Belfast Telegraph

Unionists unite to say it's not just nationalists that want rights and equality

'Letter a positive challenge to civic nationalism'

By Jonathan Bell

A group of over 100 unionists have come together to pen a letter calling for an inclusive debate on rights and equality, stating the conversation should not be centred solely on the nationalist community.

The letter 'a positive challenge to northern nationalists' has been welcomed by Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill after it was first published in The Irish Times.

It calls for a "transparent and inclusive" debate on rights, truth, equality and civil liberties, "and in so doing challenge assumptions that such values are not embedded within civic unionism, pluralism and other identities."

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 states.

"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 comes after a group of nationalists penned an open letter to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar calling for him to defend their rights in Northern Ireland.

Since the collapse of the power-sharing Executive over a year ago, rights and equality have been at the forefront of Sinn Fein's agenda in restoring the institutions.

The unionist group of politicians, academics, legal professionals, business figures, community workers and clergy, say that the apparent framing of the debate on rights being denied to the nationalist community, "has reduced our capacity to be heard and undermines the power of reconciliation to shift society away from stale and limiting notions of identity".

They include names such as UUP MLAs Mike Nesbitt and Doug Beattie, PUP councillor John Kyle and his former party leader Dawn Purvis, academic Peter Shirlow and former rugby international Trevor Ringland.

They along with all those behind the letter, talk of how they have worked for peace and reconciliation with civic nationalism on the need for equality and to bring Northern Ireland's "polarised communities" together in order to deal with the "barrier to a better future".

"This is not unique to any institution or section within our society but where it is a selective process, healing a pernicious and destabilising past remains as a challenge to us all."

The letter adds: "Civic unionism, and other identities are not resistant to claims of equality and full citizenship. These identities are central to the development of an authentically fair and tolerant society.

"We wish to unite, not divide, and in encouraging transparency we call upon civic nationalism and others to engage with us in frank and fulsome debates about the many values and beliefs that are commonly shared and are vital to transforming the issues that we face."

Following its publication Michelle O'Neill welcomed the initiative saying rights and equality "belonged 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.

“Last week our Party Chairperson, Declan Kearney, issued a call for civic society to create a common platform in defence of the Good Friday Agreement which belongs to all the people of Ireland.

“I welcome this initiative from civic unionism as an important intervention into this debate.”

  • Ex-Glentoran player Paul Leeman has asked us to point out he is not the Paul Leeman which signed the letter.

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