Monday, May 16, 2005

Irish Nationalism is now faced with a strong and united British Unionism

Jude Collins:

Well, that’s the pact headache eased for unionism. Before the election the UUP and the DUP had a small war of words about who should run in areas where there was, omigod, the danger of a nationalist taking the seat. South Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone in particular were identified, with shouts of ‘It’s our seat!’ and ‘Shut up, we’re the only credible unionist contender!’ being slung around. That’s all academic now. The UUP is finished. Its head, the never-terribly-convincing David Trimble, has been removed. You realise how totally out of ideas UUPers are when you hear them talking about Reg Empey as a possible new leader - only a party on its deathbed would go in for such crazy talk. So next time out, the DUP won’t have to worry about coming to an arrangement with the UUP. A corpse can’t sign an electoral pact.

All of which is very bad news for nationalism. Next Westminster election, Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast won’t squeeze to victory through the middle because there’ll be no middle. Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh/South Tyrone won’t win on 18,000+ votes because the unionist vote won’t be nicely divided into DUP: 14,000 and UUP : 9,000. If there’s a single unionist candidate in these and perhaps other constituencies, nationalism won’t stand a chance.

On the nationalist side this time out, there was less pre-election talk of a voting pact between Sinn Féin and the SDLP, largely because Sinn Féin figured it could do a DUP on the SDLP. It didn’t. Unlike the UUP, the SDLP kept its head and, to its own astonishment as much as everyone else’s, it collected three Westminster seats. No wonder Alasdair McDonnell looked as if he’d been hit with a hurley as the results were declared: who’s going to look after all those patients?

So given that nationalism is faced with a strong and united unionism, what should it do? There are three obvious possibilities.

It can stay as it is – two competing parties, running against a united unionism, dividing the nationalist vote in constituency after constituency. Not a pretty prospect.

The SDLP can get on with its rumoured Fianna Fáil merger. The result of that would probably be to deepen the nationalist divide in the north, making DUP victories even more likely.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP can get some voting pacts in place - field one agreed candidate in key constituencies. That might work.

A fourth alternative, in some ways less obvious and other ways more obvious, would be a merger between Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

The reasons for two nationalist parties in the north are long and complex, but in essence they amount to a difference of view on aims and means. The SDLP, coming out of the civil rights movement, had as its central aim full civil rights; the means it chose to achieve that aim was non-violence. Sinn Féin, in a continuing republican tradition, had as its central aim national unity and independence, and the means it chose to achieve that aim included violence as well as political action.

That was yesterday. More recently the SDLP has committed itself unambiguously to the goal of national unity. Its website declares the party is “100 per cent for a United Ireland”. Mark Durkan repeatedly describes himself as a republican. So now the SDLP has as its goal a united Ireland; its means to achieve that goal remain peaceful and political. Sinn Féin, the other nationalist party, still has as its goal – that’s right – a united Ireland. “We stand for the independence of our country” its website tells us. As to means, Sinn Féin’s commitment to winning elections north and south, alongside the IRA’s eleven-year-ceasefire and imminent disbandment, evidence a party that sees peaceful politics as the most effective means to achieving its aim.

There are differences in the economic and social policies advocated by the two parties, but I bet you can’t mention a major one off the top of your head.

Education, health, housing, water charges: the overlap is consistently more striking than any difference. Policing is a point on which they part, but the goal of a fully accountable police service is a shared one.

When you think of it, the reasons for one united nationalist party are more obvious than the reasons for two rival entities. That’s not to say there aren’t people in both parties who would consider use of the m-word heresy.

But then there are people on our numerous health boards and education boards and district councils who react the same way when merger is even mentioned. Some of them are appalled because they truly believe that separate existence is the best way to achieve the goals to which they are committed. Others are appalled because they fear a diminution in personal status and influence.

So would the emergence of a single nationalist party alongside a single unionist party be bad for us? Seamus Mallon thinks so – it would balkanise us to bits, he says. An odd comment to come from a former history teacher, since balkanisation suggests fragmentation rather than coming together.

But whether Mallon or anyone likes it or hates it, unionism has now officially flocked to the banner of the DUP. Starting this week, a single unionist party is a reality. If nationalism doesn’t respond, starting with a level-headed look at all the options, it will pay the price.

In this new political climate, Nationalists can no longer afford the luxury of two Nationalist parties. For the sake of the indigenous Irish population of the Six Counties, Nationalist voters must realize that a vote for the SDLP is, in effect, a vote for the British colonists of Unionism.


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