What has become of civic nationalism? There was that heady Saturday morning meeting in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall some months ago, and then something in Newry, but since that not much. Is it fizzling out?
Probably not. I’ve two reasons for saying that. In yesterday’s Irish Times Prof Colin Harvey had a letter suggesting that civic nationalism was a growing and probably unstoppable force; and last week Newton Emerson in the same Liffey-side organ did what he could to muddy the movement by referring to it as “Sinn Féin-linked.”
Of course we need to remember that Emerson figures anything to do with Sinn Féin is tainted, so it seemed a valuable verbal brick to lob. But is Sinn Féin linked to it? At the Waterfront meeting I briefly spoke to Carál Ní Chuilín of Sinn Féin and even commented on the fact that I didn’t see any other Shinners there. Likewise I spoke to Colm Eastwood, the SDLP leader. Does that make the meeting SDLP-linked? I’d suggest the movement belongs to all nationalists, and that includes Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
The Waterfront Hall event followed two public letters – one signed by 200 people, the other by 1000 as I remember, to Leo Varadkar, urging him to translate into action his promise not to leave Northern nationalists behind again.
Is unionism uneasy about this surge in broad nationalist opinion towards an all-Ireland way of looking at things? I’d say it is. I know of at least two people who signed those letters who were concerned that their careers would suffer as a result of signing. In one case this fear has been realized. Colin Harvey himself has spoken of the pressures that have been exerted on him in his academic life, because of the stand he is taking. Trust me: die-hard unionism is unnerved by this broad consensus of nationalism and will do just about anything to scare off those who might be attracted to joining it.
That said, I think the civic nationalism movement must make its presence felt again in the near future. A convention in Dublin similar to that held in Belfast’s Waterfront would seem an obvious step. Following that it might explore the setting up of citizens’ assemblies, where the future facing Ireland north and south could be considered and debated, and possible models put together that would help everyone, nationalist and unionist, see what is possible in the coming years.
This is a momentous time in Ireland’s history. We can sit on the sideline and watch the historical traffic speed past. Or we can get in there and make sure that it’s speeding in the right direction.