Nelson McCausland: Varadkar letter purported to be signed by 'civic nationalists', but SF's fingerprints were all over it
Unionists could learn from republicans' ability to create a movement with a vision and strategy, says Nelson McCausland
There were the amateur dramatics on the border, with Sinn Fein supporters dressed up as police officers and then the Sinn Fein poster campaign against Brexit. They are clearly positioning themselves as the primary voice against Brexit.
That is probably why the recent Belfast Rally for Remain was such a fiasco, with a crowd numbering hundreds, rather than thousands. Sinn Fein made sure their banners were very visible at the rally, but they didn't really throw their weight behind it.
Why should they get their people to turn out in force for a multi-party event where Sinn Fein was just one voice? No, Sinn Fein see themselves as THE voice against Brexit. They want to broaden their reach and they see opposition to Brexit as a way of doing that. They can use it to energise their core support and radicalise others.
Against that background - and a year after a previous public letter from "civic nationalism" - another letter has appeared. The last time there were 200 signatories, but this time the organisers have gathered 1,000 signatures for their letter to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, demanding that he protect their "rights".
It starts with Varadkar's statement to "the nationalist people in Northern Ireland" in December 2017 and continues with a sentence about "all who cherish their Irish citizenship and identity in the north", which is code for northern nationalists and republicans.
After that, the letter goes on to complain about Brexit and a "rights crisis". It lists a number of rights, but with a bilingual letter in English and Irish and with "respect for our Irish identity and Irish language" at the top of the list, it is clear that Irish is the top priority.
The signatories are categorised as coming from academia, arts, business, community, education, health, the labour movement, law, media and sport, and they provide an interesting insight into a world of assertive and divisive nationalism.
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The academic section shows a strong focus on Irish language and culture and human rights.
Meanwhile, in the field of the arts, there are several former republican prisoners, including an IRA hunger-striker.
The list also includes the soloist at the funeral of Martin McGuinness and a Lenadoon playwright who backed the Sinn Fein Westminster candidate in South Belfast. These sit alongside the actor Adrian Dunbar and the musician Neil Martin.
The sport section is heavily reliant on members of the GAA, but also includes footballer James McClean, who described himself the other day as "a proud Fenian".
In the category of law, there are names such as Sinn Fein politician John Finucane, Padraig O'Muirigh, son of Sean 'Spike' Murray, and Sean Pol Begley, whose sister, Orfhlaith Begley, is the Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone.
It is true that the letter has been carefully crafted and Sinn Fein are never mentioned in it, but many people will see the fingerprints of Sinn Fein all over it.
The media signatures includes Danny Morrison, Robin Livingstone of the Andersonstown News and Patricia MacBride, sister of IRA member Anthony MacBride.
The community section has a plethora of republican and Irish language activists, including Sinn Fein's Gearoid O hEara. He is chair of An Ciste Infheistiochta Gaeilge, a trust fund which was given £8m by a Labour government, at the behest of Sinn Fein, to build Irish language centres across Northern Ireland. That produced a total spend of £25m on Irish language centres, yet they have the nerve to complain.
The letter certainly provides an insight into "northern nationalism", but it also illustrates one of the fundamental differences between unionism and republicanism today.
Unionist parties are political parties, whereas Sinn Fein is more than a political party; it is a movement with activists, members, friends and fellow-travellers in fields such as academia, community, education, the law and the media. They take their cause into many fields and they fight on many fronts.
It's something which unionism cannot afford to ignore and from which unionism can learn a lot.
Unionism needs a clear vision and a coherent strategy, not just to win elections, but to inspire a people, to build a movement and to shape the future.