McCallister: Unionism and a shared future

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Below is the full and unedited speech by John McCallister

“Beyond ‘separate but equal’: Unionism and a shared future”

“The whole map of Europe has been changed ... but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again”.

Winston Churchill spoke those words 91 years ago next month.

91 years on, it is not the steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone, but the streets of Belfast.

The deluge of which Churchill spoke was the First World War.

The contemporary world has experienced its own deluge - the crippling global economic recession.

Against this background, however, television cameras and journalists from across Europe and North America are again on the streets of Belfast ...

Not talking about investment opportunities, excellent universities and colleges of further education, and dynamic small businesses ...

But reporting disorder, violence, attacks on police, division and discord.

It no doubt makes dreary viewing for many - it certainly is utterly disheartening for the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland ...

When we know that the focus of political leadership should be on addressing severe economic challenges rather than picking up the pieces after street violence.

Perceptions of unionism

What we have seen on our televisions, however, is not unionism.

The protests closing roads and hurting businesses ...

The masked rioters attacking the police ...

None of this is unionism.

This is the work of a faction within Loyalism, no more than a few hundred people - they cannot even pretend to speak for all in the Loyalist tradition.

It is no more representative of unionism than was the violence of the Provisional IRA.

Just as the Provisional IRA was a corruption of nationalism ...

So this violence and intimidation is a corruption of unionism.

Last year we commemorated the centenary of unionism’s founding charter, the Ulster Covenant.

The Covenant’s values were those of “equal citizenship”, “material well-being”, “civil and religious freedom”.

These are the very values under attack from illegal protests and street violence.

Away from the television cameras, real unionism is to be seen elsewhere.

It is to be seen amongst some of the small business owners, struggling in a already difficult economic situation to keep going.

It is to be seen amongst some of the parents trying to explain to their children why the violence on the streets is not the only future for Northern Ireland.

It is to be seen amongst the nurses, doctors and staff who maintain our National Health Service while roads are blocked and buses burnt.

It is to be seen amongst some of the police officers, bravely upholding law and order against masked thugs.

No, not every business owner or parent or health service worker or police officer has pro-Union views.

But it is there that you will find real unionism, authentic unionist values ...

Amongst those who make Northern Ireland work ...

Who support law and order ...

Who believe in tolerance and respect for others ...

And who believe in a shared future for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

The Union Flag

When Belfast City Council voted to stop flying the Union Flag from City Hall 365 days a year, moving to 18 designated days, the majority of unionists saw it as an unnecessary step - but not the apocalypse.

There would have been a willingness within wider unionism to discuss reasonable, sensible alternatives to 365 days.

The vote followed an attempt by Sinn Fein and - unfortunately - the SDLP to prohibit entirely the flying of the Union Flag at City Hall.

In truth, neither the nationalist nor the unionist political parties acted as they should have done.

Could the unionist parties have reacted differently to the proposal of flying the flag on designated days?

Yes they could - a move from 365 days could and should have been accommodated.

Should the nationalist parties have abandoned the divisive attempt to entirely remove the Union Flag?

Of course they should have - seeking to find common ground with unionist fellow-citizens rather than opting for a sectarian zero-sum game.

All signatories to the Good Friday Agreement endorsed the following:

“The present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish.”

Agreeing to the reasonable flying of the Union Flag is not about triumphalism or denying Irish identity.

Nor is it a cultural statement.

It is an expression of the values of the Good Friday Agreement - of consensus and consent.

It is not a rejection of nationalism’s honoured and respected place in Northern Ireland.

Nationalist parties sit in the power-sharing Executive.

They are mechanisms which provide for participation in Dail Eireann.

There are robust North-South institutions.

People in Northern Ireland can hold Irish passports.

To suggest, in light of all of this, that the flying of the Union Flag on public buildings somehow marginalises Northern nationalists is, frankly, nonsense.

On the common ground of the values of the Good Friday Agreement, sharing it values of consensus and consent, unionists and nationalists should be - must be - able to agree on the reasonable flying of the Union Flag from public buildings.

A Forum for a Shared Future

It is deeply disappointing that amidst the tensions, violence and divisions over the past weeks, there has only been one rather lack-lustre meeting of all the parties in Northern Ireland.

