Margaret Ritchie received praise and criticism in almost equal measure when she wore a poppy on Remembrance Sunday. Rather than an act of respect and reconciliation, some nationalists saw a gesture at odds with the SDLP’s commitment to a 32 county Republic.
Ritchie affirmed that ’Irish unity’ is the party’s overriding goal recently, during a speech at its annual conference, but she also stressed that she would use the term ’Northern Ireland’ without reservation and cooperate with unionists, in order to make government here a success.
To some, that implies that the SDLP leader is all over the place politically. The pursuit of a united Ireland, they reason, is not compatible with wearing a poppy or acknowledging Northern Ireland‘s existence without qualification.
A rather more positive interpretation is that the SDLP is getting to grips with one of contemporary nationalism‘s enduring contradictions. Under Ritchie‘s leadership, its change of tack might finally reconcile its aspiration for Irish unity with longstanding acceptance of the principle of consent.
The right of Northern Ireland’s population to determine its own constitutional future formed the basis of the Good Friday Agreement, but the SDLP endorsed it generations before Sinn Féin took the plunge at Stormont Castle.
The party has sometimes been less quick to recognise that the principle has consequences. Accepting the will of a majority to remain part of the UK is worth less, if you also reserve the right to undermine that democratic choice at any given opportunity.
Too often any good faith fostered by the SDLP’s early endorsement of consent was offset by the party’s elastic use of the phrase ’parity of esteem’. The concept quickly became a convenient catch-all for nationalism.
It could describe cultural and political rights, guaranteed by the Agreement. But, by the same token, it could be turned to demand an equal status in Northern Ireland for symbols and institutions of Irish statehood, which unionists could not possibly accept.
Sinn Féin was undoubtedly the worse offender in this respect, but the SDLP has been guilty too. The party pushed the notion that political representatives here should elect senators to the Republic’s Seanad and its youth wing still lobbies for the Irish President to be selected by northern as well as southern voters.
It is with some justification that unionists suspect both nationalist parties’ strategy is to erode UK sovereignty by stealth. Indeed, as the SDLP jostled with Sinn Féin for electoral supremacy, that aim was often stated fairly explicitly.
It’s only natural that a nationalist party should energetically pursue its aspiration for a united Ireland, but if its methods are less than transparent, then it can’t be surprised if opponents react with distrust.
Of course, part of the problem is that unionists and nationalists each view the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements as a route to very different destinations. Unionists want self-government within the UK to form an end in itself, while nationalists see it as a ’staging post’ on the road to a united Ireland.
The Agreements don’t make these objectives any more reconcilable. But they do lay down ground-rules for pursuing long-term aspirations, while still making Northern Ireland work in the short-term. The most fundamental of these is the principle of consent.
Nationalism can approach the principle in two ways. It can accept it reluctantly, as a necessary evil, and work to make Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK as meaningless as possible. Or it can endorse it wholeheartedly, acknowledge that the democratic choice of the majority has consequences, and work to persuade voters that their constitutional future lies elsewhere.
One option is generous, straightforward and can build goodwill and good relationships with political opponents. The other encourages suspicion and helps to ensure that everyday issues continue to take a back-seat to an endless tug-of-war at Stormont.
Margaret Ritchie is not confused, when she espouses the merits of Irish unity while donning a poppy on her lapel. She is actually making a respectful, bridge building gesture, enormously appreciated by most unionists.
When the SDLP leader champions a 32 County Republic and, at the same time, pledges to make Northern Ireland work, there is no contradiction. She simply encourages her party to make its aspirations fully compatible with the principle of consent.
Long may she continue to take that attitude. If nationalism, or a significant section of nationalism, can accept the spirit of the principle, as well as its letter, it will breathe a fresh blast of good faith through the distrustful corridors of Northern Ireland politics.