‘Sectarianism must be replaced by solidarity if progress is to be made’

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We are children of Derry, very proud ones. For more than a decade we have loved bringing our friends, from many countries to tour the walls, walk the bridges, visit the historical sites and feel Derry’s unique atmosphere.

So much of what made Derry a troubled and difficult place is also what has made it strong, vibrant and progressive.

The potential that ‘The Troubles’ smothered and the stop-start Stormont years has given way to development and renaissance.

Derry is a place we’d love to call home again. It matters to us and our families and it will matter to our children, wherever they might grow up. But like so many others, we left for university and never came back. We now watch with interest from London.

We are pleased and enthused by discussions among our Derry friends lately. The recent political developments, though frustrating and maddening at times, have opened up a space for a new kind of conversation. Instead of a “things will never change” attitude, more people tell us that they see new possibilities emerging for a different kind of politics that goes beyond the settlement of the 90s and early 2000s. In short, we hope that what we are dealing with is a new era of politics that transcends the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement was a colossal step, but it had its flaws. Those who struggled over a lifetime to achieve it have valiantly defended it but in this current crisis, they see the solution as a return to an imagined ideal power-sharing scenario when in reality the system itself has flaws that must be restructured. Put simply - the system of sectarian division that demands that parties identify as nationalist or unionist in the assembly is toxic. It enshrines the religious divide in law and excludes voices of those who want genuine cross-community action on every issue. There must be a revision of this situation if the much-sought “politics as usual” is ever to be a reality in our island. It feels like thousands are calling out for a fresh, new way of doing things.

That system has stalled and suppressed genuine progressive politics. It has allowed Tory austerity to run riot in the north just as the green version did in the south.

However, it has also condemned Northern Ireland to a regime that locks in the most odious elements of social conservatism. The Republic was the first country in the world to have same-sex marriage endorsed by a popular referendum. Should our society flourish for another thousand years, that achievement will remain a lasting accolade to our potential for improvement despite being a wee island on the edge of western civilisation and having emerged from religious and political wars only relatively recently.

How anyone, nationalist or unionist can claim allegiance to one island or the other without endorsing those equalities enjoyed on both is beyond us. Worse still is the fact so rarely admitted in popular discussion - that Ireland is a country where a woman’s body is still subject to the dictates of state law.

The Catholic theocracy has been weakened by corruption and self-inflicted scandal and orangeism by pluralist politics, but aversion to abortion lives on, built deep into the male-dominated state in which every woman and girl’s organs become the property of the others upon pregnancy – planned or unintended, consensual or forced, whether viable or destined for certain trauma and fatality. This affects immigrant and poorer women disproportionately. If Donald Trump could pass laws governing the bodies and relationships of Americans, he’d cut and paste from the Stormont legislation.

We must not allow those whose credibility was built on religious and political egalitarian settlement (power-sharing) to hold back equality for women and LGBT people – nothing could be more of a betrayal to the next generation.

There are literally millions of us – exiled children in America, Britain, Europe and elsewhere. And Ireland needs all of us to make a contribution to its future.

We’d like to see those of our generation who are already doing exactly that back home prevailing in their fight for equality and justice – and to see an end to Stormont’s permanent crisis, in favour of true egalitarian politics, where solidarity replaces sectarianism and where a new politics of optimism can emerge.

We want to offer them our solidarity over the next few weeks as they aim to carve a news space for progress in Ireland. A key lesson we can learn is that progress will come not from the status quo at Stormont, but on the streets.

It will come from the lived reality of working together - in the workplace, the trade union, our neighbourhoods and through campaigns. Unlike at the castle, here the orange/green divide can easily be bridged.