Roadmap to united Ireland is needed

Posted By: August 11, 2015

Chris Donnelly. Irish News ( Belfast). Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Nationalist leaders: From left, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and former SDLP leader John Hume in 1997 during the Hume Adams talks that preceded the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement 
The 2015 Westminster elections delivered a disappointing result for nationalist parties in the north of Ireland.

The combined percentage share of the vote obtained by Sinn Féin and the SDLP was the lowest for a Westminster election since 1992. This performance was not an outlier either.

In the present electoral cycle, the combined performance of the two nationalist parties has been the worst at elections to each of the legislative institutions (Westminster, Europe and local government level) since the ceasefire era of the early to mid-1990s.

In May the combined nationalist percentage of the vote fell below 40 per cent for the first time at a parliamentary election since 1992; Sinn Féin lost Fermanagh & South Tyrone and its share of the vote fell in 15 of the 18 constituencies; the SDLP barely managed to hold onto South Belfast and watched its share of the vote decline in 13 of the 18 constituencies.

In last year’s local government elections, the combined SF-SDLP share of the overall seats as well as votes declined for the second consecutive election at this level, while the combined SF-SDLP share of the vote in the European election was the worst since 1989.

Similarly, the last assembly election in 2011 saw the number of nationalist MLAs elected decrease for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement launched the power-sharing institutions at Stormont in 1998.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that fewer nationalists are bothering to vote than at any time since the Good Friday Agreement ushered in a new era in northern Irish politics – and this in spite of demographic data illustrating that there are now a greater number of nationalists among the overall electorate than at any time in the history of this state.

Yet ironically, it would be utterly wrong to conclude from this that nationalist Ireland was experiencing a crisis.

Indeed, the post-ceasefire and Good Friday Agreement period we are emerging from will be remembered as the halcyon age for northern nationalism, a time when nationalists secured an increasingly equal footing in the political, social and economic spheres in northern society as well as asserting its place more centrally within the Irish nation.

The consociational arrangements at Stormont mean that the two communities in a practical and symbolic sense share power and responsibility equally, with mutual vetoes and a deputy first minister for a first minister personifying the delicate balance of power that prevails.

The transformation in policing culture remains a work in progress but the irreversible nature of the direction ahead for that organisation is clear.

The presidency of Mary McAleese, the emergence of Sinn Féin as an all-Ireland party, the mainstream exposure afforded Irish nationalist cultural and political identity within northern society, the rise of an assertive nationalist professional class in the north, the unprecedented success of Ulster GAA teams at all-Ireland level and even the regular involvement of northerners in the Republic of Ireland international football team, all bear witness to a time when northern nationalist confidence has soared due to the sense that it has established a firm footing within the Irish nation, while also transforming the Orange state into one shared between the colours of orange and green.

Where we are now might not be the Promised Land, but it is better than any terrain previously inhabited by northern nationalists, and that can explain to a degree the growing electoral apathy from a nationalist people content with a new status quo.

Yet the raison d’etre of Irish nationalism and republicanism remains to secure sovereignty on an island-wide basis.

Moving from a shared and increasingly equal Northern Ireland, in a UK context, into a sovereign united Ireland scenario is the task for this generation of Irish nationalists and republicans.

More than 17 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, is there any sense that the political parties advocating Irish unity have conceived of discernible and credible plans to plot a course to unity?

*‘What Now Nationalism? Plotting the roadmap to a united Ireland’ is the theme of the inaugural Lighthouse Summer School, which takes place on Saturday August 15 in the Youth & Community Hall, Killough, Co Down. The event begins at 10.30am and is open to the public.