It is wrong to suggest that being nationalist or unionist makes you sectarian…

Nichola Mallon is the Deputy Leader of the SDLP. Please note, we are open to taking contributions from all parties, and none!

Isolated things can be said in the heat of an election when emotions are high. That is one thing and in many ways part and parcel of electoral politics. But there is a narrative being pushed, particularly at election times and usually by Alliance sources, that to be a Unionist or a Nationalist is to automatically be ‘sectarian’. As if only those who cherish neither aspiration can truly lead us all to a land of harmony.

This is a false narrative, it is unfounded and frankly it is offensive.

I have no hesitation in setting out my stall, I am an Irish nationalist, my politics is based on social justice, equality of opportunity for all and I deplore sectarianism.

While some parties engage in sectarian and divisive politics when it suits them and seek to appeal to a narrow, exclusive base, the SDLP has throughout 40 years, actively challenged and confronted sectarianism wherever and whenever we see it.

It is wrong to unilaterally assign negative and positive connotations to Nationalism, Unionism or other political aspirations. That is to pigeonhole in one fell swoop entire political parties and indeed their voters as being sectarian. It is unjust and unfair, and is not that far off from being sectarian in itself. A nationalist, a unionist can go through political life in legitimate pursuit of their legitimate aspiration and accomodate all other views while doing so. In fact most do. I do.

It is also a lazy political assumption that only those politicians who avoid taking a position on the constitutional question belong to so called ‘centre ground’ parties. The determination of where a party stands on the political spectrum is not dictated solely by its position on the constitution but its ideological and policy stance on political, economic, cultural and social issues.

An examination of policies determines which parties are left, right or centre. How parties reach out to ‘the other’ determines how extreme or not they can be regarded. This fact is being lost in the deliberate attempt to paint Nationalist & Unionist parties as automatically being on the extreme.

I am not arguing that some parties are not entitled to be agnostic on the constitutional question, of course they are. Parties are also entitled to hold and articulate their aspirations on the constitutional question. It is one of the big political issues of our time and not taking a position will not make the constitutional issue disappear.

Surely we should be striving to be a confident and tolerant society where parties and people can express their views and aspirations without being prejudged and pigeonholed by anyone. Assigning offensive labels based purely on the expression of a point of view actually discourages political discourse. Is the society that Alliance is seeking one where nationalists are denied expression of their nationalism, unionists of their unionism?

Being a nationalist or unionist does not by definition make you a bigot and my version of nationalism is not a ‘trap’ for someone to fall into. The one word dismissal may make a nice soundbite, but my politics has a place in the real world. And my politics will always be that of the outward looking, nonsectarian, inclusive, democratic nationalism of the SDLP.