FRINGE events at party political conferences are often where the best stuff's happening. They serve as points of meeting, places of learning, and a barometer of party mood, beneath the official radar. As regards the latter, Britain's Labour Party seems to be buzzing right now down in Brighton on England's south coast.
Hundreds of organisations are hosting a range of events including seminars, debates, workshops and receptions throughout the Brighton Conference Centre, and across the host city. A great many of these are characterised by innovation, imagination and presentation of alternative perspectives as party members seek to build on the momentum of the 2017 General Election. There is a mood of healthy debate within the party at grassroots level.
Some of the sessions on offer involve discussions on major issues such as Brexit, industry, the NHS, technology and education. Other events might be seen as less mainstream but deal with matters just as pressing for the country and the wider world. These include animal welfare issues, with a great deal of attention being paid to the environmental dangers posed by the mass culling of badgers, and pertinent questions being raised about such neglected issues as the exporting of live animals once Britain leaves the EU.
Two common features of all these sessions, from technology to trophic cascades, have been the open flow of discussion and the sense of learning something new every time. This is an age that demands innovation in dealing with a host of serious issues from the environment to the EU. It was with some excitement then that I attended another fringe event, organised by The Friends of Sinn Féin, entitled Rights for All. With a panel that included recently appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Smith and author Kevin Meagher, I expected to hear something different to drive the discussion on Irish unity forward.
Kevin Meagher's writings have been characterised by a shift away from the demographic argument alone that one day the Catholic population of Northern Ireland will become greater in number than the Protestant. In some excellent point of view articles for various publications he has stressed how Brexit has offered Sinn Féin the opportunity to dress up an old argument for Irish unity in new clothes, with more appeal to a wider support base. Brexit, after all, has changed the conversation about Irish unity, and has given new life to a record that seems to have been stuck in the groove, in some respects, in recent times.
Despite this, Sinn Féin have consistently claimed that the momentum for a new and agreed Ireland has been gathering pace over the past two decades. Paul Maskey and Elisa McCallion, the two MPs present at this fringe event pushed the same party line. Change is coming, they insisted, partly because the combined nationalist vote in Northern Ireland now equals the unionist vote for the first time since the formation of the state. That is true, though evidence does suggest that not everyone who votes Sinn Féin and the SDLP would necessarily vote for a united Ireland in the event of a border boll. This though, to my mind, does not mean that Sinn Féin's argument is flawed.
However, it does lack newness in an age that demands imagination, innovation and conversation about the normalisation of the idea of a united Ireland. Usually, Sinn Féin members are most comfortable talking to rooms full of Sinn Féin supporters. Compare that to such sessions as that on animal welfare where, from the start, there was a call to get out there and talk to those of a different opinion. Already preaching to the converted, there's very little room for divergence from the party script.
That, in my opinion, is the party's Achilles Heel. Even last night at the fringe event, when alternative views were expressed, there was no sense of Sinn Féin taking them on board. After all, why would they need to? Everybody in meetings like this, already converted to the cause, knows that Sinn Féin is right. The speakers have the comfort of strength in numbers, much as Lord Brookeborough and the Ulster Unionist Party once assured themselves of. But the point of any new Ireland is surely to make everyone a part of the dialogue, and to take on board such points as that raised by one speaker who questioned whether Sinn Féin understand the depth of emotional attachment loyalists feel to the UK.
If there is to be a united Ireland in the near future, there needs to be consensus on all sides and at the minute there isn't even consensus amongst socialists and nationalists in Ireland. But if parties, including Sinn Féin, are prepared to put this issue of a united Ireland before power and party politics, the conversation and normalisation process will be moved on one stage further. On a final note though, despite what might seem like criticism, Sinn Féin have to be commended for their efforts in carrying on the conversation about a lasting settlement in Ireland. Sinn Féin have kept alive conversations around the issue of a united Ireland when it was truly on the fringes of other parties' political discussions. Now that it has shifted towards a focal point of discussion on British and Irish affairs after Brexit, maybe it's just time to move the conversation beyond the comfort zone of numbers.