Key Speeches

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Margaret Ritchie MP MLA

Leader of the SDLP




First of all I would like to thank the organisers of the McCloskey Summer School for inviting me to speak here.  It is a great pleasure for me to do so. I’m pleased there is such a good turnout and I hope that this annual event goes from strength to strength. It is important that we maintain our link with the true history of the Civil Rights movement.


It is also important that we go beyond reflection on the Civil Rights achieved for nationalists in the North and look at the future for nationalism itself.


There are of course significant challenges facing Irish nationalists in both the politics of the moment and in the politics that lie ahead.  But those challenges can certainly be overcome.


Of course, where there are challenges, there are also opportunities.  It is my intention that we seize those opportunities and that the SDLP leads the way in constitutional nationalism.


In looking at the future for constitutional nationalism – it is worth considering briefly, where it has come from.


As I stand before you today, I am of course proud to be the Leader of what’s often curiously billed as, ‘SDLP – the constitutional nationalist’ party.  However, the ‘constitutional nationalist’ label, of itself, does little for me.  In one sense it’s a clumsy term of convenience coined by the British Government and media – at a time of great turbulence and violence – to distinguish between those nationalists who would talk to you and those nationalists who might shoot you! It adds little more value than that.


My inheritance as an Irish nationalist is much richer and stronger than that. We have been around for a long time in a tradition that predates the SDLP or Sinn Fein or any 1970s label. And in the broad sweep of history there are actually few political movements that have been more successful or more democratic than the mainstream protagonists of Irish nationalism down the years.


Daniel O’Connell built a mass democratic movement and brought huge sections of the population to open air public meetings. O’Connell did this in Ireland a century before Ghandhi did it in India.  It was Charles Stuart Parnell as an Irish nationalist MP in Westminster, who deployed just about every parliamentary device and mastered every procedure – regarded now as routine to the skilled parliamentarians of today.  Irish nationalism has been profoundly democratic and positive in its instincts. Even De Valera, his own hands bloodied from fighting the British and from fighting those who initially settled with the British, having come in from the cold in 1927 handed over power peacefully having established democratic institutions of government and an independent civil service.


And just as O’Connell and Parnell and De Valera, and for that matter Collins, had their own huge successes. Catholic emancipation; home rule; Irish independence; so too their direct descendants such as Garrett Fitzgerald and John Hume have had theirs.


It was Fitzgerald, Hume and others (Irish Nationalists but also social democrats) who created the framework that has effectively brought to an end Ireland’s historic enmity with Britain.  It was Hume who was instrumental in helping Sinn Fein reverse the armed republican movement out of the cul-de-sac of violence.  It was Hume, Mallon and Durkan who insisted that power-sharing would be at the core of any settlement in the North.  And similarly that any settlement required meaningful North South institutional arrangements which gave real and expression to the ‘Irish dimension.’





So Ladies and Gentlemen I and those who share my perspective are much more than 1970s constitutional nationalists.  I represent the latest generation of Irish nationalist with a proud and continuous record of political success and change.  My understanding of constitutional nationalism is the same nationalism that flows from O’Connell, Parnell, De Valera, Collins.  Yes Wolfe Tone and Connolly as well. Fitzgerald, Hume, Durkan and others. 


Those who mark Sinn Fein moving onto the traditional SDLP ground of ‘constitutional nationalism’ should try to see the broader picture. With their disavowal of violence, Sinn Fein are merely rejoining the mainstream of Irish Nationalism.


Meanwhile the SDLP will continue to occupy the principled social-democratic ground at the centre of nationalism on the island. Time will tell if the authoritarian Sinn Fein can ever join us there.


SDLP Irish nationalism is also the nationalism of Seamus Heaney, an optimistic nationalism that believes that we can hope for a great sea change on the far side of revenge – a nationalism that can believe that a farther shore is reachable from here.  And it is to Heaney’s farther shore that I now wish to turn.


I suppose if you looked at a snapshot of Irish nationalism today, you might conclude that there are three elements in the North, the SDLP, Sinn Fein, and the Dissidents.  Although they represent an ever-growing security threat, I think it is too early to try and categorise the Dissidents.  For me that leaves the two strains of Irish nationalism alive in the North. The social democracy of the SDLP and the populist authoritarianism of Sinn Fein.


For me, the differences between these two are profound.  Those profound differences are, admittedly, to some extent masked by what nationalists have in common on the surface.  Broadly speaking this includes their religious affiliation and even their cultural interests such as GAA, Music and Language etc.


However, on just about everything else that really matters the two nationalisms in the North are fundamentally different. 


Although I don’t like labels, I would tend to categorise the nationalism of the SDLP as progressive nationalism.  A nationalism optimistically reaching out for Heaney’s ‘farther shore’. 


