In recent months there have been three letters sent to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar regarding the rights of citizens in the north/Northern Ireland. The first two were from “civic nationalism”, the third from “civic unionism, pluralism and other identities”.
These letters have been widely reported, and have provoked commentary on our airwaves and online. I first learned of the third letter from the Slugger O’Toole article by Brian Walker, who revealed he signed it as someone who is “non-aligned”, i.e. neither unionist nor nationalist. My instinctual response was not so much to the letter’s content, or even that some political signatories have been ‘on the wrong side of history’. Instead, I was pleased that there was a plurality to the signatories, that it was not a unionist response to nationalists. I welcomed the visibility it brought to ‘other identities’ – which is vital in the aim of equality.
Since then I’ve read and heard a great deal of coverage showing little or no regard to the pluralists and other identities. I last wrote an article for this site in October, critiquing the media and political discourse around the Cantrell Close intimidation as sectarian, and showing bias toward ‘two communities’. The media and political reaction to this letter took this bias further.
‘Two communities’ identity bias.
The majority of media headlines focused only on unionists, with some including nationalists. It was the lead story on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph. The huge headline read “Unionists: we have a stake in rights too”, followed with a subheading “105 key figures sign pro-union lobby letter seeking debate that crosses sectarian divide”. This was also the case with online reports from the Belfast Telegraph (6 articles), Irish Times (3), Irish News (1), and BBC NI (1).
Within these articles there are many examples of the letter being assigned to an exclusively unionist group. The Belfast Telegraph asks “who are the 105 ‘civic unionists’?”, BBC NI and the Irish News both reported “more than 100 unionists”, and the Irish Times called the signatories “a ‘civic unionism’ group”.
BBC Spotlight NI said it was from “a self-titled civic unionism group”. While the camera panned across the names of those who signed, Spotlight went on to report, “the civic unionist group says it wants to challenge assumptions that unionists are passive or opposed to equality and rights.” There was no mention of the other identities.
An article by Suzanne Breen in the Belfast Telegraph headlined the letter as “unionism’s ‘me too’ moment”. The article featured ‘unionism’ or ‘unionist’ a further ten times, and ‘nationalism’ or ‘nationalist’ five times, with no mention of any other identities. There was even an “either community” thrown in near the end.
Where the articles published, or quoted from, the letter itself, they do then reveal the diversity of identity. In some of the copy it is also evident, e.g. The Irish Times “initiative from civic unionism and others”. However, mostly these non-aligned identities are treated as detail, several paragraphs in, after the unionist/nationalist frame has been set.
Joint letter from Non-nationalists (except the British nationalists obviously)
Now for the credit where it’s due. While one front page of the News Letter featured “unionists reply to ‘civic letter’, nationalists told ‘we exist too’”, all three online articles represented the plurality. Firstly, the News Letter published the letter and signatory names, calling it a “joint letter” in the headline. The second article says the letter is from “civic unionists, but also from people who have other perspectives including socialism (people such as Brian Garrett) and environmentalism (people such as John Barry)”. While the third article’s headline and copy described the signatories as “non nationalist”, and said “more than 100 people from unionist and other backgrounds”.
Despite this distinction in reporting, the News Letter went on publish the concerns of one reader who titled his letter to the editor, “Letter by civic unionists looks like appeasement of SF tactics”, and described the signatories as “over 100 people, self-identifying as ‘civic unionists’.”
‘Unionists should challenge unionists, right?’
There has been a common point made about this letter – ‘why are civic unionists addressing nationalists rather than political unionism?’
Colm Dore and Suzanne Breen both questioned this, as have blog posts and many social media users.
I agree, but only for the actual unionists who signed. This criticism needs to consider the ‘non-aligned’ signatories, and that nationalism penned two letters – reportedly without seeking plurality.
It must be obvious by now, but I’m non-aligned, and in full support of a rights-based society. Indeed, I have lobbied unionist, nationalist and other party representation to have legislation changed regarding the use of religious “community background” to organise citizens for the census and in equality monitoring. Categorising people in this way treats religion as an ethnicity, and perpetuates a ‘sectarian consciousness’ noted by sociologists in the 1970s. It sees first generation atheists and some minority ‘other Christians’ treated as members of constructed Protestant and Catholic communities. This goes against the Ljubljana Guidelines on Integration of Diverse Societies, and I argue it breaches a minority right, namely Article 3 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
The political response
Some of the articles quoted reaction from Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood. Their statements are available on the party websites – “O’Neill welcomes voices of civic unionism on equality and rights debate”, and “Eastwood replies to civic unionism”.
As the headlines make clear, they both respond to unionism only, and in doing so fail to ‘respect all identities’.
“We want to get away from the old binary descriptions”
BBC Talkback dedicated 40 minutes to discussing the letter. (Spoiler: it’s a rollercoaster with a long dip.)
Prior to the show @BBCTalkback tweeted: “Civic unionism responds to calls by nationalists for a rights-based society. What do you think?”
In the introduction to the topics of the day, presenter William Crawley said, “civic unionists reply to nationalist concerns about equality and respect, by saying they care about equality too”. Followed by, “our top story coming up, your response to the letter from civic unionists saying they care just as much as everybody else about equality and respect. What would you say to them today?”.
