SDLP leader is changed, changed utterly by Brexit

Posted By: June 02, 2017

Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, June 2, 2017

This was Colum Eastwood speaking in the assembly on June 27, 2016: “Let me just deal with the point that the Secretary of State made about the principle of consent and the Good Friday Agreement. I do not think that this is the right time for a Border poll because I believe that we should have a Border poll that we can actually win. Our duty today…is to deal with the issues that face us right now.”

Two years earlier, in the autumn of 2014, he wrote: “The best context for holding and winning a referendum is when it is clear that the Good Friday Agreement is fully bedded down and that all its protections will continue regardless of the referendum’s outcome. A majority is most likely to vote for a United Ireland when reassured that it is neither a vote against the agreement nor a vote for constitutional uncertainty. Achieving a majority for Irish unity any time soon will require the persuasion of some Unionists. It will also require the reassurance of many others. My party has always stood for peace and partnership and only we can persuade a majority in The North in favor of unity—just as we persuaded a majority of The North in favor of the Good Friday Agreement. That is why only the SDLP can deliver a United Ireland.”

Yet last Tuesday, during the SDLP’s manifesto launch—and against a background of Sinn Féin eyeing up South Down and Foyle, while quietly praying that Alasdair McDonnell is toppled by the DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly—Eastwood shifted his position: “I think there is now a route for actually winning a Border Poll. I think that we need to have one after Brexit when the dust settles. A Border Poll is no longer solely the project of Irish nationalism but of pro-European internationalism. A unity referendum now has a much broader reach, offering us a return to the EU as a sovereign country.”

So, Colum, you think that the Good Friday Agreement is now ‘fully bedded down’? The executive collapsed almost six months ago and the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin is worse than it has ever been. We’re looking at the possibility of direct rule. Sinn Féin is now more focused on a post-Assembly scenario (even if they do cut a short-term deal with the DUP before the end of June) than in rebooting and copper fastening the agreement’s institutions. Your own party is hanging on by its electoral fingertips.

And do you really think that calling for a Border Poll in the next couple of years and against a background of existing uncertainty and toe-to-toe politicking is going to persuade ‘some unionists’ and reassure ‘many others.’ It won’t. But you know that already, of course. Maybe you’ve realized that this election – more than any other in recent times – is just about DUP and Sinn Féin numbers, and against that sort of background, you need to replace turquoise with green. Sinn Féin is coming after you like it has never come after you before, so – in just the same way that the UUP has tried to ape the DUP when it feels the pressure – you are moving onto Sinn Féin’s territory.

I wonder if you’ll be invited back to an Ulster Unionist conference again? They quite liked your stance about ‘making Northern Ireland’ work and joining with them in opposition to offer a joint alternative to what Dolores Kelly described as the DUP-Sinn Féin junta. After Tuesday they’ll have concluded that, like Sinn Féin, you have no particular commitment to Northern Ireland. Mind you, after the response from many UUP supporters to Mike Nesbitt’s comment about voting SDLP before DUP, I suspect that many of your own supporters have no particular interest in seeing you back on a Unionist platform!

The problem is that everything you now say is said against the background of the SDLP working towards a Border Poll you now think is winnable, so any conversation you have with Unionists is against that background of ‘a return to the EU as a sovereign country.’ So, in one fell swoop, you have simply shifted yourself to a Sinn Féin platform and, in so doing, made it extremely difficult to have conversations with ‘liberal’ UUP MLAs like Steve Aiken and Doug Beattie.

Yet, when all is said and done, you probably had no other option. Brexit has changed everything. Changed the nature of the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin; between London and Dublin; between Belfast and Dublin; and between Unionism and Republicanism. When the ‘constitutional question’ is so nakedly and aggressively front and center, there is no such thing as soft or moderate when it comes to Unionism and Nationalism.

Which means, I suspect, that the electoral clock is ticking down on both the UUP and SDLP.