With the SDLP setting up a New Ireland Commission where is the unionist response, asks Nelson McCausland
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has announced plans to establish a New Ireland Commission to develop ‘a path towards a united, just and reconciled new Ireland’.
There was some grand language and he said they would ‘engage’, ‘stretch themselves’ and ‘spill their sweat’.
However, there was little by way of detail although he did say that his Commission would have panels, presumably thematic and sectoral panels, and that he would announce these over the course of the summer.
This follows on from Micheal Martin’s recent announcement of a new all-island unit in the Taoiseach’s department in Dublin. Having ruled out a border poll as ‘divisive’, he sees this as his way forward.
So within a fortnight we have had two announcements of initiatives about future relationships.
Of course there is already another initiative and that is the one that described itself as ‘civic nationalism’.
It was fronted by a variety of professional people.
Remember those letters that appeared in the press, signed by, amongst others, hundreds of Irish nationalists and republicans, and addressed to Leo Varadkar calling on the Taoiseach to ensure the rights of northern nationalists were protected as Brexit loomed.
The signatories came from academia, the arts, business, community, education, health, the labour movement, media and sport and there was a sense of momentum about it.
They even took over the Waterfront Hall for conferences and helped to create an authorising environment in which prominent individuals were prepared to come out as co-signatories for Irish nationalism.
Colum Eastwood will have seen Sinn Fein using such a process to its political advantage and the SDLP may well be looking to do something similar.
The SDLP leader said his party was ‘in dialogue with significant individuals and quiet conversation with a number of communities to secure further confidence in our plans’.
He also said his process would seek to ‘engage with every community, sector and generation’ on ‘future constitutional arrangements for the island of Ireland’.
It is a clever move on the part of the SDLP and shows that Colum Eastwood is thinking strategically. It will facilitate conversations between the SDLP and a wide variety of people, it will unsettle some unionists and of course a more active party is a more attractive party.
He may even convince a handful of people from a unionist background to become agnostic on the Union or become celebrity converts.
A couple of years ago Professor Jim Dornan garnered a lot of attention when he said that he would vote for a united Ireland if it offered a ‘better deal’. That opened the door for interviews and radio phone-in programmes about a united Ireland and it took a while for the story to dissipate and for things to settle down.
Past experience tells us that Colum Eastwood’s New Ireland Commission will undoubtedly find some gullible unionists to say some rather foolish things. Just look back to some of the ‘unionist’ submissions to the Opsahl Commission in the 1990s.
So, bearing all that in mind, how should unionists react to Colum Eastwood’s New Ireland Commission?
Well they should certainly not give Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism a free hand in setting the agenda for political discourse and here there is a special responsibility on the DUP as the largest unionist party.
Sinn Fein is more than a party, it is a movement, with a vision and passion. That’s what the ‘civic nationalism’ letters and conferences were about. Now the SDLP are intent on doing something similar.
So where is the unionist counter-balance, where is the ‘pro union’ commission, where is the sustained engagement between political unionism and civic unionism? Who is crafting the arguments for the Union, creating the alliances and conducting the engagement? Is there not a need for such work to be done?
Well if Sinn Fein can do it for republicanism and the SDLP can start doing it for nationalism, then the DUP should start doing it for unionism. A political party, if it is in government, has to do the work of government and must seek to do that well but there is more to be done than that.