Dublin understands that “re-unification” without reconciliation won’t work, so how do we ‘engage’?

“Why won’t Unionism engage?”

Considering  that we were sharing a return train journey from the last  of the All-Ireland Dialogues, that I had been to two Ardfheis in Derry, one with Londonderry Bands Forum, met with OTRs in Letterkenny, where one father confided  that he just wanted to get his son back from Canada, met with ex-republican prisoners in Belfast, Senators from the Seanad,  had attended a public meeting  about Brexit in Letterkenny, facilitated by an ‘on the night’ impressive Helen McEntee TD , the comment was puzzling..

My contacts did not end there. Shortly after the remark several Civic Space events were held in the Canada Room Belfast, I was  at a  a well-attended meeting in Belfast where an Uachtaráin Sinn Fein Mary Lou McDonald TD was given a respectful hearing by a group of pro-union individuals, obliged as a panel member at the Féile an Phobail and the Gasyard Féile, and continued the numerous meetings with nationalists and republicans, North and South, in Derry and elsewhere. So, is this not engagement or does that only count if you are coerced into agreeing?

On most occasions, I have not been on my own. So, I was surprised to hear that unionists do not engage; a similar reaction to when I was asked locally, if people from the PUL – a term I do not use – community would meet for ‘uncomfortable conversations ‘.When I suggested that we refer to them as conversations, I was told, they might be uncomfortable for republicans. Why would exchange of thinking and deliberation be uncomfortable? is that how republicanism conducts its business?

This was not the experience of members of marching bands and cultural enthusiasts who engaged to makeFleadh Cheoil, during the inaugural UK City of Culture 2013-2014, an inclusive event and accompanied me to the conversations. No one felt any less pro-Union as a result of meeting and found that issues like dealing with the past, the need for building parity of esteem and reconciliation, social justice, mental health and unemployment does not respect labels and need solving in everyone’s interests. There seemed to be a developing consensus of an imperative to address shared issues to make the city and Northern Ireland work for all.

So why the feeling that Unionists do not engage. Is Brexit to blame?

“Brexit is a game-changer” I was told by a Sinn Fein strategist, now convinced that it would lead to a referendum. Strategic thinking has altered. No longer about engagement it appears to be about suffocating the counter narrative; only asking questions to which you think you already have an answer.

Engagement has taken on a different meaning. The conversation is presumably now less uncomfortable and the outcome framed by the keepers of the dream; the train is leaving the station and ‘you’ need to get on board. Anyone who does not accept this scenario is, as Mick Fealty indicated recently in referencing the comments of Ciaran Quinn, a ‘referendum denier’ and camouflaging a real agenda as reconciliation. And yes, I have met with Ciaran as well but the comments do not track reality. Unquestioning loyalty to a mantra is flattering the illusion to mould a  network of followers, many driven by umbilical resentment, rather than leaders.

Often it is those with closed minds who fight the most fervently to pave their predatory way to the old quarrels. They never seem to mature beyond their capacity to oppose as advocacy of a referendum becomes a commodity and inclusive deliberation is abandoned.

When we witness a Conference being organised to discuss ‘Beyond Brexit’ from which political and civic unionism is excluded, this seems to indicate that it is informed by one preferred constitutional aspiration promoted in a way that is unlikely to build bridges.There is no realisation that you cannot change opinion through self-justifying the exclusion of the other’s priorities to render them invisible. That is not the way to sow the seeds of change and reconciliation. It erects barriers. A case of future-building for slow learners.


Entrenching Irish nationalism to define Ireland by ‘what it is not’ instead of respecting the expressed constitutional choices of a diverse electorate as a basis for positive and self-challenging discussion to nurture an agreed community within the different jurisdictions and let a better future evolve, is not an inclusive or reconciliatory agenda and has already been a source of too many conflicts. This is not camouflage as claimed in a recent article.


Wanting a better future for all where there is meaningful regional development, an industrial and skills strategy, enhanced opportunity for employment, a pluralist society built on respect, parity of esteem, rights and cultural diversity and free healthcare is available to all regardless of creed, ethnicity or politics is a challenge all should rise to. The foundation has been laid and construction is ongoing.


Consult Civic Space on the University of Liverpool website and judge from the evidence -based views of the pro-Union contributors.


What is the alternative on which pro-Unionism, preferring to inspire rather than conspire, is to engage if not about making Northern Ireland work; a referendum?


Nationalism and republicanism cannot agree and zig-zags. The SDLP and Sinn Fein grow closer in their conviction that re-unification is inevitable. Fairly soon if you vote an increasingly hostile Colin, you may get Michelle, but they differ on when, how and what a new Ireland would look like. The Dublin government seems in no rush for a referendum and is adopting a Shared Island approach. Writers like Richard Humphreys deliberate on a range of constitutional models and possibilities. Diarmaid Ferriter and others do likewise. Whilst some rush off to Washington to press their cause, there is a justifiable view in the Republic of Ireland that re-unification without reconciliation would not work. This is not about a veto, 50 plus one or otherwise. It is sound thinking and leadership of a nature lacking in others who continually talk past pro-unionism.

Pro-Union voices want to engage where it matters and embrace the opportunity to do better; deal with those complex problems of our own invention. Tired of mediocrity and toiling in the trenches, it seeks positive consensus; to deliberate with those who do not merely talk of achieving peace but have found that peace within, wish to persuade rather than dismiss; who are not threatened by finding the means to be humble and respectful in their conversations.

Is nationalism and republicanism listening or  has it  been negative and past-referenced for so long it cannot recognise the pathway to a positive, diverse and peaceful future for Northern Ireland within a shared island.

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