SDLP’s New Ireland Commission explores path to unity through ‘partnership, co-operation and reconciliation’

Claire Hanna says ‘those of us who want to talk about a new Ireland have an obligation to spell out a lot more exactly what we mean by that’

On a cold evening with darkness falling, the barren ash trees offer little comfort to Seamus Heaney’s grave in the corner of St Mary’s Church just on the outskirts of Bellaghy in Derry.

A well-worn path to the grave of the Nobel Prize-winning poet has been cut into the ground since he was buried there in August 2013. In life, he wrote often with Bellaghy in mind.

“Seamus’s feet never left the ground and you could nearly say he never left Bellaghy,” said his late brother, Hugh Heaney.

In death, he has changed the village, too, following the opening in 2016 of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, which displays his poetry and background, while also offering a creative space for new generations.


Since then, it has brought significant numbers to a village better known previously as the burial place for 1981 Maze hunger strikers Francis Hughes and Thomas McElwee. The centre also offers a theatre, which is used for meetings and performances that have nothing to do with poetry.

“We’ve even got a bistro now,” said one of the centre’s staff.

Last week, the SDLP brought nearly 100 people together to listen to presentations about the party’s New Ireland Commission, which seeks to develop thinking about the island of Ireland to come. In tone and message, however, the commission differs sharply from the so-far better known, better-funded Ireland’s Future group, which this week launched its latest paper setting out the route to a referendum in 2030.

In that document, Ireland’s Future pointedly said that the Belfast Agreement already puts “significant limitations on the exercise of the right of self-determination” of the people of the island of Ireland.

“There is, for example, no requirement to achieve ‘reconciliation’ (however this concept is defined) in advance of a referendum being held and our view is that any such objective will only follow the transition to new constitutional arrangements on our shared island,” its says.

“Reunification is a reconciliation project ... The right to self-determination belongs to the people of the island alone and must be freely and concurrently exercised without external impediment.”

However, the New Ireland Commission is markedly different, arguing that “the only path to uniting the people of this island is through the spirit of partnership, co-operation and reconciliation” that the Belfast Agreement is built on.

Borrowing the language of John Hume, a founder of the SDLP, it states that delivering a new Ireland “demands that we all spill our sweat to forge new enduring relationships”, demonstrating “that there is an equal place for all of us”.

Besides SDLP figures, past and present, the commission also draws on outside opinion, including former senior Northern Ireland Office official Chris Maccabe, former Irish diplomat Brendan McMahon and UCD professor John Coakley.

“We wanted to create a space where we can engage with people right across and all across this island in a conversation about the future,” SDLP chief executive Conor Houston told the meeting.

Everything will be measured against six principles, the party promises, with reconciliation “as a guiding force”, diversity embraced, with no one left behind, citizen-led and always looking to the future, and, above all, honest.

In her contribution, Claire Hanna, a Galway-born MP for South Belfast, noted the difference a few weeks can make. The meeting was due to take place on January 18th, when Northern Ireland was still without a functioning Stormont Executive and Assembly, but had to be cancelled when snow blocked most of the North’s roads. Since then, Stormont has returned.

“We’re probably having a different conversation than we would have had five or six weeks ago. The context in this place changes a lot. Thankfully, we are in spring, so many people are in an optimistic and hopeful place,” Hanna told the meeting.

Getting into her stride, she added: “The journey towards a new Ireland is exactly the way to achieve the goals of prosperity and reconciliation that have always driven us. Most people understand that those of us who want to talk about a new Ireland have an obligation to spell out a lot more exactly what we mean by that, to put flesh on the bones of what is loosely called ‘the conversation’.

“We have to start explaining what that arrangement might start to look like for people. And, crucially, we’re going to have to talk about how do we get there. We have to start talking about how we broach change in a region among a population that traditionally hasn’t been very good at talking to each other, that hasn’t been good at seeing each other as more than just representatives of tribes.

“We have to get past the dimension that I characterise as, ‘Does your unionist friend take sugar?’. We’re talking over each other’s heads in very generalising ways.”

Hanna said that, for many people, the journey towards constitutional change makes them more anxious than whatever might come at the end of it.

“The quote that stays in my head is that of Sammy Douglas, the former MLA and now a councillor, and a decent guy,” she said. “In Susan McKay’s book, he said that he didn’t fear a united Ireland, but that he feared the 10 years running up to it, and I think that that is a perspective a lot of people share and polling bears that out. We don’t have to give up, or give in to that view, but we absolutely do have to give it credence.”

So far, the commission has had scores of engagements – abiding by the interruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – over the last three years across Northern Ireland, including with loyalists and unionists, especially one with a loyalist women in East Belfast.

“An extraordinary meeting. They didn’t agree with many of the points made, but they all said that they would come to another meeting,” said Houston.

The idea, said Hanna, is to “draw out” the hopes and concerns that exist.

“Tell us what you are thinking, that’s it. The headline is that unionists are not engaging in this conversation and don’t want to talk about it. That is genuinely not what we are finding,” she said. “We’re finding questions, but we are finding open minds as well. We are finding people who can read the circumstances around them, and who are thinking very deeply about what they want for their kids and for their businesses.”

Hanna said that during the time when Stormont was collapsed, many people began to look at other options. “Now it’s back, but a lot of the questions that it prompted are very live in people’s minds. And many people now agree with us that exploring these issues can be the driver of reconciliation and good governance.”