Belfast Telegraph

Colum Eastwood: Further battles still lie ahead if equality is to be achieved in Northern Ireland politics

 

By Colum Eastwood

the decade of centenaries on these islands continues apace, with next year bringing the anniversary of the historic 1918 election result and the First World War coming to an end.

Next year will also be 50 years since the first marches for civil rights set out from Coalisland to Dungannon and were battered off the streets on Duke Street in Derry.

These marches marked the first steps in the ongoing movement for equality, rights and respect after years of systematic discrimination following partition.

Ahead of the civil rights commemoration in the north, I have taken the initiative to establish an official committee which will plan a series of events to commemorate those momentous events, as well as highlighting the ongoing civil rights campaigns of the present.

I fully and freely acknowledge that the anniversary of the civil rights movement in the north belongs to no one individual and to no one political party - a fact the committee will respect - but it would be wrong to deny that it has a special place in the life of the SDLP.

Those years gave birth to a movement which took on a unionist government that denied people the most basic civil rights and disregarded the most basic of human decencies - backed up by a British Government in London which deliberately designed a political state giving them free reign to do so.

A generation of young people burning with young political ideas in the shape of John Hume, Austin Currie, Bernadette Devlin, Ivan Cooper and Eamonn McCann shook and shattered that status quo forever. They knew that the solution to the Anglo-Irish conflict and all its hurt lay in the power of politics, rather than sending more young men and women to an early grave.

No deliberate occupation of our history will dilute the truth that the vast majority of the nationalist and republican community always chose civil rights ahead of civil war. Their foresight and wisdom told them that politics was not alone the path to peace, but it was also the path to change. That is what we must remember and what we must never forget.

Equally though, as Seamus Mallon said a few days ago, today's challenge is to be "good ancestors as opposed to being just good rememberers". That means that the civil rights campaigns of today are just as important as those which were fought for in the past.

That challenge doesn't just apply to removing the continued disrespect shown to the Irish language and LGBT rights. Real equality doesn't end with social or cultural issues - it also means economic equality and a politics that properly focuses on the pound in people's pockets.

It's about time politics in the north began to talk about poverty - and it's about time we had a government that'll actually do something about it. It's about time that we addressed the disgrace of child poverty rates in west and north Belfast and in Derry.

After 50 years of campaigning, it's about time we delivered a proper road network and a proper university west of the Bann. It's well past time that we talked about why the southern economy consistently grows at three times the rate of the economy in the north.

Mass marches may be less frequent than 50 years ago, but there's still plenty to be angry about and there's still plenty that needs changed. These are the civil rights battles still out there to be overcome.

It's telling that after 10 years at the top of government together, neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein want to talk about any of these issues.

They don't like to be reminded of their joint record.

The current stalemate and polarisation of our politics in the north has returned them to the comfort of old battles, but it does nothing to solve our deeper problems. All of us should understand that we face too many challenges in this society to dwell in that comfort.

Fifty years on and months on after the collapse of our Assembly, it's time to get on with the real job of delivering civil rights for all.

Colum Eastwood is leader of the SDLP

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