The progress we have made in recent years with the Good Friday Agreement allows us to develop a progressive nationalism that could not have been developed before.  Because the legitimacy of the political pursuit of Irish unity is now accepted on a par with the legitimacy of maintaining the Union, then that surely allows us to look forward and to be more progressive. 


There is no longer a justification for a nationalism that is categorised by resentment or bitterness.  That is why I have said recently (although I’ve been criticised for it), that we want to make Northern Ireland an economic success.  Resentful nationalism says we don’t care about the economy; we are just biding our time until Northern Ireland is over. 

But the old nationalist ambivalence about the Northern Ireland economy cannot be justified. In the coming weeks the SDLP will set out in detail an economic vision for Northern Ireland which recognises that notwithstanding our political goal of Irish unity we must make this place as good as it can be for the people who live here now.  An economy that delivers jobs and prosperity for all our people. Not later. Now.


The other nationalism remains ambivalent on the Northern Ireland economy. Indeed it cannot bring itself to utter the words Northern Ireland. It remains suspicious of investors and entrepreneurs, and resentful of profit. Its leader has said the economy is ‘not important’




But perhaps the biggest difference between progressive nationalism and resentful nationalism is the view they take of society itself.  SDLP progressive nationalism says we want a shared society.  That means a society that is not only non-violent, but which welcomes, cherishes and embraces different traditions and actively sets out to end segregation and division.  Our vision of a shared society is one where people with different religions and races can live side by side in the same areas, sharing the same communities totally at ease with each other. 


Other nationalists reject this vision, largely because they feel it may reduce their control in their single identity communities.  They are happy to see our divisions continue.  They do of course want less violence and they would like to see better relations between the two communities.  But they see nothing wrong or abnormal about our social segregation.

SDLP progressive nationalists have a much higher ambition for our future society.


And of course resentful nationalists will use every device available to them to mark out their territory or to stamp their identity all over the other community.  That is why we have the inappropriate flag waving, the abuse of the Irish language as a cultural weapon and hundreds of unauthorised paramilitary memorials or tributes dotted all over the North.  That is the behaviour of nationalists who deep down do not want to integrate with their unionist neighbours. They seek to dominate.  We, however, in progressive nationalism are more confident, more optimistic and more ready to engage wholeheartedly with unionists across the divide.

Progressive nationalists are capable of uttering the words “Northern Ireland”.  We are unafraid of encountering a member of the British Royal Family at a function.  We do not feel the need to airbrush out of history the sacrifice of many thousands of Irish nationalists who fought in two world wars. We accept the realities of our history and our journey and we want to improve on the past.




Then there is the question of Irish unity itself.  Progressive nationalists see a unity that is a coming together of the two traditions on the island and not a hostile take over.  Our strategy is to provide assurances about the continuation of the institutions of Northern Ireland in any new United Ireland. 

Also an acknowledgement that the challenge for us as Irish nationalists is to make the case to unionists in a way that has never been done before.  What happens to the National Health Service in our vision of a United Ireland?  What happens to our Social Welfare System?  What happens to our Police Service?  These questions have to be answered. And we will try to answer them in a positive spirit.


Standing around waving flags, resenting Northern Ireland and its institutions, while we wait for the day when somehow we all wake up and Ireland is united – is not good enough. Sinn Fein say that magical day will occur in 2016 to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising”.  No it won’t.

Shouldn’t they be honest and grown-up about this fundamental issue?

We in the SDLP are developing a credible plan for Irish Unity. Because progressive nationalism is credible while resentful nationalism relies on exploiting fears and insecurities. The SDLP has a successful track record of persuading people about the political future that lies ahead and we are confident we can do the same again.

As we roll out this message of progressive nationalism, we get the usual knee-jerk criticisms from people who should know better.  Recently Brian Feeney suggested that because Sinn Fein have moved onto SDLP ground the SDLP’s reaction is to move on to Alliance Party ground.  He could not be more wrong.


We remain as committed as ever to the achievement of a United Ireland.  We are, after all, committed Irish nationalists.  What has changed in recent years is that unionists have accepted the legitimacy of our objective and goodwill of our endeavours. 


A substantial number of unionists voted SDLP in the last Westminster Election and while much of this was tactical, I regard it as a significant accomplishment that we who proudly aspire to Irish unity can garner support from those who are completely committed to maintaining the union. I am proud of that fact and hope to see more of it. Indeed it is clear that unionists can see the difference between progressive and resentful nationalism.  Our task is to highlight those differences to more nationalists!


The challenge for nationalism now, led by the SDLP, is to make our case to all the citizens of the North and bring them round to our progressive way of thinking on jobs and prosperity; on a genuinely shared society; and on our credible plan for unity that we honestly believe brings benefit to all. 

The battles of the past are over. The only battle now is the battle of ideas. But, again, in line with the broad sweep of history of Irish nationalism it is the social democrats, the SDLP, who will be coming forward with the ideas that will take all of us to a better placed.