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Platform: Colum Eastwood says the north must 'come of age'

Colum Eastwood wants to be the next leader of the SDLP 

This past August saw the 21st anniversary of the first ceasefires. In remembering that moment of impenetrable hope it is sad to reflect that, two decades on, our politics remains in crisis.

The institutions at Stormont are, again, floundering. The economy of the North is stagnating. Political relationships are worsening. The promise of progress has been left to wither.

No one expects our maimed memory of violence to be fully healed. But it is right to expect that our politics restrains itself from feeding off residual human hurt. For the most part it has not.

It is there to see on a daily basis. Overwhelmingly the character of debates at our Assembly revolve around our conflicted past. The forum of our ideas is restricted to this one, repeatedly furrowed field. It is a field exhausted through constant tillage.

In this context, the responsibility of government is abandoned. The natural flow and formation of policy is stunted. Even arguments ostensibly about money are more often about memory.

Change is calling. We can no longer abide being held prisoners of memory. We are, all of us, tired of congratulating Stormont for simply existing. Twenty-one years is time enough to expect better. It is time our politics came of age.

From a party perspective, coming of age demands honest self-reflection. We in the SDLP have spent far too much time obsessing about the immense democratic achievement that was Good Friday 1998. That needs to stop. We fail ourselves, but above all we fail the people in doing so. We are right to be proud of our past but our political offer needs to evolve beyond continuously cashing in a cheque which has long since been banked.

Progressive nationalism’s new story begins by taking full ownership of the success and/or failure of Northern Ireland. No longer can Irish nationalism hold any sneaking regard for the idea of the North as a ‘failed political entity’.

Let there be no ambiguity, the cause of Irish nationalism is best served by making this part of the island work. There is no future in hoping that a basket case Northern Ireland will somehow magically fall into the Republic on the day that the Catholic population reaches 50 percent plus 1.

Ireland’s political re-unification remains the biggest and the best idea around. It needs huge preparation. Big ideas deserve better than being reduced to a numbers game.

Making this place work means that our fiscal and social platforms constantly pass the credibility test. Too often the narrow economic and social policies offered by the parties have conveniently siloed into the agendas of their chosen Executive ministries. Our agendas need to encompass the totality of the North’s policy challenges.

We should resist the notion that in order to create wealth we need to abandon the most vulnerable. Likewise, we should challenge the idea that championing enterprise is somehow right-wing.

The institutions also need to mature beyond their embryonic imperfections. Concerns over political stability can no longer be used to impede the logic for the establishment of an official opposition. Equally, the logic of an official opposition can never be used to impede the principle of cross-community power-sharing.

We have waited long enough for a new normal.

Our only judgement, as parties and politicians, should now be measured by the quality of our ideas and on delivery for our people.

The SDLP must again cement nationalism rightful place in Irish politics, not as a community, but as an attractive, welcoming and all-embracing idea. It is we who must ensure that nationalism is understood as a demographic of belief rather than of birth.

Only then will we have properly come of age.

** Assembly member and former Derry City mayor, Colum Eastwood is campaigning to be the next leader of the SDLP. The party's current leader Alasdair McDonnell declined an invitation to contribute a platform piece alongside Mr Eastwood.

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