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."