For politics to go forward it must move Left-Right
Fourteen years after the Good Friday Agreement politics here is ripe for realignment along different lines, says Trevor Ringland
The UUP has just undergone more turmoil and an unsteady start for its new leader, while the SDLP continues to struggle to find a vision. Meanwhile, polls and commentary appear to sense a mood for change.
The recent Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report, published by the Community Relations Council, noted that no new party had emerged since 1998 to reflect the new political landscape created by the Good Friday Agreement.
The rationale is that a new alignment along Left-Right lines would encourage increasing numbers to engage.
As long ago as 2001, Alex Kane, the UUP's former director of communications, argued that "the consequence of David Trimble and John Hume being successful in pushing Northern Ireland out of conflict will probably herald an electoral collapse for both parties". He concluded: "both will need to shed factions and obsolete positions if they are to make themselves relevant for a post-conflict electorate".
I recently re-read Ulster at the Crossroads, a collection of former prime minister Terence O'Neill's speeches from the 1960s. The parallels are striking.
In the period preceding the start of the Troubles, there was an opportunity to change the nature of politics in Northern Ireland. That chance was missed. The rest is history.
At the time, the Northern Ireland Labour Party was growing and it looked like a viable centre-Left party might emerge to challenge the UUP and force it to concentrate on the centre-Right.
Its rise was the natural evolution of democratic politics in a young country; away from flag waving and symbols toward normal socio-economic policies. Unionism's negative reaction to this development contributed to the division and violence which followed.
Reg Empey and David Cameron presented a fresh opportunity in modern times, with the Conservative and Unionist project, which had its first outing at the European and Westminster elections in 2009/2010. UCUNF delivered a seat in Europe and secured 102,000 votes in the general election.
There was the potential for the emergence of real politics and full participation within the UK government. In the aftermath of that project, a debate has been ongoing among those who wish to see a more inclusive pro-Union movement that looks beyond the Trimble/Paisley/Robinson eras and seeks to build more constructive politics.
The conflict is over. They think now is the time to lead the way confidently toward a genuinely inclusive future, steer our politics away from tribalism and create a politics that can deal with day-to-day issues.
The Conservative Party chairman recently signalled the creation of a new, commonsense, autonomous Northern Ireland centre-Right party, free from the shackles of the past, which concentrates on the economy and jobs, rather than the stale debates of yesteryear.
Hopefully, this development can act as catalyst to encourage a move to real politics on the Left, with the rise of a centre-Left party, which can offer a competing perspective on socio-economic issues.
If pro-Union politics changes, it could lead to a re-think in Irish nationalism/republicanism, which increases the potential for meaningful partnership in Government and creates more democratic structures and an Opposition in the Assembly.
So a change of outlook from the pro-Union perspective may kick-start a process which sees a new brand of politics in Northern Ireland: one which fosters co-operation throughout and drives the aspiration of building a peaceful, prosperous and stable Northern Ireland.
In this period of centenaries, that would be the most fitting way for all of us to commemorate historic events and enable Northern Ireland to move on to a new stage of post-conflict politics.