Colum Eastwood spoke at the SDLP Youth Conference last Saturday with some interesting comments about Nationalism and Irish unity. I have bolded some of the more noteworthy references.
Beginning by referencing the poor Nationalist result last month he said;
The recent election also threw up questions beyond, what can at times, be the bubble of life at Stormont.
The decline of the Nationalist turnout by 5% must be a source of considerable concern to those of us who profess to believe in bringing an end to the partition of our country.
The fall in those motivated to vote within nationalism has been an ongoing trend and it would be both foolish and irresponsible to ignore it.
He then went on to speak about the view amongst some in Nationalism that a united Ireland is inevitable;
There is a harsh but honest reality to be faced.
The inevitability of the Nationalist project, of a reconciled political unity on this island, is no more.
In fact, continuing to promote that inevitability is now a hindrance to the cause.
The momentum formed and felt within nationalism from the early days of the peace process has stalled.
It is telling that we now look on at the dynamic within Scottish nationalism with envy.
We should not hide from these realities.
Some have suggested though that our stance and priority for unity should therefore change, that we should park or abandon the cause of unity and the political reconciliation of this island.
Let me be clear. Under my leadership that will never happen.
The SDLP, and I hope all other political parties who profess the desire for unity, do not do so because it supplies benefit to an individual electoral cycle. It is not a tactic.
It is a belief anchored by much more than a fleeting party political mandate.
It is important to say that I believe the same values apply to those who advocate staying loyal to the Union. And by the way, there is nothing sectarian in either of these beliefs.
But what is clear from the present reality is that we cannot continue on as normal.
Nationalism has evolved before and must do so again.
History is packed with such examples.
One of the biggest evolutions in Irish nationalist thought is often overlooked.
A name which has fallen by the wayside is that of Thomas Davis.
Davis’ poetry is probably most remembered, in particular ‘The West’s Awake’ and ‘A Nation Once Again’.
However, Davis’ contribution extended far beyond just songs and sayings.
Davis and the spirit of the Young Ireland movement of the 19th century projected a vision of the Irish nation which was tolerant and inclusive.
It was a vision which evolved beyond the fight for just Catholic emancipation and mapped out an identity which could give belonging to all.
It was a vision which provided an invitation of Irish nationalism to anyone who wished to take part. It offered the next step, the next project, after the victories won by Daniel O’Connell.
The end of inevitability and the stalling of momentum must now be met with a similar evolution in Irish Nationalism.
We in the SDLP must be the Young Irelanders of today.
We are the party which understands that the emancipation brought by our peace must now be followed by a further evolution of the Nationalist cause.
We are the party which understands that nationalism must again evolve to meet the century before us.
A possible way forward;
That will require the understanding that a credible vision for unity will not be made in the image of any one political party.
It will also require the understanding that Irish nationalism must no longer be an idea to which we are merely born into.
It must be about belief, not birth. It must be based on the practical, not the pre-determined.
It must be about making Northern Ireland whilst also building towards unity.
That is the Progressive Nationalism of the SDLP. It is the nationalism we continue to offer and build.
It is that nationalism, and that nationalism alone, which is capable of building the broad consensus needed to shape the New Ireland before us.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs