There are two images from the SDLP Youth Conference in Derry that I will not easily forget. One is Gregory Campbell…fairly outspoken DUP MP for East Derry walking into An Culturlann and the second image is the collective double-take of the “regulars” in the small restaurant.
Gregory Campbell was there to take part in the Conferences “set piece” the Panel Discussion. I am not a big fan of SDLP listening to “other voices” but in this case it seemed a reasonable exception. As the Conference pack proclaimed “Mol an Oige….” It is perhaps a pretty decent sign that senior politicians from other parties are prepard to give up some time on a Saturday morning.
Michael Copeland MLA (UUP) and Professor Peter Shirlow travelled up from Belfast. In the spirit of these things, people are not quite “off the record” but are prepared to be open …and it is therefore only right that I be respectful of their contributions.
The theme was the Good Friday Agreement …..Michael Copeland voted against the Agreement. He was not actually a member of the UUP at the time. He had been a part time officer in UDR, his wife a member of the RUC (injured often on duty) and his view now is that “we are all in this together” and he spoke movingly about the social problems in East Belfast.
Peter Shirlow spoke about two kinds of alienation…one of the disenfranchised as Mr Copeland had mentioned but one of “identity” . The Conflict affects the mental well-being of people who had not even lived during it. Of course he spoiled it all by mentioning the Life and Times Survey.
Joe McHugh TD for Donegal North East thought that we are too obsessed with “institutions”. Katherine McCloskey, a PhD Politics student and member of SDLP said that discussions such as the one taking place did not involve the people being talked about and perhaps surprisingly (she is a Teaching Assistant at QUB) said that politics students are not much interested in …Politics.
For Gregory Campbell the Good Friday Agreement was a mistake. It had made no difference in working class communities (a very good anecdote illustrated this) and had divided people into pro and anti Agreement camps.
Conall McDevitt stated that the “real” division is between the “haves and have nots” but is committed to the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA is “ours” and I think he was speaking both in terms of the SDLP AND Norn Iron. He believes that Nationalism ” needs to change” and should be having a conversation with itself.
The nature of a six-person Panel is that it leaves no time for questions. Just two were taken. Where will be in ten years time?
Michael Copeland is pessimistic. There is trouble brewing in the back streets….with young people. He does not want a Future determined by “date of birth and postcode”. He fears de-stabalisation. Gregory Campbell wants no big announcements….”steady as she goes”. For Conall, Irish Unity will be based on a federal module. Nationalists should not downplay their “northern” experience.
Peter Shirtlow pointed out that there is no Dublin Ministry that is actively working on Irish Unity. The old West Germany had such a Ministry working on German unification long before the Berlin Wall fell.
The second question was on Integrated Education. Joe McHugh could not think it could be seperated from Integrated Housing. Conall McDevitt said that the Eleven Plus was a success in its day. Michael Copeland spoke movingly of his own familys experience. But perhaps Gregory Campbell nailed it with Integrated Education not being the answer…nor was Segregated Education. Integrated Education had been feared as social engineering but the fear has largely gone. He emphasised Parental Choice.
So what have we learned about all this…..well Michael Copeland really cares about people. Gregory Campbell thinks the same way that I do (cue LetsGetAlongerists saying that this is no surprise). Peter Shirtlows notion of two alienated groups….the disenfranchised poor and the disenfranchised “identity” types. But isnt that what Ive called the Underclass and that ridiculous Overclass (God I cant stand the Overclass with their insufferable crap about being too posh to vote in Norn Iron). And Conalls call for conversations within Nationalism would have more credibility if a Sinn Fein MLA was asked on a Panel at a SDLP Conference. ….have we not heard enough of Davey Adams, Rev Norman Hamilton, Duncan Morrow, Mary Hanafin, Brian Hayes….and that Joanna Tuffy .