Monday, 16 April 2012

Remarks to SDLP Youth Conference.

On Saturday, the SDLP Youth organisation held their annual conference and kindly invited me to take part in a panel Q&A session alongside Mark Durkan MP, John McCallister MLA and Katherine McCloskey. I have posted below my remarks to the conference prior to the Q&A. I really enjoyed the event and the SDLP should be proud to have such an active and passionate young membership. Though I really feel they should be directing that passion toward Green politics!

I shaped my remarks around the themes of the conference which were:

1. Challenges facing Unionism and Nationalism in creating a shared future
2. The role young people will play in remembering the past and creating a shared future
3. The contribution both traditions can make to a new Ireland

"Thank you very much for the kind invitation to this panel; it’s certainly an honour for me to share it with Mark, John & Katherine.

I have been described, for the purposes of this panel, as ‘former Independent Unionist, now Green Party’ (after initially being tagged incorrectly as an Ulster Unionist!). However; I never ran as an Independent Unionist, just as an Independent. It may seem a small clarification, but I actually think, that in the context of this debate, it’s an important one.

I don’t deny that I am in favour of maintaining the link with the Union and I am happy to argue my reasons for it. However, I am also in favour of Equal Marriage. I’m Pro Choice. I advocate free public transport. Yet, oddly, no one seeks to attach these as labels to me, as they do to attach ‘Unionist’ as some kind of definition of my politics.

This, for me, is an indication of the challenge facing both traditions in creating a shared future – the desire to label people so definitively – but it is also to define what a shared future looks like.

When we talk about a shared future aren’t we just solidifying the differences between the communities? In other societies, do they talk of shared areas, shared schools, shared housing? Or do they just have areas, schools & housing? Shouldn’t we just be talking about full integration? Or do we accept that the best we can achieve is just a lasting truce? Why aren’t we aiming for more?

The new generation are the ones who need to drive any step change in political attitudes and, naturally, this will – and should – mean a collision with the senior generations in their own parties. If your youth groups are completely in step with party elders, you have to ask yourself if that’s healthy? By nature, the interests and agendas of both will be different (though both can be equally valid).

Of course, there are areas of high level agreement – we all want to be healthy, secure, and generally be free to enjoy family and life – but when we get down to the nitty gritty of how we achieve that, attitudes will be markedly different. It is the duty of the new generation to take the challenge up and make their parties listen and respond to their agenda.

Whilst being sure to remember the past and learning from it, young people must not make the mistake of reliving the past. This unfortunately is common amongst both traditions, and it’s no surprise: The old political battles of the past are far more interesting and sexy than arguing about corporation tax, waste treatment and regulation of caravans!

I hope that today, we can have a good discussion on how we really can move the agenda on and there’s no doubt you have the right panellists for such a task."


  1. 'When we talk about a shared future aren’t we just solidifying the differences between the communities?'

    You hit the nail squarely on the head there Ed. And if we had a integrated society, rather than a merely shared one, we could begin to address properly the question of the quality of that society. At the moment we waste too much time 'sectarian head-counting': as long as we're all getting our share of the same aul' shite, we're all supposed to be happy.

    I don't mean to underestimate the potential in Northern Ireland for sectarian discrimination. But as you said we need to be more political ambitious and aim for more. The alternative is sharing in a crumbling health service and divying out a dwindling number of poorly paid, low-skilled jobs.

    I used to get frustrated (and still do) with the terminology of 'parity of esteem' and 'shared futures', which always seem to work to disguise their very modest ambitions. So, we talk about 'fair employment' But all this means is balanced sectarianism in the work place. Fair employment is never extended to a discussion about working conditions, pay, the quality of work and the idea that we might have a right to work.

    Did you get any sense of how young SLDPers see the future and their role in it? Beyond peace processing, what political positions do they take on the old 'bread and butter' issues?

  2. Being opposed to division does nothing to remove divisions, saying that someone in the Shankill has nothing to fear from those in the Falls is obviously not true, as history proves these divides exist. And I don't believe we see the middle ground parties going into these areas to build friendships. So even if Sinn Féin and DUP politicans go as far as to marry each other, or if they deside to just call themselves generic green, generic orange, generic red or generic blue the politicians, merge, integrate whatever ... the real issues of sectarianism and fears and insecurities exist out there amongst the real people independent of politicans.

    It's the people who drive the politics.

    And why should nationalism (including the small 'n' British nationalism of Unionism) and indeed national divisions matter these days?

    1 word ... Greece

    Belguim, Italy, Spain, Ireland, UK, France ... so many other nations these days.

    You can be as multicultural, multilingual and diplomatic as you can be but leave a 'nation', and by extension its welfare state, its taxpayers, its domiciled industries unprotected and everyone pays. Jobs, Homes, Children ... all affected, real political issues wraped up in the supposed fictional and ideological entity that is called a nation.

