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New letter to Varadkar 'missed opportunity to reach out to unionism'

By Gillian Halliday

A former leader of the SDLP has said an open letter to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar signed by 1,000 prominent nationalist figures should pave the way for an "enhanced version" which could be supported by unionists.

Margaret Ritchie said the letter, which called on Mr Varadkar to uphold the EU rights of Irish citizens on both sides of the border, was indicative of the impact the political crisis was having.

"I would be generally supportive, but it highlights the fact that we have a political vacuum here and there needs to be the political institutions up and running," said the former South Down MP.

"And it reflects very clearly the level and the extent of the support on the Remain side."

The letter, published in the Irish News, criticised political unionism, which it claimed "continues to deny respect for our Irish identity and language, marriage equality, (and) access to justice for legacy matters".

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The open letter written to Leo Varadkar and signed by 1,000 nationalists

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill said the letter sends out a "very strong message" that the nationalist community is not going to "stand idly by and allow the British Government to disrespect them when it comes to their rights".

Meanwhile, lawyer Niall Murphy, who helped organise the letter, said it has been signed by a "cross-section of northern nationalist civic society and citizens from throughout Ireland reflecting many professions, business, the arts, sporting, cultural and community life".

Signatories include Derry native and Republic of Ireland international footballer James McClean, who has received constant abuse for his refusal to wear a poppy out of respect for the victims of Bloody Sunday.

Others include Co Fermanagh actors Ciaran McMenamin and Line Of Duty star Adrian Dunbar, film director Jim Sheridan, and folk musicians Tommy and Colm Sands.

Yesterday Mr Varadkar said he was "fully committed" to working with the British Government and political parties in Northern Ireland in a bid to restore Stormont.

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Trevor Ringland

He added: "A fully functioning Executive and Assembly is the best means of ensuring that Irish language rights, marriage equality and legacy and justice issues are dealt with by elected representatives working on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland.

"From the outset of the Brexit negotiations the Irish Government has set out to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, including rights, equality and citizenship."

Pressed if she believed the letter had been a "missed opportunity" to engage with unionist Remainers, Ms Ritchie said a follow-up letter could provide a platform "to include other people who have maybe missed out on this occasion".

The letter follows one written last December in which more than 200 nationalists turned to the Taoiseach to ask for his protection of their rights.

Then, in response in February, more than 100 unionists and others published an open letter urging nationalists to discuss building a "society for the betterment of everyone''.

In it the group challenged what it called nationalist assumptions that values such as civil liberties and rights are not embedded within civic unionism, pluralism and other identities.

One of its signatories, former Ulster and Ireland rugby player Trevor Ringland claimed the latest letter from civic nationalism ran "counter to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement".

"The key element in that Agreement was that you made this place work socially and economically... leaving the constitutional question to be resolved by future generations," he said.

"I think to produce a letter with 1,000 signatures and not to reach out to civic unionism about what they say are genuine concerns is a pity.

"It would have been far more constructive if this letter had have had civic unionism engaged in it and had gone both to the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister."

Meanwhile, former Alliance leader and Fine Gael MEP John Cushnahan has said the signatories appealing to the Taoiseach should write to Sinn Fein urging it to abandon its "sterile" abstentionist policy.

"In any final vote at Westminster on the Brexit deal, Sinn Fein's MPs would have seven votes," he said.

He added that these MPs could "neutralise" the influence of the DUP, which has a confidence and supply voting agreement with the Tory Government.

"On this occasion ending (abstentionism)... would best serve the interests of all citizens in both parts of Ireland," said Mr Cushnahan.

Letters, Page 28

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