Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Northern Ireland's politicians should be leading us, not dragging us back

SDLP health spokesman Fearghal McKinney warned of the potential for "many tens of millions of pounds" to be wasted in the NHS" ahead of Mr Poots' face-to-face session on Wednesday with the Assembly's health committee

Let's hope that when the wind stops blowing, new South Belfast MLA Fearghal McKinney is facing the right way. But on winning the assembly seat vacated by Conall McDevitt, the former journalist made a pig's ear of defending the party's position over the naming of the notorious Raymond McCreesh Park.

He supported his Newry and Mourne party colleagues, who had joined with Sinn Fein in naming a children's park after an IRA man jailed after being caught with a rifle involved in the Kingsmill massacre of Protestant workmen. McKinney (below) claimed they were laying down their inner convictions for all of us by "trying to end division in the council and that they would suffer for the wider good by supporting the naming of this play park".

The statement is pristine gibberish of course. Is trampling upon the feelings of relatives of those killed in that sectarian slaying a way to build peace?

Is deliberately antagonising unionists (and, whisper it, many nationalists) the way to secure the future? And just what is the wider good? That we commemorate 'Freedom Fighters' of all hues, or just Provos?

No, the decision of Newry and Mourne Council was offensive and unhelpful. Alas, when McKinney got the message and 'clarified' his views, the result was more gibberish: "The SDLP has already made it clear that what was done was wrong, in naming it McCreesh Park and the SDLP does not support the naming of it after an IRA hunger striker. The Newry councillors acted with the best of intentions, but the outcome was wrong and... we acknowledge that and we acknowledge that it caused hurt to people, but what they were trying to do was to make sure that this will never happen again and it will never happen again."

Hole and digging ...? But there were more spadefuls to come: "There is a possibility that people may some time in the future think about bringing forward a motion to change that. I expect they would support that motion... I would support that motion".

Whaaaat? It's all vague.

Mr McKinney's flexibility just reflects the party's own confusion. One minute, it's trying to outgreen Sinn Fein, the next looking askance at the consequence of doing just that. No wonder voters are perplexed at what the SDLP stands for: old-fashioned non-violent nationalism, or more progressive, inclusive pluralism.

For example, Does anyone know what the SDLP's stance is towards Remembrance Day and poppy wearing? Even on this front, they're being made to look ridiculous by Sinn Fein. Lord Mayor of Belfast Mairtin O Muilleoir is supporting a Royal British Legion request to illuminate City Hall red, a stance supported by Martin McGuinness. If the SDLP is less moderate when it comes to recognising changing realities than the ideological vanguards of Sinn Fein, what is the point of them?

The condition of the SDLP mirrors that of the UUP. With the supposed extremes encroaching towards each other, the supposed middle-ground – in reacting against the encroachment – actually ends up simply reactionary and anti-progressive.

Strangely, the so-called moderates are the extremists; the supposed middle-ground is hostile; the self-proclaimed liberals ridicule the assembly and seek its 'reformation' in such a way as to side-step democracy.

I wish Fearghal all the best in his new role. He's a charming, decent sort. I'm sure in the long term he'll prove an asset to political life here.

But politicians like him should pay heed to last week's opinion poll in this newspaper which pointed to a people increasingly disconnected from the local parties. Our lives are moving on: Fewer of us see ourselves as Orange or Green – instead we worry about dissidents stirring up fear by naming a park after a hunger striker, or stand-offs about parades...

And worse, we're angry at a system where the parties hiding in the trenches are the so-called moderates, the so-called democrats, the so-called liberals, frightened of being labelled sell-out.

Leading the march away from the system are the professional classes, the young and women – exactly the type of people the SDLP should listen to if it wants to overtake Sinn Fein, not ghostly voices from a militant past to which they never subscribed to.

When the City Hall turns red for the Poppy Day Appeal, it will be an alliance of Sinn Fein and the Royal British Legion that will have brought it about. That's the sort of risk-taking on all fronts we must all applaud. Let's not hear any left or right-feet being dragged at the back please.

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