    Thankfully the system in place still has the consent of the majority, yes it does have division, constitutional division (which is actually a lot more normal and commonplace in Europe than one accepts), yet the issue is that even political differences and stagnation exist, still based on self determination. The people here want DUP-Sinn Féin to be the leading parties here, simply because and it pains me to say this as an SDLP person they see them as the best avaliable.

    They have the people's mandate, if you don't like that mandate you have to win it from them by going to their voters. That's the big problem many of the small groups don't do.

    Not a slant at the Greens, I'm not saying someone like John Hardy wouldn't go around the Republican and Unionists heartlands, because clearly he would.

  3. Kevin,
    I agree that being opposed to division doesn’t dissolve it. But Northern Ireland’s political parties, structures and also the media tend to accentuate communal fractures. The sectarian divisions in the North are not a given; they have to be produced and reproduced and we have institutions and organisations that do that. For instance, nationalist and unionist parties have a vested interest in maintaining them, our political structures rely on them and the media can’t imagine Northern Ireland without them.

    The media also haven’t adjusted to the ‘new dispensation’. At the last Assembly elections the amount of time given to Jim Allister and TUV was utterly disproportionate to their representation or influence. But at least old divisions between Yes-men and Naysayers was a politics the media was familiar with and understood. It would be interesting to do a quantitative analysis of the airtime given to Dawn Purvis, the Greens (Steven Agnew) and Jim Allister. The first two had representation in the assembly. The later, none, but I suspect the study would should that the TUV got more attention, probably than the other two put together.

    So, I don’t really agree that people drive politics. They do, to some extent, but they don’t do it in circumstance of their own choosing. There is democratic agency, certainly. But there is also powerful, political and ideological structures that exist that make change very, very difficult, but no less necessary.

    Nationalism still matters then, but I’m not sure in what sense you mean. Will nationalism save the Greeks? Democracy has been suspended in that country in the interests of global capitalism, so it seems that even the achievement of a national government is no protection against the vagaries and tyranny of the free-market. Despite the existence of nations all over the globe, welfare, jobs, public education are all being eroded, and national assemblies are doing little about it. Look at the UK government, which is sanguine (if not positively enthusiastic) about the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a global elite.

    How should nationalism intervene in this situation? Protectionism? It’s an option. Not a good one, I think, but it’s an option.

    Alternatively, use democratically elected national and regional assemblies to launch a fight-back against global capitalism, making common cause with democrats in Europe and across the world?

    Nationalism in Ireland and elsewhere doesn’t appear to me to have been very good at addressing issues of inequality. Nationalism tends to paper over the class divisions that have been exposed by the current economic crisis. I don’t underestimate nationalism’s ability to do that with a bit of protectionism, ‘national interest’ and ‘we’re all in this together jargon’. But it’s one crusade I’m not joining because it will fail for most people, like it has in the South, where there is no shortage of nationalist parties.

    I’m pessimistic, Kevin. I’m under no illusions about the political problems faced in Northern Ireland. But I’m willing to listen to anyone who thinks they can explain how nationalism - of whatever variety - can tackle the two big issues of our times - economic and environmental catastrophe.

  4. Okay, I could draw parallels with Ireland here...

    Irish nationalism of course started from an uprising against the British capitalist rulers when their laissez-faire application of Malthusian "sympathies" , some believing it to be divine providence. From that event the Irish nation has had a legacy of "nationalist parties" and the likes of Bono and Geldolf engulfed in the national jihad against global human starvation. The Scottish version has had links to a similar Highland famine in that region.

    The idea that nationalist parties had no part to play in the destruction of that mindset being applied across the island and the progress of the Irish nation towards being one of the richest nations in the world, is rather questionable. The ideology of "nations" wasn't going to change anything, but if skilled enough people unite under that ideology or perhaps more accurately the territorialism that that ideology creates then things change. Similarly with regard to democracy you could look at the Civil Rights Movement.

    I'm not saying Greece might follow in the Republic's footsteps in its quest for economic liberation, but it might. In a nutshell the Famine an economic and environmental catastrophe was overcome perhaps as best as it humanly could be at the time by what would later be labelled "nationalism"

    At the end of the day people created these parties for the common good. Whether they've been corrupted, or exclusionary or territorial over the years really depends on how common can common be. To achieve true equality , revolutionaries need to be more generous than bitter, more forgiving than judgemental, focused more on the necessary than the desirable, and gracious in having life.

    I have seen coming up in the British media has been an admiration for "Ireland's Hard fought independence" with regards to the EU. Parties from the left in the south try to fill the shoes of James Connelly in the name of comradeship or republican nationalism or a society of equals whatever they want to call it. I will say that neither the ULA nor the early Irish national parties are/were too concerned about regional assemblies, and regional governance as their main goal as regionalism doesn't do much good when your oppressor is elsewhere.

    I believe the world is what you make it, I don't believe that political parties, and political entities such as nations are the be all and end all of community integration, education, welfare, economies (and by extension with regards to resources) the environment and the first line of defence against the moral hazards are ordinary people.

