Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

It's game on for nationalists with forward vision

More and more Catholics are comfortable in their Northern Irish identity. The SDLP and Sinn Fein must re-invent themselves to stay relevant, says Ruairi O'Kane

Michael Martin
Michael Martin

In politics, like comedy, timing is everything. No sooner had Peter Robinson declared that nationalism was in crisis than political unionism imploded around the Belfast City Hall flag crisis.

Robinson's response to the ongoing street protest and violence was to convene a unionist forum – dubbed the most representative grouping of that section of the community in half-a-century.

Its political outworking in the short term is likely to see an agreed DUP/Ulster Unionist Party candidate to contest the forthcoming Mid-Ulster Westminster by-election.

In the long term, it is the perfect vehicle to achieve his aim of a single unionist party – something to which Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the UUP, seems oblivious.

Closer links between the two parties are not to everyone's taste: the Lagan Valley UUP MLA, Basil McCrea, may soon walk away, taking colleague John McCallister with him to form a liberal unionist grouping on Stormont's backbenches with David McClarty.

Political realignment is very much alive within unionism, but it seems to have dissipated within nationalism, which has watched unfolding events with a sense of both amusement and bemusement.

Robinson's original argument is that there is a growing identity group which classes itself as 'Northern Irish' and a section of the Catholic population whose views are no longer represented by Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

He may well have a point, but the events of recent weeks have fatally undermined his attempts at Catholic outreach, which were never taken seriously in the first place.

Successive opinion polls – from Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk and Ipsos/MORI (for the BBC) – have shown support for a united Ireland amongst Catholics at diminishing levels.

Sinn Fein has dismissed the recent surveys, pointing to their electoral strength as evidence of support for unity.

However, is it really that simplistic? And can anyone blame northern nationalists if they are ambivalent on the constitutional question?

To date no party has been able to spell out what a united Ireland would look like. Sinn Fein has put forward headline economic figures as way of justification, but seems unable to say how the average family would be better off outside the United Kingdom.

Would we keep the NHS? How would education work? Or policing? Would northern taxpayers now be liable to ease the southern government's debt burden?

Republicans concede their greatest challenge is to convince those opposed to a united Ireland of its merits and economic viability. These are no longer unionists, but nationalists, too – north and south of the border.

The lack of concrete ideas is, indeed, worrying and does not compare favourably with the likes of Scotland, where the SNP has already published their Independence Day plans before announcing the date of their referendum.

Winning resonant and persuasive arguments, demonstrating how life in a new Ireland would be better economically, socially and environmentally, would be helpful.

Yet the last real nationalist thinking on the constitutional dynamic of these islands appears to still date back to John Hume.

His successor as SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, produced his framework of how the Agreement would operate in a new Ireland in 2005. But this was a legislative piece in the jigsaw, where the remainder of the pieces stay firmly in the box.

Once the SDLP prided itself as being a compass in this area, but has now taken on the form of a faulty political sat-nav – the kind that sends articulated lorries along B-roads with low bridges.

In other words, they know where they want to go, but seem lost as to how to get there – although, to his credit, Conall McDevitt has attempted to move the debate beyond the emotions into the realities in recent weeks.

While opinion poll results on nationalist attitudes should be taken seriously, they may not necessarily reflect the whole picture.

In the light of the very substantial evidence of a new breed of northern nationalist, who are comfortable with their northern Irishness, there needs to be serious new thinking among its political representatives and a greater understanding of their electorate's wishes. Because, as the unionist political landscape alters, so, too, will nationalism.

Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin's increasingly vocal stance on northern affairs and criticism of Sinn Fein's position in government may be tactically advantageous in the south.

But contesting elections on an all-island basis for his party, with or without the SDLP, has never disappeared from their agenda.

Next year's European election – an all-island poll on one day – may look attractive, but may be too soon as they try to recover lost ground in the south. From 2014 onwards, it could well be game on.

One suspects that new nationalists, or new Irelanders, are yearning for fresh ideas that create a political prospectus for a better future, rather than one which yearns for a better past.

W B Yeats wrote that, "Talent perceives difference – genius unity." The time may be right for a brave move of political genius within nationalism.

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