Monday 9th October 2023 / 4.25 pm
Hilary Benn MP Conference Speech
Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
I want to begin by thanking my predecessor Peter Kyle for everything he did – and did so well – for the people of Northern Ireland.
When Keir asked me to take on this job, I was very conscious of the responsibility I inherit.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.
The day, the moment, which finally made possible that which – for so many years – had seemed impossible.
A pathway to a peaceful future for the people of Northern Ireland.
It showed what we can do together when we put our minds to it.
Conference, it was the towering achievement of the last Labour Government.
But that legacy has been recklessly damaged by the Conservatives and their behaviour over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
They signed an international treaty with absolutely no intention of implementing it. That hurt our relationship with the Irish Government – the co-guarantor, with us, of the Good Friday Agreement – and with the European Union.
Instead of bluster and posturing, what was needed was patient diplomacy, and that eventually resulted in the Windsor Framework. It is a significant step forward which will, I believe, solve many of the problems created by the Protocol.
That’s why Labour supports it, but it needs to be implemented sensibly and with sensitivity to respond to unionist concerns. And that’s why we want to negotiate an SPS agreement with the EU to help trade flow – across the Channel and the Irish Sea – more easily.
Because of these concerns, the people of Northern Ireland are once again without a government. No Assembly and no Executive. Indeed, they have had no government for most of the last 6 years.
It cannot go on like this.
And therefore the single most urgent priority and the biggest responsibility on all of us is to redouble our efforts to get democracy in Northern Ireland up and running again – the Prime Minister included.
Where is he?
If Keir Starmer was Prime Minister he’d be over there, working hard to find a way forward so that politicians can get back to work and be held to account by the people who elected them.
And so that the challenges facing Northern Ireland – the longest waiting lists in the United Kingdom, nurses who haven’t had a pay rise this year, the terrible pollution in Lough Neagh – can start to be addressed.
Although huge progress has been made in bringing peace, there are a very small number of people who wish to destroy it. They won’t succeed but they shot Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell in Omagh back in February.
Mercifully, he survived. Conference let us send him and his family our very best wishes and say to all his colleagues in the Police Service of Northern Ireland “Thank you for what you do to help protect the communities you serve.”
And for all the progress, every shooting brings back painful memories for those who live with the long legacy of violence, the terrible collective trauma of the Troubles has not gone away.
The people I met last week who lost loved ones – mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers – want the truth and they want justice.
But the Government’s misguided Legacy Act – opposed by almost everybody in Northern Ireland – has taken that away from them. As one woman said to me “It’s as if the death of my mother doesn’t count.”
That cannot be right. And that’s why the next Labour government will repeal the Legacy Act.
Conference, while we cannot forget the past, we must also look to the future.
Northern Ireland is a place of enormous potential – talent, skills, optimism – and it has, of course, access to both the EU and the British markets, what an opportunity.
A week ago today, I visited Belfast to see the economic growth that is taking place around the harbour and to hear about the new opportunities opening up across Northern Ireland.
The slipway from which ships will once again emerge, wind turbines, advanced aerospace manufacturing, hydrogen and electric buses, a vibrant service sector, great universities and of course a growing television and movie industry, including the iconic Titanic Studios, created out of the old Harland and Wolff shed where ship components were once painted.
An old industry giving birth to a new one which shows Northern Ireland’s capacity to adapt and to prosper.
On that journey – political and economic – Labour will always be a friend to all communities, a good listener, an honest broker, a patient negotiator – after all, that is how the Belfast Good Friday Agreement was created.
And I look forward to the day when Stormont is working again.
I look forward to building strong relations with our friends and neighbours in Ireland and a better economic relationship with the EU.
And I look forward to a Northern Ireland forging an even brighter future with investment, jobs and better public services for all its citizens.