significant legal statement from the European Council,
for something that may happen at some time in the future.
But not in the immediate future, obviously.
That was the Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking Yesterday.
Let's hear what my guests of the day make of that.
With me are the commentator Patricia MacBride, and Sam McBride,
political editor of the News Letter. Welcome to you both.
A matter of minutes, Patricia, was all it took for the 27 to
agree their negotiating approach to Brexit.
This island was clearly at the centre of that conversation.
Yeah, I think it's interesting to see the change in mood music
in Dublin. I think that's very much what this is about.
And that's the significance of it.
Enda Kenny is creating a situation now where he's putting the
ducks in a row, as it were, for any future referendum or border poll.
And looking at ensuring that there are no obstacles to that.
If you go back to the independence referendum in Scotland,
one of the issues there was what would be, what would Scotland's
status within the EU be in the event of an independence referendum.
That was an unanswered question.
And it was something that deeply affected the outcome of that
That's now not going to be the case in a future border poll in the North.
People will be assured that if there is a vote for reunification,
that will include a full membership of the EU.
So it's really about forward planning on behalf of Fine Gael and the Irish government.
Sam, do you think Unionists will be alarmed at this,
or will they simply put it down to a technical detail?
I don't think anybody either will be or should be alarmed at this,
I think it's a fairly technical detail.
The difference with Scotland is that Scotland was planning to
become an independent country.
If we were to have a united Ireland, we would be planning to join
what is already an independent country, which is within the EU.
I think it would be inconceivable that in those circumstances,
we would then not be part of the EU.
This is removing that ambiguity, if that ambiguity was there.
But the idea that you could have a situation where two thirds of
the island after unity is in the EU and we're not is
I think the significance of this is that Enda Kenny here clearly
has got a degree of clout in the Irish government, and the
Irish diplomatic corps have a degree of clout at Brussels.
They're exercising that, that's potentially quite significant
when it comes to other aspects of the Brexit negotiations.
But, briefly, does it bring a new dynamic to that wider debate
about Irish unity?
I think it potentially, for people who really passionately care
about remaining in the EU, gives them a route to that.
Even if they're Unionists.
If they actually think, what do we care about most,
the union with the UK or the union with the rest of Europe?
But I don't think there has been any evidence yet in terms of
polling that there's any massive shift.
Certainly the Irish government was bending over backwards to
stress that they don't even want to have a referendum at this point,
but they're putting their ducks in the row, as Patricia says.
If that ever happened, that there is no ambiguity around this aspect.
Nationalists will presumably, in the North in particular,
try to use it to move that debate forward, though.
Well, I think there will be an element of that
and we have already seen that since the Brexit referendum.
But any move toward a border poll based on the status of the North
within or outside of the EU is premature.
The impact of Brexit will need to be known in real terms.
And that will be measured. I think, you know, if you see five, ten years
of hard financial times with the withdrawal of EU funding,
people will then reassess their attitude towards the EU.
Well, people in the North already
overwhelmingly voted to remain within the EU.
But you will see that attitude changing as to whether or not
the best place for the people of the North is within the EU,
-in a united Ireland.
-OK. Thanks, both.
We'll hear lots more from you between now
and the end of the programme.
But while the focus has been on the Westminster election campaigns
and the Stormont talks going into cold storage,
a big political story has now emerged
in the Republic which could see
a referendum being held on abortion next year.
With me to talk about that is Grainne Teggart from Amnesty,
and in our Dublin studio, Michael Kelly,
the editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper.
Welcome to you both. Michael Kelly, the pro-life lobby
has dismissed the deliberations of the Citizens' Assembly
as "one-sided, unscientific and chaotic,"
but it is putting shape on the debate. Do you accept that?
Oh, there's no question that it's putting shape on the debate.
This process, this Citizens' Assembly
was, I think, a flawed process
though from day one.
It strikes me as odd that in a country, a democracy
where we have a real Citizens' Assembly,
that is to say the Oireachtas that's elected by the people,
something like this, something so complex,
would be farmed out to a group of people
who meet together for a few weekends in a hotel.
I think that the results are not surprising
when you give some of the background, some of the context,
the fact that some of the government-appointed advisers
to this Assembly are themselves very, very...
People who have expressed very strong opinions
in favour of legalising abortion in the past.
When you look, for example,
that this is supposed to be a representative body,
and yet there are 11 counties in the Republic
where there wasn't one representative,
I mean, that would be like trying to decide something north of the border
while excluding all the people
from County Down, County Antrim and County Armagh.
So it's a deeply flawed process.
But it was based on demographics, not on geography.
Well, we actually are not quite sure.
There's been no great publishing on why the polling agency
decided to choose particular people.
But I think the important point is now
this is an issue that goes back to the Oireachtas now,
where it really ought to have been dealt with in the first place.
