Sunday, 21 February 2010

Breaking down taboos

I found yesterday’s conference very well organised and attended, with lots of stimulating discussion and interesting people. My speech is below and the photo is of Dr Kevin McNamara, former Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under Neil Kinnock, 1987-94, with myself, Ken Livingstone, John McDonnell MP, Prof Mary Hickman and Pat Doherty MP.

Thank you so much for your invitation to this wonderful packed conference where so much has been discussed in a passionate and sophisticated manner.

I have come down here today from Birmingham where the conflict in Northern Ireland has left a deep scar in the psyche of my city.

The impact of the pub bombings of November 21st 1974 still reverberate to this day. 21 completely innocent people lost their lives. Nearly 200 were injured. This was an awful, indefensible act, the consequences of which have been dramatic and long lasting. The suffering of the families of those killed and injured still continues. Time cannot be turned back for the Birmingham 6 who were framed and jailed for a crime they did not commit. Politically the cause of Irish unity was set back.

What also happened was that the entire Irish community was subjected to a terrible backlash and forced into a long nightmare of demonization from which it only recently has started to emerge. It is a remarkable fact that it took nearly 25 years before the St Patrick’s Day parade recommenced in the city.

For a long time in Birmingham the pain from the pub bombings was so raw that it was virtually impossible to speak about the conflict and the background that had given rise to the bombings.

And when I hear Irish people talk about their experiences at that time it resonates, to some degree, with my own experience as a Muslim today.

Since the events of 9/11 and 7/7, the entire Muslim community has been demonised.

We came under huge pressure to condemn atrocities committed in our names, yes, which we rightly do, but also to silence ourselves on political stances. To cooperate with a censorship which strips away the history and memory of state sponsored terrorism.

We are being blackmailed with the threat of being labelled terrorists or terrorist sympathisers, to not speak the truth.

And that truth is this.

Where you have the abuse of power, you have inequality and injustice.

And if generations experience discrimination and criminalisation and are blocked from having a political voice in their own country, you create the conditions for conflict and violence.

And where you have violence, you have victims, on all sides.

And to those on the receiving end - whether they are Israeli or Palestinian, whether they are Kashmiri or Indian, whether they are British or Irish, their pain and their suffering is no less real just because their nationality or religion is different.

So, however difficult and painful it is, we must speak about these issues, because the only hope for eliminating the pain and suffering is to address the political causes that give rise to that pain and suffering.

And there are a number of things that strike me as very significant about the peace process in Northern Ireland. I will focus on just two.

First the peace process is proof that even what appear to be intractable political problems can be unknotted and huge steps can taken to resolving them. And that lesson is applicable to other apparently intractable problems in other parts of the world.
One of the largest ethnic groupings in Birmingham define themselves as being of Kashmiri descent. Britain bequeathed Kashmir to India, against the wishes of the Kashmiris, when they partitioned the country in 1947. The cost of that decision has been the brutal Indian occupation to date, resistance and armed struggle to that occupation that has taken the lives of many thousands of people, and three wars between nuclear armed India and Pakistan.

The foreign policy issue that probably burns the brightest in the city, especially among young people, is that of Palestine. A conflict, once again, that has its origins in a British government decision. This time the partition of historic Palestine to create, in the words of Winston Churchill, a ‘loyal Ulster’ in the Middle East.

Without underestimating the historical specificity of the Irish peace process, or the frustrations and difficulties in that process, I do believe that it offers lessons in conflict resolution applicable to other parts of the world.

And to people who care passionately about peace and justice, in places like Kashmir or Palestine, and who often despair about their situation improving, I would say there is much hope and much to be learned from the Irish.

Secondly, I believe the Irish peace process has much to offer Europe, including Britain, in the way that lessons from history have been learnt and the recognition of the importance of equality and belonging for all. Sadly, Europe, instead of learning from its history is repeating it. We are seeing a rise in xenophobia and intolerance as evidenced with Switzerland’s decision to ban minarets despite there being only 4 in the country, and the calls in France to deny Muslim women the right to dress as they want to, which alarmingly have been echoed in this county.

In this way multiculturalism and pluralism are under attack and the ideas of citizenship and identity are discussed in narrower and narrower terms.

That is why the very important steps taken to eradicate the inequality and discrimination that so defined the Northern Ireland state from its foundation are so significant. The peace process is enacting the idea that equality for all is not a threatening one, but one that genuinely assures the benefit of all. The rights of one section of the community do not need to be upheld at the expense of another, in the way for example Catholics and Nationalists were subjugated in the past. Instead, what ensures a sense of belonging and peaceful co-existance is upholding the rights and dignity of all.

I am heartened at Sinn Fein’s commitment that Unionists can still be British in a United Ireland and that cultural identity and practice, including Orange marches, have a right to be protected as long as they do not attack the rights of others.

These issues of equality, identity, citizenship and pluralism are of direct relevance for what is happening in Britain and the rest of Europe.

Sadly the rise of the far right and intolerance indicates a strong slide in the opposite direction. Muslims are being demonised now, in a manner similar to the way Jews, Blacks and the Irish have been in the past. It is an irony that Northern Ireland, a place that has been so associated with community division is now pointing the way to what genuine pluralism based on equality could look like. Or perhaps it is because of the bitter experiences of the realities of not doing so it is able to do so. Either way, it is a lesson the rest of Europe can ill afford to ignore.

So I am here to offer my support to the peace process, and to congratulate Sinn Fein and its representatives for their role within it.

I am also here to offer my support for the cause of Irish unity.

The Good Friday Agreement has laid a serious and realistic prospect of a united Ireland as it has committed the British government to disengage from Ireland, should the people of Ireland desire it, in a binding international treaty.

The question that all progressives, Irish and non-Irish, should be asking is, how is the British government preparing for this possibility? Indeed the challenge for us is to build on the serious discussion here today, to articulate the case for that disengagement, and lobby for a relationship between Britain and Ireland based on real equality and justice.

We need to take this message to our workplaces, colleges, universities and voluntery organisations. Speaking for myself I am committed to raising this issue in Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe, the symbolism of which I hope would not be insignificant.

And I am optimistic that if I, as a Muslim woman, can highlight the injustice of the British presence in Afghanistan, on the BBC’s Question Time, in Wootten Bassett, on an all-male, pro-war establishment panel, and in my humble opinion win the argument, the taboos about promoting a united Ireland here in Britain can certainly be broken down.

Thank you very much.

Salma Yaqoob