Tuesday, 29 July 2008

An instructive disagreement

The SDLP’s reaction to the UUP / Conservative talks has been confusing Michael Shilliday on Slugger O’Toole and well it might. Alasdair McDonnell’s measured response is at odds with that of his party colleague John Dallat.

McDonnell sees the process in a context of normalisation and realignment, which for unionists will take place on an East-West axis and which nationalists will seek to develop North-South. In contrast Dallat has resorted to a more atavistic interpretation.

“People realise that partition has failed everyone and benefited no-one. Now we get a re-launch of a recipe which last existed in the dark days of Thatcher and the crazy policies of ‘shoot to kill’ and outrageous claims that ‘we are as British as Finchley’”
“Do the Tories not realise that they should at least occupy a neutral position? At best they should be preparing their former Unionist friends for a New Ireland which is free from sectarianism and partitionism?”


On the one hand we have a statement which recognises that unionists aspire to play as full a role as possible in the United Kingdom’s governance and respects those aspirations. On the other we have a statement which implies that unionism is in and of itself doomed and sectarian. Dallat’s statement is entrenched firmly in the tradition which views unionists merely as confused Irish nationalists who must be corralled and bullied out of their unsustainable and illogical position, borne only of bigotry, which is holding back the inevitable, pre-ordained 32 county republic.

Despite the unpleasant and intolerant terms in which Dallat advances his argument, there are sound reasons why an Irish nationalist would be appalled by the arrangement. It proposes to offer Northern Irish voters a chance to participate more fully in the national politics of their state than ever before. It threatens to diminish the importance of the constitutional issue in Northern Ireland’s politics and places the normalisation solidly within the context of the United Kingdom. Dallat has a right to be annoyed even if he does not have a right to squeal about sectarianism and the innate evils of partition.

Whether it informs the perceived duty of British political parties to act as midwives for a united Ireland, or whether it is the ‘endism’ which Arthur Aughey has highlighted in those who believe the United Kingdom is already fated to split up, the nationalist propensity to present their favoured ends as inevitable does not mean that everyone who opposes those ends is standing in the way of progress, good sense and equality.

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