Civic unionism’s bid to encourage debate is best way forward
It is not often that the voice of what could be termed liberal unionism is raised to the point of anger. But that is what has happened in the wake of two letters sent by civic nationalism in Northern Ireland to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in December and this month calling on his government to defend the legal, human and language rights of Irish citizens in the province.
These letters have stirred more than 100 people from within unionism and pluralist sectors to pen a sharp retort. It is not a confrontational missive but one, the authors would say, determined to set the record straight on the issues raised by their nationalist fellow citizens.
Essentially they want to nail the assumption or inference that rights, truths, equality and civil liberties are values which are not embedded within civic unionism, pluralism and other identities in Northern Ireland.
As well as an attempt to set the record straight, the letter is also an attempt to change the political debate in Northern Ireland, to take it away from the zero sum politics which the DUP and Sinn Fein have been playing so successfully as evidenced by their huge support.
Instead the signatories to the letter - which include two high profile members of the Ulster Unionist Party, noted academics, people with associations with loyalist politics and well-known liberals - want to start a conversation between civic unionism and civic nationalism.
That, self evidently, is the way forward if we are ever to achieve an inclusive society, based on mutual respect and trust and acceptance of each community's deeply held beliefs and aspirations.
But the clear inference of the letter is that this conversation must be based on an honest appreciation of each other's current position, especially the acceptance of the many civic values and beliefs that the two communities share.
Following on from the recent failed talks to restore devolution, a sense of frustration at the continuing political impasse can be detected in the letter, but there is a deeper annoyance that civic nationalism has presented such a negative image of unionism in all its forms. Civic unionism is also frustrated that its voice has not been heard more clearly in recent times. Just who can be blamed for that is not clear, but it is encouraging that voice is now being raised in a positive manner.
While asserting the values civic unionism holds, the letter holds out the hand of friendship and emphasises its desire to create a better, more inclusive, fair and tolerant society. It does not seek to engage in point scoring, but rather to end such behaviour and to have serious, adult discussions on the way forward.
It is 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed and as with all such concords between deeply divided opponents much depended on the spirit as well as the letter of the agreement being held to.
Sadly that has not been the case leading to some suggesting this document - which it must be remembered is an international legally binding agreement - be torn up.
What those calling themselves civic unionism are doing through their letter is attempting to revive that spirit, to harness again the optimism that accompanied the GFA two decades ago, and to complete the task envisaged by it.
They have challenged civic nationalism to accept that they have much in common and are not resistant to shared rights, reconciliation and civil liberties. That is a sound foundation on which to have the sort of conversations needed.