A recent upsurge in divisive Irish nationalist rhetoric has left a leading anti-sectarianism campaigner convinced “there’s no space in their Ireland” for even moderate unionists.
Trevor Ringland said the sentiments expressed at a show of unity from nationalists in January, coupled with the increasingly entrenched position of Sinn Fein, indicates a drift away from reconciliation with the unionist community.
“Nationalists have become emboldened because of the Brexit uncertainties and the renewed hype around calls for a border poll,” he said.
“People are believing their own rhetoric without facing up to the reality that our future is intertwined, and the only way we can succeed socially and economically is by making Northern Ireland work and great relations across this Island and between these islands.”
The Belfast solicitor and former Irish rugby international resigned from the Ulster Unionists in 2010 over the then party leader Tom Elliott’s refusal to attend a GAA match.
Mr Ringland was also a former co-chair of the NI Conservatives and has been involved with a number of cross-community organisations.
“The message that [nationalist Beyond Brexit] meeting at the Waterfront sent to me was: ‘Boy, are we going to get our own back when we get control’. All of this needs hand-braked very quickly and a touch of reality brought to bear,” he said.
“The [Belfast] Agreement still holds firm, but we need to find a way of unpicking the damage done by the St Andrews Agreement, because under the original agreement if you didn’t like the way your parties were delivering you could kick them out.
“But the changes at St Andrews basically consolidated the position for both of those extremes. We want our politicians to do politics, we want them to share responsibility, but if we don’t like what they’re delivering we want to be able to change them.”
Mr Ringland said his concerns around hardening attitudes were raised following an encounter with a leading Sinn Fein politician at a function in 2017.
“Just after the last NI Assembly elections I challenged a senior Sinn Fein figure. I said ‘you have pressed the hate button during that election campaign and it’s going to be very hard to put this back in its box’. His response was ‘I’ll not take lectures from the likes of you.’ I went back to my wife and I said: ‘No matter what I say, there’s no space in their Ireland for me.’
“The only way to pursue their constitutional preference is by making this place work, by making Northern Ireland work, and the sooner that dawns – not just with Sinn Fein, but with Irish nationalism as a whole in Northern Ireland and across this island – then the sooner we can get on with making this place a better place for all of us.”
Commenting on the ‘civic unionism’ event at Queen’s University last month, Mr Ringland said the message from Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald lacked credibility.
“I have been involved in events like this for years, and you just get fed up with the same old rhetoric. They listen but they don’t hear,” he added.
“When I first met Martin McGuinness I said to him: ‘I disagree with what you did before but if you are prepared to work for the betterment of all the people in the future, then I will work with you.’ Unionism needs to be challenging but pragmatic in dealing with republicanism.”
Having spoken of the need for reconciliation at the QUB event last month, Sinn Fein president Ms McDonald provoked anger from across the political spectrum just weeks later when she posed with an ‘England get out of Ireland’ banner at the St Patrick’s Day parade in New York.