Belfast Telegraph

Two exhortations, one of them all the more powerful for being the heartfelt plea of a lone voice

By Tom Kelly

There's a statue of the Chronicles of Narnia professor Digory Kirke near the Holywood Arches. The actual title of the CS Lewis character's sculpture is 'The Searcher.'

It's such an appropriate statue for Belfast that it should really be in the grounds of City Hall.

In a conflicted space such as Belfast, and indeed, Northern Ireland, those from competing identities are often searching for their own Narnia, not for each other, but for themselves and their own side.

If there's anything actually shared in this place, it's the combined failure in the narratives of both political unionism and nationalism to be able to walk in the shoes of the other side.

CS Lewis knew something of that when he wrote: "What you see and hear depends a great deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are."

Those words resonated strongly with me yesterday morning as I picked up my local newspapers. I noticed that two of the locals were running two very different open letters.

The Irish News headlined with a letter, which had been addressed to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and which was signed by 1,000 signatories, who self-defined as representing what they call civic nationalism. The letter expressed genuine and sincere fears held by many about Brexit and its impact on nationalists living in the North. There was a particular emphasis on human rights.

Sign In

The second letter was buried further into the Belfast Telegraph and was addressed directly to both the Sinn Fein vice president, Michelle O'Neill and DUP leader, Arlene Foster. It contained only one signature - that of Shankill Road bomb victim Alan McBride, who lost his wife Sharon and his father-in-law John Frizzell in that tragic event.

The McBride letter expressed frustration at the political impasse but it also contained the hope that the leaders of both parties would work together and make the North/Northern Ireland, the best it could be.

It struck me that sometimes a single solitary signature in a letter, from someone like Alan McBride with his honesty and simplicity, can be worth 10 times 1,000 signatures as a symbol in civic leadership.

Too much of what has happened (and is still happening) in Northern Ireland is viewed through a myopic lens. People are so conditioned by deeply ingrained and often subliminal sectarianism that, when combined with the pain of history, they only see things as they impact on their own community - not on all of society. That is why there is something quite unnerving about members of civic society dividing along cultural fault lines such as 'civic unionism' and 'civic nationalism'.

Northern Ireland has never needed more than now the best of civic society from all traditions to step forward and provide the collective leadership that is so missing from the political classes. If they don't, the fault lines of division and suspicion will only increase and that is to the detriment of all.

The letter on behalf of civic nationalism represents a degree of alienation felt by even moderate nationalists, not only as a result of Brexit but also because of the estrangement created by the recent hardline approach of the DUP. This letter is the outworking of that sense of grievance, even if some of the demands are beyond the gift of this or any other Taoiseach.

But back to Alan McBride and his open letter. In some ways, his letter is more reflective of the silent majority in Northern Ireland, who live, work and play together as good neighbours. The aspirations Alan has for his daughter are the aspirations we all share for our own children and the children of others.

Despite the trauma that Alan McBride has experienced he has stepped out from the mental ghetto that we all find ourselves in from time to time and he has glimpsed life from the other side. He is showing a generosity of spirit that is fast slipping away from our political dialogue.

If we could harness the goodwill of the thousand signatories with the vision of Alan McBride, it may just be possible, to create a fairer, more just society for all.

Tom Kelly is a political commentator

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph