Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Anna Lo has right to aspire to united Ireland but the Alliance member has dragged us back into tribal politics

I have a deep respect for Anna, however, there are things that make her recent comments deeply reactionary

Party Leader David Ford with Anna Lo at the Alliance Party Conference
Party Leader David Ford with Anna Lo at the Alliance Party Conference

It didn't take long, did it? The European election campaign hasn't actually started yet in Northern Ireland ... and we are already debating, not the the future of the EU, but Northern Ireland's constitutional position.

Anna Lo - Alliance's European candidate - has every right to aspire to a united Ireland. I have a deep respect for Anna and have valued her contribution to Northern Ireland politics. Two things, however, make her recent comments deeply reactionary.

First, the language she used is not the language of progressive politics. Anna implied that her support for a united Ireland flowed from her "anti-colonial" convictions. Does that then make those of us who support Northern Ireland's place in the modern United Kingdom colonists? Usually the tired old language of de-colonisation is only heard in Northern Ireland from the fringes of republicanism - that is how reactionary it is.

It's the same with the language of Northern Ireland being an "artificial" state. Artificial? Tell that to the growing number of us who proudly identify ourselves as Northern Irish.

What is also striking is how far removed this language is from the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement opens by recognising the legitimacy of both the aspiration for Northern Ireland to continue as part of the UK and the aspiration to a united Ireland. The "anti-colonial", "artificial state" language, however, drives right through this recognition of the legitimacy of both aspirations. How is it possible to recognise as legitimate an artificial colony?

There is a second way in which Anna's comments are reactionary - they have once again driven Northern Ireland politics into 'Orange versus Green' tribalism. The European Union stands at something of a crossroads. There is widespread recognition among many member states of the need for meaningful reform. The profound economic challenges of recent years continue. And as recent events in the Ukraine demonstrate, how the EU relates to states to its east is a matter of some importance.

There is also the no small matter of the UK's membership of the EU. With the possibility of an in/out referendum, it is vitally important that those of us who believe in EU membership make the case for intelligent EU reform and for a 'Yes' vote in a referendum.

Anna Lo's comments have now opened the possibility that this European election in Northern Ireland will become nothing more than an 'Orange versus Green' shouting match. When progressive parties should be doing all they can to move Northern Ireland forward, to have a real debate on European issues, the Alliance Party candidate has dragged us back into the old tribal politics.

Anna has fed the myth of tribal politics - the myth that every election is 'us' versus 'them'; the myth that Northern Ireland's constitutional position, rather than being settled by the Agreement, is up for grabs in a European election; the myth the political language of the 1950s can have relevance in 21st century Northern Ireland.

The damage that this does to the Alliance Party is a matter for them. The damage done, however, to Northern Ireland politics should concern us all.

 

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