Belfast Telegraph

Why pan-nationalist front letter is needlessly alarmist and provocative ... striking back against a 'threat' that doesn't exist

Rack his brains though he might, John Foster is at a loss to identify the human rights which the missive's 200 signatories claim they're being denied

Professor Phil Scraton and 199 co-signatories have written a letter that is the cry of a people in exile and bondage. The letter alleges a deprivation of equality, respect and human rights suffered by much of the population of Northern Ireland that is so serious and appalling that they felt the need to write to the political head of the neighbouring state.

Perhaps Professor Scraton, or Niall Murphy, a solicitor, as high-profile signatories among the 200 "key" nationalists, as the Belfast Telegraph called them, could particularise the inequality, disrespect and withholding of human rights they suffer from professionally, publicly or privately.

Both enjoy the freedom to vote, freedom of worship, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom to work, freedom to learn and speak the Irish language. Both enjoy professional respect, as evidenced by their career standings.

Only two inflictions come to my mind. In the democratically conducted EU referendum in the United Kingdom, I presume they cast their vote for the losing side, but I cannot be sure of that since the anonymous ballot is a keystone of Western democracy.

Yet they retain the freedom to attempt to impede, amend or reverse the complex ramifications of that democratic vote and to persuade Leave voters that they have made a mistake and should lobby for a second referendum. Indeed, the freedom to sign a contentious letter addressed publicly to a political figure outside the jurisdiction. So, the "human rights" withheld wholesale from them escape me, though I cudgel my brains.

Professor Scraton is quoted as identifying Brexit as the instigating motive for his signature below a letter to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

But if that were the sum of the matter, surely he can exercise the freedom I have identified. Other Remainers in the UK are doing so, vigorously.

And should that fail, is anyone sure in this period of adjustment that an Irish passport-holder in the UK will be deprived of the benefits of EU membership?

And surely if Brexit were the nub, pro-Union Remainers would have been lobbied to sign the letter. Were they? Or was Mr Murphy concerned exclusively with the perceived plight of northern nationalists, knowing that few - if any - unionists who voted Remain were indirectly voting for a more unified Ireland in the event of Brexit?

To interpret a Remain vote as invariably that, to co-opt unionist Remainers as sleeping co-signatories of the letter ("a majority of voters in the north of Ireland voted to remain within the EU"), is surely a sleight of hand.

Moreover, the professor's quoted use, in the Irish News, of yesteryear's provocative code-phrase "Six Counties" suggests that the letter has another fish to fry, does it not? Which brings us to the other infliction and the heart of the matter. The signatories refrain from locating "Northern Ireland" even as the venue of their exile. They choose, instead, to use the more familiar code-phrase "the north of Ireland" and so signal their non-recognition of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland - indeed, even of the regional autonomy of the Six Counties (so, lower-case "n", upper-case "I").

That interpretation comes unbidden when Mr Murphy, attempting, rightly, to be specific on the BBC, repeats planks in Sinn Fein's platform: language equality, marriage equality and the failure to fund inquests into certain killings during what are euphemistically called "the Troubles". Chances are, Sinn Fein are "the others" merely alluded to in the letter who are calling for this trio of rights.

This invites us to see the letter to the Taoiseach (below) as a new form of pan-nationalism, this one social and cultural, rather than party political.

But Newton Emerson's suggestion, in the Irish Times, that the letter instantly sidelines Sinn Fein appears wishful thinking.

The one right (and, as far as I understand, the only right) the signatories are deprived of as UK citizens (and the signatories are entitled to dual citizenship) is the right to live on the island of Ireland entirely outside the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom.

However, the only way that right could be fully honoured, in the short term, is for my own right to live in the United Kingdom while dwelling in Ireland to be removed. Unsurprisingly, there is a limit to one's genuine sympathy when one's citizenship is in the balance.

This is a complexity, perhaps even a tragedy, of almost a century's standing.

I remember a northern Catholic artist telling me (before the ceasefires and Belfast Agreement) that she hated the Republic because it deserted her and hers in 1922. I felt her sincere pain. The sadness of an abandoned people is there in the stories of Michael McLaverty. But that was then and this is now.

Mr Emerson refers to Mr Murphy's despairing nationalists. I suspect, alas, that those nationalists would not even wish to hear about despairing unionists, who sincerely believe that they have given much ground in the past 45 years, yet are harried without let-up by Sinn Fein to this day.

Yet try as I might, I cannot fathom nationalist despair. For since 1973 I have witnessed alterations in the governance and constitutional status of Northern Ireland that, rather than copper-fastening the Union and dissing the Irish "cultural traditions" to which the letter refers, have, in fact, increasingly admitted those once-excluded traditions into the Northern Ireland public sphere in ways that once would have been unthinkable.

If this sounds like condescending reluctance, remember the context.

My memories of Northern Ireland go back to the 1950s.

Northern Ireland has sea-changed and in terms of social class, education, religion and political representation, the changes have happily been, on the whole, predominantly in one direction - towards the very equality and respect the signatories claim to be absent, towards (outside enclaves on each side) a greater inclusivity and harmony.

The claim that it is otherwise can surely only be justified in diehard political terms and hardly at all in cultural terms. As for the symbolic heart of Irish cultural tradition, the Irish language (the letter begins "A Thaoisigh, a chara"), are Catholics (or Protestants for that matter) prevented, or even dissuaded, from learning, speaking or writing the language?

As a cultural historian, I am happy to recount the extraordinary alterations in Northern Ireland. They seem to me to have been more often colour-coded green than blue.

Surely, statistics would show that Catholics are firmly and proportionately represented in the professions and the public sector (and in some cases, as in the student bodies of the two universities, over-represented)? Can the signatories point to continuing, systemic anti-Catholic discrimination in the civic and public spheres?

If not, then the only discrimination they can justifiably point to is discrimination against those who wish, without qualification, to live in the north of Ireland absolutely free of the UK.

That is discrimination not against Catholics, but against republicans and, for the foreseeable future, it seems, with all the will in the world, unavoidable.

But, since Northern Ireland might be regarded optimistically as a work in progress, who knows what the long haul might yield? I say "Catholics" reluctantly, for I am uneasy with ethnic-religious categories, as distinct from political categories.

But we are required by the law in the public sphere to headcount using these categories. And this conflates Catholic with nationalist and, by doing so, distorts the picture of our society.

I know Catholics who are happy to live in the UK and don't particularly wish to live in a unified Ireland. They are a forgotten constituency. I assume none signed the letter to the Taoiseach.

I find the letter needlessly alarmist and provocative. It assumes a fightback posture almost entirely unrelated to the actual threat.

If in the matter of Brexit, it is, shall we say, a bit previous, then beyond Brexit, surely it obstructs our ongoing communal attempt to fashion a liveable society.

John Foster is Emeritus Professor, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

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