Nichola Mallon: SDLP must have courage to embrace change
I believe that in time 2019 will come to be regarded as a milestone political year, globally, in Europe, certainly in the UK and also here at home, in Ireland north and south.
Those of us who are in positions of political leadership will reasonably be asked by future generations ‘what did you do?' That will be a fair challenge and I want to be able to say ‘I did the right thing.'
This weekend the SDLP faces a ‘what will you do moment?' and I fully understand the sense of apprehension that exists among some about the proposed future partnership between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil. I understand some of the reticence because change is never easy. But we need to be honest with ourselves; change is needed.
It serves neither the SDLP nor the people we serve, and who vote for us, to view the situation the party faces in 2019 as though this was still 1979 or 1989. It serves no purpose either to ignore the huge challenges that Brexit is presenting to all of us who are looking to a politics beyond the border.
I have read and heard of the SDLP's ‘special relationship' with all southern parties and if we are being honest that situation simply no longer applies. That politics has moved on. If party members believe that we retain an influence with all parties, those in and out of government, then nostalgia has replaced fact.
I hear the predictions of a sudden lurch to the right by the SDLP as a result of this policy partnership, but that is to underestimate and disrespect the strength of character of the SDLP which has always stayed true to our values amidst the darkest and bloodiest of times. It is also a complete dismissal and denial of recent Fianna Fáil manifesto pledges and public policy commitments from Micheál Martin.
I hear concerns that this partnership will somehow spook unionists and upset some mythical ‘middle ground' which any day now will rise up and return the SDLP to power. But unionists with whom I have engaged are watching this development with interest because they are looking for a progressive partner within nationalism which puts policy and people above party and doesn't see equality as a tactical Trojan horse. Unionists who are committed to power sharing and creating a prosperous and just society for all have nothing to fear from this SDLP all-island partnership with Fianna Fáil.
For me this partnership is about one thing above all else – people. It is about offering people a strong all-island partnership focused on people centred policies at a crucial time in our island's history. It is about offering people, especially those who are most marginalised in our society, the hope, belief and proof that politics can transform their lives. The partnership will provide a vehicle to develop and, importantly, implement a suite of policies which will help shape a new shared Ireland. That is an exciting prospect and a challenging project which can reap tangible benefits for all.
As a mother and a citizen of this country I refuse to accept the politics of paralysis that is spectacularly failing our people, our health service, our schools and the vulnerable members of society as well as the business community. I don't believe that the politics of protests and placards is as good it gets for our people. As a society we deserve better and we deserve the chance to vote for better.
As the deputy leader of this great party, I refuse to accept that we are stuck in a rut or a downward spiral. But if we want change we cannot wish for it, we have to work for it. I believe that work involves the development of a new approach to Ireland wide politics.
While this partnership with Fianna Fáil marks the beginning of a new chapter for the SDLP and for the people we represent it also ensures forever the legacy of the giants on whose shoulders we stand. The SDLP came about to drive change in politics in the north. Politics desperately needs to change again, right across the island, and this weekend SDLP members have the chance to usher in day one in the next chapter of the SDLP, of Fianna Fáil, of politics in this island and of the hopes for all of our people.
I believe the delegates will have the courage and imagination to embrace that change and seize our own future.