Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: Why Mary Lou McDonald slur on PSNI shows SF’s ‘outreach’ to unionists is just paper-thin

Republican fingerprints are to be found all over the outpouring of ‘civic nationalism’, writes Nelson McCausland

Mary Lou McDonald attended a gathering of ‘civic unionists’ in Belfast
Mary Lou McDonald attended a gathering of ‘civic unionists’ in Belfast

Over the past year we have seen a series of political initiatives organised by a somewhat opaque group of ‘civic nationalists’ that includes Niall Murphy, a solicitor who has canvassed for Sinn Fein, and Chris Donnelly, a republican commentator.

They sent two public letters to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the second signed by 1,000 nationalists, and then, more recently, there was a conference of ‘civic and political nationalists’ at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast with Mary Lou McDonald as the closing speaker.

But what of ‘civic unionism’? On Monday night there was a gathering of ‘civic unionists’ at Queen’s University in Belfast and they were addressed by the Sinn Fein president. At least that is how it was billed beforehand.

One of the ‘civic unionist’ organisers was Terry Wright, a former Ulster Unionist who quit the party in 2013 and said he was “uneasy” at the direction it was taking.

He was interviewed by Mark Carruthers on the Sunday Politics programme on BBC Northern Ireland and Carruthers introduced the item by saying: “Tomorrow, at Queen’s University in Belfast, civic unionism is coming together.”

However, the invited participants, who numbered around 100, actually included members of Sinn Fein, such as Michelle O’Neill and Declan Kearney, and ‘civic nationalists’ such as Donnelly.

Attendance was by invitation and the unionists who were present were certainly not representative of the breadth of ‘civic unionism’.

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Later in the programme Carruthers turned to Professor Peter Shirlow, who was one of his guests of the day, and said: “Pete, you’re involved in helping this event to actually happen.”

I was struck by that, because the last time I had seen both Wright and Shirlow at an event in Queen’s University was last year.

Someone had forwarded to me an email invitation to an event which was facilitated through the Senator George J Mitchell Institute.

I hadn’t been invited, but I emailed that I was coming and they didn’t turn me away.

That event was co-hosted by Professor Shirlow and Kearney and participants were seated at tables with one or two Sinn Fein politicians at each.

The first of the speakers was Professor John Brewer, who is part of the Senator George J Mitchell Institute and was in the headlines recently for his tweet that “Hell is too good” for some Brexiteers.

After each speaker the participants at each table discussed what had been said (the two subjects were the Churches and identity), although I gathered that this was just one in a series of such events, with Sinn Fein engaging with various strands of society.

Overall, the organisation of the event was somewhat opaque, but as I listened to Kearney, I did wonder what role Queen’s University was playing in facilitating Sinn Fein outreach and if it would play a similar role for unionist parties.

The organisation of Monday night’s event at Queen’s was equally opaque, with Shirlow and Wright the only two organisers named in the media and mention of a fledgling ‘Civic Space’ group.

On Sunday Politics Carruthers contrasted what he called a ‘civic unionist’ event with initiatives from ‘civil nationalism’ and bowled a full toss by asking: “Do you, basically, come from a position that civic unionism is ahead of political unionism?” Not surprisingly, since he had resigned from the UUP, Wright replied: “I think there is a leadership deficit in political unionism... the community is ahead of the politicians.”

Therein lies the difference between the two processes. The ‘civic nationalist’ project is enmeshed with political nationalism and has the fingerprints of Sinn Fein all over it.

On the other hand, the ‘civic unionist’ project, however well-intentioned, is disconnected from political unionism. The two are not mirror images of each other. There is a need for an inclusive ‘civic unionist’ project, but this is not it.

In the end — and somewhat ironically — Monday night’s meeting at Queen’s and the contribution by the Sinn Fein president was overtaken by her scurrilous statement that no PSNI officer was fit to become Chief Constable.

The exchange of the previous evening seems to have been like water off a duck’s back.

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