By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
Nationalists must have viewed with dismay, disbelief and anger last week’s press conference with SDLP minister Margaret Ritchie sandwiched between two unionist ministers, Peter Robinson and Michael McGimpsey, during which Robinson attacked Sinn Féin for its insistence on unionists accepting partnership government as the basis for a functioning executive.
Unionists have been trying for the best part of 20 years to secure that image. A UUP/SDLP/DUP attack on Sinn Féin, with the express purpose of undermining the rights of nationalists - thereby weakening the nationalist cause.
One the most powerful and enduring iconic images to emerge from the period after the IRA declared its cessation in August 1994 was the handshake on the steps of Government Buildings in Dublin between Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, John Hume and Gerry Adams.
Those hostile to this display of nationalist unity derided it as evidence of a ‘pan-nationalist front’.
Those most opposed to this expression, by the three leaders of Irish nationalism at the most relevant and potent seat of power in Ireland, were northern unionists and their sympathisers in the political system, north and south.
Those most welcoming of that development were northern nationalists and republicans.
They knew that a united approach by Reynolds, Hume and Adams not only challenged unionist power but would erode it and secure political, economic and cultural rights for nationalists.
It is no accident that some of the most significant political advances occurred when John Hume, Gerry Adams and the Irish government were working in tandem.
This unity of purpose produced two IRA cessations, the Good Friday Agreement with its all-Ireland institutions, the involvement of US president Bill Clinton, a powerful Irish-American lobby and internationalised Ireland as a place where conflict was successfully ended through dialogue.
The process of change which this unity of purpose heralded led directly to today’s new political circumstances where Sinn Féin and the DUP are participating in all-Ireland institutions governing the lives of all the people of this island.
Contrast those mould-breaking developments with last week’s image. Nationalists must be wondering where the SDLP is taking its supporters.
How could Mark Durkan allow the SDLP’s only minister to participate in a line-out with unionists to support a unionist view of the current political crisis?
Is this the working out of the SDLP leader’s speech at Oxford a few weeks ago when he argued for an end to the legally binding power-sharing arrangements which underpin the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements?
Nationalists expect their elected representatives to secure for them their broad range of rights and entitlements.
Those rights are manifold; their denial is sourced in the partition of this country and the subsequent formation of a one-party unionist state.
The power-base of that state has been sufficiently eroded and Stormont transformed, to ensure that this is no longer the old ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’ though many unionists remain stuck with the old mindset.
Both unionist parties have never voluntarily or unilaterally embraced change no matter how minimal.
They accepted change when they had no alternative or when they considered the alternative more threatening if they failed to move.
The DUP are in a place they would prefer not to be but the strength of Sinn Féin’s mandate has left them no other alternative.
The engine for democratic change in northern society stems from the insistence that nationalists are treated with equality and respect in law. Unionism is inherently undemocratic and many unionists are wedded to a ‘top dog’ mentality and consider nationalists - all nationalists - as second-class citizens.
The political and cultural rights of nationalists must be enshrined and protected in law and publicly expressed in all the institutions that govern their lives.
This means, for example, the Irish tricolour should be flown officially alongside the union flag on government buildings if unionists insist on flying the Union Jack.
It means official recognition in law of the Irish language. It means unionists ending their campaign of vilification against expressions of Irish cultural identity such as the language and sport.
It also means that the SDLP stop the nonsense of accommodating unionists in the hope that it will help combat Sinn Féin’s electoral growth - the rights of nationalists are not for sale.