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SDLP leader Eastwood must get real over Donald Trump

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 11/11/2016

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood must have an inflated opinion of his standing in the world of politics. He grandly announced he would refuse to meet President Trump at the White House's annual St Patrick's Day event.

But Mr Eastwood is struggling to make his mark in Stormont, so he is unlikely to have featured on the President-elect's radar at this time. As a snub, it will hardly cause many ripples in Washington.

While it is possible to sympathise with Mr Eastwood's personal feelings toward Mr Trump, he should have looked across the border at the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who branded the billionaire businessman a "racist" during the presidential campaign, but was quick to press Ireland's interests during a telephone conversation with him after his election success.

That is a lesson in real politics. Would Mr Eastwood refuse to meet Mr Trump if it meant scuppering an inward investment deal? We have seen plenty of examples of people refusing to engage in real politics here, but always with negative results. No matter who utters words like "never, never, never", they end up being forced to eat them later.

But perhaps the greatest example of pragmatism is that of John Hume, the former leader of the SDLP. A driving force in the creation of the peace process, he met Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams at a time when the IRA was still killing people, to persuade him to follow a political path.

Mr Eastwood should also remember that Mr Hume brought Northern Ireland's political problems right into the White House through the cultivation of influential US politicians who also played an important part in the peace process.

And at Stormont we have seen successive DUP leaders, Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, work with Martin McGuinness to make the Assembly and Executive a proper-functioning administration, even if they are well aware of the Deputy First Minister's violent past.

Politics is the art of the possible. It involves all sorts of compromises, negotiations, and imagination to overcome obstacles. If politicians only met those people they liked, little would be done.

Mr Eastwood might want to contemplate how others view him over his decision to carry the coffin of a former republican paramilitary, Seamus Coyle. Would he think President Trump therefore was justified in leaving him off the White House guest list?

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