Nesbitt “We are not here simply to be controversial. We are here to offer an unapologetic unionist perspective on the event of 100 years ago”

The UUP held an event in Dublin this afternoon to give a Unionist perspective on the Easter Rising.

Here are the remarks given by the party leader, Mike Nesbitt; (I have highlighted some key passages)

I hope today has been challenging, but not for its own sake. We are not here simply to be controversial. We are here to offer an unapologetic unionist perspective on the event of 100 years ago; the causes, and the lasting consequences of what we call the Rebellion and Irish Nationalists prefer to call the Rising.

Of course, W.B. Yeats managed to summarise the consequences in five simple words: “A terrible beauty is born.”

That is a very challenging thought for me, as a unionist. If it is true that the Rising / Rebellion has fed 100 years of politically-inspired violence, I switch immediately from poetry to prose, to quote Charles Dickens, who wrote of memorable days in people’s lives:

“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

Clearly, Yeats saw Easter 1916 as a memorable day – or series of days. There can be no doubting that. Nor can the events of Easter 1916 be ignored, as they were seismic in their impact on relationships on this island and between this island and Great Britain.

In my little life, the memorable day for the Nesbitts was the 25th of January 1973; the day the family business was blown up by the Provisional IRA.  Would I be standing here if that had not happened? Or would I be the third generation Nesbitt running the family linen business in Belfast city centre?

I cannot answer that, but I can reflect on the blank invoice I keep framed on my study wall. It reads “A Nesbitt & Co. Ltd. Linen Manufacturers.” And below that: “The deduction of odd pence is not allowed”.

I think that bottom line sums up our problem. If we hang in for the last penny, if we squeeze our competitor until the pips squeak, we do no service to building the future our children deserve.

As someone with experience of running a private sector company, I understand any business person in this room knows that sometimes you do deals where you shake hands knowing the other guy did better than he or she deserved. But you go with it, because you need to, and because there might be a next time and what goes around, comes around.

That is what I sense is missing with some of our politics on this island. I have been involved in three sets of multi-party negotiations in the last four years, and what is missing is the spirit of generosity, right down to the deduction of the odd political penny.

As someone who believes there cannot be a common, agreed narrative for our troubled past, I accept others will promote their narrative. What I ask is that it is done in a respectful, dignified and honest manner, recognising the enduring impact on all sections of our community. That does not compromise my beliefs. Nor does it deny my right to challenge or disagree.

To switch back to poetry, the man who speaks for me is John Hewitt, who famously described the complexity of our identity in words that suggested he considered himself to be an Ulsterman, but also Irish, British and European, and warned that to deny any of those elements would be to diminish who he was.

I agree, although in this global world, I think we must all consider ourselves not just European, but world citizens.

The idea of us being pure Gael or pure Brit seems both artificial and unhelpful. How many of us can claim unadulterated allegiance to one or other? I think we are mainly mixed in our identity.

Of the 108 MLAs elected to the last Northern Ireland Assembly, only two represented Ireland at sport. One was Caitríona Ruane of Sinn Féin; the other was – me! It was only Irish Schools’ athletics, but I am very proud to have worn the green singlet with the Shamrock and can claim, in those narrow terms, to be more Irish than many in Stormont!

I certainly do not think it took away from my unionism, and much as I cherish our links with Great Britain, you will not find me cheering England, Scotland or Wales at the Aviva Stadium.

More seriously, Henry Joy McCracken, that leader of the 1798 Rebellion, was the son of Belfast traders, one parent of French Huguenot stock, the other Ulster Scots.

My family were Belfast traders. Mum is a Hay, of Ulster Scot ancestry. The Nesbitts are French Huguenot in origin. I told that story recently, and an elected Sinn Féin politician contacted me to say his father’s ancestors were Planters. His mother’s side is native Irish, but isn’t that the point? Purity is a rarity.

As I remember it, Brendan Behan famously claim that as a Dubliner, he felt he had more in common with Liverpool or Manchester than the west of Ireland. Why wouldn’t he? Identity and territory are not the same.

Our identities are not pure. They are tied up in a common history, even if that history cannot command a common narrative.

We are already bound, politically, economically and socially. Add a better appreciation of a more complex and shared past than we like to imagine, and I believe we have huge hope for our children’s future together.

I wish Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, but I also want to be a good Irishman, a friendly neighbour and an honest trading partner.

I look forward to going to the Somme in July. I go every year, to pay respects not just at Thiepval and the Ulster Tower, but also in Guillemont, where there is a service of commemoration for the 16th Irish Division. Two years ago, I was moved to see so many stand for three national anthems; those of France, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.  In Northern Ireland’s search for a shared future, we sometime forget we have a shared past of service and sacrifice.

