Location Slieve Gullion
Date Thursday 1st December 2011
Name Dr Alasdair McDonnell MP, MLA, Assembly
Tel 028 9024 2474
In 1915, James Connolly warned about the dangers of partition, which he said would bring about ‘a carnival of reaction’ on the island of Ireland. It did exactly that, for north and south became in every sense much poorer places without each other.
In the north, unionism retreated into a protestant fortress in which Irishness was close to treason. In the south, divided nationalism gave up the radical, democratic and egalitarian republican tradition which had largely come from the north and handed large swathes of public policy over to clerical control.
Partition was plain wrong, politically, economically and ethically. Partition was the outcome of a 20-year conspiracy to defeat Irish democracy with armed force, to overturn the will of the nation as expressed in the general election of 1918. Nobody expected it to last, not even the leaders of unionism. But even they underestimated the carnival of reaction, the way partition unleashed evil forces of sectarianism which poisoned the political atmosphere of the north, and still does.
Once done, partition could not be simply undone. The tragedy is that it took the splintered strands of nationalism several generations to recognise that reality. The parliamentary strand, waiting for the imminent collapse of the Six Counties, waiting for unspecified help from Dublin, dithered while unionism got an iron grip on the whole public sphere by gerrymandering and discrimination.
The militant strand made things much worse in every decade. There is a story about Brian Faulkner being interviewed by a Guardian reporter while he was Minister of Home Affairs. After a long conversation about the Border Campaign the reporter asked Faulkner to define the difference between nationalists and republicans. “That’s simple,” replied Faulkner. “Republicans are nationalists with access to gelignite.” He was more right than even he knew.
The core concept of republicanism was to achieve freedom through the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter. Wolfe Tone further emphasised its democratic and egalitarian character when he said he would free Ireland with the help of that most respectable class, the men of no property. But in the tiny rump of Sinn Fein and the IRA that was left when Fianna Fail walked out, the tactic of armed struggle became elevated into a very principle. The very test of republicanism became the use of gun and bomb, not to achieve anything in particular, just to make a bang.
From the 1920s until the emergence of the Provos, republicanism became more and more identified in the public mind with stupid, hopeless violence, politically inspired but without hope of political success, without even a political programme. It certainly had an impact on partition, but not the intended one. Nothing solidified the border like the IRA. Nothing solidified unionism’s grip on the whole community like the tens of thousand of frightened but armed B-men meeting regularly in Orange halls across the north.
Irish nationalism, swinging between sterile militarism and equally sterile abstentionism, was unable to engage with unionism from the outside and unwilling to engage on the inside. Famously, in fifty years of the old Stormont parliament the only legislative input from nationalism was a small amendment to the Wild Birds Act 1961.
The unionist regime was impregnable to outside attack, military or political. But unionism was deeply unstable within itself, deeply suspicious of itself - when you withdraw to live within the walls of a fortress, everyone is a potential Lundy. All the bombs, all the shootings were as nothing compared to the impact of the visit of Sean Lemass in 1966. Protests against discrimination had been going on since the early 1920s, but in the late 1960s they were presented in terms of people demanding British civil rights, and the regime could not cope.
However, once again stupid, hopeless militarism rode to the rescue of unionism. Let us be very clear about this: the Provos opposed and condemned the civil rights movement. It was not the British Army who put the movement off the streets with their gunfire, it was the Provos. There is no justification for 30 years of violence to be found in the denial of civil rights. The six demands of the movement had been met or were on their way before their campaign of violence was unleashed. The first policeman killed by the Provos, near Crossmaglen in June 1970, was unarmed courtesy of the Hunt Report and the Civil Rights movement.
Within months the RUC had their guns back, courtesy of the Provos.
There was a moment in 1970 – the moment in which the SDLP was founded – at which it could all have taken a different direction. The governments in London and Dublin had woken up at last, the unionist monolith was shattered and broad nationalism wanted a new settlement to build on the civil rights victories. But the Provos had a secret weapon – they could marshal the forces of sectarianism which older republicans had avoided like the plague. They were not Wolfe Tone republicans by any stretch of the imagination, they were ghetto.
At that time virtually all the parties and players north and south had emerged from the upheavals which led to partition, and none on the nationalist side had done anything effectual to combat partition. Even then, with unionism on its knees, none was capable of advancing coherent proposals to unite the people or the country or even to stop the growing violence.
The SDLP was different. We were not the creation of conflict, we came into being in order to put an end to conflict for ever. The introduction to the first SDLP policy document is something we should probably be able to recite by heart:
"Any proposals which are put forward as a solution to the present difficulties of the Northern of Ireland must be proposals which will provide permanent peace, and stability so that the people of Ireland of all traditions, can come together on a basis of harmony and justice, ending for all time the unjust domination of any one Irish tradition by another. They must be proposals which are put forward without taking into account any sectional or party advantage and which are arrived at by a genuine analysis of the constitutional and institutional difficulties which have led to the present situation."
