Belfast Telegraph

Nationalism in a hole that will require courage and imagination to get out of

Sinn Fein and the SDLP are in a pickle; their votes are down, their core policy of reunification isn't the main priority for supporters, and upstart Leftists are parking their tanks on 'green' lawns. How did it come to this, asks Malachi O'Doherty.

The primary responsibility of a political party is to grow. In last week's Assembly election six parties showed virtually no growth at all. More worryingly, for three of them, their votes actually fell.

Two of them are nationalist parties - Sinn Fein and the SDLP. They declare themselves committed to achieving a united Ireland and, it would appear, that is not what their followers are urging them on to.

So, one question they may have to address is how they either get people excited about Irish unity again, or where they go if that can't be done.

My guess is it can't be done - and they know it.

On April 24, the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, our Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told exultant republicans: "Sinn Fein is the only political party on this island working to end that fracture in their nation and to achieving the Republic set out in the Proclamation."

This is not something he should be pleased about. When the message was tweeted by Richard McAuley, the personal assistant of Gerry Adams, the famous RG of the tweets, I replied to it. I said that one party wasn't enough to make it happen and he replied, curiously: "Probably one of the few things we agree on."

Plainly a united Ireland can only be achieved if other parties join the clamour and take up the cause. Nominally, some do.

Fianna Fail says it wants the border to go. But it is not doing anything about it - not even fielding candidates in the North.

The SDLP's new leader Colum Eastwood asserted when he took the reins of the party that he would lead it into a united Ireland in his lifetime. But unity is not currently a priority for many people who describe themselves as nationalist.

Some say that they do aspire to Ireland being a single State, but that the concerns of one Assembly election are different. Therefore they gave their votes to People Before Profit or the Greens.

It doesn't mean that they don't want Irish unity; it just means that, while it is not attainable, there are more important things to think about.

One of those things is the prospect or threat (however you look at it) of abortion law being liberalised, or of same-sex marriage being legislated for. But contrast that attitude with what unionists say.

Arlene Foster urged voters to vote all the way down the card for unionist parties, even for parties which opposed her and opposed the Agreement. It was, essentially, a sectarian pitch, meaning that any unionist is better than any nationalist in any circumstance.

Thousands of nationalists showed by their votes that they don't do things that way. In Sinn Fein and SDLP strongholds like West Belfast and Foyle they voted for People Before Profit - a party that refuses to designate at Stormont as nationalist.

Of course, some commentators emphasise that most of those voters are still nationalist, but that is to judge people's politics by the street they live in, not usually thought of as a good guide.

Sinn Fein would find it harder than any other party to relax the emphasis on a united Ireland. After all it endorsed an IRA campaign in which colossal bloodshed was deemed warranted for that cause.

It can now, in the North, only stay in partnership with the DUP, a party that wouldn't even spare it a transfer, and hope that it can grow on the strength of its record in government.

In the South the challenge may be easier to meet, but in the North it risks humiliation as handmaidens of a party whose followers hold to the Union much more tenaciously than its own followers hold on to the principle of a united Ireland.

The SDLP is considering a different strategy. Instead of trying to impress the future electorate with its management of a ministry yet to be selected, it may prefer to go into Opposition.

There are arguments in favour of both options and dangers attendant upon them, too. Running a department in the Executive has impressed nobody, not even in the Foyle constituency of its minister, Mark H Durkan.

It can see that the Alliance Party has similarly been given no credit at all by the electorate for running the Department of Justice.

Even the DUP and Sinn Fein, who had most of the departments between them, cannot demonstrate that the electorate thanked them for their good governing.

But there are two parties whose votes rose because they attacked that record of governing, and it is tempting now to see that is where the votes are to be gained.

The Greens and People Before Profit stood up to the Executive, championed the causes of anti-austerity and liberal reform on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. They thrived on those issues.

Yet there is an easy riposte to any critic in Opposition, who has waived the right to sit on the Executive.

One day an SDLP Member will rise and attack a minister and the minister will reach for the easy put-down; well, if you thought you could do this job any better, you had a chance to take it and you didn't.

And where does the SDLP go on liberal reform? It declares itself a pro-life party. Any tilt towards liberalising will potentially garner some votes, but at the expense of others. There is a calculation to be made there - and it is one that will not be avoidable.

Sinn Fein faces the same problem at a time when the question of abortion has changed from whether the State should provide facilities to whether it should be prosecuting women who take pills which are freely available.

There is no shortage of advice to the SDLP, with one columnist arguing that it should simply accept its fate, take its department and stop sulking, while another says it should back Sinn Fein again, as it did during the peace process and, before that, to get Bobby Sands elected.

Given that its prospects are draining away, it might as well do something daring and imaginative.

Plodding on as before leads only to the grave.

As for Sinn Fein, its problems get even greater if the SDLP goes into Opposition.

Stung already by charges that it is administering British rule, stuck alone with unionists in the Executive, it will look like it is providing a republican fig leaf for unionist majority rule.

It wasn't meant to be like this.

Belfast Telegraph


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