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Opinion

The north of Ireland has a republican FM: why it matters for Wales

10 Feb 2024 4 minute read
First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill. Photo Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Hywel Williams, Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon,

There was a hugely significant event last Saturday as Michelle O’Neill became the first Sinn Féin, first ever Irish nationalist, republican and Catholic First Minister of Northern Ireland. She follows a long line of unionists of various shades of opinion, all but one of whom was a man.

The news bulletins I have heard describe the First Minister as a ‘nationalist.’ She says that she is a nationalist and a republican.

A republican who starts as she means to go on by attending royal events, representing ‘all the people of Northern Ireland.’ Her deputy from the Democratic Unionist Party is also a woman, Emma Little-Pengelly.

Will they be able to establish the sort of positive working relationship that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness created? They got on so well in public that they became known as the ‘Chuckle Brothers.’

Both women are from well-known families in their respective communities and are unlikely to be accused immediately of betrayal. Both have made statements about working for the people of the north and wanting to get on with the business in hand, which is a good sign.

Fundamentals

There is however a huge gap between them on the fundamentals, most obviously on Irish reunification. Their relationship may be strained if not broken if, as expected, Sinn Féin win the forthcoming general election in the Republic.

Then again, a form of reunification may provide huge opportunities for those willing to seize them. Even the Brexit supporting UK Prime Minister has praised the access the north has to the European Union (whilst of course denying it to Great Britain).

Historically of course the DUP have always been ready with a quick tactical ‘NO!’ at the expense of the longer strategy. A DUP MP interviewed on Irish television in 2022 was asked (and I paraphrase slightly),

‘You backed Brexit, reviving the border issue, rejected Theresa May’s deal which would keep Northern Ireland in Great Britain’s customs union, backed Boris Johnson, who agreed a border down the Irish Sea, and say the UK’s international agreements don’t apply to Northern Ireland.

Are you working for the other guys?’

By now there are some Unionists who recognise that a unified Ireland is more probable than not and are seeking a future which will fully accommodate diversity.

What happens in Ireland is of importance to us in Wales, Scotland, and England of course. Since the partition into north and south in the 1920s (for which our own Lloyd George bears responsibility) maintaining the union has been part of the credo of all UK governments.

Logjam

If and when change happens in the north that may at last break the logjam and a chance to reform the relationship between the countries of these islands.

That relationship will always be close. You can’t choose your neighbours. For me, it should be like the relationship between the Scandinavian countries, close but independent and without domination by one partner.

This won’t be so easy as England is so large. But Wales, as a small country, nurturing strong links with the very successful smallish country next door seems to me to be infinitely preferable to domination. And more sensible than pursuing post Brexit deals of little value the other side of the world.

One detail of the successful deal that hasn’t had much attention is the fact that Northern Ireland will now get over £3 billion in funding. Of course, the money that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland get is a percentage of spending by Westminster – the famous (or infamous Barnett Formula.)

Whenever we in Plaid cymru have criticised, this as being just a percentage of what England wants, rather than what Wales needs, we’ve been told, ‘Change the Barnett Formula at your peril!’ It is a very good deal, and we should be properly grateful!

Now it’s all change for the Barnett Formula in the north of Ireland at the drop of a hat.

This just shows that the Barnett formula is not set in stone. It is not based on today’s needs but rather is a political matter.

My colleague Ben Lake this week urged the Chancellor to review the Barnett formula as applied to Wales. Given it currently relies on data from 2001, it’s time for change.

To get it changed for Wales we need politicians who want it changed – more than they want to keep in with their friends in London. As we approach a General Election – only Plaid Cymru will run on a manifesto demanding fair funding for Wales.


