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Jim Gibney: Election has opened pathway to new and equal Ireland

Jim Gibney

This week the people of Ireland have much to rejoice about. Two decisions which rock partition to its core and will reshape Irish politics nationally have occurred back-to-back.

After nearly 100 years unionist majority rule has ended in this assembly election. And the wonderful news is that it was ended by a coalition of interests, mainly nationalist voters but not exclusively.

The other hugely significant development is the decision by the Irish government to hold a referendum to allow the people of the north and the Irish diaspora the right to vote in presidential elections.

Gerry Adams TD and Seanador Niall Ó Donghaille and others have campaigned for this right and it should come into effect for the next presidential election.

Special mention needs to be made of those who helped end unionist majority rule: Martin McGuinness whose outstanding leadership changed Irish politics profoundly; the relatives of those who died in the conflict, whose patience and generosity in the pursuit of truth is remarkable; the relatives of IRA volunteers killed in the conflict and who remained loyal to their children’s dream; those who worked for peace; the Irish language community who resolutely campaigned for Acht na Gaeilge; the LGBT community who endured decades of homophobic insult but valiantly and with PRIDE pursued marriage equality; human and civil rights activists; former political prisoners whose contribution to peace is incalculable and whose status should be normalised; the nationalist and republican people who endured so much opprobrium from unionist bigots since partition but held on by their fingertips, through the IRA and Sinn Féin, in pursuit of a united Ireland; and those tactical unionist voters who transferred to the Alliance and SDLP parties.

Your voice has been heard and your vote has opened a pathway to a new and equal Ireland.

Special mention too of Dicky and Lily Glenholmes, now in their mid-eighties, whose parents lived in a united Ireland – representative of a generation who inspired my generation.

Oliver Kearney, who led a high-profile equality campaign with Fr Des Wilson in the 1980s.

Irene Gallagher, whose 17-month-old daughter Angela was tragically killed on September 3, 1971, when an IRA operation went disastrously wrong and whose family bear their enormous loss with immense dignity. Angela’s 47th birthday would have been on March 8. Rose Thompson, whose son Peter, along with two others, was shot dead by the British army.

I was delighted to be photographed at the polling station with Rose’s 18-year-old grandson and my godson Peadar, Peter’s namesake, as he cast his first vote in this truly historic election.

My father, who stood with me as a 15- year-old at a human barricade at the corner of Bryson Street and Madrid Street in August 1969 protecting our home from attack.

I overheard him say to an RUC man ‘these boys are different’, meaning us who knew no fear. The ‘no fear’ generation upended the ‘Orange State’. In doing so we too lost so much.

The assembly result needs to be assessed alongside two other votes: the Brexit referendum result when 56 per cent of the population of the north voted to remain and the Good Friday Agreement all-Ireland referendum.

In both, significant numbers of unionists voted to be part of a wider association with the rest of Ireland and the European Union. And did so against the advice from unionist parties.

It is also noteworthy that in 1921 the unionist parties had 77 per cent of the vote in the northern parliament. Today they have 44 per cent.

The remarkable election result not only ended unionist rule it produced a progressive coalition of Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance Party, the Green Party and People Before Profit at a reconstituted assembly.

A coalition for equality now exists similar to the coalition which exists in Belfast City Council where unionist domination has also ended.

Since then the council has made a progressive contribution to the citizens of Belfast on a fair and equal basis.

If an executive and assembly emerges from the negotiations on a new basis of equality, integrity and respect then the assembly will assist the transformation of the north and the south in these very challenging times when the island is facing a crisis over Brexit and its people are facing austerity from conservative forces in government in London and Dublin.

What a change from 1921.

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