A timely reminder that today’s unionists and other non-nationalists have as big a stake in human rights as nationalists. Further polarisation must therefore be avoided

The stale stereotype that nationalists are all for civil rights and unionists fight them tooth and nail is challenged in an open letter signed by over 100 “civic unionists, pluralists and other forms of civic leadership” published in the Irish Times.  It’s a riposte to similar letters from “ civic nationalism” appealing to the Dublin government “to defend the legal, human and language rights of Irish citizens in the North, and warning that the British government’s deal with the DUP at Westminster has become a grave threat to political progress in the North”.

The convenor is Dr James Wilson, a freelance historian and researcher in the effects of militarism on society.

Declaration of interest: I signed the letter as a non-aligned.

I did so partly out of concern that especially in the present political turmoil, the Irish government as co- guarantor under the GFA could become the champion of nationalist interests to the exclusion of unionists, while the GFA requires the British government, as sovereign, to act with “rigorous impartiality.” The letter states:

“We find it frustrating and puzzling that civic unionism, pluralists and other forms of civic leadership have been rendered invisible in many debates focused on rights and responsibilities.

“It has reduced our capacity to be heard and undermines the power of reconciliation to shift society away from stale and limiting notions of identity,” it adds. “We have worked for peace and reconciliation and in so doing have had open and transparent engagement with civic nationalism.

“That has included recognition of the need for equality and most importantly the urgent need for polarised communities in Northern Ireland to reconcile and deal with barriers to a better future.”

The letter states that “civic unionism and other identities are not resistant to claims of equality and full citizenship.”

“These identities are central to the development of an authentically fair and tolerant society.”

“We wish to unite, not divide, and in encouraging transparency we call upon civic nationalism and others to engage with us in frank and fulsome debates about the many values and beliefs that are commonly shared and are vital to transforming the issues that we face”.

The letter’s convenor James Wilson says the aim of this text is

not only to remind our nationalist neighbours that we exist, but to challenge both them and the Dublin and also British government to join with us in pursuit of that many civic values and beliefs that we share.

In recent years a group of Northern Ireland civic unionists, Greens, socialists and non-aligned activists have engaged in both difficult and constructive conversations” with Sinn Féin and other sections of civic nationalism.

“Via these conversations we gained the impression that we were equals in terms of the expression of rights, equalities, civil liberties and reconciliation,” he said.

Dr Wilson referring to the letters from civic nationalism said it was “puzzling” that these letters did not mention those with an “alternative constitutional allegiance or identity who share similar or related concerns about rights, reconciliation and civil liberties”.

 

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Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London