I popped up to Islington on Wednesday for the meeting on the peace process organised by Jeremy Corbyn’s (right) Constituency Labour Party.
Perhaps Mick Fealty’s injunction over at Slugger was heeded, because unusually for this kind of public meeting in London there was a full complement of speakers from the main parties in the North: Sammy Wilson for the DUP, Martina Anderson for Sinn Fein, Paul Callaghan of the SDLP and Rodney McCune of the UUP.
The audience was staunchly nationalist, which ironically is a bit more typical of London. Indeed Callaghan felt obliged to emphasise as one point that "the unionist community is moving forward. We should be a bit more cautious about being judgemental."
Overall though, while its fair to say that Sinn Fein and the SDLP got an easier ride, there was a good constructive atmosphere, and the presence of all four parties helped to acquaint people with the more business-like politics of the new era in the North.
Certainly there were some underlying similarities in the messages offered by the DUP and Sinn Fein speakers.
dealing with politicians who for thirty years have never had a chance to rule,
and to exercise those kind of powers so there are big challenges ahead,"Wilson told us.
"Nevertheless, I believe that we’re up to it and I believe that so far we have
seen sincerity on everyone’s part but there are still some very difficult times
Anderson essentially agreed on this point: "As Sammy
said, there’s a lot of things not tested. There’ s a view that it’s sorted now in the North. People don’t have to worry about it and nothing could be further from the
In contrast, Callaghan suggested that no-one in the North expects any real instability in the executive. "There might be some grandstanding here," he said. "Relations are a lot more warm they actually like to make out."
When somebody from the audience offered a marital metaphor, he suggested that in fact "Sinn Fein and the DUP are getting a bit frisky." Cue much laugher and looks of disbelief from Wilson and Anderson.
Rodney McCune argued that there was a basic similarity between the other three parties: "I see the Ulster Unionists are the only party who are using the language of British unionism. I see that set against Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism of the SDLP and Sinn Fein, and I see that set against what I would term the Ulster nationalism of the DUP."
McCune also called for Labour to organise in the north. Callaghan suggested that Labour would get nowhere and that the SDLP are well to the left of both the British and Irish Labour parties. Wilson professed himself indifferent although he did take to task audience members for opposing the idea whilst suggesting that the Protestant working class was not properly represented.
Other issues that came up:
Economy: Anderson talked about some of the continuing socio-economic disparities in the north and the need to harness the Celtic Tiger. Callaghan mentioned the investment from the South’s National Development Plan. Wilson spoke about the need to move towards a more private sector economy.
Policing and justice: Anderson and Callaghan both raised the decision not to prosecute any members of the security forces in the Pat Finucane case. Wilson spoke about the concessions on policing that the DUP had secured from Sinn Fein. McCune suggested the UUP should go into opposition if there is early devolution of polcing and justice powers.
Grammar schools: Although socio-economic issues appear to be moving to the fore, this is one socio-economic issue that broke down on sectarian lines, as Callaghan ruefully noted.
Stadium: Wilson suggested that the DUP Minister was allowing constituency interests to cloud his judgement over the siting of the stadium. Other speakers suggested that Wilson, a Belfast councillor, had constituency interests of his own.
Jeremy Corbyn’s contribution arguably illustrated why this kind of meeting may have more potential than previously:
that the debates we’re going to be having in the UK Parliament over the next
few years are going to be partly about the level of funding that’s provided to
the six counties through the annual settlement but also there’s going to be a
great deal of attention paid to economic issues.
"To me it was very interesting
that over the past year or so, increasingly early day motions have started
appearing on the order paper in Parliament that are signed by both the SDLP and
the unionists concerning water issues and a number of other economic and social
issues, and indeed I’ve been happy to join in and sign those."
On issues where there is a consensus at Stormont, the Irish in Britain might be able to play a significant role in lobbying Westminster, and that would make this kind of dialogue increasingly worthwhile.