Belfast Telegraph

Unionists unite in call for rights debate to cross sectarian lines - Sinn Fein welcomes move

Mike Nesbitt
Mike Nesbitt
Dawn Purvis
Jenny Palmer
Lesley Macaulay
Stafford Reynolds
Jeffrey Dudgeon
Peter Shirlow
Lesley Carroll
Linda Ervine
Shirley McMichael
John Kyle

By David Young

Prominent figures from across unionism have united in a call for an inclusive debate on rights that crosses the sectarian divide.

In an open letter signed by 105 men and women from academia, politics, sport, arts and law, it is being seen as civic unionism's response to a similar call from nationalism, urging Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to defend their rights in Northern Ireland.

The 105 signatories say they are 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," the letter says.

"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."

The letter's convenor is Dr James Wilson, a freelance consultant, researcher and historian who served in the Army during the Troubles and later worked in corporate counsel in London's Square Mile.

He was a founding member of the Belfast chapter of Veterans For Peace UK.

He said the open letter offers "a positive challenge" to Irish nationalism to engage with civic unionism.

One of the key figures behind the initiative is Professor Peter Shirlow of Liverpool University, formerly of both Queen's and Ulster University.

He told the Belfast Telegraph last night that the impulse behind the letter came from a broad swathe of unionist opinion which was concerned about rights issues being conflated with attitudes to Northern Ireland's constitutional position.

"We're trying to break this idea that a commitment to rights is somehow based upon one's constitutional allegiance," Professor Shirlow said.

"We do not want a selective idea of who wants and who doesn't want rights.

"What we're saying is that we believe that if we are going to have a rights based society, we need to do that across the constitutional divide.

"How can you build a better society when people in this society think that only one section of society wants rights, and when you have evidence that tells you that that is not true?

"We live in a society where significant numbers of our people that think it is only civic nationalists who support gay marriage and equal rights.

"That's harmful - and means we are not getting beyond the sterile repetitive politics of Northern Ireland."

One of the signatories, Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie, explained why he had signed the open letter, printed in full below.

"I think for far too long there's been a narrative that unionism does not want to see a shared society," said Mr Beattie.

"That is a false narrative, and that by publicly contradicting that idea we hope to engage civic nationalism with all of the things that are important in order to create a shared, fair society.

"We want to engage with any groups who want to understand unionism better, who want to understand what we stand for."

Another signatory, journalist and commentator Brian Walker, said he signed the letter "partly out of concern that especially in the present political turmoil, the Irish government as co-guarantor under the Good Friday Agreement could become the champion of nationalist interests to the exclusion of unionists, while the GFA requires the British Government, as sovereign, to act with rigorous impartiality".

Last night Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill described the letter as an "important intervention" in the debate over civic rights in Northern Ireland.

"I welcome this initiative by those within civic unionism who insist that their views and voices are heard in the debate on the demand for rights and equality in northern society," she said.

"The campaign for rights and equality belongs to everyone. There is no such thing as nationalist equality or unionist equality. There is just equality for all.

"This space is common ground for all who cherish equality and rights.

"Society can only be enriched if citizens come together in common cause to ensure that rights are acquired and protected."

The signatories who say aim of a better society is shared by them too

  •  Brian Acheson
  •  Ian Acheson
  •  Irwin Armstrong
  •  Arthur Aughey
  •  Stuart Aveyard
  •  John Barry
  •  Doug Beattie
  •  John Bew
  •  Elizabeth Boyd
  •  Gavin Boyd
  •  William Boyd
  •  Glenn Bradley
  •  Michael Briggs
  •  Daniel Brown
  •  Jonathan Burgess
  •  Paul Burgess
  •  Jason Burke
  •  Alison Campbell
  •  Stevie Campbell
  •  Lesley Carroll
  •  Jim Crothers
  •  Jonny Currie
  •  Vince Curry
  •  Glenda Davies
  •  James Dingley
  •  Brian Dougherty
  •  Jeffrey Dudgeon
  •  John Dunlop
  •  Janice Dunwoody
  •  Aaron Edwards
  •  William Ennis
  •  Brian Ervine
  •  Linda Ervine
  •  Isabella Evangelisti
  •  Neil Faris
  •  Albert Flanagan
  •  Dean Farquhar
  •  Stewart Finn
  •  John W Foster
  •  James Gallacher
  •  Richard Garland
  •  Brian Garrett
  •  James Greer
  •  Trevor Hamilton
  •  Barry Hazley
  •  Helen Henderson
  •  Maureen Hetherington
  •  Chris Hudson
  •  Fiona Hutchinson
  •  Mark Irvine
  •  Kathryn Johnston
  •  Georgina Kee-McCarter
  •  James Kee
  •  Julia Kee
  •  Lauren Kerr
  •  John Kyle
  •  Paul Leeman
  •  David McAloanen
  •  Chris McGimpsey
  •  Shirley McMichael
  •  Lesley Macaulay
  •  William Matchett
  •  Andrew Mawhinney
  •  Lindsay Millar
  •  Lewis Montgomery
  •  Derek Moore
  •  Pamela Moore
  •  Steve Moore
  •  Gareth Mulvenna
  •  Mike Nesbitt
  •  George Newell
  •  Hannah Niblock
  •  Russell Orr
  •  Jenny Palmer
  •  John Palmer
  •  Len Peace
  •  Claire Pierson
  •  Andy Pollak
  •  Catherine Pollock
  •  Dawn Purvis
  •  David Ramsey
  •  Chris Reid
  •  Stafford Reynolds
  •  Trevor Ringland
  •  John Shackels
  •  David Shaw
  •  Stephanie Shaw
  •  Peter Shirlow
  •  Frank Shivers
  •  Philip Smith
  •  David Smyth
  •  Neil Southern
  •  Brian Spencer
  •  David Stewart
  •  John Stewart
  •  Robin Stewart
  •  Kyle Thompson
  •  Brian W Walker
  •  Garth Watson
  •  David Whiteside
  •  Robert Williamson
  •  Steve Williamson
  •  Andrew Wilson
  •  James Wilson
  •  Terence Wright

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