Margaret shines in first House of Lords speech

Margaret shines in first House of Lords speech

8 January 2020

BARONESS Margaret Ritchie delivered her maiden speech in the House of Lords late yesterday afternoon.

The former South Down SDLP MP — who formally took her place in the Lords in early November — sits on the Labour benches and is delighted with the opportunity she has been given to re-engage with mainstream politics.

Elected as a member of the former Down Council in 1981, Miss Ritchie went on to become an MLA, Stormont Social Development Minister, SDLP leader and MP, with her appointment to the House of Lord opening a significant new chapter for her.

In her opening Lords address, Miss Ritchie gave members and overview of her political career, explaining that her title Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick reflected not only her birth origins, but also political philosophy of inclusion. 

She said she “firmly believes” in St Patrick and his unifying message, explaining that the patron saint was a fifth century Christian pluralist who belonged to everybody.  

“I believe that we have to transcend political, ethnic and religious differences to compromise and to bring that measure of healing which is urgently required in the fractious world today,” said the Baroness, explaining that St Patrick began and ended his Christian ministry in the environs of Downpatrick.

“I am a democratic Irish Nationalist of the social democratic tradition and a firm believer in pluralism, inclusion and building reconciliation. I am guided by the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Baroness Ritchie also recalled the words of the very early 20th century Irish political thinker, AE Russell, who said: “The strength of Irish culture lies, I believe, in plurality rather than uniformity.

The view that national culture is a guarantor of homogeneous identity is no longer tenable.  A living culture follows a multiplicity of voices. Authentic culture is not a matter of ourselves alone.”   

Baroness Ritchie said that running alongside the Good Friday Agreement, Russell’s words are the embodiment of her political philosophy — partnership, working together, respect for political and ethnic difference and unity in diversity.

She then focused on the Queen’s speech, issuing a reminder that it dealt with a plethora of issues, with Brexit, the environment, National Health Service, climate change and devolved Institutions chief among them.

“Of these, Brexit has been one of the greatest political catalysts in Britain and Ireland,” said Baroness Ritchie.

“It has consumed all aspects of our lives in Northern Ireland since the referendum of June 2016 where the people voted to remain in the EU. It has impacted on identity, sovereignty and nationality. 

“Like the majority in Northern Ireland I want to remain in the EU and realise that due to the Government’s majority in this parliament we will leave the one institution that has provided so much political, social and economic stability on the island of lreland.”

Baroness Ritchie argued that EU membership had diluted territorial and mind borders and contributed much to reconciliation and developing the economy and infrastructure, urging the British government to look at how this can be achieved in any new working arrangements.

“Brexit has undermined the principles of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to reconciliation and building a shared society,” the maiden speech continued.

“It has deepened political divisions at a time when our political institutions were collapsed. Being a concept that is essentially about the economy it has become a major constitutional issue in Northern Ireland.

“Moreover, the EU Withdrawal Bill, which will give effect to Brexit, will have direct consequences for trade between Britain and Ireland and between Northern Ireland and Britain.  It will also reduce parliamentary accountability and lessen protections for workers’ rights.”

Baroness Ritchie said people do not want borders either in Ireland or in the Irish Sea. She insisted they want to build reconciliation, intra community political progress, economic and social regeneration and social justice, 

the very factors she explained that were enhanced by EU membership and which could be damaged when the UK leaves.

She continued: “We need the closest possible links with the EU. We need favourable trading terms with the EU and as a cautionary warning to the government, there can’t be zero trade details with the EU and then do our own thing. Borders and bureaucracy need to be lessened and a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU is required. 

“There is a need for access to the biggest market in Britain which takes half of our agricultural food sales from Northern Ireland which is equivalent of £2.3bn. Coming from an area where there are two fishing ports, the fishing industry is looking for the current unhindered and unfettered access to it’s main market in Britain to continue. I support that concept too.”

On the wider political issue, Baroness Ritchie said devolved institutions need to be up and running in Northern Ireland, expressing hope that the current Stormont talks process will bear fruit for the local population.

“That is what the population is yearning for and what I hope can be achieved to help achieve a healing process and a period of moderation.”

Turning to the weeks and months ahead, Baroness Ritchie said she hopes that during her time in the House of Lords —  along with other Lords and Baronesses — she wants to work towards building reconciliation, fairness, equality and a shared society in Northern Ireland, explaining that this requires a plan to “end division and bring down the physical and mental walls of division”.

She declared: “I would hope that we can work across this House to achieve that process of moderation and peaceful politics in Northern Ireland; a comprehensive trade deal with the EU to assist our economy and a plan to end austerity and poverty and ensure proper financial mitigations are in place to deal with the punitive rigours of welfare reform.

“Climate change needs to be tackled, just look at the floods in Britain and the intensity of the heat in Australia which has resulted in the bush fires, and whilst reference is made to tackling it in the Queen’s Speech, this issue needs international efforts. I believe continued membership of the EU is required to address and offset man’s inhumanity to our precious planet.”

Baroness Ritchie concluded her speech by highlighting how much she is looking forward to working with colleagues across the House on a range of policy issues over the coming months and years.