'Arlene Foster has been the biggest gift for Sinn Féin in years'
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood believes Brexit has fuelled a restlessness in nationalism, he tells Colm Kelpie
Brexit is helping fuel a restlessness again within Irish nationalism in the North, Colum Eastwood warns.
As a Derry man, the SDLP leader knows well the potential consequences of the UK’s EU withdrawal for the border regions in particular.
Mr Eastwood agrees with the argument that it is impossible to enforce a border given the political problems. But he’s clear that if the UK exits the Customs Union – a move he describes as “shocking” - a border somewhere will be the reality. And it will likely be down the Irish Sea, he says, even though that’s unthinkable for unionism, and the DUP in particular.
“I don’t think they [DUP] have a strategy,” Mr Eastwood says, in an interview with the Irish Independent at Stormont.
“I think they have rowed in behind a narrow, British nationalism, which is actually an English nationalism, and they've been swept up in it. If you were a strategic unionist, you would have done everything in your power to make sure you stayed in the European Union. That Irish nationalism didn't feel restless, as we now do. That you supported the Good Friday Agreement and allowed for people to build relationships across this island and to get comfortable and confident, and for the economy to work. But they have supported the policy of Brexit and are now supporting a hard Brexit, I just cannot understand it.”
Prior to Brexit, Northern nationalism was "comfortable", he argues, adding the “constitutional sands” on the island had now shifted.
“When you talked about a united Ireland [prior to Brexit], there weren't many people looking to talk back. But now that has just shifted massively, and I think Northern nationalists are looking for an accelerated process around that,” he says.
Mr Eastwood supports the idea of a border poll, but not immediately. The conversation needs to take place "at some point in the future". He insists a lot of groundwork is required for that conversation, including how to encourage unionism to join it.
"Irish nationalism hasn't done the work yet, and needs to start doing it," he says.
Mr Eastwood believes one way of getting unionists involved in the conversation is to argue that the Good Friday Agreement in a united Ireland should be maintained.
“Our strong view is that in a united Ireland the [Good Friday] agreement, probably tweaked, but the agreement would be maintained, so there would be a Stormont institution, there would be power sharing, we would have to look at what those powers would be, but that unionist identity and the fact that the North is different would have to be recognised within any future united Ireland. Unionist identity can be respected. This is the bastion of unionism traditionally and historically, I would argue that we can keep it. Unionism would play a very strong part in a power sharing arrangement here and a very strong part in any future Government in the Oireachtas.”
It's strong on aspiration, although there is much detail to consider. So far though, there's scant evidence that unionists will even want to have that conversation.
And they aren’t the only ones that have to be convinced. Southern voters do also. Why would they want a Northern Ireland that seems to be perennially in a state of political fragility? Mr Eastwood says the SDLP’s strategy has always been to make Northern Ireland work, with a view to a united Ireland.
“I don't believe in a scorched earth policy around a united Ireland so this all collapses and all of a sudden we fall magically into a united Ireland and southern voters save us. That's a disastrous strategy. We've got to make this place work, to show that it's worth joining. We should never take the voters in the south for granted on the future of a unity poll.”
The problem the SDLP faces is that it is struggling against Sinn Féin to get that message across to voters.
The party of John Hume has had a bruising year. After June’s UK general election, it has no Westminster seats, although it made a gain in the Assembly elections for the first time since 1998. It has 12 seats in the Assembly, versus Sinn Fein's 27.
The party is in a period of “internal reflection”, Mr Eastwood says, but is tight-lipped on how it intends to rebuild.
“We have to be honest with ourselves. In 1998, the SDLP achieved an enormous amount. We haven't always been as good setting out what the next mission is, the next phase of what constitutional nationalism is."
Sinn Féin, he argues, has enormous resources and money, but no answers.
“But politics is polarised now to a level that suits them, and suits the DUP. Sometimes up here, the flag trumps everything, and a more nuanced moderate position doesn't always get through,” he says. “And Arlene Foster has been the biggest gift for Sinn Féin in many years. She has created a need in many nationalists’ minds to kick back, and they did."
Could a much-talked tie-up with Fianna Fáil, if the latter was to stand in the North, be part of that reflection?
“It's always something that's been talked about,” Mr Eastwood says. “If you think about how politics is shaking up, political realignment on the island of Ireland is absolutely a possibility. I think it will be a very strange thing to close your mind off to that possibility.”
As for whether Stormont can get back up and running, Mr Eastwood is in gloomy form.
Power sharing collapsed earlier this year, and despite an election in March, there’s no sign of Sinn Féin and the DUP forming a government, with a demand for a standalone Irish Language Act the main stumbling block.
With little sign of agreement in sight, Mr Eastwood worries direct rule will come to pass.
And he fears if that happens, it could spell the end of power sharing for a prolonged period.
“I don’t want to be pessimistic. We’re committed to trying to make it work, but the outlook is fairly gloomy. It doesn’t need to be like that. Sinn Féin and the DUP have their big mandates, but there’s no point in having them if they aren’t going to use them. They have the lion’s share of the responsibility to try to form a government,” he says.
“The last time we had direct rule it lasted for five years. In this context of Brexit and everything else, I think if we have direct rule, we’ll be very lucky to get this place [Stormont] back again.”
And he stresses there continues to be a place for the SDLP in Northern Ireland politics.
“The SDLP was born out of a tumultuous time in history, an important time for people to stand up and give big views on where Ireland was going,” he says.
“We're probably there again and we have to make sure people hear. We've been giving the best answers to all of these problems. This place is not pre-destined to fail all the time.”