“We need a collective response to Brexit across the entire Northern Ireland community and not a partisan one.”

As the news flows quicken and we get to what we hope will be the crunch point of Brexit in the Irish News Tom Kelly proffers sage advice on the role of civil society in Northern Ireland. He opens with Kweisi Mfume who played a key role in the Civil Rights Campaign in the US in the 1960s:

 “Even if they are not reaching out to us, we are going to reach out to them anyway and involve them in a meaningful way.”


To the organisers of Saturday’s Beyond Brexit event (see Chris’s write up) at the Waterfront (which our David is speaking at), he had this to say:

The concept of having a conference to examine the far side of Brexit is admirable – the notion of it comprising solely of nationalists talking to nationalists is not. If there is something most modern nationalists are beyond, it’s the poor mouth.

Furthermore, it invites criticism of being a pan-nationalist plot and unionists don’t need much to fuel their paranoia.


These intra-community conversations are like talking to the mirror and agreeing with oneself. The whole purpose of advocating an United Ireland is that one takes the arguments to the unionist community to persuade them of its merit.

Having a collective gurn over Brexit by nationalists of various hues talking to each other actually plays into current polarisation, partisanship and paralysis in Northern Ireland politics.

We need more compromise, more conversations across communities – not within them.

Pandering to the needs of one’s own community has led to us into a cultural and political cul de sac. We need a collective response to Brexit across the entire Northern Ireland community and not a partisan one.


The Remain campaign in Northern Ireland was successful but it was a hollow victory because of the overall result in the UK.

Not too many of those now complaining about the potential loss of EU rights campaigned during the referendum to make the margin of victory in the north even greater.

If there is an unhealthy predominance – and there is – of the DUP misrepresenting Northern Ireland in the Brexit debate, it is because they are using their Westminster platform without challenge from nationalist MPs, eyeball to eyeball in the Commons.


Between a quarter and a third of unionist voters voted to remain. Hijacking their position on the EU for Irish unity was not – and is not – smart.

To then write public letters on behalf of civic nationalism and propose to host a conference which also excludes unionists is not only insensitive but insulting.

Politics in Northern Ireland is stagnated swamp because both sides look for binary options. They can’t rise above the swamp because the swamp is of their making.

It was John Hume who said: “When people are divided, the only solution is agreement.”

He also told unionists: “We don’t seek ideological confrontation because difference is an accident of birth.”

“Difference,” said Hume, was “the essence of diversity and we must work to ensure that the views and rights of others are listened to as equal to our own.”

This is a long way from the introspective conversations of those behind so-called civic unionism and civic nationalism.

On the day the Republic celebrates the birth of the first Dáil in the Round Room of the Mansion House, Kelly’s point about Ireland having grown beyond the poor mouth is well made. Everywhere, it seems, but amongst the committedly single identity Irish in the wee North.

To which, I would add this note from the 19C Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous study of American democracy on the consequnces of the failure to grow a genuinely independent and freethinking civil conscience outside the political/democratic process:

…they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.”

They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved.

They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid. [Emphasis added]

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