It took us 30 years to achieve the SDLP’s primary aim of an Agreed Ireland - a basic framework for peace, an agreed way of tackling political and constitutional differences, and a minimum standard of civility. The Good Friday Agreement, endorsed by the people of this island and raised to the status of international treaty, sets out the terms of our Agreed Ireland. Above all, it incorporated the Principle of Consent – that the constitutional status of the north could only be changed by majority vote of the people of the north. The new all-Ireland peace mandate of 1998 thus replaced the previous mandate of the 1918 election on which the Provos had claimed the right to wage war and removed the perceived threat which had frustrated dialogue between nationalists and unionists.
The Good Friday Agreement was our greatest achievement but it was not our destination. It did not settle everything nor was it intended to. It did, however, set out in the clearest terms the only way a united Ireland was to be achieved: “…by agreement between the two parts (of Ireland) respectively …” and with the support of a majority of voters in the north. Every statement that anyone makes in favour of a united Ireland needs to be measured against this benchmark. Only those who are in the business of persuasion should be taken seriously.
“We believe that all the rights, protections and inclusion that nationalists have sought within Northern Ireland while it is in the United Kingdom must equally be guaranteed to unionists within a United Ireland.
“Our vision of a United Ireland is based on equality. Unity must not be about the entrapment of a new minority. In a United Ireland we will still need to find a way of sharing our society as equals every bit as much as we do today - and that is what the Good Friday Agreement is all about.
“The best context for holding and winning a referendum is when it is clear that the 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.”
The DUP and Sinn Fein are absolutely agreed on one thing – they could not exercise the sort of power they now hold in a United Ireland. The continued gutting of the Good Friday Agreement is essential to their power project, because their electoral strength comes from community division; reconciliation and a shared future would only loosen their grip. And no pretence of a shared future from Peter Robinson is going to alter that grubby pact.
Our vision is very different: we want reconciliation and a shared future here and now, and we want to continue our mechanisms of reconciliation into a United Ireland so that it genuinely is a New Ireland. Reconciliation and persuasion are essential to progress towards a new Ireland, but what is happening right now in the north will take us in the opposite direction. We must map out a different future – no one else can do it for us.
Achieving a majority for Irish unity any time soon will require the persuasion of some unionists and the reassurance of many others. Because we have always stood for peace and partnership, only the SDLP can persuade a majority in the North in favour of unity - just as we persuaded a majority of the North in favour of the Good Friday Agreement – and it will involve being major persuaders in the South too.
That is why only the SDLP can deliver a United Ireland.
We believe that all the rights, protections and inclusion that nationalists have sought within Northern Ireland while it is in the United Kingdom must equally be guaranteed to unionists within a United Ireland. What does that mean? In a word, in our united Ireland the Assembly and Executive would continue to run things in the north. We are alone in adopting this position but we hope to convince all the parties of democratic nationalism to take it up. There is precedence – de Valera offered pretty much the same deal to Churchill in 1940. This is not just our united Ireland, it is our New Ireland, the unique selling proposition of the SDLP.
There is a massive roadblock on the road to a New Ireland and that is the electoral weakness of the SDLP. The DUP and Sinn Fein are leading us ever deeper into a political dead-end where the ‘peace walls’ would grow higher and divisions wider, where persuasion for Irish unity would be virtually impossible. We must gain enough electoral strength to change the agenda, to put reconciliation back on the road, to begin the process of persuasion.
Unionists are not suddenly going to become nationalists, but we may all begin to reassess our social and economic future as London gradually tightens our financial noose. The DUP and Sinn Fein are bereft of ideas for economic regeneration, but we have plenty of ideas – and the business community is beginning to take us very seriously indeed.
In South Belfast we have been able to build a cross-community appeal which goes far beyond tactical voting because we have engaged with so many different strands of opinion. With 20+ seats in the Assembly and a strong voice at the Executive table, the SDLP could become a powerful pole of attraction for new political thinking within unionism.
There is another moment emerging now - where it is possible to explore aspects of the Irish Unity project in ways which would have been impossible a few short years ago. This moment is chiming with my plan to re-found the SDLP and it can’t afford to be lost.
SDLP proposals for a Forum on Irish Unity which we developed after the 2007 election were basically side-tracked by the economic downturn and the financial crisis in the south. Under my leadership they will be given the highest priority again, not least because they are of immediate relevance for the political direction which devolved government in the north must take over the next decade. Based on our longstanding co-operation with all the parties of democratic nationalism I will seek to sign up partners for unity based clearly on the principle of consent and the practice of persuasion.