Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: Why the latest ‘Letter to Leo’ is a depressing reminder of how deeply divided society here is

What next? Unionist entertainers? Unionist artists? Identity politics are a zero-sum game

Philomena Begley signed the ‘Letter to Leo’
Philomena Begley signed the ‘Letter to Leo’
Jude Collins signed the ‘Letter to Leo’
Nelson McCausland

By Nelson McCausland

This weekend, Sinn Fein will hold its ard fheis in the Millennium Forum in Londonderry and the event will be used by the party as part of its election campaign.

However, republicanism is much more than a political party; it is a political and communal movement and, on Monday, we saw evidence of that when two pages of a local newspaper were devoted to another “Letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar”, signed by 1,000 “civic nationalists” and republicans.

The letter also appeared in a Dublin newspaper and, like previous letters, it was organised by the rather amorphous Irish nationalist group that calls itself Ireland’s Future.

This time, the demand was that Leo Varadkar set up an all-Ireland “Citizens’ Assembly” to consider “the reunification of Ireland”.

There was no mention of the forthcoming General Election, but it came the day before Parliament dissolved and the co-ordinator was Belfast solicitor Niall Murphy, who has canvassed for Sinn Fein in North Belfast.

He spoke of the need to prepare for the “inevitability of demographic change”, which is a polite way of making his point. There was a time when Irish republicans spoke about “outbreeding Protestants”.

Niall Murphy claimed that Ireland’s Future is “not party political, nor nationalist”, a claim that lacks credibility, since earlier letters organised by the group were described as being from “civic nationalists” and Leo Varadkar’s commitment was addressed to “nationalists”.

Sign In

So, who were the “civic” nationalists and republicans who signed the letter? As usual, the names were allocated to sectors, although some might well fit into more than one category.

The most marked difference this time was the number of names from the USA and Canada, with more than 30 from San Francisco alone. Notable, too, was the number from the Irish Republic.

But a significant number were from Northern Ireland and the organisers were clearly building on previous “Letters to Leo”.

The academics included a number from Queen’s University Belfast, such as Dr Peter Doran, a law lecturer and former Sinn Fein election candidate, and another lecturer, Dr Michael Pierse, who used to edit a newspaper owned by Mairtin O Muilleoir’s Belfast Media Group.

Dr Feilim O hAdhmaill, of University College Cork, another of the academics, was an IRA bomber and was sentenced to 25 years at the Old Bailey for possession of explosives and conspiracy to cause an explosion.

The arts and entertainment section included Philomena Begley, from Tyrone, and actor Adrian Dunbar, as well as entertainer Conor Grimes, folk singers Frances Black and Tommy Sands and Ray Giffen, manager of an arts centre.

Their media list was very limited and the handful of Northern Ireland names included two from the Andersonstown News, currently up for sale, and commentator Jude Collins.

Sean Canniffe, owner of The Irish Herald in San Francisco, pops up here, which helps to explain the many other contacts in San Francisco, as does Roy Greenslade, who writes for the Guardian, but used to write for the Sinn Fein newspaper under a pseudonym.

The community section includes some of the key Irish language activists, including those at the forefront of the campaign for an Irish Language Act.

The publication of the letter at this time reflects the seriousness with which Irish nationalists are approaching the election and how well organised they are. That is unsurprising, but there is one aspect of these public letters to Leo Varadkar that is deeply depressing: it is the fact that these letters are compiled in a way that is deeply divisive.

The academics who sign it are signing up as nationalist academics, the artists who sign it are signing up as nationalist artists, the solicitors who sign it are signing up as nationalist solicitors and so on across the sectors.

So, what next? Is it that unionists now have to follow the same, divisive route laid out by these “civic nationalists”? Is it that, sector after sector, profession after profession, is to be divided in this way, with academics, educators, artists, businessmen and solicitors publicly identifying as unionist, or nationalist?

But, then, Irish republicanism, with Sinn Fein in the vanguard, has no real interest in building a shared and better future and that is the most depressing aspect of it all.

Their tactics today, as in the past, are toxic.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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