You know there’s something important happening when between 1,000 and 1,500 people, on a sodden Saturday morning, leave their beds and convene in one place. Yesterday the Waterfront Hall was bunged with people and speakers. For unionists it must have been an unnerving sight.
All of the speakers got applause, some more warmly than others. The Fine Gael government was represented by Joe McHugh (you’ve heard of him?) the Education minister, from Donegal. His speech wasn’t particularly electrifying, although he did point out that some 6,000 people cross the border from Donegal to Derry every day. But he was against a border poll now because (you’ve guessed it) that would cause “further divisions”.
That’s not how event organizer Niall Murphy saw it. He held up the brochure from which a picture of Leo Varadkar beamed out with the promise that the nationalist people of the north would never again be left behind. A border poll? “If now is not the right time”, Niall asked, “then when?”
Brian Feeney was his usual caustic self. “Not left behind?” he said. “You’ve already been left behind.” He was of course right. We have lost our rights as EU citizens to have representation in Brussels. “Warm words butter no parsnips” was his closing shot. Ouch.
Paul Gosling was equally blunt. “This is a failed state” he said. The British people, especially the Leavers, were going to wake up one day and realize that the north of Ireland was costing them more than the EU. But the biggest problem for those believing in a united Ireland would be to persuade the people of the south.
If I had a quibble with the speakers, it was that they had a huge audience, and for the most part their speeches remained at the level of general if true statements. What was needed was focus on a small number of issues, with clear suggestions as to how this audience, today, could do something about it. Significantly, one of the invited speakers from the audience was Conor Patterson. He said he wished that southern politicians and others would stop hi-jacking the term ‘Ireland’ and using it when they meant the twenty-six counties. A concrete suggestion that I enthusiastically endorsed, And he urged that the south should give the extra two MEPs they will get to us in the north. Couldn’t have said it better myself.Spot on, Conor, and matching with Brian Feeney’s point: we’re already being stripped of our rights as EU citizens.
Was it exciting to be there yesterday? It certainly was encouraging to know that so many people of such varied background were there, and were hungry for information and encouragement. I had the sense that the early civil rights marchers must have had: the ground beneath our feet was shifting, and you sensed there was more – much more – to come.
I’ve said it before but it bears repetition: these are squeaky-bum times to be a unionist. Brexit has delivered a thundering, in-your-pocket message: England is going to do what suits England, and except we find ways to stop it, we’re going to be sucked into the black hole with them.
Yesterday, ordinary nationalists began the fight-back. It was, as Mary Lou McDonald said in the final speech, a moment that the history books will recall. If you missed it, rest easy. There’ll be more. A lot more.