I am going to close with a quote from John Hewitt. It’s a definition of Patriotism, one I think we can all share, whether we see ourselves as British, Irish, or a mixture of both and more:

Patriotism has to do with keeping the country in good heart, the community ordered with justice and mercy.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs

  • Gingray

    Wait, so you can vote in our wee countries election in May?

    Oh. Oh dear.

    As I said, you do not live in the same country as I do, you live in a different part of the United Kingdom, within the European Union.

  • Gingray

    But you don’t live here – you don’t get to see what goes on each day, interact with people from all communities, have the politicians and their parties call to the door canvassing, understand the local issues that are unique to each small place in the world.

    You left. You didn’t stay to make this place better.

    I have no doubt a poll for a reunited Ireland would be lost, and by a considerable margin if held to day. It should only happen when more people vote for nationalist parties than unionist, we have a democratic process. Maybe by then they may even have an idea of what it would look like.

    At this point I don’t mind too much, similar to most nationalists I guess. The conflict is over, I get to be as Irish as I want, and aspects of what would be termed Irish culture are becoming more and more mainstream.

    And like most I would rather this place worked in the first instance, and from there move to unity. And that means hoping that unionists like you stop fleeing and stay with the rest of us to make NI a better place to live.

    Re Scotland – are you really unaware of the big ethnic swing that has given the SNP such a boost?

    Re NI polls. Always been a joke.

    Re census. I see. Dodgy polling good if it supports your position. Census data bad when it doesnt.

    Ah well 🙂 Shouldnt have expected anything better

  • MainlandUlsterman

    on the last point on polling, not at all – there are some questions a survey/poll can deal with fine, generally the more binary the better. But identity being the nebulous thing it is, it needs particular care. Actually, questions about long term future intentions are often to be taken with a pinch of salt too. Not trying to be an oracle here but I am a former researcher director at a big research agency, so this isn’t just blather. Or if it is, it’s blather based on experience.

    Something called the Johari Window is worth bearing in mind when thinking about what we can meaningfully ask people in research. Looking at all the things an individual may think, it divides as follows: y axis is aware vs not aware, the x axis is will say vs won’t say. Surveys can only really get you in the ‘aware / will say’ quadrant. Qual research (what I do) can also get you parts of ‘unaware / will say’ and ‘aware / won’t say’, but can’t give you numbers on those (we go in depth with small numbers of people). Plus some of the issues aren’t even susceptible to opinion measurement even if we did have the numbers.

    As regards leaving, it is possible to move away from one’s home region without forgetting everything you learned there. It’s also not as simple as an on and off switch when you move somewhere else. At university for example, I was in NI almost half the year. My nearest and dearest are all Northern Irish and I’ve never gone longer than a few months without a stay at home (and I do still think of it as home). You’ll find there are quite a few contributors to the site who live outside N Ireland and I’m up front with my user name that I am outside NI these days. People can take my comments or leave them. A comment is either right or it isn’t, a fair point or not a fair point. Being outside NI brings some advantages as well as disadvantages in commenting on the place. But I’m not claiming any superior knowledge, just putting my voice forward for what it’s worth. If you disagree with a point I make, better to do it on the basis of the point rather than where I now reside.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Well if you live in NI then I do live in the same country as you, that country being the actual country, the UK. If you’re denying the UK is a country, well …

    Oh and those of us living outside NI obviously don’t vote there, do you think it’s some kind of shock to us? I wouldn’t expect a vote there. If you want a debate only with NI-dwelling people, I think you need a different site 🙂

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I still don’t really get your antipathy to MN … is it just that he is a unionist who while moderate in where he ends up, is still not averse to the odd bit of Machiavellian politicking? I suspect so. But I’m not sure that’s a good reason to mark him down.

  • MainlandUlsterman


    We’re all influenced by life around us – and over here for me, the big influence has been the social research side of my work, which has made me a lot more left wing than I was in NI. I’ve also been exposed to the academic Irish history world since moving here (never saw any of that in NI) and have on for two more nationalist-leaning friends than I did when I was in NI. You miss out on the everyday stuff but actually you come into contact with different people and different issues, which gives you a different perspective on things. Not better and possibly a bit worse, but a perspective anyway.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    whether you think it’s a “failed experiment” or not, haven’t we agreed to try and make things work together in NI? “Failed experiment” implies it’s over – but it doesn’t seem to be. And giving up on NI is not what nationalism committed itself to do either … I do find the utterances of a lot of nationalists on Slugger completely out of keeping with the GFA and wonder what its status now is within nationalist thinking? Genuine question there.

  • Annie Breensson

    The post-GFA experiment may still be ongoing MU, but there would seem to be a number of people from both sides who want it to fail, and fail it certainly will – unless the dissenters can be silenced, or discredited.

