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Colum Eastwood: Only progressive nationalism is capable of building the broad consensus to shape a new Ireland

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Colum Eastwood, SDLP leader

LAST Thursday Northern Ireland spoke loudly and clearly - we voted to stay in the European Union.

A chorus of voices across the political spectrum, and particularly those of our young people, voted to remain as part of Europe.

These are the people who can proclaim victory in Northern Ireland, despite the wider defeat of progressive European politics at the hands of narrow English nationalism.

Put very simply, the future chosen by people in England is not the future chosen by the Irish people. We have democratically chosen to remain as part of the European Union.

In the north, nationalists and unionists alike gave that judgement. The sooner the First Minister Arlene Foster accepts and respects that reality, the better.

The swirling uncertainty of a Brexit must now be met with a firm determination to protect the Irish national interest. The SDLP will be fighting to ensure this happens. That will require the Irish government and all parties across the island to defend the agreements and progress which stretch back to 1998.

We will defend Northern Ireland’s position in the European Union. That means immediate discussions with governments in Dublin, Edinburgh and elsewhere in Europe as well as directly with the EU in Brussels.

This requires co-operation from all parties in the Assembly who supported the campaign to remain. The DUP’s minority voice cannot become a veto on progress or democracy.

The Scottish First Minister has made it clear that the Scottish Parliament will not consent to any UK government notification to leave the European Union. The Northern Ireland Assembly must respect the views of the people of Northern Ireland and do the same - we cannot and will not consent to steps by London to leave the European Union.

In addition, there can be no return to a physical border across this island. There must remain freedom of movement for people, goods and services across Ireland. What we have, we must hold. For the sake of our economy we must also now ensure the full and fast integration of economic interests across this island. This is now driven as much by necessity as it is by political ideology.

We must also assure EU citizens living here today that your position will not change. In the coming days and weeks, all Irish people have a responsibility to reach out to those from abroad who have made their home here and ensure they feel welcome.

These events mean we have undoubtedly started on a journey toward re-unification, but we should be honest enough to acknowledge that we have still a way to travel.

Making that possible requires a progressive nationalism which has the maturity to understand that a credible vision for unity will not be made in the image of any one political party. Irish nationalism must also no longer be an idea to which we are merely born into. It must be about belief, not birth. It must be based on the practical, not the pre-determined.

From now on, that is what each Irish passport will represent. Each and every one will be a symbol that we choose progress and prosperity over fear and febrile politics. I urge everyone who doesn't already hold an Irish passport to today take the first steps to safeguarding their European Union citizenship.

It is progressive Irish nationalism, and that nationalism alone, which is capable of building the broad consensus needed to shape the Ireland before us. That consensus will strengthen in the months and years ahead as the full horror of Brexit unveils itself. Our journey starts now.

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