When opening the discussion, the identities were expanded upon, as William said the letter was from “civic unionists, pluralists and people who are non-aligned”. The first contributor was Dr James Wilson, who was credited with coordinating the letter. James said it came about after a “series of conversations between members of civic unionism and others. And we felt that this original letter would appear to have rendered us as passive.”
The following exchange is very welcome:
William: “Though this letter is being described James as a letter from civic unionists, those signing the letter are a wider catchment. Shall I put it that way? You also have pluralists, people who are non-aligned as well.”
James: “Absolutely, I couldn’t describe it any better than that. I mean it’s not nice to be ignored. At the end of the day we want to get away from the old binary descriptions which are basically of tribal politics. The notion of civic politics transcends that, and that is why from the very beginning when other people said ‘I like the sound of what you are doing but I’m not a unionist’, we said ‘ok, you know, it’s not exclusive to unionists, no one tribe, group, ideology has any sort of monopoly on it’. And we welcomed them aboard, and we’re glad to have them, because at the end of the day it shows a sense of pluralism which is always healthy in a society.”
A unionist signatory, Trevor Ringland, and a ‘civic nationalist’ signatory to the first letter, Colm Dore, joined William for further discussion. For 30 minutes these contributors along with the listeners who spoke on air, and the text messages read out, focused almost exclusively on unionism and nationalism (in fairness to the listeners, they had been asked to respond to civic unionists at the top of the show). William went on to refer repeatedly to the “civic unionism letter”, he asked Trevor “does the letter say to nationalists, essentially, there are unionists who believe in those [rights]?”, and said “maybe we’ll get another letter, a jointly written civic nationalism and civic unionism letter.”
Toward the end of this half hour there was a caller who said some people are compelled to vote by tribe, even if they disagree with the party on equality and rights. He said he is “not a Catholic or a Protestant, or a Unionist or a Nationalist, or anything like that. Who’s representing me? Who’s representing people like me? Who’s writing my letter?”. Instead of reiterating that non-aligned people had signed this letter, William said, “when you write that letter, I’ll lead the programme with you.”
While there were no non-aligned guests in the studio, the final call was from one such signatory, journalist Kathryn Johnston. William welcomed her saying she had also “signed this civic unionism letter”. After a short discussion about Kathryn’s past civil rights activity, she explained “it is certainly not a letter from either the NI Civil Rights Association or from civic unionism. There are many people who have signed this letter who aren’t unionists, including myself”. William reflected this point well, identifying a frustration that “a different kind of perspective on these issues is simply not being heard in this society”. Kathryn agreed, adding that society is “much more diverse and pluralist than some people would like to see.”
Finally, from a non-aligned perspective, it was a little ironic that despite three quarters of the segment focusing on unionists and nationalists, it closed with Colm saying “we need to decommission the language of Orange and Green”.
Parity of esteem has to extend beyond the two prominent pillars of political consociation.
Rights are universal, equality doesn’t discriminate
I contacted Kathryn Johnston to tell her I was writing this review and asked if she would like to contribute. Kathryn responded, “There is a democratic deficit in Northern Ireland in 2018, just as there was a democratic deficit in 1968 when NICRA and other groups marched for our rights. Our rights are being challenged and withheld again now – and that affects all of us, whether you identify with a specific community or cultural background in the North of Ireland or not. Rights are universal. My great great grandfathers on both my mother’s and father’s side of the family fought for the United Irishmen at the Battle of Antrim. I’m proud to come from that tradition of interrogative dissent. Other than that, I am neither unionist nor nationalist, but pluralist, diverse and multi layered, as the overwhelming majority of our citizens are today. I stand with Angela Davis, who said, “Justice is indivisible. You can’t decide who gets civil rights and who doesn’t.””
My lived experience also finds this diversity of multi-layered identity. For instance, one place I find community is in St. George’s Market, where I have a Sunday market stall. We traders are a diverse community of minority identities with a common goal to make the market welcoming to all, successful, and sociable for each other. (A weekday market for MLAs?)
There are unionists and nationalists certainly, but that’s not necessarily their primary political identity. There are environmentalists, socialists, feminists, minority rights activists, conservatives, liberals, internationalists, the list goes on. And, of course, there are people who are disinterested, or turned off from politics.
When challenging binary unionist/nationalist media discourse, I often point to the NI Life and Times Survey. Since 1998 it has been asking “generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a unionist, a nationalist or neither?” In seven of the first eight years of the survey, the largest cohort responded ‘unionist’, but since 2006 ‘neither’ has been consistently the most frequent response. In 2016, 46% of the representative sample said ‘neither’, while 29% said unionist, and 24% nationalist.
I don’t know how many of the signatories are not unionist. James Wilson said there was interest from non-unionists “from the very beginning”, and said “no one tribe, group, ideology has any sort of monopoly on it”, the Newsletter’s terminology of “people such as” suggests there are multiple socialists and environmentalists, and Kathryn Johnston said non-unionists were “many”.
We don’t need to know how many are not unionists, even if they are a small minority, discounting them is perverse, especially when we are talking about equality, respect and rights. If you need to hear that in a different way, even the four ‘other identity’ signatories named above represent a greater proportion of the 105, than the NI population does in the UK.
The signatories said they want to “shift society away from stale and limiting notions of identity”.
Instead, plurality is disguised, identities are conflated and society is defined improperly. Much like when the census data for “religion or religion brought up in: Protestant and other Christian (including Christian related)” is interpreted and reported as “Protestant”.
Please, take off the blinkers. We need you to have a wider view to represent society.