Like many people all across Northern Ireland last night I sat up watching the returns come back in for the General Election polls, specifically with regard to the candidates for the eighteen constituencies in Northern Ireland. As an SDLP voter I was eager to see how the three sitting MPs Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie would fare. I was also eager to see how the party would do in areas where it needed to get new votes, and I was sitting in anticipation to see how fresh faces such as Justin McNulty would do. I have to admit that as the night went on and the three party members were returned to their seats and did so with dignity and humility I felt something stir in me which I can’t put words to. For the sake of argument let’s just call it hope. Combined with the coverage on BBC where the absolutely indomitable Claire Hanna took charge of the live discussion and SDLP Youth members were flat out representing the party on social media I was able to lay down my head (albeit at a rather late hour) safe in the knowledge that the party stalwarts were ready to go back to Westminster to represent the people of Northern Ireland and fresh faced candidates were still fighting the corner at a grassroots level.
Then when I got up this morning and turned on the television coverage I noticed a new shift on a more national level; the vision that there would be a hung parliament had not in fact come to pass and David Cameron’s Conservative Party would be returned to Downing Street with a strong majority. Since then former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Labour leader Ed Miliband and UKIP leader Nigel Farage have all quit. And all this signals a brand new challenge for the people of Northern Ireland and this includes specifically the Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland’s eighteen constituencies.
Now I am no political strategist. I’m a constituent and an idealist. But it seems to me that this election was absolutely steeped in uncertainty and what would happen from 8th May onwards was equally uncertain. But here we are and it is from here that we shall move forwards. The question is; do we want to move forwards together? The fact of the matter is that Tory governments of the past generally have not favoured Northern Ireland and this one may be no different. I could be wrong, but from my spectator’s view the treatment given to Northern Ireland from the British government is similar to how we would walk a pet dog who just happens to be on a retractable lead: they are cude and all, and we can let them run off a bit should we wish to but we can just as easily hit the button and remind them of the fact that we are the ones who are very much in control.
But the fact is we don’t actually have to give them that control. The Troubles of Northern Ireland’s past proved many things and one of which is that we are a resilient people. We are fighters and should never be counted out. Here we are in 2015 having emerged from a major conflict, battered and bruised and probably more than a little embittered but standing strong none the less. We have a working Executive in Stormont which is dysfunctional at times and also more than a little embittered but it too is working none the less. Yes our parties disagree more often than agree and yet here we are having managed to bring a stable police force to Northern Ireland, a wonderful health care system, we have a phenomenal tourist industry as well a blossoming entertainment industry with television and filmmaking on the rise. We are a hotspot for culture and the arts and have a vast diversity of nationalities coming to make their home right here in Northern Ireland. We should be proud of how far we have come.
Now an opportunity presents itself to take the next step forward. And I believe this next step is indeed a step into the unknown which is in itself a risk, but is filled with opportunity. It’s true that a number of Unionist candidates were elected on the basis of a unionist pact. I disagree with the idea of this pact but the candidates were elected fair and square. But what if we were to arrange a new pact, a Northern Ireland pact as it were? Imagine it if our eighteen Members of Parliament were all to go to Westminster and give a united show of strength that the people of Northern Ireland will not stand idly by and watch the Tory government pull apart a beloved health care system; that we will not sit in silence as the most vulnerable in our society are denied a voice, and we will not tolerate the abominable welfare cuts this government seems to take delight in imposing on us. The only power they have over us is the power we give to them. In the Northern Ireland Executive we have achieved much for the common good of all the people such as the recent bill to end the lamentable “industry” of human trafficking in our land. This was only achieved through working together. We can do the same thing in Westminster.
But for this to take place some things will need to change which will not be easily achieved. For instance a policy of abstention is unacceptable. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than politicians who do not take up their seats which they have won fairly. I know this is done out of an ideological standpoint and I respect that, but let’s fight one fight at a time. Double jobbing is simply counterproductive. An elected member cannot serve both Westminster and Stormont effectively. It is unfair on the public and the politician and we can only fight one fight at a time. The culture of “whataboutery” has to come to an end. Every time I hear or see a debate on a particular issue I want the debate to stay focussed and not drift into who did what forty years ago. This too is a counterproductive road to take. Yes we need to sort out our past, but we can only fight one fight at a time.
Ultimately there is more in Northern Ireland which unites us than divides us. Our common humanity unites us for a start. A new day has come and if we can begin to look at each other as humans and recognise the innate worth and dignity of those we meet then we will discover than we can in fact work together and that the arguments that divide us are in fact worth putting on hold until we can build up a healthy relationship amongst ourselves. This is ultimately a fight worth fighting. It is not worth fighting because it will give a show of strength to a Tory government even though it will. It is not worth fighting because it will be healthier for our local economy even though it will. It is not worth fighting because it ultimately will help us address the issues of the past even though it will do this too. No, it is a fight worth fighting because the deepest desire of every human heart is simply to belong; to have a place to call home and to live out one’s life in purpose and peace. This is the fight I want to be a part of. And on this Victory in Europe anniversary day surely the lesson of World War II is that when a people are willing to set aside their differences and work for a common cause great things can be achieved which will be remembered for many years to come. One fight at a time and we will be a better Northern Ireland and ultimately a better people. We can fight for our humanity.