Apart from the use of the B word I stand over the thrust of what I was articulating. As I told the audience in Enniskillen republicanism is essentially about citizenship; about the rights of people and their entitlements in a citizen centred rights-based society. Essentially this means that regardless of peoples abilities or disabilities; regardless of their gender or sexual orientation; regardless of their creed or colour; regardless of whether they live in rural Ireland or in urban centres; their rights must be upheld and society must be shaped to promote guarantee and protect these rights.
The Proclamation of 1916 is the mission statement of modern republicanism. Of course, this is not 1916, so we need to interpret that wonderful declaration of rights in today’s terms. It means civil and religious rights for everyone. At an individual level it also means the right to a home; a job; access to education; access to health care on the basis of need; a clean environment and the ability to pursue human happiness.
It also means respect and tolerance for others. We should treat other people the way we want to be treated ourselves. There is a lot of bigotry in Irish society. The northern state was founded on a sectarian headcount. There are those who hark back to the old days. They don’t believe in equality or tolerance or power sharing. They have a very narrow fundamentalist view of the world. They’re not just against Catholics. They are against Presbyterians and Methodists and Church of Ireland and Muslims and anyone else who doesn’t subscribe to their narrow right wing conservative view of the world.
This is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon. There are racists and homophobes and misogynists and bigots in most societies. But in most other societies it is illegal to promote any of these views publicly. So society gets on with its business with appropriate protections. Politics in Ireland is in flux, including in the north. It is very telling that a large number of unionist voters no longer vote. That’s because there is no one within unionism who is giving the positive, consistent leadership that would motivate them. And they’re not yet at the point of voting for Sinn Féin or any other party outside of unionism.
The answer to all of this is equality. I don’t believe that republicans fully understand unionism. Unionism is no longer a monolith. There are different strands. I spend a lot of my time out of the north but at different points when unionist leaders are being particularly offensive; when I’m about Belfast or other places in the north, I am frequently asked ‘what’s the point?’ – ‘no matter what we do these people aren’t up for change’.
I don’t believe that. Of course that is true of a cohort who have formed an anti-agreement axis and who want the trappings of Ministerial office, or a career as an MLA, without the obligations or responsibilities of these offices.
I remember being at one meeting in Belfast when we were negotiating with David Trimble and many republicans voiced justifiable anger at David’s carry-on. I remember saying to that meeting. ‘Why are you getting angry at David Trimble? I’m the one who has to work with him every day – you don’t’.
So we need to be patient. But not complacent or compliant. Unionism is sleep walking into a crisis which could well bring the political institutions down. I don’t believe they have a plan to do that but because the no-men are setting the pace that could happen. We have to prevent that. So do the two governments. They are co-equal guarantors of the Good Friday and other Agreements. Both governments have failed to honour their obligations. That is why for example, there is no Bill of Rights, or all- Ireland Charter of Rights or no Acht na Gaeilge.
Our responsibility is two-fold. It is to ensure that the Assembly doesn’t collapse. But it’s also to make sure that the Assembly delivers for the people.
So our watch word is equality, equality, equality. How could anyone be afraid of equality -if they have a genuine interest in people and people’s rights. Equality is an end in its own right. It’s also a means to an end. I want to see a united Ireland and a real republic on this island. Others might not subscribe to that objective but who would be against treating someone the way you want to be treated yourself.