Mitchel McLaughlin: a man for all seasons


Mitchel McLaughlin is a highly likeable man – that was probably a major factor in his becoming Speaker at Stormont when it was still holding together. He has a keen mind and a clarity of expression that marks him as one of Sinn Féin’s outstanding minds. And did I mention that he’s not above telling a wicked story about one of his closest friends? (See Martin McGuinness: The Man I Knew).

He was involved in the earliest days of Derry’s civil rights movement, and he was at the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the birth of the civil rights movement there. In his speech, he noted achievements since that time:

“The Orange state is now gone and we now have a peaceful and democratic way forward. This is a very different place than it was in 1968 and I am convinced that we are now on the verge of another seismic shift towards a new, agreed and united Ireland.”

That statement is almost entirely true. The Orange state as we knew it in 1968 no longer exists, and we are closer to an agreed/united Ireland than we’ve ever been. But while the Orange state may be gone, the Orange Order hasn’t gone away. If anything, we have more swaggering marches than we ever had, with their annual contribution to social division. Even more importantly, the Orange Order have the DUP on a leash: Arlene Foster’s inability to accept the invitation to meet the Pope in Dublin or send someone in her place is due to the fact that it wouldn’t play in Orange halls, where the Pope is still seen as the Anti-Christ. So it’s not an Orange state anymore, but it does have a deep vein of Orangeism running through it at the highest political level.

Mitchel McLaughlin also brings to our attention a matter that must sooner or later  – and preferably sooner – be given  full nationalist/republican attention.

““Rights are also under threat by a right-wing Tory Brexit and there are unwelcome echoes of gerrymandering and the hollowing out of democracy by the recent Boundary Commission proposals”.

There we have the root of our present problems and the face of a future, until-now-neglected matter. We all know that the DUP being in the Westminster bed with the Tories makes a mockery of the notion that the British are the neutral referee here in our divided society. If you’re in hock to one half, you’re incapable of being fair-minded to the other half.

But Mitchel’s second item is even more important, because it will shape our future. There is a real danger that present proposals for the electoral boundaries here will bring us back fifty years, to a time when Derry with its two-thirds nationalist population elected one-third of the city’s corporation/council. The burgeoning numbers of nationalists in the north, which will surpass that of unionists inside the next few years, will mean little or nothing if the electoral boundaries  are allowed to twist around the neck of democracy and choke it.

Mitchel McLaughlin has done a real public service by drawing our attention to this little-discussed matter.

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