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

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