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PLATFORM: SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. Picture by Hugh Russell

THERE is no event that has had a more profound impact on our common history than the partition of Ireland.

That moment, more than any other, has had an immense political, economic and cultural impact on the lives of all those who share this island.

But, as I have said before, the experience of that time, and the evolution of the state that followed, has been markedly different for communities across the north.

As an Irish nationalist, my engagement with partition has been based in a tradition that views it as a traumatic constitutional event that severed relationships, economic opportunities and created a new state where sectarian discrimination was hard-wired into the institutions of government.

That remains my assessment.

I joined the SDLP as a teenager because I believe in the party's mission to put an end the pervasive influence of that sectarian state that affected, and infected, every aspect of life for so many people.

I have always been open about my ambition to unite the people of this island in a prosperous, just and reconciled new Ireland. It remains the biggest and the boldest idea around.

But if we're serious about making it happen, if we're serious about the scale of the challenge ahead and the work we have to do then nationalists must be prepared to challenge ourselves again.

I feel the frustration in our communities at the paucity of generosity from some corners of political unionism.

I know that people feel like we are constantly bending over backwards to reach out to others for very little in return. When the news is saturated with unionist political leaders opposing Irish language legislation, talking up the prospects of a land border or refusing to confirm that they would accept the outcome of an election if a nationalist became first minister, it saps the spirit of generosity and erodes trust between our communities.

But here's the hard truth – if we want to convince others about our vision for the future then we need to keep showing them that it is an inclusive future.

Turning your back on people who come from a different tradition, who have a different experience and a different perspective to offer doesn't change what happened 100 years ago, it only entrenches that division today.

That's the lesson of our peace process, it's the enduring lesson that John Hume taught us. Regardless of the adversity we face, regardless of the reaction we receive, we can never stop working together to build a new Ireland.

That's why the SDLP has taken the difficult decision to send a representative to the centenary service in Armagh next week.

For us, this isn't about celebrating partition – there's nothing worth celebrating. It isn't about historic handshakes or meaningless gestures that grab headlines but don't move our society forward.

For us this is about ending partition. Because here is another hard truth – nationalists can't unite this island on our own.

We need to convince people from different traditions, many of whom are considering a new future for our island for the first time. Our job is to speak to them, to hear their concerns and to convince them that change is possible.

The SDLP will be honest with people – this is deeply uncomfortable for us.

Our mission is to bring an end to partition. We believe that the interests of people on this island are best served in a united and prosperous new Ireland.

We will pursue that vision. But it is our firm conviction that as relationships across our island, and between our islands, continue to evolve as a result of the constitutional upheaval we have experienced over the last five years, that we are all called to build that new future together.

And while I have said that I believe the United Kingdom is coming to an end, I do not for one second believe that those for whom that is an important part of their identity should be in any way diminished.

I know that our scarred history places a moral duty upon us to manage those relationships and to conduct the coming conversation with care, compassion and patience. That's what this decision was about.

The prize is to build a shared home place for all of our people.

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