Belfast Telegraph

Unionist call for debate is welcomed by SDLP leader

Diversity: Colum Eastwood
Diversity: Colum Eastwood
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said a call from prominent unionists for an inclusive debate on rights crossing the sectarian divide shows that community is far more diverse than the DUP's political position suggests.

Mr Eastwood described the unionist call, outlined in a letter, as "an honest appeal" for the type of dialogue on which a better society could be built.


"I accept the constructive criticism that in too many cases uniformity has been painted upon unionism when the truth tells us that no such uniformity exists," the SDLP leader said.

"I know that the unionist peoples are much more diverse, open, creative and complex than the positions espoused by Arlene Foster. Be assured that the same diversity is true of Irish nationalism across this island."

Earlier this week, prominent unionists called for an inclusive debate on rights that crosses the sectarian divide.

The open letter signed by 105 men and women from academia, politics, sport, arts and law, has been seen as civic unionism's response to a similar call from nationalists urging Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to defend their rights in Northern Ireland.

The unionist signatories said that they were motivated by a desire to build a better society for all.

"This cannot happen when such a commitment is perceived as being vested in one community or political persuasion," they stated. "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."

Among those signing the letter were academics Pete Shirlow, Arthur Aughey and John Bew; former rugby international Trevor Ringland; Presbyterian minister Lesley Carroll; Ulster Unionist MLAs Mike Nesbitt and Doug Beattie and Belfast councillors Chris McGimpsey and Jeff Dudgeon; former PUP leader Dawn Purvis and current party councillor John Kyle; and cartoonist Brian John Spencer.

The SDLP leader replied to the unionists' call with his own open letter.

In his correspondence, Mr Eastwood said: "As our politics struggles to work, it is vital that a confident civic society begins to engage with one another and feels the freedom to do so.

"We all know the position in which Northern politics finds itself. There is no future if our political conversation continues to be locked in an arm-wrestle which no-one can win.

"I hope that your letter is another important step in loosening that grip which has only resulted in a further polarisation of our society."

He continued: "From my own perspective, the important challenge of this letter is an honest appeal to all of us - rather than talking amongst each other, we must instead seek to speak to one another.

"That kind of engagement is the only pathway through which all of us can find rights and belonging on this island and upon which a better society can then be built."

The SDLP leader said that "political volatility on these islands" in recent years had resulted in "the natural threads of communication" between unionism and nationalism suffering and sometimes breaking down.

"That breakdown is equally true of the broader relationship between the islands of Britain and Ireland," he said.

"Facing into the inevitable change ahead, our only choice is to speak openly and honestly with each other.

"The Good Friday Agreement still provides us with the institutional structures to do just this.

"Some of those conversations may well be uncomfortable but nevertheless they need to happen.

"It is the only way that we will come to agree a future of which we must all be part."

Mr Eastwood said the choice ahead was straight-forward.

"The Irish and British peoples across this island can retreat from each other or we can again choose to work, live and govern together. Your letter is a welcome opportunity to get back to the solution we all agreed in 1998," he added.

Belfast Telegraph


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