A historic unionist seminar was held in the heart of Dublin yesterday – perhaps the first such event in a century.
The Ulster Unionist Party gathering took place at the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street, between St Stephen’s Green and Trinity College Dublin.
It was an occasion to examine the Easter Rising of 1916 from a unionist perspective, the party said.
The keynote speakers included former Royal Naval nuclear submarine commander Steve Aiken OBE, who is a UUP election candidate in South Antrim, and the academics Dr Graham Walker, Geoffrey Sloan and Jason Burke.
The afternoon (see video of it here) was hosted by South Antrim UUP MP Danny Kinahan and party leader Mike Nesbitt, and guests included the Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan.
Mr Kinahan introduced proceedings by pointing out that he had once worked for the auctioneers Christie’s as their Ireland rep.
“I am phenomenally lucky to have a lot of my life based in the arts and such wonderful surroundings as this,” he said, addressing the audience in the grand Georgian building that houses the academy.
He said that he had a traditional public school history in which Irish had “not been part of it, except when the Irish were irritating the British”.
He found that he had to learn Irish history when he came to Christie’s, because art and history are so closely linked.
Mr Kinahan talked about the mixed identities that so many people have on the island. He comes from an Irish merchant family from Cork family that went north, but he is also a de Burgh.
“I’m proud to be Irish, to be British and Northern Irish. It is a mixture and we are all a mixture in some ways.
“Today is a chance for us to examine the Easter Rising but from a unionist point of view.”
Mr Nesbitt echoed this when he talked about identity.
“Henry Joy McCracken, that leader of the 1798 Rebellion [and grandson of News Letter founder Francis Joy], was the son of Belfast traders, one parent of French Huguenot stock, the other Ulster Scots.
“My family were Belfast traders. Mum is a Hay, of Ulster Scot ancestry. The Nesbitts are French Huguenot in origin. I told that story recently, and an elected Sinn Fein politician contacted me to say his father’s ancestors were Planters.
“His mother’s side is native Irish, but isn’t that the point? Purity is a rarity.
“As I remember it, Brendan Beehan famously claimed that as a Dubliner he felt he had more in common with Liverpool or Manchester than the west of Ireland. Why wouldn’t he? Identity and territory are not the same.”
Mr Nesbitt said that he might still be in the family business if it had not been blown up by the IRA.
In other speeches, Professor Graham Walker, of Queen’s University in Belfast, spoke about ‘unionist politics during the Irish revolutionary period’.
He said that both nationalists and unionists at the time had become “separatist in their own way”.
The Easter Rising had reinforced that separatism among Ulster unionists, and it had also reinforced their militancy.
Mr Aiken spoke of his “genuine affection for the Irish defence forces”, who work closely with the British forces in places such as Africa.
“We are not here simply to be controversial,” Mike Nesbitt told his Dublin audience.
“We are here to offer an unapologetic unionist perspective on the event of 100 years ago; the causes, and the lasting consequences of what we call the Rebellion and Irish nationalists prefer to call the Rising.”
The Ulster Unionist leader said in his speech to the event that he suggested and organised: “As someone who believes there cannot be a common, agreed narrative for our troubled past, I accept others will promote their narrative. What I ask is that it is done in a respectful, dignified and honest manner, recognising the enduring impact on all sections of our community.
“That does not compromise my beliefs. Nor does it deny my right to challenge or disagree.”
Mr Nesbitt expanded on his theme of the complicated nature of identity.
“The idea of us being pure Gael or pure Brit seems both artificial and unhelpful. How many of us can claim unadulterated allegiance to one or other? I think we are mainly mixed in our identity.”
The one-time BBC sports presenter said: “Of the 108 MLAs elected to the last Northern Ireland Assembly, only two represented Ireland at sport. One was Caitriona Ruane of Sinn Fein; the other was – me!
“It was only Irish Schools athletics, but I am very proud to have worn the green singlet with the Shamrock and can claim, in those narrow terms, to be more Irish than many in Stormont!
“I certainly do not think it took away from my unionism, and much as I cherish our links with Great Britain, you will not find me cheering England, Scotland or Wales at the Aviva Stadium.”
Mr Nesbitt went on to say how he wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, “but I also want to be a good Irishman, a friendly neighbour and an honest trading partner”.
He added: “I look forward to going to the Somme in July. I go every year, to pay respects not just at Thiepval and the Ulster Tower, but also in Guillemot, where there is a service of commemoration for the 16th Irish Division.
“Two years ago, I was moved to see so many stand for three national anthems; those of France, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland’s search for a shared future, we sometime forget we have a shared past of service and sacrifice.”
• Asked if Mike Nesbitt was right in his belief that such a unionist event in Dublin was almost unique in 100 years, Charlie Flanagan said it probably was.
The Fine Gael foreign minster, who attended for much of the afternoon after he was able to get away from high-level Irish government negotiations to break the political deadlock in Dublin, told the News Letter: “I don’t have any recollection over the period of my lifetime of those events being marked here [in this way].”
He said that it was “timely and appropriate that the event was held in the RIA” so soon after the main Rising commemorations.
“I was very pleased to be here this afternoon, however brief, with ongoing government discussions [about forming an administration, that had caused him to miss the beginning of the seminar].
“I would like to commend the organisers and Mike Nesbitt in particular.
“It was an important and reflective event in the decade of centenaries – none of which can be taken in isolation.”
Arthur Griffin, Fianna Fail vice-president, said after the seminar: “It was interesting to hear a separate perspective.
“It was a good idea to do something like this.
“It was not everything that I would agree with but it was not a bad idea to have a mature reflection on a shared history.”