By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Last week Gerry Adams and Margaret Ritchie offered their views on how things should be in 10 years time.
Unfortunately they wrote in a paper hardly anyone reads so their articles didn’t attract much attention. That’s a pity because what they wrote illustrates the growing divergence between the two parties’ position on the north.
They were supposed to be looking forward to 2021, the centenary of the invention of Northern Ireland.
Gerry Adams never mentioned Northern Ireland, the north, six counties or whatever you want to call the place.
He set out to demonstrate that unionism as a concept h d failed the Irish people, had produced economic failure, emigration, backwardness on social issues , inequality, discrimination and failure to protect the most vulnerable citizens in both parts of the island. Who could quarrel with that?
He went on to look forward to a ‘new Ireland’ and a shared island for everyone living here.
He offered unionists the prospect of real influence and real political power as 20 per cent of the population of the island rather than no influence in the UK as 2 per cent of the population that no-one cares about.
Margaret Ritchie’s position was completely different. For some reason she thinks 2021 is the 100th anniversary ‘of Northern Ireland as part of the UK’.
There’s you thinking this bit of Ireland has been part of the UK since 1801.
For her the constitutional position is settled. She is “very much preoccupied by the social and economic conditions we will experience in the Northern Ireland of 2021.
“The SDLP is determined to make an economic success of Northern Ireland”.
Her priority is a shared future in a “normal society”.
Now this is fascinating stuff. You can discern a real shift in the position of the SDLP.
Sinn Fein has already made its shift in the 1990s and now occupies the place the SDLP carved out years ago.
Adams’s phrase a ‘new Ireland’ emerged in the early 1960s - there was a New Ireland society in Queen’s University Belfast. It was a catch phrase popularised by John Hume and came into official language with the New Ireland Forum in 1984.
Now the SDLP has abandoned it for the phrase ‘new north’ which yo u hear on the lips of Ms Ritchie and her associates and read on their websites.
While Sinn Fein has moved to the mainstream nationalist position the SDLP has given up on it and moved to capture Alliance votes. They now subscribe to the shared future codswallop that the NIO invented and their former front party promotes.
To talk about a normal society in the north is complete fantasy just as it would be in Belgium or Bosnia or the Lebanon.
That’s why there’s a Good Friday Agreement with mechanisms to cater for the two communities here, though it’s interesting also to note that Ms Ritchie now calls it the ‘Belfast Agreement’ in another futile attempt to curry liberal unionist support.
As for Northern Ireland as an economic success? The north hasn’t got an economy, never had. It was always an adjunct of industrial north-west Britain. That’s all gone now. Prosperity here, such as it is, is maintained by the public sector supplying, as we hear every week, two thirds of the money which then goes to sustain service industries and shopping.
Over the next five years the public sector is going to be slashed. Then what?
Talking about the north as an economic success gives credence to the notion that Northern Ireland emerged because it was a viable unit instead of carved out as the biggest chunk on the island unionists could control, a place where they could try to avoid living on equal terms with the rest of the people on the island .
The SDLP’s shift to a Redmondite position as evidenced in Ms Ritchie’s newspaper articles can only be because Sinn Fein has shoved the SDLP to the right of centre .
Sinn Fein’s new clothes have become a very good fit over the last decade.
The new vocabulary the SDLP has adopted is a clear sign of an attempt to capture the Catholic Alliance votes ince they’ve lost the competition for nationalist votes. It will be interesting to see if the new clothes fit.