The outcome of that meeting was a press-release empty of meaningful content.

Instead, a different and divisive dynamic has taken root.

The two nationalist parties have met together to discuss their views.

The Unionist Forum has been created to draw together various strands of unionist opinion.

I cannot help but think that both of these events are pointing Northern Ireland in the wrong direction.

Unionists speaking to unionists ...

Nationalists speaking to nationalists.

Surely what is now required is unionism, nationalism and others meeting together ...

Talking and debating together ...

Not circling the wagons and only talking to ‘our’ own ‘tribe’.

Speaking as a convinced unionist, I am particularly aware of the dangers tribalism poses for unionism.

When unionism chooses the path of reactionary retreat into itself, the cause of the Union is undermined.

Unionism ends up talking only to the already persuaded.

It is entirely self-defeating, abandoning the hope of building up support for the Union from across the community.

What is more, it reinforces the hard lines of tribalism within Northern Ireland, preventing our politics from breaking free of sectarian identities.

There is another path for unionism, the path taken in 1998 ...

When a confident, generous unionism reaches out to build support for a peaceful, stable Northern Ireland within the Union.

Rather than circling the wagons and talking to itself, unionism should be bold and progressive ...

Generously but robustly urging nationalist and republicans to work out what a shared future looks like within the settlement achieved in 1998.

And so, yes, I do think that the Unionist Forum is potentially a cul-de-sac for unionism.

At a time when support for Irish unity is historically low ...

When the partnership between Dublin and Belfast is positive ...

When the focus in both parts of the island is not the dreams of Gerry Adams but rather the hard reality of building social and economic opportunity for all, North and South ...

Unionism has no business retreating behind barricades - whether metaphorical or physical.

Rather than the divisive carve-up of unionist unity and nationalist unity, Northern Ireland needs political leadership to deliver a Forum for a Shared Future ...

A Forum for a Shared Future in which the sectarian visions of both dissident republicanism and dissident loyalism are confronted with a positive alternative.

This positive alternative would address the issues around flags and symbols within the parameters sets by the Good Friday Agreement ...

Recognising both the “freely exercised and legitimate” wish of a majority in Northern Ireland to maintain the Union and, thus, “Northern Ireland’s status as a part of the United Kingdom” ...

While also affirming and recognising the Irish identity of the nationalist tradition within Northern Ireland.

In the absence of such a Forum for a Shared Future ...

With the leaders of unionism retreating into a unionist-only bunker and the leaders of nationalism retreating into a nationalist-only bunker ...

The irony is that the disorder and violence of the past few weeks will have succeeded in re-sectarianising Northern Ireland politics, dragging us back to a level of political division not seem for some years.

Whatever happens, this much is clear - the status quo cannot be an option.

Unionism and nationalism cannot act as if the world has not witnessed the division and violence of the past weeks ...

Or as if community relations within Northern Ireland have not been hurt and damaged.

There is now an urgent need for both unionism and nationalism to unequivocally demonstrate that a return to ‘business as normal’ cannot be countenanced.

Changing the political landscape

Commenting on the violence and divisions seen on the streets of Belfast one church leader said this:

“The truth is that Northern Ireland has lived for some years with a kind of peace, which is largely the absence of violence. However, we have not given ourselves adequately to finding a way of real peace which involves the development of a shared vision for the whole community”.

This is the status quo to which we cannot, must not, now return.

It is likely that the next elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly will be in 2016.

That gives the political parties in Northern Ireland three years to act.

Three years in which to take actions which will decisively build “a shared vision for the whole community”.

Any sense of simply returning to ‘business as normal’ will betray the silent majority who reject the way of violence and division ...

And condemn a new generation to a community divided and unreconciled.

As for the outside world - the world whose television screens have reported violence again on Belfast streets ...

Investors and tourists, those considering business opportunities, those looking at research in our universities ...

They will want - indeed, need - to see Northern Ireland’s political landscape definitively change.

There is an argument for the Northern Ireland Executive now revising its Programme for Government.