  • Gingray

    Why did you delete your original post? I got an email with what you initially put up, logged on to laugh at its stupidity only to find you changed it.

    Regardless, I’ve a different view from you on the UK as a country, thankfully wiki has my back on this.

    It’s made up of 4 individual countries in union, 2 of which can leave if they so wish.

    It’s a pity you can’t vote here on Ireland, particularly if we ever do have a referendum, so many leave 🙁

  • Gingray

    Where you reside is important – Ireland has a long history of people popping over for a bit, telling the people here how it is.

    I was sincere when I said I would prefer Unionists to stay here, I’ve plenty of uni mates coming back from GB having made money, gained experience but they tend to be catholics who viewed here as home and England as a country to work in.

    Just leading to more and more of the top end jobs being filled from one community which, coupled with the protestant brain drain and chronic underachievement by protestant boys, does not bode well.

  • Karl

    Its failed because neither it, nor the Andrews agreement were ever fully implemented. And that wasnt a failing of the nationalist communitiy. So now it is now a holding position for the major issues until changes are made at a local or national level. What timescales are involved for these changes are anybodys guess, but changes will come and GFA will be made irrelevant through the passage of time or societal change.

  • Karl

    I wasnt aware that the Boundary commission ever looked at majority nationalist communities not adjacent to the border.

  • Granni Trixie

    Negative attitudes to the Republic were built on by Paisley to put fear in people’s hearts ” the road to Dublin is the road to Rome”.

    In try to unlick my own prejudice To things Irish however I concluded that it was derived from antipathy to the IRA – who brought the Irish flag and people into disrepute. Once I understand that I am happy to say I have an appetite for understanding what makes the South tick. Recently we got a new tele and Lo and behold I can now get RTE,TG4 etc. A new world awaits.

  • Granni Trixie

    I think I consider it is a perfectly valid POV to come down on the side of “the experiment failed” a position based on disappointed expectations,

    For example, I am disappointed That reconciliation and addressing sectarianism has not been given priority infact some parties persist in exploiting sectarian fears. And where is the leadership over finding solutions to marching problems?
    Then you have the use of so called petition of concern to stifle issues being addressed. At the very least it’s work in progress (going backwards).

    Dissenters as you call them do not necessarily want powers sharing to fail bit on the evidence so far I can see how one easily migh say it has.

  • Annie Breensson

    GT – This is precisely what I was alluding to, but wanted the more moribund posters to think about – if that is possible.

    Dissenters, in the context I have used, refers to people of _all_ persuasions who refuse to consent to the spirit, and indeed to the letter, of the GFA.

  • jm

    I’m guessing Granni T has some knowledge of his character,perhaps based on her own observation of his less public actions, that she is too polite to share on a public forum. Just a guess, though.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I don’t know enough about the detail of their work, other than the recommended outcome, to know what they looked at. I’d be surprised if they ignored them completely, just from a professional point of view, they would have needed to count them in the estimated numbers. But the further away from the border we have, I guess, the less likely they are to be part of any transfer e.g. the Moyle region would have no chance, likewise pro-Union pockets in west Donegal or in Dublin. Makes sense really.

    There must be a good book or academic article somewhere on the work of the Boundary Commission, this has piqued my interest now – anyone know of one?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Interesting view Karl and thanks for sharing it. How widespread a view do you feel yours is within nationalism – are nationalists turning away in big numbers now from the Good Friday Agreement, do you think?

    There’s a sense of this in the conversations I have on Slugger, but polls suggest there’s still a good level of support for the GFA arrangements in broad terms … is the wind changing, I wonder?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Et comme a dit un pôte ivorien “c’est mieux de ne pas habiter dans les quartiers protestants”. He was referring to the inconvenience caused by the fleg protests and various urnj marches in his neighbourhood.

    Et selon mon pôte nigérien: je suis neutre. But hey, they’re just outsiders and they can use their non partial objectivity to prove just about anything and who’d want that here?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    He means that they are the bitterest and therefore the most authentic shade of green, I guess. If only the Irish next door would listen to them or him.

  • Adam Martin

    Southerners have taken it for granted,northern nationalists can’t afford to take their identity for granted.

  • Granni Trixie

    Allow me to correct myself. He cant talk the talk. He was the worst I have ever heard today on Nolan being interviewed about UUP manifesto. Allowing for my negativity towards him, I do not think party followers will be happy either with a performance demonstrating their Leader hasn’t a clue. Infact I challenge anyone on Slugger to give a different take on the performance. And before anyone says it yes, I do think Nolan was hard on him – but then ‘get the politicians’ is the name of his game, isn’t it.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    sounds a car crash … I’ll try and catch it