As I say, the real Citizens' Assembly,
those who are actually elected by the people
rather than this body taking so much of its advice from people
who, let's face it, have a vested interest in abortion.
One of the experts brought over to discuss the issue with the committee
was from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, BPAS.
That's an organisation that in their annual report last year,
because they carried out more abortions than in previous years,
they described that as having increased their market share.
So, you know, that's the... That's the mood music, if you like
that's been going on here in the background.
All right, Grainne Teggart, how significant a development
do you see it as? I mean, it is a Citizens' Assembly,
it's not the elected representatives of the people in the Oireachtas,
so we do need to put it into perspective.
We do, absolutely, but it is hugely significant.
I mean, the Citizens' Assembly result shows us what we know already
through polls which have been consistently run
in the south of Ireland
which shows that people do favour abortion reform
in a way that respects and promotes the rights of women.
Now, since 1983, the government in the south has been running away
from this issue and they have had the security blanket,
if you like, of the Eighth Amendment.
This result from the Citizens' Assembly
and the votes that have been taken very much indicate
the direction of travel that we in Amnesty have been saying,
which is that we need to see reform of our laws,
they need to adhere to international human rights standards,
and having a constitutional framework that does not respect
the rights of women is not an excuse or justification for negating
your responsibilities to bring about much-needed reform.
So the Justice Minister and Tanaiste, Frances Fitzgerald,
says the process now needs to proceed with a Dail committee
plotting the way forward to, in her view, a referendum next year.
Do you agree with that course of action?
So the next stage, obviously,
is Justice Laffoy will issue her report in June,
that will go to the Oireachtas committee.
And there are significant issues that they will have to grapple with,
including a gap on one of the ballots obviously considered by the
Citizens' Assembly around the decriminalisation of abortion.
Now, if the Oireachtas and the government adhere and heed
the progress called by the Citizens' Assembly
and they also look to what their human rights commitments are
and what the expectations are there for change,
then what we should see is not only the reforms so that it allows
in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormalities etc,
but also the decriminalisation of abortion.
So the Oireachtas committee is now going to have to grapple
with that issue and plug that gap.
Michael Kelly, are you frightened of a referendum?
No, not remotely. I think we have to allow the process
that is in place now to proceed.
The Oireachtas committee will consider
Judge Laffoy's report when it comes forward.
It's important that they do that in a calm fashion.
It's important that they hear from people
who are experts in this issue.
I think it is also important that,
particularly when we hear loaded terms like fatal foetal abnormality,
that they actually hear from families
whose children are alive today even though they were told
that their child would only live for a few minutes.
As we know, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists,
they don't favour that language.
Professor Jim Dornan has said that's not in any textbook.
The preferred term, obviously,
is people with life-limiting conditions.
So it's important that we have a very inclusive debate here
because we have to face the reality. I mean, let's not kid ourselves,
what the Citizens' Assembly discussed is a proposal
that would permit, for example, children with Down's syndrome
to be aborted up to 22 weeks.
90% of children diagnosed in the womb with Down's syndrome in the UK
are currently aborted. In Iceland, that's 100%.
We recently had a government minister in Iceland boasting
that there hasn't been a child born with Down's syndrome
in Iceland in the last five years.
That's the vista that we're looking at, that desperately sick children
in the womb would be denied their right to life
even before they see the light of day.
-How do you respond to that?
-I mean, the recommendations are very clear.
And I have to say, often we hear certain disabilities cited
as a reason to reject and to refuse any progress.
You know, it is interesting what Michael is saying because
I wonder had the Citizens' Assembly come forward with
anti-choice recommendations if the same criticisms would be made.
But, look, the bottom line is this -
the Irish government has signed up to various human rights treaties.
It is bound by those treaties.
We have seen since 1983, they have referred...
Sorry, Mark, I think it's important for me to clarify...
No such right to abortion exists in international law.
The European Court of Human Rights has consistently said
that the convention does not confer a right to abortion.
So we hear this trotted out again,
that Ireland has somehow got some international commitment
to legislate for abortion, but that's absolutely not the case...
-Well, I haven't...
For clarity, I haven't explicitly stated the right to abortion.
What we have are rights to health, to non-discrimination, to equality.
This is what women in Ireland currently don't have.
They don't enjoy those rights because of the Eighth Amendment.
For clarity, that's the point that I was making.
THEY TALK OVER EACH OTHER
Hang on a second, hang on a second.
Just let Grainne finish this point and then I'll come back to you.
For too long we have seen political parties in the south
and the government hide from this issue.
They have relied on the Eighth Amendment to do so.
They now don't have that security blanket.
OK, a quick final comment on this,
and then I want to bring this to Northern Ireland specifically.
Just your final thought
on what you were discussing there with Grainne, Michael.
Well, I think that it is important that we have facts
around this situation.
