Basil McCrea's speech to Sinn Fein's "Uniting Ireland" debate

I want to thank the organisers for their flexibility in allowing me to make a formal speech in what is intended to be an informal setting. I want to explain to you, the audience why it was important that I do so.  

The informal sofa environment is sends out a message that we are all at ease with one another, that congenial friends are meeting to discuss matters of general interest, that there is general agreement on the way forward.

In truth I am not at that point.  I do not feel entirely comfortable speaking in this forum and nor do I agree with the central premise of this meeting but I am prepared to engage and it is important that the imagery does not overpower the message.   

I suspect we are all more comfortable talking to people who share our cultural background, whether we agree with them or not, because communication is so much more effective than with strangers.

 I remember trying to business in Dublin.  It wasn’t particularly easy. I didn’t have the accent, or the contacts. I didn’t understand what was really being said.  I wasn’t part of the club.  Well received of course, but not part of the club.

In contrast, when I worked in London, I got it.  I knew what was expected, I knew what people meant when they said what they said. I didn’t always agree but I knew what they meant.

The key element of any relationship is trust. Without trust progress is slow.

When I was on Radio Foyle on Thursday with Gerry Adams, I kept wondering does he mean what he is saying?  Those honeyed tones that you are all so familiar with…. are they a trap for naïve and unsuspecting Unionists.

Actually, I could ask a similar question of Peter Robinson, but in his case because I am familiar with the cultural background, I am pretty certain that he is indeed laying a trap for the unwary and the politically naïve. 

The spoken word is what defines us as human beings and it is a powerful tool.   

One cannot be in Londonderry this weekend and not reflect on events 40 years ago.

When the Prime Minister David Cameron said that what happened on Bloody Sunday “was unjustified and unjustifiable”.  When he said he was “truly sorry”. Those words said more and meant more than all the posturing and sham fights you see in Stormont.      

But actions too are important.

Alone amongst Unionist politicians, I have walked that ground, I have visited the museum, I have met with the families and I have acknowledged the injustice of the intervening years. 

So when I challenge some of your ideology, when I explain that my form of Unionism is not sectarian, that it is not discriminatory, that I am not an alien, will you close your ears or will you listen without patronising me. For I too have a vision for Ireland, and for Northern Ireland.

So let me explain the significance of the economic union with Great Britain. The scale of the economic support for Northern Ireland from Westminster appears to be either ignored or not understood.

In 2009 we spent £21 billion pounds on public services but we only raised £12 billion in tax.  The shortfall of £9 billion is a colossal sum for a region of our size.  It dwarfs EU aid and foreign direct investment in the Republic.

This year our expenditure will drop to £18.885 billion pounds, a reduction of some £3billion pounds.  The effect on our economy will be profound. There will be redundancies, there will be cuts in essential services but before you leap in fury at the Westminster government consider this.

Do you have any idea how much a billion pounds is?  Well

  • A million seconds is 12 days,
  • A billion seconds is 32 years,
  • A trillion seconds is 32,000 years.

This month the United Kingdom debt hit £1 trillion pound and it is still rising, but despite that the government continues to spend more per head of population in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK, but even this is not enough. 

We have higher levels of deprivation, higher numbers of economically inactive people, higher numbers of children in poverty, and One in five of our young people are now unemployed.

If the people are to be convinced that politics is working for them, then living standards must improve.  

Who would provide the billions we need just to maintain our current standard of living. Where will the money come from to tackle the huge inequalities in our society? 

Certainly not from the current Republic of Ireland which is struggling with a national debt of 109 billion euros, which despite the best efforts of the authorities, does not appear to be sufficient. Another bail out may be required to avoid default.  

The current economic difficulties in the republic are not a blip. They are a recurring theme in Ireland’s history.

I am old enough to remember the economic crisis of the 1980s, with three elections in 18 months, unemployment at 18% despite huge numbers of economically inactive people and massive emigration.

I can’t quite remember Eamon De Valera’s time but my early years were spent in Ramelton, County Donegal and my family saw at first hand what it meant.  

His focus on national and cultural issues may meet with some approval in this hall but his economic policies were disastrous. A desire for self sufficiency encouraged by import tariffs and a trade war with his biggest trading partner resulted in a declining population, falling living standards and massive emigration. In the 1950s alone 13 percent of the population emigrated.  

The island of Ireland cannot sustain an economy to 21st living standards in isolation and does not have to.

Great Britain is Ireland’s third biggest export market.  One third of all of Ireland’s imports come from the Great Britain.  Our businesses co-operate and trade with one another on a daily basis, despite borders.

Our goal should be to maximise the economic output of all parts of the island of Ireland because improving one is beneficial to the other.  

It may surprise some in this hall to know that the Ulster Unionist Party would advocate closer cooperation on an all Ireland basis where there is a mutual benefit in doing so, but we would expect nationalists to adopt a similar attitude to increasing trade and tourism with Great Britain.

The opportunities presented by the UK City of Culture are immense and having attended Milwaukee Irish Fest (the largest in the USA) I am absolutely convinced of the economic and social benefits of cultural tourism.  If I could get everyone in Northern Ireland out there I would because the experience is so positive and inclusive.  Of course I want 125.000 Americans to come to Derry, (incidentally it would be nice if you said Londonderry sometimes too) and I join with others in welcoming the prospect of the 2013 All-Ireland Fleadh

We do need more informal contact, more introductions and more opportunities to build relationships. As I said earlier life can be difficult when you are from out of town. Harmonisation and reciprocity of markets may be the natural outcome of any such interaction but don’t push it, we don’t need absolute uniformity. Artificial structures or intuitions which exist only to advance a political agenda are not helpful. 

Respect and consideration goes a long way and I was struck by a particular act of thoughtfulness when I was last in Milwaukee. Having been invited to say a few words in the City Hall a Union Jack appeared from nowhere. I didn’t ask for it, it wasn’t strictly necessary at an Irish Fest but I did appreciate the thought.  

I should like to close with a reference to economic model that might be adopted.

In 1985 San Diego was a remote region of 1.8 million people blessed with a great climate and a deep sea port.  Separated from the rest of California by mountains and only 15 miles from the Mexican border, it was about as far from Washington as it was possible to get.  70% of the workforce was employed in the shipyards but when the US Navy downsized at the end of the cold war, the shipyards closed and the region faced economic ruin.  Apart from the weather does this not sound a bit like Northern Ireland?

 Today the city of San Diego has 3 million inhabitants and is a world leader in hi tech start ups, health care innovation and tourism. Of necessity San Diego has developed a unique business model based on active co-operation at all levels of government, academia and business.  It is a region of networks and contacts with a strong sense of locality. We have much in common and much to learn from San Diego. If you ever get the chance to visit it is worth the trip.  

You cannot build a better future by insisting that we do it your way and only your way. Unionists will not wake up one morning and discover they have made a mistake. Sinn Fein must show that they are serious about reconciliation. Nor can they ignore economic reality.  A new republic without a viable economic model is a pipe dream. The good will of the British public is essential for our trade and tourism industries.  The economic dimension of the Union is colossal.

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