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Sinn Fein’s unionist outreach leads to unionist outrage

Andrew Johnson

13 June 2007

On 29 May, Sinn Fein held a press conference to unveil their new Charter for Unionist Engagement. The launch was fronted by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Foyle MLA Martina Anderson, who was chosen by the party to head up its new Unionist Engagement Department. This has been part of a busy round of activities for Anderson, who has also taken a seat on the reconstituted Policing Board.

The Charter and its reception are worth examining because the analysis of unionism has long been a weak point for republicans. Traditionally, the Provisionals regarded unionists as simply dupes of the British, who would happily embrace an Irish identity once Britain gave notice of its intent to withdraw. This gave them serious difficulties in understanding unionism as something which, while dependent on Britain, is a reactionary movement in its own right.

However, since the start of the present peace process, and in the case of Derry well beforehand, the line has changed. Previous generations of republicans appealed to Protestants, occasionally and mostly on a rhetorical level, to break with unionism. The Provos’ new line has been to seek a rapprochement with reactionary unionism, now seen as just another political identity with as much legitimacy as any other. This is the view that lies behind the Charter, expressed even in its title, and the strategy it is supposed to legitimise.

The Charter for Unionist Engagement

The Charter itself is not a substantial document. It is a two-page glossy brochure, with pride of place given to the photo of Adams and McGuinness sitting around the Stormont table with Paisley and Robinson to announce the restoration of devolution. Most of the document is taken up with snippets – a heading followed by a two- or three-sentence paragraph – providing outlines rather than a worked-out strategy. After weeks of hype, one might have expected a document with some more meat to it.

The front page, apart from a short introduction from Adams, is taken up with identifying different sectors of society, and pointing out positive roles that they could play. These include political parties, state agencies, women, youth, academics, the media, the business sector, trade unions, community groups and “new communities” (immigrant workers). Most of this consists of bland statements around the theme of the equality agenda, pointing out that groups with influence in society could play a role in fostering dialogue and that those in positions of influence should lead by example.

Most of this is unexceptionable, although maybe a little optimistic. It is one thing to say that religious leaders have a responsibility to foster tolerance, but Sinn Fein ministers at Stormont would not have to look very far to find examples of the opposite. The same is true of urging the media not to encourage prejudice and stereotyping. Unfortunately, prejudice and stereotyping are rife in the North and the media not only foster but also reflect these attitudes.

The second page is divided into two halves. One half lays out Sinn Fein’s ideas for an “Ireland of equals”, with a rights-based constitution, separation of Church and State, and valuing diversity. The other half sets out principles for unionist engagement, and is the most nebulous section of all. It lays down, in terms familiar from any conflict resolution seminar, that dialogue should be inclusive, based on listening to one another, transparent and open, and leading towards compromise.

And that’s it. Many observers have expressed disappointment that there wasn’t more substance to the Charter. However, it would be wrong to write off the Charter as simply a bunch of psychobabble clichés. There is a more substantial, if unstated, political position behind the Charter. Gone is the idea that unionism is a block to equality and democracy, a straightforwardly reactionary movement that has to be defeated. Now Sinn Fein argue that unionism has a role to play in promoting equality. All that is necessary is for nationalists and unionists to learn to get along.

Unionist reaction

If Sinn Fein hoped this Charter would win them brownie points with unionists, they were to be sorely disappointed. Unionism’s political representatives met the initiative with hostility, and reaction on Radio Ulster’s Talk Back indicated that the politicians were not isolated in this. Some unionists seem to have seen the outreach programme as patronising, while there was a general incomprehension of why Sinn Fein would want to do something like this. After all, it is difficult to imagine either of the unionist parties having a programme for Catholic outreach, for the simple reason that both the DUP and UUP remain strongly sectarian, supremacist parties.

Many unionists have focused on the personality of Anderson herself, as a former republican prisoner, and her recent call for the records of former paramilitary prisoners to be expunged met with predictable howls of outrage from the DUP. Gregory Campbell and Willie McCrea both argued that any process of engagement should begin with republicans admitting their guilt for the Troubles, while unionists of course had no guilt to admit to.

The nearest the initiative got to a welcome from political unionism was in Sammy Wilson’s bid to extract commitments on Orange marches. Rather than organising a glossy brochure, Wilson said that “They could give some respect for unionist culture instead of deliberately organising attempts to stamp out that culture across Northern Ireland. That includes parades but there’s a whole range of other ways in which they have shown little respect for unionist culture. These include stopping the attacks on front-line unionist communities in border line areas and small towns across Northern Ireland.”

Wilson was coy about what attacks on Protestant villages he meant, but he was probably referring to occasional arson attacks on rural Orange halls, which unionists persist in viewing as an organised conspiracy directed by Sinn Fein. “Stamping out” unionist culture, in DUP language, can mean anything from opposing Orange marches in sensitive areas, to support for the Irish language, to nationalist councils not flying the Union Jack over their town halls. These examples alone show how much unionist “culture” rests on sectarian supremacy, and how misguided is a strategy of engagement.

The outreach strategy represents, in symbolic form, the transformation of Sinn Fein into something similar to the old Nationalist Party, a party that may aspire to an all-Ireland republic but is reconciled, for the time being, to negotiating with unionism to get some recognition for Catholics within the Northern statelet. The problem with this is that there can’t be equality of sectarian privilege, and therefore unionists, who understand this, see any demands for equality as undermining the state. For this very reason, Sinn Fein’s engagement strategy may be good PR, but it is extremely unlikely to win them many friends within unionism.



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