It has been two years the Executive collapsed and as usual the debate has shifted to a border poll with the usual questions, when it should be held? Under what circumstances? etc.
I have read with some a certain lack of surprise some Nationalists say “we are over Stormont” and that there is little point in trying to revive the institutions.
However, I think the frustration that many had about the previous Executive has led to a certain misguided malaise.
Stormont was not perfect, but here’s the thing, it was never set up to be perfect. It was always going to be a place of hard talks and compromise. A power-sharing coalition will never allow any one party to have many wins. More often than not, you simply have to take solace in getting 60% of something, rather than 100% of nothing. Or you have to try and see the crisis you’ve just avoided.
For an impatient Nationalist, I understand your frustration. Keeping the institutions down and hoping for a border poll does seem like much more attractive position than going back.
But I would ask you just to really think about the last two years and how fruitful they’ve been?
Nationalism has had a boost, no question. Much of this boost has been down to the ineptitude of the British government and provocation from the DUP.
We have had to watch as much of the agenda moves on without any real substantive input from us about the future.
Speaking at the Ireland’s Future conference, I noted the need to turn the anger we all feel into meaningful action.
The best way to achieving action is by being at the table. Nationalist ministers could’ve pushed the unity agenda forward within individual departments if they wanted too but this all too often never happened.
With Brexit coming, we have a chance to breath new life into North-South bodies and use ministerial influence to pursue projects that can harmonise many areas across our island.
When the Good Friday Agreement was being sold to the electorate, both the SDLP and Sinn Fein noted that this document was a key station in the road towards unity.
Why did they say this? Because they knew that power back here, left Westminster irrelevant. Sadly, that has now been turned around. On my TV screens, I see more of College Green than the Green Hall at Stormont. Instead of talking about how we’re pushing the unity agenda forward with a new bilateral agreement between North-South departments, we are reacting to the latest developments in the House of Commons.
In their 1998 Assembly manifesto, Sinn Fein said this;
We see a 32-county republic as the best way to eradicate the range of political, social, economic and other inequalities that affect the people of this island. We see this agreement as part of a transitional process to Irish unity and independence. We are looking beyond the present situation and identifying the type of society that we want to create.
In their United Ireland paper, the then SDLP Leader, Mark Durkan also noted;
The Good Friday Agreement realised the SDLP’s vision of an Agreed Ireland. But, as a nationalist party, the SDLP’s goal has not only been to secure an Agreed Ireland, but also to go further and achieve a United Ireland. Our vision of a United Ireland respects the same commitments that lie at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. In the United Ireland to which we are committed, all the Agreement’s principles and protections would endure. That is why, uniquely among parties in the North, the SDLP is 100% for the Good Friday Agreement and 100% for a United Ireland.
Both of them are right in their fundamental analysis. We need to take back control (if I can abuse the term) of this debate. We need to use the institutions to move the focus away from Westminster and bring it back to Northern Ireland. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but one thing I can confidently say, the route towards unity, does not go through College Green in London.
If there were problems with the last Executive those can be fixed by reforms and an understanding about what went wrong before. There is no contradiction between want Stormont back and seeking unification. The more stable this society is and the more interconnected it is with the South, the easier the case for unity.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs