By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
It is no coincidence that the nationalist turnout in the 2001 Westminster and Local Government elections was the highest in nearly a decade.
Nor is it an accident that this turnout was assessed as the highest since partition.
For Westminster the poll was 345,257 and for local government 316,694.
This remarkable turnout was in marked contrast to the 1992 Westminster election when 262,000 nationalists cast their vote and the 1993 local government election when 214,000 nationalists voted.
The 2001 turnout reflected the fact that nationalists’ expectations and confidence were on the rise.
This optimistic mood was directly linked to the unity of purpose that the leaders of Irish nationalism brought to the peace process.
The line up of Gerry Adams, John Hume and Bertie Ahern was the key ingredient which gave nationalists a new found sense of purpose.
The adoption by republicans of a peace strategy and the collaboration of Gerry Adams and John Hume, instilled great hope among northern nationalists.
They rewarded their political leaders by voting for their respective parties in unparallelled numbers.
This popular endorsement was not lost on Gerry Adams or John Hume.
Both knew the value of ensuring the peace process remained above party politics.
A united nationalist front involving the Irish government ensured the maximum amount of change for nationalists.
It also set day-to-day developments in an all-Ireland framework.
This was important for nationalists in the six counties who had been practically and psychologically abandoned and cut off from the rest of the Irish nation.
Living within the repressive confines of the six counties had contained many nationalists’ horizons.
The peace process freed them up to think and act in a national context.
The regular presence of President Mary McAleese, an Taoiseach and Irish government ministers in the north made a united Ireland feel real.
In 2001 the leaders of the peace process rarely argued out their differences in public.
They were mindful of maintaining a united public defence to prevent the powerful and reactionary interests in Britain and Ireland organising against the peace process and undermining its potential.
Now it is open season on the peace process, the principal architect of it Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin.
Unfortunately for nationalists Mark Durkan is leading that charge and is supported by right wing partitionists like Michael McDowell.
A few weeks ago Gerry Adams took his boldest initiative to date to break the impasse in the peace process. He stated in unequivocal terms that armed struggle was unnecessary and that a peaceful alternative was in place.
He asked the IRA to consider leaving the political stage.
This should have been a time of great nationalist unity, of great acclaim. Instead we had a negative and begrudging response from Mark Durkan.
I think John Hume’s response would have reflected an understanding of the enormity of Gerry Adams’s appeal.
And that is the nub of the current problem.
The SDLP leadership define their attitude to the peace process in terms of their opposition to Sinn Féin.
We know what they are against and that is whatever Sinn Féin is for.
But they don’t tell us what they are for. They have no strategy and no vision for tomorrow.
Their anti-Sinn Féin stance has resulted in a dramatic drop off in electoral support. One hundred thousand former SDLP voters have abandoned the party since John Hume left as leader.
Having broken the nationalist consensus the SDLP then endorsed the PSNI, a force containing the people who killed Pat Finucane, organised collusion and who still retain plastic bullets.
The elections on May 5 - the 24th anniversary of Bobby Sands’s death - is about strong leadership, about skillfully negotiating the future of the peace process and about moving forward to a united Ireland.
All of the nationalist electorate of the north have a crucial part to play in shaping the new Ireland which will emerge from the next round of the negotiations.
Their interests lie not just in voting but in voting for a party which is capable of fulfilling their expectations.
That party is led by Gerry Adams. That party is Sinn Féin.