‘All of Our Political Futures Are now Part of a Broader Canvas’ – By Colum Eastwood

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The core of this piece was supposed to be about the stalled Stormont talks and the prospect of devolution returning to the North.

As I began to write though, I could feel the boredom slipping into my fingertips.

It wouldn’t be a very tempting article to write and therefore I imagine would be even less tempting to read.

Everyone knows the position in which northern politics is currently, so there’s very little point in repeating it. It’s all been said already.

We have two big parties with two big mandates yet neither has the confidence to compromise. So as far as the Stormont talks go, the summary reads – we are where we are and we are where we were.

The strange paradox of this summer is that outside of our own bubble of stalemate, almost everywhere else politics is brewing and bubbling with possibility.

The Brexit vote and this period of negotiations has thrown up questions and conundrums which have at times lain dormant but have never fully gone away. The biggest catalyst in the resurfacing of those challenges has been the threat of a new border in Ireland, a border which would be established against our consent.

What history often termed as the ‘Irish question’, a divided land and a divided people, was once contained between these two islands; it is now however the consideration of an entire continent in the shape of the EU.

That means that all of our political futures are now part of a broader canvas of change and much of it will be decided at a higher tier of political power.

In that context, it would be foolish to presume that the ‘Irish question’ can still be viewed and confronted through the prisms of the past.

Old questions have now moved on to new ground.

The choices ahead of us go way beyond our familiar story of identity and territory, unearthing new contrasts and deep divergences.

Through Brexit, we are witnessing one island attempting to retreat into the false nostalgia of an imagined past, embracing a cocktail of political panic and economic protectionism.

On the other hand, our own island retains its ambition of building an open economy and society, not beholden to globalisation, but willing to shape the opportunity it offers. That economic openness was mapped out by Taoiseach Seán Lemass and T.K. Whitaker over 50 years ago and there is no good reason to abandon it now.

That divide between an open and a closed society is probably most polarised when it comes to the movement of people.

Britain has become increasingly uneasy with the modern shifts in its societal demographics and thus immigration controls have come to dominate many recent elections and ultimately the Brexit referendum itself.

In contrast Ireland needs the people – our job is to build a country which welcomes them.

Our road to a prosperous and pluralist future lies in an Ireland proud to be an island of minorities, providing belonging and fairness to all.

All of these emerging contrasts mean that the constitutional choice will inevitably surface.

This is a time when nationalism has rightly been challenged to give definition and detail as to what this New Ireland will look like – a job all of us have failed to do thus far.

Simultaneously, ulster unionism must finally free itself from its default position of retreat and retrenchment and seriously consider what form and future they envisage for a United Kingdom which is shaking at its very seams.

Even to the casual observer, this is a moment of big politics and big decisions. Much of it is unprecedented and some of it, if not handled sensitively, could very well be dangerous. However, this is also the stuff that real politics is made of.

Each of us in political life will now be asked to give thorough articulation to the future which can best provide for the economic and social needs of this island, north and south, delivering both wealth and social justice.

Any politician worth their salt should long to live in such a time of choice and consequence.

And that brings us back to the frustration and the stalemate at Stormont.

Northern politics has long been used to the outside world looking in on us but that time has long since passed – we’re now in a moment when everyone is focused on a much wider horizon.

We can either be part of that landscape of evolving change or we can continue to opt out – we can either use our institutions to positively influence the lives of our people or we can leave them to wither, betraying our responsibilities.

For this island, as the stillness of the political summer comes to a close, a defining autumn awaits.


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  1. An excellent challenging piece by Colum Eastwood.

    As you say, the foundation of the current impasse lies in the party political system and the dominance of the Big Two. I agree too that it is a dangerous time… but so was 1969/70/ etc when the SDLP emerged at a period of crisis addressing the needs of human, civil and political rights. If any party can shake off the mortal coil of the lethargy of the past few years, I think it is the SDLP despite what many political pundits would argue.

    Like any business, you (the SDLP) needs to move with your customers. It needs to ask, what does it stand for? The SDLP needs to rebrand and appeal to the wider voters who are sick to the teeth of the current political stalemate, especially the younger voters. There is always the element of risk in re-defining the product. For example, if a new arrangement with the UK Labour Party were done, and the Irish Labour Party were aboard, then what more could a Social Democratic party with a body of socialists ask for? The national question ie. a united Ireland is a red herring! What people want fundamentally is good representation and the future polity of Ireland is a matter for the ROI government and all the parties in the North through dialogue. I can’t imagine a United Ireland if half the population objects to it! So why get involved in this soul destroying mania? I’d be happy to live in any island where there was a political consensus for national unity. But we have a long way to go yet, and there are significant pressing political issues in front of us… we could be heading for a perfect storm!

    So, to flag up one solution, I believe the SDLP should consider getting out of the doldrums and picking up some of the energy from the UK Labour Party and becoming a serious political contender. This would loosen off the impasse we have at the moment and create a new lease of life in the politics of the North. It should not jeopardise the SDLP per se if done sensitively and sensibly. This measure would draw voters from other parties I am sure. Especially if you were to address the Labour Party conference later in the year. It would also hearten the many UK voters who see the North as a depressing ungovernable area. But this is only one suggestion, there are a number of others options which I won’t go into.

    So the same goes for alliances between other parties in the ROI, and indeed for the other parties in the North… they too can start to explore new definitions and progress their political typologies on to somewhere that inspires the local population instead of a constant depressing news stream of negative news. In fact, I would say that it is their responsibility to do so. They must like the SDLP take that risk. Politics is like a game of poker, when it comes round to you, you have to play to stay in the game, or fold.

    Very often politicians think they are the big fish in the pond and act like it, but, the political size of the North is such that it is hardly a sustainable entity politically given the behaviour of these parties. And with fewer politicians, more effective councils and a more active community sector (possibly with a Peoples’ Parliament) I think we can find a good model for governance beyond the GFA which I think has served it key purpose in providing stability and freedom from extreme violence. We must move on now.

    Time for political leadership – the egg has to be cracked. As one of the many thousands of frustrated voters, I look forward to the day that a politician with both leadership and vision stands up and moves us into a period of greater peace and reconciliation, prosperity, and stability. And of course, if a United Ireland is just over the horizon, then that will be addressed too eventually in a rational and national way, without hopefully the bitterness we have seen in the past.

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