Nelson McCausland: Citizenship and rights belong to unionists more than republicans and it’s time we reclaimed them
Poll that showed only 21% in favour of a united Ireland merely added to Sinn Fein’s woes, writes Nelson McCausland
On Monday morning, Arlene Foster spoke in London at a conference on the Union. It was organised by Policy Exchange, one of the main British think-tanks, and she was speaking alongside pro-Union politicians from across the United Kingdom, as well as historians and commentators.
As the leader of the largest unionist party in the province, it was important that she was there to provide a Northern Ireland unionist perspective. Her speech was important and it was also impressive, because it carried a strong positive message with a broad vision for Ulster and the Union.
She spoke very personally about her own experience of growing up in Co Fermanagh under the threat of terrorism and of how her father, a member of the RUC, had been shot by the Provisional IRA.
Some of her speech was directed towards the other parts of the United Kingdom and the need to cherish and nourish the relationships within the Union.
She spoke of the things that we all share in common in terms of history and values and also of the benefits of the United Kingdom, the fifth-largest economy in the world.
Unionism must be an advocate for the Union, winning as many hearts and minds as possible, especially among those who may be ambivalent. We strengthen the Union when we sell the benefits of the Union and convince the waverers and the unconvinced.
Other parts of her speech had particular relevance for the people of Northern Ireland and to her vision of a shared and better future for all our people.
It was a confident speech and it was right that she referred to our cultural wealth, with mention of CS Lewis and Seamus Heaney, as well as that great Ulster-born scientist Lord Kelvin. Culture matters and we all know that cultural differences are at the heart of the present political impasse.
Alongside cultural wealth, she spoke about cultural pluralism, or cultural diversity, and this is a theme that she has spoken about previously.
Our various cultural traditions, including Irish Gaelic, Ulster-Scots and Orange, are all part of our cultural wealth and no single tradition should be given preferential treatment over the others, in the way that Sinn Fein demand.
Alongside cultural diversity, she spoke about unionism reclaiming the rights agenda, saying that “citizenship and rights are essentially unionist areas”.
Each July, many of us celebrate the Battle of Boyne and it is worth remembering that the Glorious Revolution produced the 1689 Bill of Rights.
Unfortunately, a variety of radical causes have hijacked the concept of human rights as a way of advancing their own narrow political agendas and, for Sinn Fein, human rights have become “war by another means”.
Unfortunately, the response to her speech from Sinn Fein was typically churlish, arrogant and disingenuous.
Indeed, it showed that Sinn Fein is put on the back foot when unionism presents that positive and coherent vision for the future. Arlene Foster’s London speech was moving on to ground where Sinn Fein is clearly uncomfortable.
There was no rational response from Sinn Fein, merely attack and personal abuse, and the intention was to divert the media away from exploring the main ideas in what she had said.
This is what Sinn Fein have done before and it is what they did again. That discomfort must have been increased by the most recent opinion poll, which shows that, in a border poll, only 21% of the population of Northern Ireland would vote to leave the United Kingdom.
That was encouraging for unionists and discouraging for republicans — especially Sinn Fein, who have been demanding a border poll.
It also undermines the credibility of some of the more extreme prophets of doom. However, we must not allow it make us complacent.
Now is the time for unionism to map out a way forward, to set out a vision for building a shared and better future for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.
Now is the time to advocate for the Union and the DUP, as the largest unionist party, has a particular responsibility to lead the way for unionism.