Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: After saying unionist identity would be protected in 'New Ireland' Mary Lou McDonald walks behind banner calling for citizens like me to be kicked out of the country

How can the Sinn Fein president now stand over her promise that the right to "British citizenship and all that entails" would be safeguarded after unification, asks Alex Kane

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald behind the banner in New York on St Patrick’s Day
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald behind the banner in New York on St Patrick’s Day
Alex Kane

Those who know me know that I'm slow to take offence. I don't go looking for reasons to be offended. I don't overturn rocks and stones in the search for something to offend me. I don't trawl through newspapers, websites and back issues of Hansard for a sentence or paragraph to get my blood boiling.

That's not to say that I don't, fairly regularly, see, read, or hear something and think to myself that it was probably unwise of one side or the other to say it, write it, or do it.

That's because I'm aware that many people are more sensitive than I am, and I'm also aware that far too many people do go out of their way to be offended. So be it: it goes with the territory of a society trying, albeit very slowly, to emerge from conflict.

Gregory Campbell's "curry my yoghurt" comment was always going to offend someone or other; as was the use of the Wolfe Tones' Celtic Symphony to introduce boxer Michael Conlan; as was the Alan Partridge spoof the other night and the rendition of Come Out, Ye Black and Tans and The Men Behind the Wire (which just made me laugh). Some of the offence is deliberate and some unintentional; but it's all grist to the mill for keyboard warriors on both sides.

But I was offended by the photograph of Mary Lou McDonald in New York on St Patrick's Day, standing behind a banner with the words "England Get Out Of Ireland" emblazoned on it.

A couple of years ago, I was a guest speaker at a Sinn Fein-organised event in Dublin's Mansion House. Mary Lou was on the panel.

I raised the question of how my unionist/British/UK identity would be protected and promoted in a united Ireland. Mary Lou said she recognised my legitimate concerns and assured me that my British citizenship would continue to be central to my identity and would be protected.

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A few weeks ago, Mary Lou addressed a mostly unionist audience at a civic engagement at QUB: "In Derry last year, a young woman, a Highland dancer, asked would there be a place for her and her dancing in a united Ireland. It was a genuine and sincere question.

"I assured her that Highland dancers will be most welcome and I said, you are British today and you will be British tomorrow, regardless of whether the border exists or not. The right to British citizenship and all that entails is safeguarded. There can be no diminution of those rights in a new and united Ireland. You are as much a part of the discussion to shape a new Ireland as republicans and nationalists. I want to hear from the unionist community their fears, their needs and their ambitions in a united Ireland. To listen and to understand."

England is a key component of the constitutional entity known as the United Kingdom. I am, by birth and by continuing choice, a citizen of the United Kingdom.

It remains the backbone of my identity; that sense of who I am and who I want to be. So, when Mary Lou stands behind a banner saying "England Get Out Of Ireland", it sends a message to a UK citizen like me.

That message is simple and unambiguous: a key part of my present identity would not be welcome in the sort of united Ireland Sinn Fein wants.

When Sinn Fein posted the picture on social media, it was tagged with the words "no explanation needed".

In other words, it was taken as self-evident that, of course, Sinn Fein wouldn't want "England" having anything to do with Ireland.

But what about the English themselves? What about the hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland who have long-standing links with England and the English? What about those of us who regard England and the English as a member of the same constitutional/citizenship family? How does Mary Lou stand over the promise that "the right to British citizenship and all that entails is safeguarded"?

From October 1972, the UK government, with support from the Irish government, stressed the necessity for the recognition of what became known as the "Irish dimension" in Northern Ireland politics. It was embedded in the Sunningdale Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement.

The right to identify as an Irish citizen was recognised.

Provision for a border poll was included in the 1998 Agreement. The continuing aspiration for Irish unity was recognised, along with "arrangements" to facilitate that aspiration, if demographics shifted in that direction.

So, what, exactly, would be the "British dimension" equivalent in a united Ireland? Northern Ireland wouldn't exist. England (which doesn't make sense if it doesn't include the English themselves) wouldn't be welcome. In what way could my identity and rights as a UK citizen be protected?

Mary Lou says there would be no "diminution of those rights in a new and united Ireland," but has yet to explain how Sinn Fein would prevent that process of diminution.

Sinn Fein thought no explanation was needed for the photograph; and judging by Mary Lou's silence, she thinks no explanation is necessary to those people (and it included Alliance, SDLP, UUP, Green representatives, too) who were offended by the photograph and the seeming, if unstated, message behind it.

What all of this does is raise the question about how serious she and Sinn Fein are about what they have described as "unionist outreach". There was, I think, a brief moment just after she became leader when it was thought she might be able to engage with unionists in a way that Gerry Adams, Declan Kearney and Martina Anderson (a former Sinn Fein director of unionist outreach who, interestingly, has blocked me on Twitter) have never been able to do. But it turned out to be a fleeting thought.

What's the point of inviting someone like me to speak at a Sinn Fein event, tell me that my identity will be promoted and protected in a united Ireland and then stand behind a banner that explicitly rejects a central component of my constitutional identity?

That's why I was offended. Some of Mary Lou's supporters have suggested my "offence" doesn't really matter, because I wouldn't stay if there was a united Ireland.

That used to be my view; but about 18 months ago, I wrote that, rather than up sticks come what may, I would take part in any debate and consider my options in the event that I found myself on the "wrong side" of a border poll result.

When Mary Lou says she wants to hear from unionists "their fears", I can tell her that one of those fears is that she isn't actually serious about accommodating us in her "new Ireland".

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