Unionists should take care to talk to nationalists who actually care about what they think…

It’s worth tracking back to Slugger’s first Christmas and the release of the 2001 census figures (four months after everywhere else in the UK). At the time, I wrote something which I still believe pertains:

The effects of any demographic shift has a delayed and mostly permanent effect.

Even a sudden and shocking drop in the Catholic fertility rate will likely be ameliorated by the rise in proportion of Catholic adults of fertility age in ten to fifteen year’s time.

It seems certain that this shift will continue to exert change within the body politic, but that change will be conditioned by it’s own gradual nature, rather than a sudden revolutionary moment.

Politicians of all shades might do well to take heed of that aspect alone.

The religious results for NI were delayed from July or August 2002 for reasons I still don’t entirely understand. But the irreducible truth was that “children admitted at P1 level at (Protestant) controlled schools was 11,675 but just 10,931 at (Catholic) maintained schools”.

In other words, whilst the demographic change in Northern Ireland is real but it is also gradual. This allows for the infusion of subtle forms of dissent from the grand narratives of anti-colonial war which drove some to the very worst behaviour towards our fellow ‘man’.

Yesterday, Eilis O’Hanlon commenting on Mary Lou coming north, noted:

…essentially the Sinn Fein leader’s message was that unionists must lay aside whatever issues happen to be at the forefront of their minds right now and focus instead on laying out a Plan B to deal with the inevitability of a united Ireland.

The Dublin woman seems to expect praise for showing her face at these events at all, but her tone when she does so is no different from a politician from Westminster dropping into Belfast to tell a gathering of civic nationalists and republicans that they should just get used to British rule and, if they chilled out a bit, might even get to enjoy it.

The meeting was called to discuss how to fill the democratic deficit left by the failure to get a Northern Ireland Assembly back up-and-running – not to swap magical visions of a united Ireland.

Mary Lou McDonald actually promised again that unionists would have “a place at the table, at the centre of political life”, but that position at the heart of political life is always held up as a shiny bauble, which could be handed to them as a gift some time in the future, not something to which they have a right in the here and now.


Former SDLP leader John Hume was mocked for years for having a single transferable speech, but at least he delivered the same consistent message, no matter the audience. The Sinn Fein woman invariably has different messages for different ears.

So, it’s soft words for civic unionists one day, followed within hours by a hard message for the republican base about how “the policing authority in this state” has “zero credibility”.

The way she said “this state” was pure ‘themmuns’ talk. No collective history there.

These well-meaning exercises in civic unionism come round periodically. Last year, it was a letter signed by over 100 academics, members of the clergy, business people, and politicians, calling for a dialogue with civic nationalists about equality, rights and truth.

That didn’t really go anywhere because the “civic” part of the dialogue quickly got gobbled up by the reality of partisanship.

She continues with a hint of who within nationalism unionism should address itself:

If the leaders of the burgeoning civic unionism movement really wish to engage with civic nationalism, they need to get over this idea that Sinn Fein speaks for Ireland and start reaching out instead to other strands of opinion across the island.

Opinion polls suggest that Mary Lou’s party currently has around 18% support in the Republic. By contrast the ruling Fine Gael party is on 30% and Fianna Fail on 26%.

Together, that’s over half the country. Where is their presence in this debate?

Fine Gael may be something of a dead loss at the moment, as it goes through a phase of nationalist giddiness as Brexit approaches, but Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has made huge efforts to initiate a genuinely fresh conversation about what any united Ireland might look like – and he’s done it much more sensitively and inclusively than Sinn Fein has ever managed.

That includes chiding the Taoiseach at last November’s Healing the Wounds of Brexit conference at Queen’s for declaring that “it’s not my job to deliver the unionists”, a clumsy, one-sided assertion, which he said he couldn’t imagine any of Leo Varadkar’s predecessors making.

Micheal Martin has been refreshingly clear that nationalists must also be willing to change before jumping the gun on unity and he explicitly recognises that pushing unionists too far and too fast makes them retreat into a cocoon.

By reaching out to that faction in Fianna Fail, civic unionists would also gain the immediate advantage of bringing onboard the SDLP, now that Colum Eastwood has thrown in his lot with the southerners. [Emphasis added]


There are so many alternative voices in broader Irish society to whom civic unionists could be talking, not least cultural figures from the arts, media, sport and universities. Modern Ireland contains much more diversity than listening only to Sinn Fein would suggest.

They would not only make more interesting speakers, they’d also help define that common ground where civic strands of unionism and nationalism can meet.

Civic unionists start out with the best intentions of dealing with Northern Ireland as it is, but invariably end up on the receiving end of sanctimonious sermons about some fantasy island in the future.

Maybe that’s because they’re talking to all the wrong people.

Photo by suju is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA