Whatever way Colum Eastwood portrays the initiative, its end goal is same as his Sinn Fein rivals — a united Ireland, writes Alex Kane
The SDLP’s launch of a New Ireland Commission didn’t really come as much of a surprise. With Sinn Fein not in the new Government in the Republic, and with the Fianna Fail/Fine Gael/Green coalition taking what looked like a fairly relaxed position on Irish unity, opting for long-term discussion rather than anything resembling a specific plan, an opportunity opened for the SDLP to try and take the lead in Northern Ireland and outflank Sinn Fein along the way.
Colum Eastwood says the primary aim of the commission is to produce a “very substantial document that covers all the bases”, although he would not be drawn on when he expects completion of the project. He said: “The only path to uniting the people of this island is through the spirit of partnership, cooperation and reconciliation that the Good Friday Agreement is built on.
“Delivering a new Ireland demands that we all spill our sweat to forge new enduring relationships between the people of this island and that we demonstrate to everyone that there is an equal place for them.”
But at the heart of the statement announcing the commission lies a goal that dare not speak its real name: a united Ireland. That goal can be dressed up in soft, welcoming language (all-island, new Ireland, partnership, reconciliation, new enduring relationships, engagement, consensus on our future constitutional arrangements, unity etc) but it doesn’t escape the fact that what Eastwood is talking about is a united Ireland. Preparing for a united Ireland. Creating the structures for a united Ireland. Setting out the terms of the debate in an advance of a border poll, which he says is “going to happen... it should happen... I want it to happen”.
Crucially, he wants unionists to be involved in the commission. “We’ve been quietly speaking to people from a unionist perspective for quite a while and they are open to a conversation,” he said.
He seems hopeful that political unionism will engage “especially on issues such as protections for British identity in the 26 counties”.
But why would unionists — and Eastwood mentioned “significant individuals” — be willing to take part in a conversation whose purpose is to prepare for an outcome that spells the end of unionism as we know it? I don’t get the sense that he is proposing a two-way conversation in which unionism will be invited to make the case for the constitutional status quo.
Indeed, he just seems to be trotting out a softer version of Sinn Fein’s line (something the SDLP has been doing for the last few years) that, taken in the round, unity is inevitable, so you may as well come on board and tell us what you need to make you feel comfortable.
I will also be interested to see if he does succeed in attracting people from a “unionist perspective”; although, to be honest, I’m not even sure what the term means. Who would these people represent? Would they speak for party political or electoral unionism, or loyalism, or the Orange Order? Would they have a mandate? Or would it just be people from a pro-Union background (I’m not always sure what that term means either), offering little more than a personal opinion?
Over the years I have spoken at events organised by Sinn Fein as part of its ongoing Irish unity project. But I have done so in a purely personal capacity.
What they hear is my opinion, an opinion based on my view that no form of Irish unity could ever accommodate my unionism.
Indeed, I believe that Irish unity kills unionism stone dead and makes resurrection impossible.
The SDLP may well be reaching out to people from within the broader unionist community, but unless those people have a platform that extends deep into unionism and well beyond personal opinion, then they will not be able to participate in the commission’s project in any meaningful way.
At this point — and maybe Eastwood will prove me wrong (it wouldn’t be the first time) — I cannot imagine any of the key players within unionism/loyalism/Orangeism will be willing to have the kind of dialogue he wants them to have.
Why would they? What could they hope to gain from the process?
But maybe the SDLP isn’t actually interested in mainstream political unionism at all.
The party may be working on the assumption (as does Sinn Fein) that since a border poll result only requires one vote above 50% to end the Union, then their target audience must be that section of unionism unsettled by Brexit, the rise of English nationalism and a dislike of the DUP. In other words, the people the SDLP wants to talk to and win over are from that background rather than the political/electoral mainstream. And since some of those people seem to have switched to Alliance over the past three years, I’m pretty sure engaging with them is high on the list of Eastwood’s priorities.
As it happens, mainstream unionism seemed reasonably happy with Micheal Martin, although it may now be a little troubled by the suggestion that the commission will feed into the work of the Irish Government’s Shared Island Unit. If unionism senses that the SDLP initiative, which must have been signed off by their Fianna Fail partners, is simply a softer version of the Sinn Fein project it could actually damage relationships with both the SDLP and the new Government.
Let’s face it, in the run-up to Northern Ireland’s centenary the last thing unionism will be doing is opening a dialogue based on the premise that the Union is, to all intents and purposes, over.
That said, it is important that unionism opens and retains new channels of communication with this ‘unique’ coalition. There are clearly some very big issues (Brexit, the NI Protocol, Covid-19, rebuilding the economy on both sides of the border) which need jointly addressed by the Northern Ireland Executive and Irish Government, so throwing a “let’s-discuss-Irish-unity-while-we’re-at-it” suggestion into the mix isn’t going to be helpful at this point. Which is why I think it’s unlikely that unionism, in a significant or broad-based way, will take part in, or formally engage with, the commission.
One thing is clear, though. The vast majority of nationalism here is thinking about a “new Ireland” and many will welcome the SDLP project. A smallish section of soft-unionism may also welcome it. Mainstream unionism cannot afford to be sanguine.
While it’s very unlikely mainstream unionism will ever engage in the dialogue the SDLP or Sinn Fein would like it to, it still needs to have coherent, tested, costed responses to the ongoing and expanding challenges from nationalism.