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Nelson McCausland: ‘Beyond Brexit’ conference a nationalist love-in that did nothing to build a shared future

Waterfront Hall event was a unionist-free zone with the SDLP playing second fiddle to SF, says Nelson McCausland


Mary Lou McDonald TD and Michelle O’Neill at the Beyond Brexit conference in Belfast

Mary Lou McDonald TD and Michelle O’Neill at the Beyond Brexit conference in Belfast

Matt Mackey/Presseye

Mary Lou McDonald TD and Michelle O’Neill at the Beyond Brexit conference in Belfast

Brexit was certainly on the political agenda on Saturday, with two separate, but related, events. One was the conference of “civic and political nationalists” in the Waterfront Hall, with the title Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland; the other was a short piece of amateur dramatics at Carrickcarnon, close to the border.

There were around 1,500 nationalists and republicans at the conference in the Waterfront Hall and the speakers included politicians from Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. It was a pan-nationalist platform and a pan-nationalist event, but the programme was arranged in a way that put a particular focus on Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald.

Colum Eastwood was there as a speaker, but he was simply part of the supporting cast for Mary Lou, who condemned Brexit, condemned the border, criticised Leo Varadkhar and demanded a border referendum.

Of course, Sinn Fein know that they would lose a border referendum, but the purpose of the agitation is not to achieve such an unachievable aim, it is simply to keep things on the boil and cultivate instability.

The conference was not the first initiative by a group of “civic nationalists”, who seem to have taken the name Think32, a reference to their aspiration for a 32-county Irish state.

Their earlier initiatives were two public letters, signed by “civic nationalists” from various walks of life and these laid the ground for the conference. This was the next stage in their strategy.

I have not seen a full list of the co-organisers, but two who have been named are Niall Murphy, a Belfast solicitor, who canvassed for Sinn Fein election candidate John Finucane in North Belfast, and Chris Donnelly, schoolteacher, commentator and former Sinn Fein election candidate.

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In her keynote speech, Mary Lou McDonald conflated Brexit, a border referendum and rights in a way that reflects Sinn Fein’s current political narrative.

This was Sinn Fein asserting itself as the real voice of nationalism in Northern Ireland, although that is not a term that Sinn Fein politicians use. Mary Lou prefers “the north” and, a little while ago, Alex Maskey tweeted about a “putrid little statelet”.

The Waterfront Hall event ended at 2pm and so there was time for three prominent Sinn Fein politicians, Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and Martina Anderson MEP to get down to the border event at 3pm.

This was organised by a group called Border Communities Against Brexit, whose spokesman is Declan Fearon.

There were two “actors” dressed up in replica army uniforms and carrying replica guns, while Mary Lou McDonald and her party colleagues used a sledgehammer to knock down a pile of what appeared to be concrete blocks.

The three politicians were women and they were smiling and laughing, but I suspect the sight of republicans standing on the border with a sledgehammer will have brought back for many people memories of other republicans in that area who wielded sledgehammers to break legs and break down doors.

It was a short event that enabled the Sinn Fein president to demonstrate her skills with a sledgehammer, but the real purpose of the little drama was to provide the media with pictures of the Sinn Fein president as the person demolishing the border.

This was about putting the focus on Sinn Fein and positioning the party as the real anti-Brexit voice. The conference and the photo-opportunity were complementary.

Sinn Fein have collapsed the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont and refuse to take their seats in the United Kingdom parliament at Westminster. That can make them seem somewhat irrelevant and so they look for things to do.

White-line protests at Andersonstown and poster campaigns against Brexit have lost their impact. The conference and the photo-opportunity will, therefore, be seen as reasserting the relevance of Sinn Fein at the level above local government issues.

However, this was Irish nationalist talking to Irish nationalist in a “unionist-free” gathering and did nothing to build a better Northern Ireland.

But then, Sinn Fein don’t want a better Northern Ireland, because their party thrives on cultivating dissent, division and bitterness.

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