“A Rubicon has been crossed in the north: civic nationalism finds its voice” – by Declan Kearney


A deep anger has been growing within northern nationalism against the denial of rights. It is shared by many other progressive minded citizens.

The sneering disrespect of the DUP and other sections of political unionism towards the Irish cultural tradition and nationalist and republican identity in particular has been a lightening rod for that discontent.

However, huge annoyance and frustration also exist about the refusal of marriage equality rights; the denial of legacy inquest rights and opposition to dealing with the past by the British state; the failure to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement or introduce a Bill of Rights; and, most recently the imposition of Brexit – as well as the overall and deepening political crisis.

The role of the British Tory government and DUP political alliance have been increasingly identified as the blockage to political progress and achieving a sustainable resolution.

So the public intervention by over 200 figures from within civic nationalism this week in the form of an open letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was not surprising.

It represents the most powerful and significant political initiative to be taken by civic nationalism in many decades, and probably since the hunger strikes of 1981.

A fundamental shift has occurred within northern nationalism.

The reaction from within political unionism and the unionist media exposes a complete lack of understanding of what has happened.  It is in part reflected by the increased electoral support for Sinn Féin. The reality is Sinn Féin now represents over 70% of northern nationalists. Republicans are no longer politically or socially ghettoised. They populate every walk of life and area in the north. Sinn Féin’s political vision has broad appeal.

Nationalism has no confidence in the British government to act with impartiality or to discharge its obligations as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. Its confidence in whether political unionism is serious about powersharing, parity of esteem, equality, or reconciliation has been shattered.

Next April marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It set down fundamental benchmarks for political progress, including the need for powersharing and partnership government, equality provisions, parity of esteem for all political and cultural identities, and the right of all citizens to live free from sectarian harassment.

Nationalism and republicanism invested completely in that vision of transformation.

The political conflict was brought to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The IRA embarked on a new mode, left the stage, and ended its armed campaign.  That was over 12 years ago.

Notwithstanding the new political dispensation political unionism has been pushing back against the spirit and principles of the Good Friday Agreement ever since.

The current crisis in the north did not come out of nowhere.

It is the culmination of political unionism’s refusal to embrace the vision and promise of the peace process.

Since 2010 the British Tory government has acquiesced to the anti-equality and anti-democratic backlash from the DUP, UUP and others.

The political partnership between the Tory government and DUP has become formalised and unambiguous since the British general election since last June. That in itself introduced another major set back for the political process.

The DUP and British government are directly responsible for the political crisis in the north and lack of progress in the delivery of rights and implementing past agreements. That is the strongly held view within popular nationalist opinion. That is the message clearly expressed by civic nationalism.

What has now been brought sharply into focus is whether political unionism can accept and co-exist in partnership with the Irish cultural tradition, and nationalist and republican identity.

All of the evidence suggests otherwise.

Fifty years ago the civil rights campaign was launched in the north of Ireland. Its modest demands to secure equal rights for all citizens were met with violence and political opposition.

The leaders of political and civic nationalism in the north today are the children and grandchildren of those who campaigned for civil rights.

In the face of resistance to change from the DUP, political unionism and the British government, an equality revolution has started. There is momentum behind the demands for full delivery of rights for all citizens. The letter to An Taoiseach from within civic nationalism shows it will not be going away.

Eamon Mallie the journalist, was right to say that the campaign for an Irish language act is a present day metaphor for the ‘one person, one vote’ demand of 50 years ago.

The failure of the latest and longest round of Stormont talks highlights the stark reality that the Good Friday Agreement now faces its greatest ever threat. The viability of the political process itself, and future of the northern political institutions look set to be continuously challenged by the shared unionist objectives of this British government and political unionism.

This throws up the prospect of protracted political crisis in the north.That would be an untenable situation.

Wider civic society alongside political parties opposed to financial scandals and which support powersharing government with anti-sectarianism at its core are representative of the majority view here.

Civic nationalism has now begun to politically mobilise in a way which reflects its confidence and influence at all levels of Irish society.  It has indeed found its voice, as the commentators Chris Donnelly and Jude Collins have perceptibly observed.

The urgent appeal from civic nationalists to the Irish government identifies its strategic responsibility in addressing the causes of the political crisis, and applying the required political pressure to secure an acceptable political resolution.

For that to happen the Irish government must replicate the same robust approach towards the political process in the north displayed in recent times towards the Brexit issue. That was a stance which found enormous traction within wider nationalism across the island. Northern nationalism is now clearly asserting that this is what is required.

A Rubicon has been crossed in the north. The intervention this week is further evidence of that.

The future of the peace process and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement must not be shackled by the DUP and the Tory government.

Civic nationalism, wider civic society and progressive political parties all have a crucial role to ensure their retrograde agenda is stopped.

Progressives and democrats need to stand together on the common ground of supporting the Good Friday Agreement, equality, rights, and opposition to Brexit.

The strategic political influence of the international community especially from North America and Europe is now more important than ever to ensure the integrity of the peace process and its transformational role are protected.

An Taoiseach and An Tánaiste should listen very carefully to what is being said by civic nationalism.

In the absence of political progress in the north, the Irish government should act decisively and convene an urgent meeting of the Inter-Governmental Conference, and bring forward proposals to ensure full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and secure the rights of all citizens in the north of Ireland.


8 thoughts on ““A Rubicon has been crossed in the north: civic nationalism finds its voice” – by Declan Kearney

  1. Rather repetitive and rambling – some relevant points but took an age to make them over and over again!

    Can we please have less of this insular navel gazing, and remember we are 21st century Europeans, not 19th century gombeens.

  2. Worth recalling that Foster, Donaldson and others of their ilk left the UUP and joined Paisley’s crew in opposing the GFA. They were never in favour of treating the Irish and republican traditions with anything other than the sneering contempt which finally forced Sinn Fein to catch up with its base and exercise the only power they possess in current circumstances which is to deny power to those unsuited to exercising it. The Rubicon has been crossed “Alea icta est”.

  3. I see that unionist remainers are now no longer relevant to civic nationalism except to be quoted as being part of the majority in the north who voted to leave-might make a few of them go for Leave as they apparantly have no place in civic nationalism’s view of what the future should be.The letter to Leo now makes Leaving the EU an Orange/Green issue>the cross community consensus to remain is no more.

  4. What is significant is the number of nationalists who were not asked to sign, or who refused to sign. 200 is a pathetic number, against the probable one million unionists of all creeds, who know which side they favour.
    This is megaphone diplomacy at its worst, in a vacuum created by SF abstentionism.

  5. Excellent initiative.

    Nationalists would be absolutely nuts to go back to Stormont while the DUP/British Conservative Party deal is in place.

    Forget it.

    The hardline Brexiteers and the hardline DUP are trying to engineer a hard Border. In fact, as we all know, the DUP would gladly build a Concrete Wall from Derry to Newry – provided they could get London to pay for it.
    The Government of Ireland will continue to speak for the majority of people in Ireland who are pro-EU and who are pro-GFA and it is excellent to see the EU fully support Ireland in insisting that there will be no return to any kind of hard border in Ireland.

  6. If anyone really believes that a letter to the Taoiseach is going to galvanise government support in the south for the nationalist cause in the north, they are deluding themselves. I can hear Jack Lynch’s words echoing back from 1969 – ‘ We will not stand idly by’, which is precisely what they did for 30 years, terrified that ‘The Troubles’ would spill over into their jurisdiction.
    Sadly, Northern nationalists and republicans have few friends.The EU will sell them short in the end, and the US offers lukewarm support at best.Their strongest card is Civil Rights but haven’t we been here before? Burntollet and all that….

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