OPINION: Nothing to fear from engagement - Paul Gosling
The SDLP this week launched its ‘New Ireland Commission’. I’m honoured to have been selected as a member of its reference and experts panel, helping to guide its work.
The purpose of the New Ireland Commission is to consult widely on the future of the island of Ireland, achieving a way forward that has the maximum level of cross-community support. SDLP representatives – MPs, MLAs and councillors – have already and quietly engaged extensively with people who are from Protestant, unionist and loyalist backgrounds to hear their concerns about the future of this island. We want to know the nature of those concerns and how they can best be addressed. This may be the most extensive programme of such in-depth engagement ever conducted in Northern Ireland
Through the Commission, the SDLP is seeking to design a comprehensive, considered, serious and substantive solution to the present and the future of NI. It is an approach that is bold and radical. We want to not only shape the future, but also create improved relationships between the communities of our island in ways that result in a genuinely shared island, while strengthening the relationship between Ireland and Britain. The attitudes of young citizens in Ireland, North and South, are particularly important.
I have been invited onto the panel of experts because of my own work examining the problems of Northern Ireland. My book ‘A New Ireland’ - which is available from Derry’s Little Acorns Bookshop – considered the economic and social problems of the North, which particularly hold back Derry and the North West. I have concluded that our future would be much better in a reunified Ireland.
As well as this, I have undertaken numerous interviews with political representatives and other citizens from Protestant, unionist and loyalist backgrounds – discussing with them their own frustrations with the endemic failures of Northern Ireland administration. In the context of the recent riots, it is essential that we recognise that the failure to deliver for children, youths and adults from working class communities is experienced in both Protestant and Catholic areas. If our society can recognise the similarities across our communities, rather than concentrating on the differences, then we will make important progress. My personal belief is that unification is the best solution for Ireland – in particular because of the economic and social failures of the North and the continuing social divisions in NI. The Republic has managed politics in recent years much better than the North has. These views helped me reach the decision a year ago to join the SDLP and to work for Sinead McLaughlin, SDLP MLA for Foyle, as her Parliamentary assistant and policy advisor. Unfortunately, this meant that I could no longer appear on Radio Foyle, given the BBC’s rules on political neutrality.
Members of the expert panel come from different backgrounds. That plurality of view is essential if we are to make progress in resolving our ingrained problems. But the SDLP is uniquely positioned for this engagement because of John Hume’s role in bringing the conflict to an end and the respect felt for the party across the political spectrum as non-participants in that conflict.
Inevitably, identity will be one of the central factors in deciding our collective future. But identity can be confused. Personally, I regard myself as European, English, republican, atheist, from a Protestant family background and very firmly convinced that the best future for Northern Ireland is as part of a United Ireland. But I am strongly committed to listening and talking with others, who have different views and other identities.
We have nothing to fear from engagement – but everything to fear from refusing to engage with those with whom we think we disagree.
By Paul Gosling