The SDLP Leader, Colum Eastwood writes for Slugger about the current round of talks that are ongoing at Stormont
I’ve always thought that one of the great attractions of politics is found in its ever evolving nature. Many of those who are active or take an interest in political life are drawn to the fact that each day brings with it a different story, a different opportunity and a different challenge. That constant change is driven by a combination of economic, news and electoral cycles.
One of the greatest frustrations of politics in Northern Ireland is that a barrier has been placed in front of this natural flow of change. Not alone have we been without a local government for over a year, our mainstream political discourse has also become frozen in time and thus frozen in failure.
Only this week switch over to RTÉ and you’ll find headline discussions on the Irish National Planning Framework 2040, or pick up the London papers who you’ll find following the decisions and divisions over Britain’s continued membership of the customs union (which obviously has massive implications for our own border and the Good Friday Agreement). Whatever your opinion, these are meaty and meaningful political discussions – next week will bring more.
Meanwhile switch on Radio Ulster and the same pattern of the talks runs on, just as it has done since the spring of last year. That news cycle is only occasionally interspersed by a politician running around a petrol station with a loaf on top of his head or coverage of Sammy Wilson’s career long plethora of insults, ignorance and arrogance. It’s a political cycle lacking style and substance.
After 12 months of talks nearly everything has been said and yet nothing has changed – we are where we are and we are where we were. That has become our new normal and our new cycle – in that context people are very naturally awash with frustration.
There is a danger though that having been drip-fed this frustration that this political stalemate becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. As the talks at Stormont reach their end we would all do well to remember that cycles are there to be changed and there to be broken. The years of violence brought the same cynicism telling us that change was never possible. It wasn’t true then and it need not be true now.
Even after a year of stalemate we can’t allow ourselves to forget that for all the history and all the hurt, the Irish political equation always returns to the same solution. This place only works if nationalism and unionism works together. There have been many keen to mock and ridicule that belief in the current political context.
In the SDLP though, we stand by that vision of co-operation and partnership. We stand by that vision of an Ireland in which different traditions can live, work and argue together – where difference doesn’t have to mean division.
It’s actually a vision which Wolfe Tone came up with a good name for many years ago – it’s called Irish republicanism.
I know that those statements and those sentiments have been expressed before. They have been said countless times since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement some 20 years ago. However, repetition doesn’t make them any less true – it is the spirit which will ultimately break the cycle in which we currently find ourselves. It is by far a better repetition than the mantras which have been rehearsed over the course of the last year.
The thirst for hope and a belief that this cycle can be broken this week is aided by one of the most famous quotations in Irish politics,
‘A defeatist attitude now is certain to lead to defeat, it’s primarily a question of whether we have confidence in ourselves and in the abilities, diligence and determination of our people – we cannot opt out of the future.’
Taoiseach Seán Lemass was speaking at a time in the 1960s when Ireland was opening itself up to the world and the National Programmes for Economic Expansion were taking root across the country. It was through using governmental power at a time of huge change which drove the south into the prosperity it would later come to enjoy.
We are living through an equally definitive time in our history. The political choices we make in the next number of weeks will decide our place and position amidst the political volatility which continues to confront the future of these islands.
It will decide whether we have any power and any voice as we face into the inevitable change ahead.
Be in no doubt, a deal at Stormont is doable – it always has been. The real choice is whether our politics wishes to break the cycle of an absent government and assembly and therefore remove the barrier blocking change. The real choice is whether we want to take up power in this corner of Ireland.
20 years on from the Agreement, the real choice is whether we still believe in a local government which can competently share power in all our interests.
If we want it enough, it’s a future still there to be had.