Republicans need to accept that in 1998 they signed up to Northern Ireland remaining British for as long as the people of the Province wish that to be the case, the shadow secretary of state said yesterday.
Labour’s Vernon Coaker told his party’s conference in Brighton that unionists also needed to acknowledge that Northern Ireland “is Irish too”.
Mr Coaker told conference delegates that the “disgraceful scenes of rioting we witnessed over flags in the early part of the year and around parades in the summer” showed that Northern Ireland could not be ignored by the major Westminster parties.
He said: “I can’t help but think that to overcome the setbacks, we almost need to establish first principles again, the sort that were enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
“Nationalists and republicans need to show that they accept Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom while the majority of people who live there want it to be. That’s what they signed up for.
“It doesn’t mean they have to like it, or stop working for a change to it. But they have got to respect it, and the Britishness of their neighbours who want it to continue.
“And unionists and loyalists need to show that they acknowledge that Northern Ireland is Irish too.
“It must be shared between everyone. That’s what they signed up for. It doesn’t diminish their place in the United Kingdom, or mean they have to stop supporting the Union. But they must respect the equal status and legitimacy of their neighbours’ Irishness.”
Mr Coaker commended the leadership shown by Sinn Fein’s Belfast Lord Mayor Mairtin O’Muilleoir for supporting the Royal British Legion’s request to turn the City Hall red for the Poppy Appeal and he praised former DUP mayor of Ballymoney Ian Stevenson who last year travelled to Croke Park for a GAA final.
Citing the G8 conference in Fermanagh, the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast and Londonderry’s 12 months as UK City of Culture, he said that “in many ways, it’s been a good year for Northern Ireland”.
However, he claimed that the people of Northern Ireland were being “let down by this [Coalition] Government”.
He added: “Our message is clear: you can’t build peace without building prosperity. Northern Ireland was promised better. It deserves better.
“That’s why I say that we in this party should be proud that we helped Northern Ireland start its journey to peace, progress and prosperity.
“And that’s where we are. We’re at the beginning, not the end.”