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 days ago

Only Plaid and who is the rising star in Plaid’s firmament; Mabon ap Gwynfor…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
4 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

I’m looking forward to meeting Mabon, my mother lent his Taid a pop-up election office in 1959…

Dr John Ball
Dr John Ball
4 days ago

Hywel makes two fundamental comments, ironically neither of which shows Plaid Cymru in a positive light. He rightly welcomes this historical event and the way in which two politicians who are politically poles apart can have a “positive working relationship …(and) work together for the people.” However, he forgets that his party is incapable of such understanding. Gareth Jones made history by twice winning the Conwy seat for Plaid Cymru and was later nominated as leader of Conwy council, at the time a coalition that included conservative members. For some reason he informed Plaid Cymru’s leadership to seek permission (God… Read more »

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
4 days ago
Reply to  Dr John Ball

You know full well that the fact is the leadership of Plaid Cymru has not and will never give up the aim of Welsh independence. He just stated that representatives of the 2 main communities in Northern Ireland must work together with all others. There will be a time when all communities will realise they have so much in common as Europeans on the island of Ireland and work towards a secular Ireland. The UK is in such a mess particularly with breaking its ties with the European Union and leaving the single market that it may not last in… Read more »

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
4 days ago

It is a great victory for all the people of Ireland to have elected Michelle O’Neill as the first minister in Northern Ireland’s Senedd.

A government for all the people of Ireland.
Scotland already has a SNP government.

Wales desperately needs a government willing to stand up against the failing UK regime in the interests of the people of Wales.

Wales and England are uniquely different countries with their own issues and solutions. They cannot be ruled by the same UK system.

However we are all Europeans,

David
David
4 days ago

Does this SNP government want independence based on what they’ve done in power?

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
4 days ago

UDI, now your talking, well, we had better begin the purge of those who take their orders from London sooner rather than later…

Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
4 days ago
Reply to  Dr John Ball

I’m pleased to report that Rhun hasn’t ‘turned his back on independence’ John. I assume you’re basing that (mistaken) claim on the rather mischievous interpretation by Nation Cymru columnist Martin Shipton of a response Rhun gave to the recent report of the commission on Wales’ constitutional future. Pity Martin wasn’t at the recent event in Swansea I attended (at which Rhun spoke) and where he was emphatic that independence remains the party’s ultimate aim. But recognising it’s not going to happen tomorrow is hardly ‘kicking the can down the road’, as Martin claimed in his column piece to which I… Read more »

Last edited 4 days ago by Leigh Richards
Dr John Ball
Dr John Ball
4 days ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

There is an old saying, clearly much believed by Plaid Cymru – Tomorrow never comes

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
4 days ago

I think the fear and scaremongering by Unionists of Sinn Fein is fast disappearing because First Minister Michelle O’Neill comes across to voters as a pragmatic stateswoman who wants the best for all sides of the religious & political divide where the DUP as ever are rooted in division and the ways of old. I can truly see in the foreseeable future a border poll in Northern Ireland arguing for a United Ireland, which would be interesting for us because recent requests for Wales to have an independence referendum afforded to Scotland in 2014 has been flatly refused by Whitehall.… Read more »

Last edited 4 days ago by Y Cymro
Annibendod
Annibendod
4 days ago
Reply to  Y Cymro

We don’t need a referendum. We need a mandate at the ballot box. If we have a majority of councillors, MS’s and MP’s in favour, we hold a constitutional convention and begin the process. We never voted to join the UK so all that is necessary here is to demonstrate a democratic mandate and secure international recognition of our choosing Statehood. I accept that a referendum is the most obvious way to go but it is not the only legal route we have. Scotland are in a different position because their parliament were signatories to the Act of Union that… Read more »

Dai Ponty
Dai Ponty
4 days ago

They won it not by the gun and bomb but through a ballot box which they will achieve unification of Ireland through the ballot box

Dr John Ball
Dr John Ball
4 days ago

I think a response to my earlier contribution is required. Plaid Cymru’s official policy as presented in its so-called independence tomb is a vaguely worded commitment to confederation – whatever that means. This after consulting the people through two different opinion groups and two referenda. If that isn’t kicking the can down the road, I don’t know what is. Then a little more footwork. In his speech Rhun called for a commission. conveniently ignoring the fact that one had just reported. Ernie the Small holder states that P C will “never give up” on independence, the evidence says otherwise. In… Read more »

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