Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Civic unionism' is having the right conversations ... it's just having them with the wrong people

Why indulge Sinn Fein's coalition government aspirations in Dublin when you could reach out to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (and get the SDLP thrown in for free), asks Eilis O'Hanlon

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Fine Fail’s Micheal Martin
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

There's an old joke which says that the traditional Irish approach to foreplay was to warn the wife: "Brace yourself, Bridget." That also seems to be Sinn Fein's approach to the question of getting unionist consent for Irish unification.

In a nutshell: unity is coming whether you like it or not, so you'd better start getting ready for it.

Mary Lou McDonald mightn't describe her speech to the gathering of so-called "civic unionists" at Queen's University Belfast on Monday evening in such a blunt way, because it was peppered with buzzwords like "reconciliation" and "our collective history", but essentially the Sinn Fein leader's message was that unionists must lay aside whatever issues happen to be at the forefront of their minds right now and focus instead on laying out a Plan B to deal with the inevitability of a united Ireland.

The Dublin woman seems to expect praise for showing her face at these events at all, but her tone when she does so is no different from a politician from Westminster dropping into Belfast to tell a gathering of civic nationalists and republicans that they should just get used to British rule and, if they chilled out a bit, might even get to enjoy it.

The meeting was called to discuss how to fill the democratic deficit left by the failure to get a Northern Ireland Assembly back up-and-running - not to swap magical visions of a united Ireland.

Mary Lou McDonald actually promised again that unionists would have "a place at the table, at the centre of political life", but that position at the heart of political life is always held up as a shiny bauble, which could be handed to them as a gift some time in the future, not something to which they have a right in the here and now.

Why is recognising unionists' Britishness always presented as some noble concession?

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Mary Lou calls this having a "new conversation", but what she really means is unionists joining a very old conversation, which republicans have been having with one another since the year dot.

She was called out on it by businessman Suneil Sharma at Monday's meeting, when he put it to her that this "crass identity politics" was "reinforcing tribalism", but no one could have been surprised.

Former SDLP leader John Hume was mocked for years for having a single transferable speech, but at least he delivered the same consistent message, no matter the audience. The Sinn Fein woman invariably has different messages for different ears.

So, it's soft words for civic unionists one day, followed within hours by a hard message for the republican base about how "the policing authority in this state" has "zero credibility".

The way she said "this state" was pure 'themmuns' talk. No collective history there.

These well-meaning exercises in civic unionism come round periodically. Last year, it was a letter signed by over 100 academics, members of the clergy, business people, and politicians, calling for a dialogue with civic nationalists about equality, rights and truth.

That didn't really go anywhere because the "civic" part of the dialogue quickly got gobbled up by the reality of partisanship.

Sinn Fein hasn't put down any preconditions to its involvement this time round, but making such a big deal of that party's contribution to the debate still plays into the inflated sense of itself as the true voice of Ireland, indeed of Irishness itself. It gives it far too much credibility.

If the leaders of the burgeoning civic unionism movement really wish to engage with civic nationalism, they need to get over this idea that Sinn Fein speaks for Ireland and start reaching out instead to other strands of opinion across the island.

Opinion polls suggest that Mary Lou's party currently has around 18% support in the Republic. By contrast the ruling Fine Gael party is on 30% and Fianna Fail on 26%.

Together, that's over half the country. Where is their presence in this debate?

Fine Gael may be something of a dead loss at the moment, as it goes through a phase of nationalist giddiness as Brexit approaches, but Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has made huge efforts to initiate a genuinely fresh conversation about what any united Ireland might look like - and he's done it much more sensitively and inclusively than Sinn Fein has ever managed.

That includes chiding the Taoiseach at last November's Healing the Wounds of Brexit conference at Queen's for declaring that "it's not my job to deliver the unionists", a clumsy, one-sided assertion, which he said he couldn't imagine any of Leo Varadkar's predecessors making.

Micheal Martin has been refreshingly clear that nationalists must also be willing to change before jumping the gun on unity and he explicitly recognises that pushing unionists too far and too fast makes them retreat into a cocoon.

By reaching out to that faction in Fianna Fail, civic unionists would also gain the immediate advantage of bringing onboard the SDLP, now that Colum Eastwood has thrown in his lot with the southerners.

That would avoid any repeat of the letter sent to the Taoiseach last year by a range of civic nationalists in the north asking for his support on the Irish language and other issues.

As former BBC journalist Brian Walker said at the time, the Irish Government, a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, was effectively being asked to become a defender of nationalist interests, while the same Agreement insists that the British Government act with "rigorous impartiality".

Civic nationalism seems far more openly political in that sense than civic unionism and the best way to avoid some of those pitfalls is to open up the conversation beyond the usual suspects.

There are so many alternative voices in broader Irish society to whom civic unionists could be talking, not least cultural figures from the arts, media, sport and universities. Modern Ireland contains much more diversity than listening only to Sinn Fein would suggest.

They would not only make more interesting speakers, they'd also help define that common ground where civic strands of unionism and nationalism can meet.

Instead, Monday's event simply became another opportunity for Sinn Fein to pursue its tedious obsession with Irish unity, positioning itself at the same time for possible coalition government in Dublin after the next election, now expected to happen later this year.

Civic unionists start out with the best intentions of dealing with Northern Ireland as it is, but invariably end up on the receiving end of sanctimonious sermons about some fantasy island in the future.

Maybe that's because they're talking to all the wrong people.

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