Looking to the past holds the key to a united future
Republicans must reclaim their Protestant tradition if they are to move out of their comfort zone, writes Chris Donnelly
Sinn Fein held a public meeting in London at the weekend to address the topic of Irish unity. The range of speakers looked impressive and I’m sure their speeches were thought-provoking. However, the time for speeches alone has long since past.
Project Unity requires action by nationalist politicians and the performance to date suggests neither Sinn Fein nor the SDLP has given sufficient thought as to how existing political structures can further their shared long-term objective.
Some commentators have suggested the best course of action for Irish nationalists is to forget about Irish unity, work for a united Northern Ireland and by so doing allow a united Ireland to evolve naturally.
That is nonsense. Irish unity will have to be won by frankly stating intentions and earning hard-fought political victories — and converts — along the way. The parties committed to Irish unity must chart a course that binds the North more closely with the rest of this island nation. Many of our churches, sporting organisations and trade unions already share the common trait of being all-island entities. Yet, in spite of their involvement in endless negotiations throughout the past 15 years of peace-processing, neither Sinn Fein nor the SDLP has secured concessions from the Irish Government that would have made the northern people more directly involved in the southern state.
Securing the right to vote in presidential elections would be a significant landmark for Irish nationalism in this regard as it would lead to successive all-Ireland elections.
Nationalist parties must devise pragmatic plans to maximise north-south co-operation. Specific proposals should also be implemented at local government level to effectively erase the border by delivering on a campaign to end duplication of service provision in border communities. This requires a commitment to policy development and implementation that simply has not been forthcoming to date.
Finally, and perhaps most decisively, the nationalist parties must devise a nationalist narrative which is inclusive of the British identity of the unionist people and actively seek to articulate the views of people from the traditionally non-nationalist Protestant community.
It was noteworthy that this was a key theme delivered by Sinn Fein MP Pat Doherty at the weekend’s conference and one can see the party seeking to lead in this regard through the impressive performance of Martin McGuiness as deputy First Minister, as illustrated in the findings of a Belfast Telegraph poll last year and through his handling of the PMS saga.
Irish republicanism and nationalism has a long history of attracting — and being led by — people from a Protestant background. It is incumbent upon both nationalist parties to look to that legacy for guidance as they seek to move beyond the comfort zone of representing ‘their’ people. Ironically, at a time when the UCUNF initiative has made noises about attempting to attract Catholic members, it is interesting to note that the only nominally nationalist or unionist party in the Assembly with an MLA from outside the traditional support base is Sinn Fein, courtesy of one-time Orange Order member Billy Leonard. Of course, one swallow isn’t about to make a summer. The past 40 years of conflict has deepened divisions and left wounds that will take time to heal. But a start must be made and the seeds planted to bear fruit in the time to come.
This has repercussions for how Sinn Fein and the SDLP approach recruitment, candidate selection and the siting of constituency offices — not to mention the articulation of a more cohesive ideological vision.
At a time when one unionist party has committed itself to Cameron’s Conservatives and the other has carved a reputation for its right wing zeal, the opportunity exists for the more broadly centre-left nationalist parties to at least make a connection with the section of the non-nationalist community which remains uncomfortable with the right-wing’s monopoly on unionist politics.
Chris Donnelly is a blogger and former Sinn Fein council candidate