Colum Eastwood: ‘There’s a huge burden on this generation to get it right’
SDLP leader well aware of the multiple challenges facing a referendum on a united Ireland
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood: ‘The Good Friday Agreement wasn’t written by nationalists, it was written by a lot of people in a room.’
If a referendum on a united Ireland is to be won, says Colum Eastwood, there is one question which must be answered.
“A lot of people will say to me, ‘I’m not paying 50 quid to see the doctor’. If we don’t answer that, we won’t win anything.”
How then does the SDLP leader propose to resolve that question? “You make sure people don’t have to pay 50 quid to see the doctor, that’s what you’ve got to do . . . it’s absolutely key to this conversation.”
Healthcare is one of the issues Eastwood proposes to explore as part of discussions the SDLP will convene through its New Ireland Commission, launched in July. This is the party’s contribution to the debate around Irish unity, which will influence both its own thinking and its input to the Department of the Taoiseach’s Shared Island Unit.
There is now both an “enormous opportunity” and “a huge burden on this generation to get it right and not to mess it up.”
There’s now a brand new generation of the SDLP in the leadership of the SDLP, and we feel it’s incumbent on us now to take the next step and this is it
He elaborates: “The Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement is a recognition that there are different relationships and there are different identities, and you can’t just park that. You have to take the principles that underpin the Good Friday Agreement and bring them into how you change the future and how you create a new, shared island.”
The terminology of a shared island is “spot on”, he says. “That has to be built, it’s work that has to be done. Brexit on its own changes everything but it’s not enough. We can’t force people into a changed constitutional position and hope they’re happy at the end, we have to take them with us.”
Brand new generation
Eastwood has been MP for Foyle since December, when he retook the seat from Sinn Féin with a 17,000 majority. At 37, he is the youngest of the leaders of the five parties in the North’s Executive. He has introduced new thinking – the party’s partnership with Fianna Fáil, for instance – and has brought in fresh blood, such as the MLA Matthew O’Toole.
“There’s now a brand new generation of the SDLP in the leadership of the SDLP, and we feel it’s incumbent on us now to take the next step and this is it.”
Key to the conversation will be unionists. “Quiet” discussions are underway, Eastwood says, adding that, “everybody we speak to is open to having this conversation”.
He credits the former SDLP leader, Seamus Mallon, for teaching him to “be straight with who you are” with unionists. “Honeyed words don’t cut it with them . . . be honest you’re a nationalist and accept they’re coming from a different place, but that doesn’t stop you building something together.”
Yet for many unionists there are clear limits to what their shared efforts might construct. Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, Rev Mervyn Gibson, says of the SDLP’s plans: “We need to see more detail, but if it’s purely a conversation about unionism’s place in a united Ireland then we won’t be taking part, because we don’t want a united Ireland.”
On this, Eastwood is realistic: “We know that not everybody will engage either with us or with the Irish Government, but I don’t think it’s sensible not to engage.”
It’ll be a very easy referendum to win if you create a vision for a country that a lot of people want to buy into
“I don’t want to change anybody’s identity,” he emphasises, “but I still think it would be strange if after all we’ve come through, where we’ve built a peace process, we’ve built institutions where we can work together on every other issue, that we wouldn’t sit down and talk about this issue.”
But he resists prejudging the outcome of the conversation – “I don’t think it’s up to me to decide what unionism wants within the changed context” – and rejects the suggestion that its end point has already been established.
“Nothing can be pre-determined, but equally the status quo isn’t predetermined either. It isn’t pre-determined that we will always remain part of the United Kingdom.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever hidden my desire to see Irish unity, but that needs designed . . . that’s why I would suggest that unionists would make their decision that unionists should engage in some way, even if it’s only to put all the arguments in the way [of a united Ireland].
“The Good Friday Agreement wasn’t written by nationalists, it was written by a lot of people in a room. The Agreement came about because everybody was together and compromises were made.”
‘Not about politics’
There is work to be done also in regard to attitudes south of the Border.
“Take nothing for granted would be my attitude on it,” says Eastwood. He is not a subscriber to Mallon’s argument that there must be found “some more inclusive and generous way to quantify consent so that it reflects true parity of esteem.”
“The raw mechanism is 50 per cent plus one because there’s no other way to do it, there just isn’t,” says Eastwood. “We can’t say that someone’s vote is worth more . . . the reality is it’s a majority. What do I want? As big a majority as possible, but most importantly, we have to start obsessing about what sort of a country we want to create.
“It’ll be a very easy referendum to win if you create a vision for a country that a lot of people want to buy into.”
He rejects, too, any suggestion that the party is attempting to reclaim electoral ground lost to Sinn Féin by clothing itself in a green of a deeper hue.
“It’s not about politics for me, it really isn’t. I’m not sure whether there are any votes in this at all and I don’t particularly care.
“It’s about how do we plan for the future, and if politicians aren’t engaged in creating a more stable and prosperous and fair society for the people we represent then what’s the point?”
Eastwood will not be drawn on timing, saying he does not understand what he describes as Sinn Féin’s “obsession with a date”.
“What’s the point when you haven’t done the work and if you haven’t convinced anybody? You’re going to have created more and more division and actually lost the referendum.
“The numbers aren’t there yet . . . If there was a Border poll called today we would lose. If I was Arlene Foster [DUP leader] I’d be looking for a Border poll right now.”
“You make it something very exciting and something people want to buy into, then the referendum will be the easy part.”