Nesbitt recommends politics over further street protests; McCallister disses talk of “culture wars” in speech to Ulster GAA

In other non-SDLP news, the Belfast Telegraph report that Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has told party colleagues via an internal bulletin that the tactic of flag protests should cease.

The tactics used to protest over the flag have alienated many who instinctively supported the cause …

He warned against disrupting Belfast city centre and its traders for a second Christmas.

I hear talk of rallies, parades and protests. As ever, I understand and support the right for lawful and peaceful protest. I acknowledge and defend the right to assembly, enshrined in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But I also say this: street protest will not get the flag back up at City Hall. I urge anyone thinking of taking to the streets to think again …

Remember the hundreds of thousands who assembled in front of City Hall nearly 30 years ago now, to demand an end to the Anglo-Irish Agreement? The agreement did not go away, but unionism lost friends and political position. The same has happened over the last 12 months.

Mike Nesbitt recommended “tougher, more demanding” “political strategy and negotiation” over white line and street protests.

NI21’s John McCallister has also been out and about, speaking to the GAA’s Ulster Council on Saturday.

So what brings a pro-Union, monarchist, Presbyterian to a GAA conference? I have no doubt some of you might be asking that question this morning.

He explained that to him the GAA represented “local faces, local families”, “neighbours and friends who are passionate about Gaelic sports” as well as “sporting spectacle”.

He encouraged those within the GAA who were “engaged in the work of building bridges, of securing the GAA’s place in a shared society”.

John McCallister reflected on what the GAA could do to move beyond controversies. The First Minister addressing NI’s largest sporting organisation “should not be ‘historic’ or ‘ground breaking’ or ‘controversial’”. It should be “utterly routine, utterly normal”.

From the perspective of the sporting organisation, welcoming political representatives of all shades is a very visible way of saying that this sport is for all and open to all. I do, then, pay tribute to the GAA for inviting politicians from backgrounds not normally identified with your sporting family to speak at events like this.

He questioned why politicians who failed to give leadership needed to build a shared society were talking about a “culture war”.

When a small minority have been talking about a “culture war”, the rest of us have listened to U105, watched ‘Downton’, visited the local National Trust property, admired the beauty of the Mournes, and wondered why Ireland didn’t do better in the Six Nations! It’s not exactly a “culture war”, is it?

Though more financially challenged non-NI21 supporters may not have afforded the admission or membership fee to get into the enjoy an NT property, or afforded the petrol to drive down to the Mournes?

It does demonstrate that whatever the political differences in this society – differences that with each passing year have less and less meaning.

Regular unionist pro-union concern about the naming of some grounds after terrorists was not explicitly mentioned.

The GAA has done much to address historic perceptions that have hurt this organisation. The effort and vision you have put into this has been tremendous and has shown considerable leadership. Leadership often missing, in fact, in the political sphere. So, thank you.

But – and I know you realize this – there is more to be done. There are still some out-standing issues to be addressed. And some ill-chosen words and comments in recent weeks have been, to say the least, entirely unhelpful.

The Ulster GAA have an increasingly comfortable relationship with non-nationalist politicians. Given that the GAA are expecting these kind of issues to be raised – and won’t be offended if the challenge is thoughtful and constructive – it feels like weakness to avoid having some of that conversation in public. It’s reminiscent of Rev David Latimer’s address to Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis in Belfast. Or a bit like me attending the NI21 conference next weekend and overlooking any need for public challenge in the blog post that follows.

You will, of course, face nay-sayers in your own organisation. Those who will say that it is best not to rock the boat, not to move too fast. I know all about those voices – I was, after all, a member of the UUP for a long time!

He offered advice:

Don’t settle for half-measures. Don’t be afraid of showing leadership. The support in this society, the desire and hope for something different, for a better future for our children is profoundly strong. Tap into that desire and hope by your words and actions.

John McCallister finished:

If the past was summed up by the phrase ‘Us and Them’, the future must be defined by the phrase ‘Better Together’. Such a future can only be good for Northern Ireland, and the GAA. It is a future in which citizens of all backgrounds respect the GAA’s sporting achievements, in which citizens of all backgrounds enjoy the spectacle and skill of GAA sports.

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