We should welcome civic Unionism into the conversation, but we can all do better
The belief that only nationalists are progressive while Protestants and unionists are inherently nasty and bigoted is a tired trope.
In a letter published on the 26th February, 105 unionists in Northern Ireland called for an inclusive debate around rights and equality in Northern Ireland. The signatories say they represent “civic unionism” and included, amongst others, people like Trevor Ringland, Mike Nesbitt and Linda Ervine.
Overall the letter has been greeted positively with praise coming from republicans, nationalists and voices within unionism. Michelle O’Neill tweeted that it was “great to see more voices of civic opinion being expressed.” There’s widespread acknowledgement that it’s a good thing to see people within unionism step forward and say that rights and equality are not just a nationalist concern. As a small ‘u’ unionist and all round millennial snowflake, I agree. Rights are for all.
It’s wrong, as a few have done, to dismiss the letter out of hand. We should welcome civic unionism, if that’s how we’re going to define it, into the conversation. This moment is long overdue. But because I care about the issues at hand, and I want unionism to move forward in the right direction, I’d like the signatories to have a wider conversation. The content of the letter was good but there were gaps in the argument it put forward. DUP sized holes, if you will.
We’ve had a run of open letters recently; civic nationalist and civic unionist. The majority of the signatories have been men. If we really are trying to “build a society for the betterment of everyone”, is this the best we can do?
There’s no doubt that the latest letter is a positive development. Those who characterise unionism in its entirety as being backwards and inward looking do so because it suits their narrative.
Such a belief ignores history and erases the work of activists from unionist and loyalist backgrounds, particularly women. Linda Ervine has done fantastic work promoting the Irish Language in East Belfast. Dawn Purvis, another signatory, advocated for abortion rights long before mainstream republicans got on board.
A study published by the University of Liverpool in 2017 showed that pro union Protestants under the age of 40 are put off by conservative attitudes towards gay marriage and abortion. Unionists and Loyalists are far more liberal and open minded than they get credit for.
As Chris McGimpsey outlined on the Nolan show, there is more to unionism than the DUP. Conversations and debate need to take place outside Stormont bubble. When we talk about rights we should listen and include activists and local communities, not just the political class.
Not everybody in Northern Ireland identifies as a unionist or nationalist and we should listen to those voices as well.
But while I’m supportive of the letter, I did find one part worthy of a raised eyebrow: “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.”
The political crisis has led to the issue of rights being centred as a solely nationalist concern. That's understandable given the political crisis and the context in which nationalists are asking for things like language rights. Nonetheless, you can understand the signatories' frustration.
But is the problem entirely down to civic nationalism? No. There’s a distinction to be made between political unionism and what’s being called civic unionism. Political unionism has a lot to answer for.
At the moment the DUP are the only show in town. They get the most votes, garner the most attention and no other unionist party seems able to catch them. As the biggest unionist party the DUP are often granted the right to set the agenda. The DUP do not support an Irish language act, abortion reform, a bill of rights or equal marriage. When it comes to rights, the DUP are nowhere.
Rights haven’t just been painted as a nationalist issue by nationalism, but by political unionism as well. The DUP often speak as though they speak on behalf of every unionist in the country. Within political unionism any leader that sounds in any way conciliatory to nationalism is roundly derided. Anyone who happens to agree with Sinn Fein on rights is painted as a Lundy giving kudos to the republican cause.
Nobody seems willing to examine their own narratives. The issue of rights and equality are seen as a Trojan horse, a conspiracy to destroy the union. You wouldn’t know that ‘rights are for all’ from the way that political unionism has behaved the past few years.
If civic unionism feels that it has to respond to civic nationalism, it should also address its concerns towards Stormont. Unionism needs to have a word with itself.
More than anything, we should acknowledge that when it comes to equality and rights, Northern Ireland has always had a poor record. This country has a long history of appalling treatment towards the LGBT community. Women and pregnant people do not have bodily autonomy.
Only this past week CEDAW issued a report outlining how our restrictive abortion laws are failing women and pregnant people in Northern Ireland. According to Joseph Rowntree, one in five people in the United Kingdom are living in poverty. We can’t just discuss rights and equality through the prism of unionism and nationalism.
If we’re going to talk about equality then we also need to talk about issues like economic policy, poverty, housing and racism. Being inclusive doesn't mean nationalist and unionist white, middle class people from Northern Ireland.
Actions speak louder than words. A respectful discussion about rights and equality is welcome, but we need to need to have an honest conversation about where we are as a country. We shouldn’t look at Northern Ireland’s past with rose tinted glasses and accept that we need to do better.