SDLP and the Ulster Unionists sacrificed their political future at the altar of peace

The fundamental issue of identity cannot be resolved by ignoring it, and only achieved by facing up to it

In the wake of the Northern Assembly elections there is much talk of life and death.“Can you think of a dignified way of allowing the SDLP to die?” was a question put to me as the results revealed the wound that the party had suffered. Meantime a former member of the Ulster Unionist Party chastised me for suggesting that unionism should “discuss its own death” by entering talks about the future of this island. Whatever of the sensibility of such exchanges there is no avoiding that the election has confronted these two local parties with their own mortality.

And then there was the celebration of growth and new possibilities in the results for Sinn Féin and the Alliance parties. The result invoked the memory of young IRA men and women who staffed the phones in the Sinn Féin incident centres that connected into the Northern Ireland Office during the 1975 ceasefire. They would have had no inclination of being part of a political birth.

One that would eventually attract the required votes to claim the First Minister’s post in the North while also vying to be the leading party in the rest of Ireland. A far cry from the old adage used by their parents that the Irish people would give the IRA anything but the vote. And some of their future political leaders initially advising that politics was ineffectual and corrupt, and that Irish unity would be achieved by the “cutting edge of the IRA”.

The small cohort, within and without the party, who encouraged and facilitated the odyssey from Armalite to ballot box should take comfort in the justification of their efforts. The youth who now support and vote for Sinn Féin have little insight into the ferocity of resistance that the political, church and media establishment mounted against those initiatives.

Impressive

The sweep of votes and seats that have gone to the Alliance Party was enormously impressive. It is the result of hard work and planning, coupled with bravery against the verbal and physical abuse hurled at it from disgruntled unionists.

But its newfound success, after years of marginality, arises from the narrative that the solution to the tensions and the intercommunal strife in the North is to bypass and ignore the constitutional issue and thus make Northern Ireland work for both sides.

It is a narrative that is being enthusiastically embraced by the political establishment and by many media commentators. Indeed, Leo Varadkar, the Tánaiste, was on the media within hours of the results proclaiming the growth of Alliance as the pointer to a better future.

It is a mistaken analysis. It is as mistaken and as destructive, as was the analysis before the peace process, that Sinn Féin should be marginalised, and that the politics and the peace should be built by a coalition of the centre parties.

It is an analysis that ignores the undisputed psychological truth that an underlying emotional or identity problem cannot be solved by ignoring it but can be ameliorated by facing into and honestly struggling with it.

Alliance has swept up the middle ground votes and with it the other centralist parties, but it has not and will not make a dent on the unresolved and suffocating constitutional issue. They will bring much energy and better governance to some aspects of Northern politics, but while sitting on the fence and silent on the constitutional issue enables them to hold their party intact, it neuters them on the core issue of Anglo/Irish relations.

“What’s next?” is the dynamics of all politics. The two governments, who are the guarantors of the Belfast Agreement, have had a soured relationship in the last few years, due mainly to the lack of quality and integrity on the British side. They are now challenged to work more positively together and, ironically, the war in Ukraine and a poor economic outlook might enhance that possibility.

Intentions

Sinn Féin would not have been the choice to lead the debate on any future definition and settlement of a shared Ireland. Unionism is still hurt by their past and suspicious of their future intentions. But they are what we have. They have demonstrated a proficiency in adapting to the currency of the times. It is a great distance from Gerry Adam’s Irish Socialist Republic to the pragmatism of the new young leaders who buried the socialist strapline in favour of a more inclusive image.

The SDLP and the Ulster Unionists have indicated their intention of fighting the next election. Irrespective of whether they struggle on or slowly fade away, the rest of us should raise a glass to both parties in appreciation. Sometimes the Ulster Unionists had to be coaxed and dragged but both parties sacrificed their political future at the altar of peace, which often demands personal immolation in exchange for the lives of others. Sinn Féin would never have made that sacrifice. It is inevitable that Alliance will face that challenge sometime soon.

Denis Bradley is a journalist and former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board