‘Civic unionism’ group issues riposte to ‘civic nationalism’

Signatories motivated by desire to build a better society in Northern Ireland

Ulster Unionist Assembly member Mike Nesbitt, former Ireland international Trevor Ringland and Rev John Dunlop. File photographs: The Irish Times/Inpho

Ulster Unionist Assembly member Mike Nesbitt, former Ireland international Trevor Ringland and Rev John Dunlop. File photographs: The Irish Times/Inpho

 

A “civic unionism” group of more than 100 people from various sections of Northern Irish society has challenged what it says is a nationalist assumption that qualities such as rights, truth and equality are not inherent within unionism.

In a riposte to two similar recent letters from “civic nationalism” in the North and South they have written a letter entitled: “A positive challenge to Northern nationalists”.

The 105 signatories say the letter is motivated by a desire to “build a society for the betterment of everyone”.

“We the undersigned desire a transparent and inclusive debate concerning rights, truth, equality and civil liberties and in so doing challenge assumptions that such values are not embedded within civic unionism, pluralism and other identities.”

The letter, as well as seeking to stimulate debate, is a reply to letters from civic nationalism in December and February to the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar calling on the Government to defend the legal, human and language rights of Irish citizens in the North, and warning that the British government’s deal with the DUP at Westminster has become a grave threat to political progress in the North.

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It also comes at a heightened period of political polarisation after the collapse of DUP-Sinn Féin talks aimed at restoring the Northern Executive and Assembly.

Among the politicians, academics, clergy and business people and others who signed the civic unionism letter are Ulster Unionist Assembly members Doug Beattie and Mike Nesbitt, historians Peter Shirlow and John Bew, former Ireland rugby international Trevor Ringland, Presbyterian Minister Rev John Dunlop and cartoonist Brian Spencer.

Dr James Wilson from Derry said he organised the letter over a short period of 72 hours from last Wednesday, securing 105 signatories.

The group was committed to engaging with all sections of society, he said. “The aim of this text is not only to remind our nationalist neighbours that we exist, but to challenge both them and the Dublin and also British government to join with us in pursuit of that many civic values and beliefs that we share,” said Dr Wilson on Monday.

The letter states that creating a better society “cannot happen when such a commitment is perceived as being vested in one community or political persuasion”.

“We find it frustrating and puzzling that civic unionism, pluralists and other forms of civic leadership have been rendered invisible in many debates focused on rights and responsibilities.

“It has reduced our capacity to be heard and undermines the power of reconciliation to shift society away from stale and limiting notions of identity,” it adds. “We have worked for peace and reconciliation and in so doing have had open and transparent engagement with civic nationalism.

“That has included recognition of the need for equality and most importantly the urgent need for polarised communities in Northern Ireland to reconcile and deal with barriers to a better future.”

The letter states that “civic unionism and other identities are not resistant to claims of equality and full citizenship.”

“These identities are central to the development of an authentically fair and tolerant society.”

It adds: “We wish to unite, not divide, and in encouraging transparency we call upon civic nationalism and others to engage with us in frank and fulsome debates about the many values and beliefs that are commonly shared and are vital to transforming the issues that we face”.

Dr Wilson in a note explaining the impetus for the letter said in recent years a group of Northern Ireland civic unionists, Greens, socialists and non-aligned activists have “engaged in both difficult and constructive conversations” with Sinn Féin and other sections of civic nationalism.

“Via these conversations we gained the impression that we were equals in terms of the expression of rights, equalities, civil liberties and reconciliation,” he said.

Dr Wilson referring to the letters from civic nationalism said it was “puzzling” that these letters did not mention those with an “alternative constitutional allegiance or identity who share similar or related concerns about rights, reconciliation and civil liberties”.

Full text of the letter: A Positive Challenge to Northern Nationalists

“We the undersigned desire a transparent and inclusive debate concerning rights, truth, equality and civil liberties and in so doing challenge assumptions that such values are not embedded within civic unionism, pluralism and other identities.

