As you may be aware from the Slugger twitter feed, we have teamed up with the organiser of the inaugural Lighthouse Summer School in Killough (Co. Down), the Irish News’ Political Editor, John Manley, to organise a discussion on the theme of ‘What now Nationalism? Plotting the roadmap to a united Ireland.‘
Ahead of the event, I had an article published in The Irish News yesterday, setting the scene for the discussion. It has been reproduced in full below.
The reasoning behind the event is to hopefully trigger a discussion within and amongst avowedly nationalist political parties regarding their intentions for planning the case for unity and how they envisage plotting a course that brings us nearer that destination.
Representatives of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the SDLP will form the panel, articulating their own thoughts on the key question regarding the future direction for nationalism. I will also be making a presentation at the commencement of proceedings.
The event is open to the public and will begin at 10.30am in Killough Youth and Community Hall.
The 2015 Westminster elections delivered a disappointing result for nationalist parties in the north of Ireland. The combined percentage share of the vote obtained by Sinn Fein and the SDLP was the lowest for a Westminster election since 1992. This performance was not an outlier either.
In the current electoral cycle, the combined performance of the two nationalist parties has been the worst at elections to each of the legislative institutions (Westminster, Europe and Local government level) since the ceasefire era of the early to mid-1990s.
At the Westminster election in May, the combined nationalist percentage of the vote fell below 40% for the first time at a parliamentary election since 1992; Sinn Fein lost Fermanagh & South Tyrone and the party’s share of the vote fell in 15 of the 18 constituencies; the SDLP barely managed to hold onto South Belfast and watched its share of the vote decline in 13 of the 18 constituencies.
In last year’s local government elections, the combined SF-SDLP share of the overall seats as well as votes declined for the second consecutive election at this level, whilst the combined SF-SDLP share of the vote in the European election was the worst since 1989.
Similarly, the last Assembly election in 2011 saw the number of nationalist MLAs elected decrease for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement launched the power-sharing institutions at Stormont in 1998.
The only conclusion that can be drawn from all of the evidence available is that fewer nationalists are bothering to vote than at any time since the Good Friday Agreement ushered in a new era in northern Irish politics- and this in spite of demographic data illustrating that there are now a greater number of nationalists amongst the overall electorate than at any time in the history of this state.
Yet, ironically, it would be utterly wrong to conclude from this that Nationalist Ireland was experiencing a crisis.
Indeed, the post-ceasefire and Good Friday Agreement period will be remembered as the halcyon age for northern nationalism, a time when nationalists in Northern Ireland secured an increasingly equal footing in the political, social and economic fields, as well as asserting its place more centrally within the Irish Nation.
The consociational arrangements at Stormont mean that the two communities in a practical and symbolic sense share power and responsibility equally, with mutual vetoes and a Deputy First Minister for a First Minister personifying the delicate balance of power that prevails. The transformation in policing culture remains a work in progress but the irreversible nature of the direction ahead for that organisation is clear.
The presidency of Mary McAleese, the emergence of Sinn Fein as an all-Ireland party, the mainstream exposure afforded Irish nationalist cultural and political identity within northern society, the rise of an assertive nationalist professional class in the north, the unprecedented success of Ulster GAA teams at all-Ireland level and even the regular involvement of northerners in the Republic of Ireland international football team all bear witness to a time when northern nationalist confidence has soared due to the sense that it has established a firm footing within the Irish Nation whilst also transforming the Orange State into one shared between the colours of Orange and Green.
Where we are now might not be the Promised Land, but it is better than any terrain previously inhabited by northern nationalists, and that can explain to a degree the growing electoral apathy from a nationalist people content with a new status quo.
Yet the raison d’etre of Irish Nationalism and Republicanism remains to secure sovereignty on an island wide basis. Moving from a shared and increasingly equal Northern Ireland, in a United Kingdom context, into a sovereign united Ireland scenario is the task for this generation of Irish nationalists and republicans.
17 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, is there any sense that the political parties advocating Irish unity have conceived of plans to plot a discernible course to unity?