The leader of the SDLP has criticised an open letter from nationalism to the Irish Taoiseach by claiming that many of the grievances in it stem from Sinn Fein’s failure to take its seats in the Assembly or Westminster.
Leading Northern Ireland nationalist figures in the worlds of sport, the arts, business, community work and the legal sector made up the 200 signatures in the letter, which was sent to Leo Varadkar this week.
“The impending reality of Brexit now threatens to reinforce partition on this island and revisit a sense of abandonment as experienced by our parents and grandparents,” they said. “The fact that a majority of voters in the north of Ireland voted to remain within the EU must not be ignored.
“Against the stated will of a majority of voters in the north, and notwithstanding recent announcements, Brexit pushes us all into uncharted territory, with huge uncertainty for business and the economy, and continuing doubts about what this will mean in reality for Irish and European citizens living in this region.”
But SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he had written a reply which would be sent to every signatory, explicitly blaming Sinn Fein’s abstentionist strategy for leaving the signatories without a voice in current political debates in Northern Ireland.
He confirmed that shares much of the analysis expressed by these voices that northern nationalism finds itself “simmering with frustration and concern,” he said. “I agree with the letter’s assessment that northern nationalism does not find itself in a good place.
“However, I felt it was important to share my analysis and my assessment that much of our frustration emanates from the fact that nationalist opinion in the North is currently without power or place.
“The dangerous reality of our politics is that the only local party shaping our political present and future is the DUP – we therefore have every right and every reason to worry. This initiative by these signatories is welcome, however highlighting frustration and concern will not in itself be enough.
“Nationalism across this island deserves a better strategy than the one which has left us with no Assembly, no voice in the context of Brexit and is placing us at the mercy of a coalition between the DUP and the Tories at Westminster.
“It deserves a better strategy than the one which left no legacy of substantial economic or social success after 10 years at the top of government. It deserves a better strategy than the one which is no closer to reconciling with or persuading the unionist people of this island.
“While I freely acknowledge the electoral strength of Sinn Fein, they can’t escape the truth that every extra vote and every extra seat has done nothing to strengthen the position of northern nationalism. In fact it has resulted in a return to British Direct Rule.”
But Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy responded that nationalists should stand together on these issues.
“After the initiative was first criticised by some members of his party, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood has now welcomed it and that is a good thing,” Conor Murphy commented.
“However, as a solution, he advocates a return to an executive without having addressed the issues of disrespect, the denial or rights, the lack of integrity and the failure to implement agreements that caused its collapse in the first place.
“Rights and equality is the only basis for the restoration of the political institutions. If the SDLP are calling for the restoration of the Assembly at any costs and accepting the anti-rights and anti-equality position of the DUP then let me make it absolutely clear that this is not going to happen.”
He added that the DUP’s “blockade of rights” is preventing a return to the institutions.
“The SDLP should join us to face down the DUP rather than calling for an unconditional restoration of the Assembly and Executive based on DUP prejudice and discrimination.”