The House of Commons has voted, by a hefty margin, to hold an election in Great Britain, and in Northern Ireland. The outcome of the election on our neighbouring island will have monumental consequences for that country’s relationship with the European Union, and maybe even for its relationship with Scotland.
Over on this island, voters in Northern Ireland will have the chance to elect members of the British parliament. At the heart of every such election is the fundamental question as to whether Northern Ireland should be British, or Irish. On that question, the settled and agreed position of all parties is that the province will remain British until such time as a majority of its people decide otherwise. This is how it should be.
The tribalism that pervades politics in Northern Ireland is, however, the greatest barrier to achieving a United Ireland. Too few nationalists are prepared to recognise that in a United Ireland, Nigel Dodds and Ian Paisley would be as Irish, with as many rights as Irishmen, as the most ardent republican. Too few Unionists are prepared to recognise that the aspirations of nationalists are no more, or no less, legitimate than those of the Scottish Nationalists, or Plaid Cymru.
The current political arrangements do not reduce the Irishness of anybody living in Northern Ireland. An irish woman living in Belfast is as Irish as an Irish woman living in London or Cork. Similarly, a United Ireland would not, and should not, eliminate the Britishness of anyone living in what would then be the former Northern Ireland. A Briton living in Spain is as British as a Briton living in Yorkshire, or Tyrone in a United Ireland.
The regrettable truth, however, is that the history of the past fifty years in Northern Ireland has blurred that reality for far too many people. Unionists understandably doubt those who sought to convince them of a United Ireland by killing their brothers and sisters. Nationalists understandably struggle to trust a state that imprisoned so many of them without trial, and colluded with loyalist paramilitaries to facilitate murder.
More recently, nationalists themselves have undermined their cause. The sight of Sinn Fein and the SDLP applauding the imposition of British laws on marriage and abortion, over the heads of the voters of Northern Ireland, does not suggest that they believe that British governance is harmful to the interests of the province. In fact, it suggests that they believe that London knows best.
The bitter truth for Nationalism in Northern Ireland is that in political terms, the DUP has been a much more effective advocate for Unionism than the two nationalist parties have been for nationalism. The only voices heard at Westminster are Unionist voices. Nationalism is reactive, not pro-active. A refusal to form a Northern Irish government at Stormont has denied the people of Northern Ireland a nationalist voice in Government and has made it very difficult to ascertain what the political benefits of nationalism might be.
In Brexit negotiations, it has fallen to the Dublin Government to represent nationalist voters. The Nationalist parties have been nowhere to be seen.
The simple question that Nationalist voters should ask themselves in this election is this: What have Sinn Fein and the SDLP done, in the past three years, to advance our interests? The answer, if they are honest with themselves, is absolutely nothing.
To the extent that Irish Unity is any closer today than it was in 2016, that is entirely and wholly a function of the Brexit debate in the UK, and not as a result of any work done by the political representatives of nationalism to make Irish unity seem more attractive. To the extent that there has been any social or economic progress in Northern Ireland, that has wholly been the work of the Democratic Unionists, and their Conservative partners in the British Government. To the extent that Northern Ireland has been defended from the threat of a hard border, that has been almost wholly the work of politicians in Dublin and Brussels, and even some opposition politicians in London.
Throughout it all, Nationalist politicians have been missing in action.
Nationalist voters should, therefore, choose a different path. Their choices are not restricted to the failed and cynical politics of Sinn Fein, or the comfortable do-nothing nationalism of the SDLP. Those parties, in fact, should be held to account. We hope to see strong votes for independent nationalists in this election, and for Aontu, which was the only nationalist party to argue that decisions that effect Northern Ireland should be taken in Northern Ireland.
This election provides an opportunity to choose new leadership for the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein and the SDLP’s only claim to that leadership is that they have always provided it. That is not good enough.
It’s time to give someone else a go.