It is important that we have facts just around how important the
Eighth Amendment has been.
I mean, there are 100,000 people alive today in the Republic
because of the Eighth Amendment.
I've spoken to numerous women who have said, you know,
because the option of abortion wasn't available to them in
Ireland, they had their child and they were delighted they did.
So if they had an abortion clinic down the road, they probably would
have preceded with that at a time when they were experiencing
a crisis in their pregnancy and really just needed a bit of support.
The fact is that the Citizens' Assembly heard from
a wide range of people, including the Catholic Church,
and disagreed with their position on this.
So what we now need to see is the reform brought about,
not only the referendum next year, but also legal reform to
ensure that the rights of women are promoted, protected and upheld.
OK, Michael Kelly, just before we bring this to a conclusion,
what do you think, potentially, are the implications of this
latest development for people in Northern Ireland?
Well, I think it probably will increase the pressure as well.
People will be looking across the border at bodies like the
Citizens' Assembly, you know,
groups that have been pushing abortion.
We know, for example,
groups like Amnesty have received vast grants
from the US-based billionaire George Soros
to try to push abortion,
so that campaign is in place in the Republic,
and it's very advanced and in place in Northern Ireland as well.
But I've no doubt that Pro Life campaigners will continue
telling the truth about this issue,
and crucially speaking for those who can't speak for themselves.
Grainne Teggart, what do you think the implications are
-for people in Northern Ireland?
-I think right across the island,
what we're seeing is a focus on our abortion laws
in a way that we just haven't,
nor was it particularly imaginable even a decade ago.
But there's no doubt that there's a sea change of public opinion,
that people want to see a reform of our laws.
Right across the island,
both governments are going to have to address the issue of
decriminalisation of abortion, because, of course,
in Northern Ireland, what we're seeing are women being hauled
through the courts, through the criminal justice system here.
The bottom line is that abortion is a health care
and human rights issue.
It's a mater for women and their doctors,
not police and judges, and certainly not for any church.
OK, stay with me, both of you,
cos I want to broaden this discussion now
by bringing in Patricia and Sam. Sam, do you think,
just picking up on the final point there with my two guests,
that there are significant consequences of what
has happened in the Republic for Northern Ireland or not?
I think there are in a wider sense.
It's very clear the direction of travel over the last 20 years,
probably over the last 40 years both south and north of the border
on these social issues is becoming much more liberal.
Positions which were niche 20 years ago are now mainstream.
I think that if you go back right into history,
Protestantism was not necessarily associated with Unionism.
There were all sorts of radical protestants who supported the
idea of breaking the link with the rest of the UK.
One of the key factors which changed that was the idea
that Home Rule is Rome Rule.
It's very clear over the last 20 years,
it's very clear from what's being said this morning,
the Catholic Church does not have anything like the influence
in the south that it had in the past.
That doesn't necessarily mean that Unionists are necessarily
going to drop their opposition, but for those Unionists for whom that
was a concern, I think that plank of their concern is being removed.
Patricia, how do you view it? Do you see parallels or not?
Well, I think the interesting issue that this raises for me is the
fact that we in the north continue to export our human rights issues.
Look at the issue of marriage equality,
something that has been subject of a referendum in the south,
we're now looking into a referendum on reproductive rights next year,
in all likelihood.
What's interesting from listening to the debate this morning is
the way that the Anti Choice lobby is branding the Citizens' Assembly
as a nonsense, you know, that it's not worth listening to.
It's undermining the whole notion of participatory democracy
in doing that.
The issue now is around the framing of any future referendum and
how that's going to look,
and what it is the people are going to be asked to vote on.
Those are going to be the key battlegrounds in the coming months,
after Justice Laffoy's report is published.
So it'll be interesting to see where that goes and the impact
that it'll have on women on this part of Ireland.
It's also a very tricky position for Sinn Fein itself in,
in the sense that on both sides of the border they're saying
that as a party they're Pro Life, but actually, when you drill
down into that, they do want to liberalise the law in several areas.
There's a big debate internally there.
They haven't quite resolved that yet.
Michael, I just want to come back to you.
There is an interesting potential conundrum facing us here
where we may well have a referendum on this issue next year,
which is the year, of course,
that the Pope is rumoured to be visiting the island of Ireland.
How much more difficult, potentially,
does that make the situation?
Well, the Vatican will certainly be watching this.
From their end,
I expect that Enda Kenny and whoever it is that will replace
Enda Kenny as Taoiseach when the change of leadership within
Fine Gael eventually happens, will be looking towards that as well.
Pope Francis, of course, is someone who is hugely popular.
I think that politicians certainly wouldn't like
a situation whereby the Pope was coming very clearly on one side
of an abortion referendum if they do decide to push
ahead with a referendum.
Grainne, does that potentially muddy already difficult waters?
