Northern Ireland: seeking a route out of the impasse

The SDLP has called on Dublin and London to take the initiative and agree a package of legislation

As SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told his party’s annual conference at the weekend,  political vacuums don’t end well in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Eric Luke

As SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told his party’s annual conference at the weekend, political vacuums don’t end well in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The claim by former Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble’s that the Irish Government’s Brexit strategy risks provoking loyalist paramilitaries has rightly been dismissed as scaremongering by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood but it is a reflection of how dangerous the current situation has become.

Neither loyalist nor republican paramilitaries have any excuse for a return to violence, whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. It is sad that on the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement one of the key figures in its formulation has opened the door to serious discussion about the resumption of violence.

That said, senior Government figures in Dublin need to be much more careful than they have been to date about conflating the issues of Brexit, the future status of the Border and nationalist aspirations to a united Ireland. While Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have been right to do all they can to avoid the return of a hard border they have unnecessarily stoked unionist fears by the sloppy use of nationalist rhetoric. They need to find a way of convincing unionists that all of the people of the island have an interest in avoiding a hard border and that imaginative ways of doing this will not represent a Trojan horse on the road to a united Ireland.

Speaking at the SDLP annual conference at the weekend, Eastwood pointed out that political vacuums don’t end well in Northern Ireland as he called on the Irish and British Governments to take the initiative and agree a package of legislation on issues the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin have been unable to resolve since Stormont collapsed last year. The key message from the conference was “new politics, new Ireland”. As part of that Eastwood called for the establishment of a New Ireland Forum to produce a blueprint for the future but he emphasised that a referendum on the border should not be even contemplated until that work is done.

Despite its central role in the creation of the Belfast Agreement, based on a three-stranded approach to dealing with the issue of divided loyalties on the island of Ireland, the SDLP has been marginalised over the past decade. Sinn Féin has become the dominant party of Northern nationalism and the SDLP has been left struggling to redefine its role as a constitutional nationalist party with conciliation and consent as its core policies.

Over the past week suggestions of a merger with Fianna Fáil have resurfaced but it is debatable whether such a move would prompt a change in the party’s fortunes in the short term at least.

The best Eastwood and his colleagues can do is to promote reasoned dialogue and cooperation with other parties in the North and continued pressure on the two governments in a determined effort to have the power-sharing institutions restored.

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