Liam Kennedy: Civic nationalists talk a lot about rights, but yet are remarkably selective when it comes down to which ones matter and which don't
When Liam Kennedy hears that 'Brexit has changed everything', he knows the sound of ethnic drum-beating can't be far away
It's hard to know whether the letter titled 'Ireland's Future', addressed to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar signed by 1,000-odd people, topped and tailed in Irish and published in The Irish Times last week, should be taken seriously. Perhaps not. But let's try. After all, they have "deep concerns" and one would not wish to see the authors discomfited.
The trouble is the initiative appears to be riddled with contradictions. The organising group seems to be much the same as the self-styled "civic nationalists" who put together a similar siren-call from the north some time ago.
However, in an interview with The Irish Times the spokesperson, Niall Murphy, claims Ireland's Future is "not party political, nor nationalist". Could have fooled me. And, I suspect, many others.
Some of the usual suspects, in terms of the greener shades of Irish nationalism, are well represented and I looked in vain for unionist signatories. To be fair, perhaps the members have had a Pauline conversion to Alliance-type politics in the meantime.
There is nothing good or bad per se with being nationalist or unionist (though I'd prefer to see much more emphasis on social class and labour issues, rather than acquiescing in this binary view of politics). But it is surely perverse to maintain that dialogue on Irish unification is not central to an Irish nationalist agenda? The authors speak, of course, of "reunification", which poses other questions.
The group's credibility is not strengthened by making grossly inflated claims. "Discussion about the reunification of Ireland has moved centre stage," it claims. Wishful thinking apart, as Niall Ginty points out, also in The Irish Times, this is true only of nationalist parties in the north and Sinn Fein in the Republic of Ireland.
It is doubtful if it is true even of the SDLP, which typically places its emphasis on social and economic issues.
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"Brexit has changed everything," it is proclaimed. Conveniently, this works in one political direction only; the sound of ethnic drum-beating can't be far away.
But Brexit outcomes are difficult to predict at this stage and the current proposal, if it succeeds, would place Northern Ireland in a uniquely favourable position, situated economically speaking both in the European Union and within the United Kingdom.
The DUP may be making a pig's ear of its negotiating stance, worrying unnecessarily about red lines in the North Channel, but the SNP picked up on the essence of the deal immediately.
There would be a strong incentive for businesses in England and Scotland - and for multinational companies from overseas - to locate in Northern Ireland.
Trade unionists and labour activists should be more than happy to welcome the boost to employment and living standards.
Losing the European Court of Justice and its endless delays may be of more concern to lawyers than the man and woman at the food bank.
As a convinced Remainer, I much prefer the status quo and I pray for a second referendum. But if there is to be a Brexit, then I would at least like an arrangement that benefited Northern Ireland economically and one that extolled a sense of European identity, which, we have to admit, is not inextricably bound up with membership of the European Union.
The language of "rights" has been invoked quite a lot. Some have even unearthed a hitherto undetected "crisis of rights".
The trouble with terms like "rights" is that they are so elastic they can be stretched to suit almost any purpose and the notion of a "crisis" smacks of grievance-mongering. But if we are talking about fundamental rights, then there is something to say. The narrative, however, betrays a remarkable historical illiteracy.
The right to contraception and control of family fertility goes back to the 1960s in the UK, but was only fully conceded in the Republic in the 1980s. The decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland came earlier, as well.
Astonishingly, a right to divorce was only conceded in the Republic in 1996. Do we remember campaigns along the lines of "first the north, then the south" by people with deep concerns? I can't recall.
Reform of the laws on same-sex marriage and abortion came marginally sooner in the Republic. Taking the longer view, the UK has been far more progressive on hugely important rights than the Republic.
The right to life, as well as freedom from torture, is enshrined in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These have been flagrantly violated in Northern Ireland by loyalist and republican paramilitaries.
More than 10,000 people, including children, have been abused and tortured by paramilitary organisations. That brave business executive Kevin Lunney is merely the latest victim of practices that are still embedded in some communities.
Would the signatories be prepared in their "conversations" to condemn, without reservation, the actions of the IRA, UVF, UDA and the dissident republicans, who are also parasitic on the wider society?
In addition, might they expand their gaze to take in the current denial of political rights to members of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, who are not allowed to vote for one of the two main parties of this state? That prohibition really does strike at constitutional and democratic rights.
Freedom of expression is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy. As I write, a leading journalist has been threatened with a libel action for expressing a political judgment that many would find unexceptional. Others have been silenced by the mere threat of a solicitor's letter.
This is because Northern Ireland has archaic libel laws, unlike the case of Britain, which introduced a less-restrictive Defamation Act in 2013. Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein seem to be in favour of extending this reform to here.
Kate Hoey, the outgoing Labour MP, recently proposed an Early Day Motion in Parliament, which drew attention to the "suppression of free speech in Northern Ireland by aggressive legal targeting of newspapers and users of social media", or what she calls "lawfare" (a play on the word warfare, to bring out the repressive intent).
On the face of it, the civic nationalists are remarkably selective when it comes to highlighting problems of rights in this society (as well as embodying a teleological view of history that belongs to another era).
If we are to have a rights agenda, let's have a comprehensive one. If that is not there, then we are simply supping old wine from new bottles. Unionists or Labour supporters shouldn't even bother to get involved. Can something be salvaged from the vacuous language about "conversations" and the idea of a Citizens Assembly? Certainly, though we might bear in mind the philosopher Michael Oakeshott's open-minded observation that conversation is an activity without a defined goal or objective (the opposite of what the civic nationalists seem to have in mind).
I would suggest an architecture based on the Good Friday Agreement, teasing out major problems relating to devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The vital starting point is dialogue within Northern Ireland, where the real borders are those lodged in people's minds. The second is a north-south dialogue.
The final, east-west, strand might reflect the intimate human relationships between these two islands, bearing in mind that Britain was home to hundreds of thousands of Irish workers during the last century and was a sanctuary for Irish women fleeing abuse at the hands of Church and state.
Liam Kennedy is Emeritus Professor of History at Queen's University in Belfast