To continue with what we have, to pretend as if the rest of these islands and the rest of the world has not witnessed the scenes of violence and disorder, is foolishness in the extreme.

What is now required from the Executive and the Assembly are clear, decisive actions which will begin the work of building a shared future for Northern Ireland.

I want to suggest three areas in which I personally think progress is urgently required.

Promoting Shared Education

Firstly, shared education.

I agree with First Minister Peter Robinson.

He has said: “The reality is that our education system is a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society ... We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately.”

Now, I entirely understand that some within the Catholic community in Northern Ireland interpret such words coming from a DUP leader as an attack on Catholic education.

However, I strongly believe that both the Catholic Church and the Catholic community recognise that the common good requires the breaking down of tribal, sectarian identities within our education system.

‘Separate but equal’ should not govern the approach to education in 21st century Northern Ireland.

This most certainly should not entail a secularist attempt to banish the Churches from education.

They are important stakeholders in the education system, with a vital role to play in laying the moral foundations for a tolerant, pluralist society.

It does mean, however, at a time when Northern Ireland has seen the pain and cost of not building a shared vision for the whole community ...

The Churches - as stakeholders in education - have a responsibility to bring forward proposals for shared education for the common good.

One would hope that such proposals would enable Sinn Fein to move from its current reactionary opposition to shared education.

A one-size-fits-all system of integrated education is not required.

In a free society, parental choice in schooling should be real and authentic.

Such parental choice, however, is entirely compatible with shared education.

As it is in Northern Ireland, there are fine examples of schools from all sectors which promote and experience shared education.

But, unfortunately, this is too often the exception not the rule.

If we want to break down sectarianism and ensure a shared future for the long-term, our children deserve to be educated not apart but together.

So, in the remaining three years of this Executive and Assembly, what actions will the Executive undertake to promote shared education right across Northern Ireland?

Can the next three years really be allowed to pass without the Executive taking meaningful action to see children from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds educated together, in a shared educational environment?

Promoting political reform

If we need to remove the “benign apartheid” in our education system, we also need to challenge the tribalism which twists Northern Ireland’s politics.

The structures of government created in 1998 for Northern Ireland were devised to provide a pathway from violence to peace, from mistrust to consensus.

No longer were nationalists to be forced into perpetual opposition.

No longer were unionists to see Northern Ireland deprived of devolved government because of a nationalist refusal to participate in Stormont.

These structures, however, have rightly been described by a former SDLP leader as “ugly scaffolding”.

Nearly 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, they risk freezing Northern Ireland politics in tribal identities.

Particularly after the changes made in the St Andrews’ Agreement, Assembly elections have become a sectarian headcount.

It is not policy debates over the economy, education, health or welfare which determine Northern Ireland elections ...

Rather, they are an Orange v. Green headcount.

Our politics, in other words, confirm and reinforce sectarian divisions in our society.

Our elections and our politics declare that Northern Ireland is to be regarded as forever divided between Orange and Green tribes.

This “ugly scaffolding” needs to be removed.

It needs to be removed in order to free our politics from tribalism.

Above all, this means providing for a government and an opposition in Stormont, just as in the Dail.

This is not - and cannot be - about a return to majority rule.

Cross-community government is essential for stability in Northern Ireland.

However, rather than a sectarian race for the post of First Minister, the choice offered to voters must break down not build up tribalism.

It is deeply ironic that Sinn Fein is the party most opposed to such political reform.

Recently a Sinn Fein representative declared that his party strategy was all about demographic inevitabilities - of Green outbreeding Orange.

That is tribalism in its purest form.

That is sectarian politics.

Such a politics confirms sectarianism in hearts and minds - and on the streets.

It is also surely a rejection of the authentic republican aspiration to unite ‘Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’.

Such an aspiration requires an alternative to the politics of tribalism.

It requires post-sectarian politics and reformed structures which will allow such a politics to flourish ...

A post-sectarian politics and reformed structures which free voters from the shackles of sectarianism and tribalism, giving them the opportunity to vote for government and opposition not Orange and Green.

Rather than forcing a diverse and changing Northern Ireland into the cast of Orange v. Green ...

Such reforms would also encourage the emergence of new political expressions, ensuring that a range of voices on the right-left spectrum are heard.

