Northern Ireland news

SDLP launches New Ireland Commission panel looking at economy, education and health

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

SDLP LEADER Colum Eastwood has launched the first of his party's New Ireland Commission panels, describing it as "the beginning of the real conversation about what type of society we want to be".

The 32-member 'Expert Reference' panel, which is convened by South Belfast MLA Matthew O'Toole, will come together today for the first time.

Drawn from professional and political backgrounds, it will examine the potential shape of public and health services, the economy, and education in a united Ireland.

The panel members may not necessarily support the SDLP's constitutional aims but the party says their perspectives will inform its position as well as public debate.

Among the civic, faith, community and business leaders joining the initiative are Irish News columnist and former Policing Board vice-chair Denis Bradley, former Early Years chief executive Siobhan Fitzpatrick, former Presbyterian Church Moderator Rev Norman Hamilton and Dublin-based Catherine Ghent, one of Ireland's foremost child law practitioners.

Mr Eastwood described the panel's combined experience as an "unmatched resource that will fuel public debate and discourse about constitutional change".

“This is the beginning of the real conversation about what type of society we want to be," he said.

"Instead of platitudes and demands, the SDLP is rolling up our sleeves to work with people across our communities, to have the difficult conversations and to bring forward the practical detail that has been lacking from the constitutional debate."

The Foyle MP said the initiative was "unique" and that the party was not afraid to challenge itself.

"We know that the only path to uniting the people of this island is through partnership, cooperation and reconciliation," he said.

"Delivering a new Ireland demands that we all spill our sweat to forge new enduring relationships between the people of this island and that we demonstrate to everyone that we can build a new society together for all our communities with respect and accommodation for difference and for diversity."

The SDLP is expected to launch a second panel in the coming weeks, tentatively titled 'New Generation, New Citizens, New Rights'.

Other contributors to the Expert Reference group include disability rights activist Michaela Holywood, ex-SDLP general secretary Gerry Cosgrove, victims campaigner Jude Whyte, writer and commentator Paul Gosling and academics John Barry and Tony Gallagher.

Gerry Carlile, chief executive of civic nationalist group Ireland's Future said the commission was a "very welcome development".

"It is further evidence of how the conversation on a new Ireland is developing and progressing," he said.

"It is particularly significant following the release of Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan publishing a detailed discussion document and Fine Gael’s Neale Richmond producing an equally impressive document in recent weeks."

Mr Carlile said Ireland's Future was urging all political parties across the island who advocate change to "enter this conversation in a full and meaningful way and in a spirit of collegiality".

Jude Whyte back on the Lower Ormeau Road.Picture by Hugh Russell.

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