We are motivated by the desire to build a society for the betterment of everyone. This cannot happen when such a commitment is perceived as being vested in one community or political persuasion. We find it frustrating and puzzling that civic unionism, pluralists and other forms of civic leadership have been rendered invisible in many debates focused on rights and responsibilities. It has reduced our capacity to be heard and undermines the power of reconciliation to shift society away from stale and limiting notions of identity.

We have worked for peace and reconciliation and in so doing have had open and transparent engagement with civic nationalism. That has included recognition of the need for equality and most importantly the urgent need for polarised communities in Northern Ireland to reconcile and deal with barriers to a better future. To achieve this requires the recognition that withholding truth presents as such. This is not unique to any institution or section within our society but where it is a selective process, healing a pernicious and destabilising past remains as a challenge to us all.

Civic unionism, and other identities are not resistant to claims of equality and full citizenship. These identities are central to the development of an authentically fair and tolerant society.

We wish to unite, not divide, and in encouraging transparency we call upon civic nationalism and others to engage with us in frank and fulsome debates about the many values and beliefs that are commonly shared and are vital to transforming the issues that we face.”

Signatories

1. Brian Acheson

2. Ian Acheson

3. Irwin Armstrong

4. Arthur Aughey

5. Stuart Aveyard

6. John Barry

7. Doug Beattie

8. John Bew

9. Elizabeth Boyd

10. Gavin Boyd

11. William Boyd

12. Glenn Bradley

13. Michael Briggs

14. Daniel Brown

15. Jonathan Burgess

16. Paul Burgess

17. Jason Burke

18. Alison Campbell

19. Stevie Campbell

20. Lesley Carroll

21. Jim Crothers

22. Jonny Currie

23. Vince Curry

24. Glenda Davies

25. James Dingley

26. Brian Dougherty

27. Jeffrey Dudgeon

28. John Dunlop

29. Janice Dunwoody

30. Aaron Edwards

31. William Ennis

32. Brian Ervine

33. Linda Ervine

34. Isabella Evangelisti

35. Neil Faris

36. Albert Flanagan

37. Dean Farquhar

38. Stewart Finn

39. John W Foster

40. James Gallacher

41. Richard Garland

42. Brian Garrett

43. James Greer

44. Trevor Hamilton

45. Barry Hazley

46. Helen Henderson

47. Maureen Hetherington

48. Chris Hudson

49. Fiona Hutchinson

50. Mark Irvine

51. Kathryn Johnston

52. Georgina Kee-McCarter

53. James Kee

54. Julia Kee

55. Lauren Kerr

56. John Kyle

57. Paul Leeman

58. David McAloanen

59. Chris McGimpsey

60. Shirley McMichael

61. Lesley Macaulay

62. William Matchett

63. Andrew Mawhinney

64. Lindsay Millar

65. Lewis Montgomery

66. Derek Moore

67. Pamela Moore

68. Steve Moore

69. Gareth Mulvenna

70. Mike Nesbitt

71. George Newell

72. Hannah Niblock

73. Russell Orr

74. Jenny Palmer

75. John Palmer

76. Len Peace

77. Claire Pierson

78. Andy Pollak

79. Catherine Pollock

80. Dawn Purvis

81. David Ramsey

82. Chris Reid

83. Stafford Reynolds

84. Trevor Ringland

85. John Shackels

86. David Shaw

87. Stephanie Shaw

88. Peter Shirlow

89. Frank Shivers

90. Philip Smith

91. David Smyth

92. Neil Southern

93. Brian Spencer

94. David Stewart

95. John Stewart

96. Robin Stewart

97. Kyle Thompson

98. Brian W Walker

99. Garth Watson

100. David Whiteside

101. Robert Williamson

102. Steve Williamson

103. Andrew Wilson

104. James Wilson

105. Terence Wright