Belfast Telegraph

Political map makes plain the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland

By Malachi O'Doherty

Perhaps no one will much miss the voice of Irish nationalism in Westminster. Members of Parliament are reminded by the very fittings around them that they are part of an historic tradition, but many of them will have little sense of the Irish strand of that tradition.

The past is the past, and just as there are now no Whigs, no Liberal Party and no Ukip, there is no SDLP, no voice of constitutional nationalism, a voice that has been ranting volubly in that chamber for 189 years.

Of course, seven seats by rights are there for Irish nationalists, but Sinn Fein, which took them, doesn't want them.

Even so, the eradication of the SDLP at Westminster is an historic event that warrants a moment's reflection.

Constitutional nationalists fighting for Ireland in the House of Commons are part of a tradition that goes back to Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and it is a tradition overseen by gigantic political figures.

The right for Catholics to vote was won through a campaign led by Daniel O'Connell, an MP for Co Clare dubbed the Liberator.

His statue stands proudly in a street named after him in Dublin.

O'Connell wasn't a nationalist in the modern mould, though he did campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union. He had a vision of an independent Ireland tied to Britain by "the golden link of the Crown".

You don't hear so much of that reverence for the Crown from nationalists today.

But neither do you hear the magnificent oratory of O'Connell and his type.

Another giant of Irish parliamentary politics was Charles Stewart Parnell, who persuaded Gladstone that if Parliament did not grant Home Rule to Ireland, Ireland would take it. Gladstone tried twice.

But Parnell, though a political genius, lost his stature for the oldest of sins which, like the Crown, was taken more seriously then among Irish Catholics.

Irish Catholics put unctuous morality and their Church before political opportunity when Parnell was found to be having an affair with a married woman, Kitty O'Shea, and the Church and the pious turned on him.

Redmond was the Irish Parliamentary Party leader who, supported by the West Belfast MP Joe Devlin, urged the Irish to join up and fight "for the freedom of small nations" in 1914.

Redmond was undone by revolution at home.

For one of the routine problems of nationalism, aside from the Church, was that physical force tradition which occasionally eclipsed parliamentary endeavour.

Some parts of Northern Ireland have long been more wedded to that parliamentary tradition than to armed struggle.

Derry was one of them.

For much of his political career, Martin McGuinness did not risk standing in Foyle because the culture there was less militant and more interested in functioning politics than in revolution.

The same was true in West Belfast, which returned affable Joe Hendron through the most troubled times, even when the dead arose to vote for Sinn Fein.

Gerry Adams took the seat in the Eighties for a time, but lost it again in 1992.

That forced him to see that armed struggle was incompatible with political growth.

He is now faced with the question of whether abstention is now similarly incompatible with growth at Westminster.

The next campaign for Sinn Fein will be to try to persuade the Dail to offer seats to the elected representatives locked out of Westminster by the draconian requirement that they swear allegiance to the Queen, as generations of constitutional nationalists have done, most of them with tongue in cheek.

Now the political map of Northern Ireland makes the polarisation of the region starkly plain. It looks like the maps of a repartition that loyalist paramilitaries used to dream of.

We are now looking at a Balkanised Northern Ireland.

That split in the region is represented also by the spread of division between the 11 council areas, with a concentration of nationalists in the west and unionists in the east.

The SDLP's hopes of political influence now reside with its 60 councillors and 12 MLAs.

It now needs Stormont more than ever and it is within the gift of Sinn Fein to withhold it from the SDLP, confident that it has enough to play with in London and Dublin and Brussels, in councils in the Republic and in councils in the north.

For Colum Eastwood and the new generation of bright young politicians, this is a calamity.

They have lost too much of the ground on which they operate and they have lost senior members who connect them back into the history of agitation that took the party into constitutional negotiations which produced the Good Friday Agreement.

It will be easy enough for the SDLP to be proud of its past. A lot more difficult to be hopeful for the future.

Belfast Telegraph

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