Message from nationalist ‘gurn-fest’ will surely upset unionism

1,500 turn up for well-organised Belfast conference on future of Ireland

Literature on display at the “Beyond Brexit  – The Future of Ireland”  event in Belfast at the weekend. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Literature on display at the “Beyond Brexit – The Future of Ireland” event in Belfast at the weekend. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

It is reasonable to assume that the majority of the 1,500-strong crowd at the weekend conference in Belfast, “Beyond Brexit – The Future of Ireland” , were Sinn Féin supporters. But this wasn’t solely a Sinn Féin ardfheis by another name – all sections of nationalism were represented in the room.

The well-organised conference included a glossy 30-page programme where the back page was given over to a picture of the Taoiseach and his December 2017 message to Northern nationalists: “You will never again be left behind by an Irish government.” That set the grumbling mood for the day.

It seemed clear too from the conference that nationalist horizons have extended and that the idea of a united Ireland being achieved in the medium term is now a real goal of a considerable body of nationalism.

Upset unionism

It’s a message that surely will upset unionism, but then again another message from the day as explicitly expressed by the organiser, Belfast solicitor Niall Murphy, is that unionism has only itself to blame for the current changes, uncertainties and tensions.

Murphy, capturing the essential theme of the day, said “Brexit has changed everything” while referring to what he called the “DUP’s sneering contempt for parity of esteem” and the Irish language - a contempt, he felt, that was exacerbated by DUP MP Gregory Campbell’s “curry my yoghurt” take on the language and the DUP’s “cancellation of microscopic bursaries for the Donegal Gaeltacht”.

And he did a bit of his own currying of unionism, so to speak, by describing Northern Ireland as a “micro-jurisdiction”.

Alarmed

Essentially this was nationalism speaking to nationalism although there were few people in the hall from a unionist or Protestant background. Unionist politicians weren’t invited but they will have heard the message nonetheless, and will have been alarmed by it.

Southern politicians including Minister for Education Joe McHugh and Fianna Fail’s Dara Calleary, who spoke at the conference, will have detected the irate and sullen tones of some of the nationalist speakers, and they too will have had messages to bring back to Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin: a message saying that a significant element of Northern nationalism is deeply unhappy and will need pacifying and placating.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, who also spoke, was delighted with the message and surely feels that the day reinforced her repeated call for a Border poll on a united Ireland and the speedy convening of a forum to begin planning for Irish unity.

Not everyone from a Northern nationalist background was enamoured of the occasion. Tom Kelly, a Northern Ireland businessman and leading Remainer campaigner, refused to attend because he saw it as a nationalist “gurn-fest” – Northern Ireland for moan-fest.

The Belfast-based journalist Eamonn Mallie was listed to speak on the programme but he pulled out because he was unhappy that the speakers did not reflect Northern Ireland society. He had requested there be a more balanced panel of speakers.

Lower the temperature

In terms of Northern voices therefore it was left to SDLP leader Colum Eastwood to try to lower the temperature a little. This wasn’t 1968 and nationalists weren’t second-class citizens, he reminded the audience.

“Those who have deliberately inflamed the narrative that unionism as a whole is unchanging, don’t believe in rights, and can’t be worked with – those people are wrong,” he said in challenging what appeared to be the dominant thought of the day.

“We all have a duty to tell our unionist neighbours: ‘You belong to this place every bit as much as I do – therefore you have the very same right to shape the future of this island,’” he added.

In other words, more calm, more thought to the two communities, less volatile rhetoric, which in Northern Ireland always is good advice.

Still, the big message from Saturday was that the Northern nationalist mood of resentment, annoyance and frustration needs to be heeded.

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