“Unionism needs to look and recognize that the environment around us is changing,” says former Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt MLA. He adds: “I would like to see civic unionism becoming more active… Perhaps we need to build civic society that goes beyond the division and the politics of unionism and nationalism”.
The call for a strong civic society was made in the second interview in the series of more than 30 Forward Together podcasts. These were recorded with leading figures across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to mark 21 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The interviews seek answers to questions about the future of Northern Ireland and the border counties.
Nesbitt suggests that unionism should learn from the way civic nationalism is being organised. He says: “I looked quite enviously at civic nationalism and their ability to come together in such big numbers at such short notice in the Waterfront Hall [for the Beyond Brexit conference] and appear to emerge with a united front. So I think it’s up to the politicians to give some leadership here and try and energize people.”
He adds: “Unionism needs to look and recognize that the environment around us is changing. The demographics are changing. That does not mean a united Ireland is inevitable, but it is something we need to be aware of. Scottish nationalism is a threat to the union. English nationalism is a threat to the union and I would actually go as far to say that I believe the DUP, and some of their policies and their attitudes and their tone, is a long term threat to the union.”
Nesbitt continues by suggesting that more needs to be done to bring Northern Ireland society together. He explains: “Perhaps we need to build civic society that goes beyond the division and the politics of unionism and nationalism”.
Building on his approach while leader of the UUP, Nesbitt also argues that members of each of the main communities need to become more engaged in selecting the political leadership of the other main community. “Why do unionists only express an opinion on which unionist party they want?,” he asks. He points out that with the single transferable vote system, members of each of the main communities could express their preference for the leadership of the other main community. “And I think that’s where we have to get to.”
Nesbitt also says that Northern Ireland society must seriously consider how we educate our children. “The way we’re educating our children at the moment is not viable and sustainable. There’s an awful lot of wastage by having duplicated systems.”
Thinking back to his time as a victims commissioner, Nesbitt calls on people to recognise the commonality and similarity of their experiences in the Troubles, irrespective of which community they are members of. He calls for more investment in counselling services.
The aim of the Forward Together podcasts is to promote a wider, more inclusive and engaged conversation about how we make progress and further solidify peace and create a genuinely shared and integrated society. We want that discussion to be mutually respectful, to be forward focused and positive. It considers the real challenges our society faces in the coming years.
This initiative is the result of a partnership between the Holywell Trust peace and reconciliation charity based in Derry/Londonderry and the Slugger O’Toole website. The Forward Together Podcasts are funded through the Media Grant Scheme of the Community Relations Council for Northern Ireland which also provides core support to Holywell Trust.
Listen to the podcast and interview here.