    I do know that people won't simply recycle more, conserve energy, join co-operatives, buy free trade, live within their means and get along with their fellow man in a true peace rather than a stressful coexistence simply because politicians tell them to. They certainly won't do it because Stephen Nolan does.

    I will say that Ghandi's mantra is quite true, be the change you want to see in the world. If you want integration, find a way for enemies to make friends and work together. Admit to these people that the green politics you want is in their interests not yours, even enabling them to do it.

  5. Hi Kevin,
    There’s not much that you’ve said that I’d disagree with. I didn’t mean to suggest that nationalism played no part in Irish progress but that progress has been uneven, and not everybody enjoyed the fruits of the ‘Celtic tiger’, while it lasted. And now, in these new times, not every Irish man and woman will suffer equally. In a sense, that’s my principle bug-bear with nationalism: it assumes it speaks in the ‘national interest’ but usually the national interest is deliberately ill-defined, narrowly defined and/or confined to what’s good for the elite, the rest of us can anticipate whatever trickles down from the top table.

    Scottish nationalism is interesting in this respect. In its contemporary form it owes less to the memory of Highland famine and more to the decimation of heavy industries, the abandonment of welfare and the tearing up of the social democratic settlement by successive Westminster governments. I think the decline of the British empire was important also in eroding the glue of the union. But essentially Scotland and England look like countries with very different political cultures. England is dominated by a conservative south-east corner, while Scotland is substantially social democratic in outlook. As a consequence, the SNP have had to try to shed their image of being the ‘Tartan Tories’ and position themselves on the centre-left if they want to build a coalition broad enough to realise their nationalist ambitions. Irish nationalism has never achieved this: its political imagination is just too exclusive. But the problem of forging a broad enough alliance in Scotland isn’t without its problems and tensions. There is still a sizable conservative constituency within the SNP. Reconciling the ambitions of the urban working class with more affluent sections is going to be difficult in the long term. I’d still wish the SNP success in seeking greater autonomy for Scotland, largely because I think Westminster has been bloody careless in its government of the ‘Celtic fringe’.

    I suppose I’m impatient for change here. I want a politics that is outward looking and internationalist in its perspectives; that isn’t communal and mired in anachronistic national antagonisms. Crucially it has to be a politics that doesn’t assume that capitalism is a given; or that the markets exist beyond the realms of human intervention and agency - like God or the weather. It has to be a politics that looks to democratise rather than privatise. Unionism and nationalism just don’t speak to these issues. When confronted with globalisation, European integration and the break up of the UK - all of which undermined, challenged or redefined the ideas of sovereignty that their respective causes depended upon - they looked utterly exhausted - both politically and intellectually.

    I watched the big events last week with interest: the visiting Chinese delegation to Northern Ireland being shown around and fawned over buy politicians who not so long ago would have been very vocal in their condemnation of Godless communists. But needs must, and all that... the Chinese are the big global player of the future, so lets not allow any of those inconvenient human rights issues cloud our economic judgement.

    Then there was the centenary commemorations for a maritime disaster that were turned into a corporate marketing opportunity - well, it would be a pity if all those souls had perished for nothing...

    After all this I was left wondering, where is the debate about what these changes mean for people who live here? Will we simply provide cheap labour for the global powerhouses of the future. Are we just to wait upon and clear the tables at the big corporate beanos that role into to town and out again? Maybe we can all get walk-on parts in Game of Thrones (I’d look great in that!)

    Meanwhile, what are all the nationalists (British and Irish) doing up at Stormont? I believe the big issue recently was whether it was appropriate to call each other names. Actually, there’s enough of them up on the hill behaving like village idiots...

  6. Sorry I only just noticed these comments, Lads, but was really interesting to read what you both have to say. I have little to add at this time - mostly because we're clearly not that fair apart in our thinking - but I did want to say this in reply to Kevin:

    We will go into ANY area but we haven't done so presently because of a lack of resources. Where we have had resources - in North Down - we've constantly campaigned in Loyalist areas and whilst we may not have won their wholehearted support they mostly afford us respect and at least have an understanding of who we are and what we believe.

    I also don't buy that people drive politics. Politicians drive politics. Their purpose is to lead and govern and when people don't like the way they are being led or governed the response is not an uprising (electorally), but apathy. DUP & SF don't have a mandate of popular support, it's a mandate given to them almost by default because people disengaged with the process.

  7. Ed,
    I stood as a 'Labour' candidate about 100 years ago and got so few votes I was able to thank everyone who voted for me personally! Nah, wasn't that bad but me Mam has never said whether she voted for me - 'It's between me and the ballot box, son.' She said.

    But we campaigned in Republican and Loyalist areas. To be honest, I was surprised at how open people where to a broadly social democratic message. No fuss. No threats. In fact the only time I was met with any hostility was in a middle class area of east Belfast.

    Alas, we never converted the good wishes into votes. But the idea that left of centre parties can't campaign in the Northern Ireland heartlands for fear of their lives is a bit of a myth.

    Perhaps if Greens and the Left were seen as more of an electoral threat the heat might be turned up a little...