SDLP and Fianna Fáil can deliver our long awaited peace dividend

On Saturday I attended the ‘Beyond Brexit: Ireland’s Future’ conference in Belfast. My immediate observations were firstly the sheer number of people that were in one room; a rarity for a political event in Northern Ireland. The broad representation of speakers undermined the myth that Irish Nationalists are a homogenous group. Despite the conglomeration of those present – they were all unified under the one realisation- that Brexit has shifted politics indefinitely. And that that shift has unearthed centuries old questions and simultaneously uncovered new ones.

Those who stood at the podium were passionate and yet precise in their aims; they spoke with a collective voice about the destination but were critical of the direction of travel. The deviation centred timing, not whether the aspiration for a New and Agreed Ireland was legitimate – thankfully the Good Friday Agreement took care of that question.

Despite the various strands of Nationalist representation at Saturday’s event in the Waterfront Hall, what struck me most was the collective agreement and disappointment that almost 21 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement- and with it a promise of a ‘peace dividend’- our communities, both Nationalist and Unionist have been very poorly served by Stormont.

For many people, hope inspired the belief that this peace dividend meant that places like Derry would eventually get its fair share of economic investment that had been historically and politically withheld. Rather than merely finding contentment in the absence of violence, we believed the evolving peace would allow communities, particularly those in the North West to thrive. However, our expectations far exceeded the political reality of what was to come.

People here are demoralised at how dysfunctional our political institutions have become over the past 21 years and how both the DUP and Sinn Féin put their party needs before the wider good of Northern Ireland. Whilst our Scottish neighbours are showing that devolution can deliver, we remain stuck in deadlock.

But how do we fix it?

There is an old saying, ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got’.

Old responses to new challenges can no longer cut it.

That is why, the recent announcement of the partnership between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil, a move inspired by the pressing need to begin to address age old questions through a changing approach, was an announcement that didn’t come a moment too soon.

A progressive partnership to challenge questions that we know cannot be addressed through the mechanics of a border poll alone. We can see the folly of such a reactionary and emotional response – we just need to look at the Brexit referendum to remind us of that.

So to reiterate the words of SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood…

“We do not seek a New Ireland because we are victims of an old oppression – we seek a New Ireland because it offers all of us opportunity…. that is the only basis through which it will come to pass.”

I am heartened by the aspirations of Colum Eastwood and Micheal Martin to enter a partnership to undertake an unprecedented programme of public engagement across the entire island of Ireland.

I am grateful for their courage to begin a process that will seek to break the cycle of deadlock and fulfil the political vacuum with something more meaningful. Their willingness to design something that doesn’t look back, but looks forward. Something that swaps idealism for realism. Something that is driven by the hope of a better future and not the nostalgia for the politics of the past.

Sinead McLaughlin, SDLP Councillor for DCSDC and former Chief Executive of the Derry Chamber of Commerce