So over the next three years, what will the Executive and Assembly do to promote political reforms which will free Northern Ireland politics from the straitjacket of tribalism?

Promoting Northern Ireland identity

Moving beyond tribalism, building a shared future also requires us to reconsider the issue of identity.

We need a shared identity in Northern Ireland ...

A shared identity to underpin political and social progress ...

To hold our society together both in good times and bad.

We need, in other words, to move beyond the concept that there are two “separate but equal” communities in Northern Ireland.

We need an understanding of a shared community, a shared identity - a Northern Irish identity.

This will pose challenges for both unionists and nationalists.

Some unionists have a purist conception of British identity.

We can detect it in how some interpret the phrase that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley.

The United Kingdom is much more diverse than this might imply.

While institutions are shared within the UK, the Union is actually a patchwork quilt of regional identities.

Cornwall, Yorkshire, Glamorgan, and the Highlands are not Finchley.

They have distinct histories and distinct identities.

Unionists, then, should recognise a distinct Northern Ireland identity as part of this rich patchwork quilt.

Some nationalists can also have an equally purist conception of Irish identity.

There can be a denial of any distinctiveness to Northern Ireland - a denial which leaves visitors from Dublin, Cork or Galway very bemused.

Just as the United Kingdom is a patchwork quilt of regional identities, so too is the island of Ireland ...

A fact most obviously demonstrated in the loyalties and enthusiasms of GAA supporters!

Northern nationalism, then, has nothing to fear from the promotion of a Northern Ireland identity.

That identity is a fact, irrespective of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is a place on these islands in which British and Irish identities have shared space over centuries ...

Deeply influencing one another and profoundly inter-relating.

Gael and Planter ...

Irish, Scotch-Irish and Anglo-Irish ...

Unionist and nationalist ...

They have all combined to produce a rich heritage, giving a distinctive ‘flavour’ to the north-east of this island ...

A place where those from Dublin and London can see both similarities and differences.

A place which produced CS Lewis and Rory McIlroy ...

James Galway and Van Morrison ...

Liam Neeson and Seamus Heaney.

It is striking that when those aged 18-24 in Northern Ireland are asked about their identity ...

The greatest number define themselves as ‘Northern Irish’.

Here, then, is an opportunity to promote a shared identity ...

An identity shared between those who also have a British identity or an Irish identity.

To be Northern Irish threatens neither of these ...

But it does give a sense of a shared community to both unionist and nationalist and to the increasing numbers who define themselves as neither.

Above all, it nails the lie of tribalism ...

That unionist and nationalist can live apart, with no sense of the common good or a truly shared future.

A Northern Irish identity is the beating heart of a shared future.

It reminds us that beyond the policy prescriptions and the politics, a shared future needs emotional and cultural expression.

When dissident republicans murder a prison officer ...

Or when dissident loyalists threaten a Catholic Church ...

A Northern Ireland identity tell us that such events are not happening to ‘them’, ‘the others’ ...

They are happening to us, a shared community with a shared identity.

So over the next three years, what will the Executive and Assembly do to promote a shared Northern Ireland identity, providing the cultural and social ‘glue’ for a shared future?

The hope of a shared future

The next three years, then, can be years of hope after the despair of recent weeks.

They can be years when the promise of 1998 is fulfilled ...

When a reconciled, shared community emerges.

Those dissident republicans and dissident loyalists who want to lead us back to the dark years ...

Whose creed is sectarianism and division ...

The next three years for the Executive and Assembly must be about putting in place the alternative.

Returning to business as usual ...

To merely sharing power in Stormont but not creating a shared community ...

Will only magnify the already worryingly high levels of political disengagement.

These cannot be wasted years.

They must be years of change and progress.

Of course a shared future, a shared community, will not be created overnight.

Of course there will be setbacks and challenges on the way.

But now is the time when a shared future must move from slogan to reality.

My hope is that three years from now, another elected representative from Northern Ireland addressing this group will be able to point to real change, real progress ...

A Northern Ireland in which the sad events of December 2012 and January 2013 motivated unionism and nationalism to move beyond tribalism to build a shared community, a shared future.