Northern Ireland news

Civic nationalism seeks reassurance in Brexit aftermath

A poster for tomorrow's beyond Brexit conference

As civic nationalism gathers at Belfast's Waterfront Hall to assess the impact of Brexit for northern nationalists, Political Correspondent John Manley talks to some of the main protagonists about the conference's aims and expectations...

TOMORROW'S 'Beyond Brexit' event represents the culmination of months of work by people who are busy elsewhere in their everyday lives. Yet the lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs and sportspeople who have got behind this organic movement believe too much is a stake to leave this unpredictable process solely to the politicians. For the organisers, the event is essentially about safeguarding the rights and interests of those in the north who identify as Irish.

Ahead of Brexit, when devolution was operational, they felt their identity was protected and the political process, while flawed, was endeavouring to acknowledge their aspirations.

But in little over two years, the political landscape has been transformed by the EU referendum result and the collapse of Stormont. Relative stability has been replaced by uncertainty, while political progress, albeit sluggish, has been usurped by inertia and heightened animosity. When the increased possibility of a hard border is added to this toxic mix, it's easy to see understand growing nationalist anxiety.

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Conor Patterson is chief executive of Newry and Mourne Cooperative and Enterprise Agency and among one thousand signatories to November's letter to Leo Varadkar, calling on the taoiseach to fulfil his promise that northern nationalists "will never again be left behind by an Irish government".

In recent decades he has seen the border city transform from an unemployment blackspot to an economic powerhouse, where high value-added businesses like First Derivatives, MJM Group and Norbrook have thousands of skilled workers on the payroll. Mr Patterson regards himself as an "internationalist" rather than a nationalist but easily identifies with the concerns voiced by fellow signatories.

"I feel privileged to be part of the generation that saw this area transform and that change was facilitated by EU-backed infrastructure – the motorway, the rail links, Warrenpoint Port," he says.

"If ever there was an example of a successful Keynesian investment model this is it, because the private money soon followed, but now Brexit threatens to turn back the clock."

Pat Cullen, the former director of nursing at the Public Health Agency, is foremost worried about the consequences that severing ties with Brussels will have on the health sector.

She says the impact will be manifold, affecting funding, staffing levels, access to treatment abroad, cross-border cooperation, and the ability to combat communicable diseases.

"Brexit will be catastrophic for a health service that is already at total breaking point, with waiting lists the highest in Europe," she says.

Ms Cullen hopes tomorrow will ignite a debate that will continue in earnest long after the 1,000-plus expected at the Waterfront have gone home.


Belfast-based entrepreneur Gerry Carlile says the movement that has coalesced around concern about Brexit came about through "conversations on the sides of football pitches, in school car parks, and in coffee shops and bars". He stresses that there's no ambition to turn the project into a "capital P" political vehicle.

"With the exception of John Finucane, none of the core organisers is involved in electoral politics – it's a civic approach," he says.

"To a degree, we want to move it away from political parties, because that way we may have a better chance of succeeding in our aims."

When asked about the event's discussions about the shape of a future, united Ireland, Mr Carlile is unapologetic, believing Brexit is a catalyst for the unity project and that all of those who subscribe to the idea must start working towards a shared vision.

"Increasingly people, including those from a traditionally unionist background, are asking questions about a united Ireland," he says.

"We believe it's up to the Dublin government and others to provide answers to these questions."

The event has faced criticism from Tom Kelly, a columinst with The Irish News, who while welcoming the conference's focus on Brexit, believes political unionism should not be excluded.

"We need more compromise, more conversations across communities - not within them," he wrote earlier this week.

Commentator and event co-organiser Chris Donnelly doesn't accept the criticism, saying he has been involved in many debates and discussions involving those with diametrically opposed views on Brexit and on the constitutional question, but that tomorrow's conference isn't one of them.

"This is a forum primarily to explore issues of concern and interest for Irish citizens in the north resulting from Brexit, with input from policy experts and commentators on these themes," he says.

"It is also a platform for pro-unity political figures to outline their plans for meeting the challenges arising from those concerns and interests, and to continue the discussion about how we credibly advance a united Ireland agenda into the future."

He adds, that everyone is welcome to attend: "Not least because we are very conscious that many of the Brexit-related concerns are shared by people across all sections of the community in the north of Ireland."

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