No, this is always going to be a difficult issue for our
governments, and indeed for people to consider and grapple with.
The greatest lesson from the Citizens' Assembly is that
when people take the time to look in depth at this issue and to
consider the evidence before them and to hear from
a range of voices that you arrive at logical Pro Choice conclusions,
because it's simply not sustainable to continue to export women
to the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland and obviously
to Britain and further afield for women from the south of Ireland.
The time has ended for our politicians to be running and
hiding from this issue, they need to address it head-on.
Certainly for our parties, including Sinn Fein,
they are now in a position where they have to reflect on their
party policies, because all those party policies need to be
human rights compliant,
and that goes beyond sexual crime and fatal abnormalities,
however you want to term that, and then to decriminalisation.
OK, we will leave it there. Thank you all very much indeed.
Let's just pause for a moment to take
a look back at the week gone past in 60 seconds with Gareth Gordon.
It was the week the DUP leader spoke Irish
when she met students in Newry.
ALL SPEAKING IRISH
Sinn Fein said the interaction with Irish Language supporters
could improve political relations.
Well, I do welcome it as a positive step forward.
Hopefully it helps inform and develop her position
and her party's approach to the Irish language.
But the DUP's move had its critics.
It looks to me that they're readying to pay Sinn Fein's price
on the Irish Language Act,
that's why they've been genuflecting today to the Irish language groups.
Talks to restore the Stormont institutions were postponed
until after June's election.
We have been able to park the process,
but we cannot stop the juggernaut of chaos and cuts which is
heading through our public finances.
No anti-Brexit pact for the election, but what about unionists?
We want to maximise Unionist representation
in the House of Commons.
Why? Because we are unionist.
Gareth Gordon reporting. Let's have a final word with Sam and Patricia.
Sam, we've been talking a lot about pacts in the last few weeks.
Unionists are - we saw it there from Jeffrey Donaldson -
still very keen on South Belfast.
We know that there's agreement about Fermanagh, North Tyrone
and North Belfast.
Do you think they'll get it together to challenge Alasdair McDonnell?
I think that's still unclear.
The Ulster Unionist Party officers met on Friday afternoon
to discuss candidates.
I'm sure that this was one of the key issues -
there are several Ulster Unionists in for that seat.
There are also DUP people who are vying for it.
Whether they would even go for somebody who was outside of either
of those parties potentially as a unifying force,
they've got a pretty limited time to do that,
but the fact that they're doing it internally without having it
on the airwaves I think is probably quite a good sign from their
point of view, if that's what they're trying to do.
But huge tensions still between those parties as to who will run.
Patricia, meantime, the anti-Brexit alliance very quickly lost its fizz,
with quite a bit of rancour between some of the key players.
Yeah, I think that that was an opportunity
that perhaps was squandered in the sense that there may have been
a chance there to agree candidates in some key constituencies.
The Alliance Party was always outside of those negotiations,
but what was interesting was the way that they stuck the boot into
the Green Party and to others when those negotiations came to nothing.
What's also interesting is the mood music in Sinn Fein.
If you look that Chris Hazzard is being run as the candidate in
South Down, with a very realistic possibility of taking that seat.
You have Mairtin O Muilleoir in South Belfast,
depending on how things fall there, in a perfect storm,
he could take that seat.
Two Sinn Fein ministers being put into key seats with the
possibility of being elected shows that that party is looking at
a long period of cold storage for Stormont.
OK, the other issue that we need to touch on, of course, Sam,
is Arlene Foster's move on the Irish language this week.
Do you regard it as the gesture politics she famously said
she doesn't do, or was it more than that?
I think the truth is that all politicians engage
in gesture politics. It's not necessarily a bad thing.
I mean, we saw Martin McGuinness shake the hand of the Queen,
that was gesture,
it was also a very significant move by an Irish Republican.
So we can be dismissive of these things.
It suits politicians sometimes to be dismissive.
It suits them at other points to play it up.
I think it also has to be said,
yesterday she was publicising the fact, Arlene Foster,
that she had met the chief executive of Celtic Football Club,
so I think she, it's very clear, has learned the lesson of the
last election, in which she became a hate figure for nationalists.
She wants to remove that plank from Sinn Fein in this election campaign.
Patricia, briefly, a change of tone from Arlene Foster?
And a very welcome one
for those in the Irish language community.
I think this has been a huge step for the DUP and for
Arlene Foster on her personal journey.
It's exactly as Sam has said in terms of the big gestures
that we were used to from Martin McGuinness.
Nobody should underestimate how big this has been for Arlene Foster.
OK. Interesting point on which to end our discussion today.
Thanks very much indeed. That's it from Sunday Politics from this week.
Do join me for The View on Thursday evening.
But, for now, from everyone in the team, thanks for watching. Bye-bye.