Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Letter unionism's 'me too' moment but relevance arguable

Suzanne Breen
Suzanne Breen
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The letter published by 105 men and women calling for a debate on rights crossing the sectarian divide was unionism's 'Me Too' moment.

It followed two similar letters from civic nationalism urging the Taoiseach to protect the rights of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland.

There is a long history in the peace process of prominent nationalists penning public letters.

It began in support of the Hume-Adams initiative and was repeated at other key moments. Some prominent unionists have understandably decided it's time for their voices to be heard.

The idea of civic unionism isn't new. It was first aired by Norman Porter in his 1996 book, Rethinking Unionism. Its current proponents will be hoping that it meets with more success this time round.

Reading and re-reading their letter, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what they stand for. It certainly isn't a manifesto. Not even the vaguest detail is spelled out. Where do the signatories stand on same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and an Irish Language Act? And before opening up discussions with nationalism, should they perhaps be engaging in dialogue within their own community on such subjects first.

They evidently believe unionism is too often portrayed as reactionary and is far more diverse than it's given credit for. Logically, the first and most important conversation these civic unionist figures should have is with the DUP. That should centre on precisely what the party's 36% vote is a mandate for.

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While the letter isn't party political, liberal Ulster Unionist voices are prominent. But how representative are they? Mike Nesbitt's courageous attempt to update and modernise unionism last year was rejected by his own party and, subsequently, voters.

The missive from the great and the good within nationalism was solidly middle-class with the professional community class added in, and the unionist version is much the same.

How relevant all this correspondence is to the ordinary man or woman in either community is questionable. It can also be argued that the real way to make progress here is to abandon the 'nationalist' and 'unionist' tags altogether and to set aside the constitutional question.

Surely the plain people of Northern Ireland can unite on key social and economic issues and campaign for change without any big house conversation being even necessary?

Belfast Telegraph


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