Sammy Wilson warns about ‘naive unionists with death wish’ as news emerges of charity’s Irish unity conversations project – sponsored by the Dublin government – Belfast Newsletter

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Sammy Wilson warns about ‘naive unionists with death wish’ as news emerges of charity’s Irish unity conversations project – sponsored by the Dublin government
This media trawl is part of a wider project called ‘Future Relationship Conversations’ (FRC), run by Londonderry-based charity The Holywell Trust.
The charity has put a £5,420 contract for the work out to tender, with applications closing this Friday.
The tender document sets out the broad aims of the FRC project, and begins by stating – simply as a matter-of-fact – that “there is a need and growing desire across communities to have a conversation on the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland”.
One of the men involved in the project, SDLP advisor Paul Gosling, has firmly defended it, and stressed that the Irish government had no role in directing the work they carry out.
But for a number of political figures, the media trawl project has raised questions such as whether making a “positive contribution” to “addressing division” is something that journalists should be doing at all – and what that would mean for excluding certain political views.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who spent over a decade working as the party’s press officer, said that whilst some people might not like his “blunt and direct” style, he has plenty of supporters who feel it represents their outlook too, and that it would not be the role of the media to decide how he gets his message across.
He also said any unionist who gets involved in a project which pre-supposes a growing need to discuss Irish unity “has got some kind of death wish” – and would be “either very naive or very foolish” if they thought the result could bring any benefit to the Union.
He said that while everything to do with FRC is couched in positive language, “just because you get the honeyed words from people who are involved in this, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a sweet outcome”.
He added that even talking about these matters has the effect of “getting the idea of a border referendum [on to] the agenda”.
Party colleague Gary Middleton also weighed in, saying: “Unionists do not need to discuss ‘alternative constitutional arrangements’.
“We would much prefer a discussion about political progress within our current constitutional framework and making Northern Ireland a better place to live.”
There are fundamentally two different elements to this whole story.
The first is Holywell’s FRC project, funded by the Irish goverment and focussing on “conversations” with unionists about national sovereignty.
The second is the media trawl project, which is one specific activity within the overall FRC programme.
Holywell says this FRC project involves “engaging” with Protestants / unionists / loyalists about “attitudes to possible alternative future relationships and constitutional arrangements, including on which arrangements might be most acceptable and which might best hold people to this island”.
The document setting out FRC’s details bears the logos of two organisations: firstly, the Belfast based Community Relations Council, and secondly the Dublin government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The Irish government’s logo is by far the more prominent of the two.
A look through the charity’s accounts shows the Irish state has funded Holywell’s work in past years, as has Derry City and Strabane District Council, and some Stormont departments.
When it comes to the media trawl itself, Holywell says it is designed to “review and assess the impact of the use of language by Northern Ireland based media and the positive / negative contribution that this makes to addressing division and deepening understanding of the constitutional issue”.
When it comes to trawling through the media to judge whether it is making a positive impact on “addressing division”, Sammy Wilson said: “Politics is about people expressing their views, and expressing them very strongly, giving those opinions in the way they best believe communicates those views to their supporters.
“Some people like it done in nice, fancy language.
“Other people like it done in a put-the-boot-in language.
“There’s no right or wrong way, and to me that’s not ‘escalating problems’, that’s simply people have different styles.
“For any group to decide ‘this is the kind of style of language’, ‘this is the way it should be addressed’, to me is the total antithesis of free speech.
“People say my style is very blunt and direct.
“And that turns some people on, it turns lots of other people off – I know that.
“But that’s just the way I’ve always engaged in political debate.
“I certainly wouldn’t want some crowd of spectators to the whole process dictating to me – or to the outlets which I may participate through – how that debate should be conducted.
“That would be a choice for you in any free society.”
Gary Middleton likewise said “it should also be of concern to everyone that such an initiative is focusing on the ‘use of language’ by the media”.
This “smacks of an attempt simply to drive forward reporting” which satisfies a certain viewpoint, he believes.
TUV Comber councillor Stephen Cooper said: “Politics is a passionate business and people are entitled to get angry and use language in public to articulate that.”
He added that “whatever the outcome of this research… I know I speak for many when I say we won’t modify our language”.
The charity’s Paul Gosling declined to be interviewed by the News Letter, but told the BBC that the media trawl had actually been “suggested” by “well-known unionists” – though he did not name any.
He added: “There was an anxiety that given the history we’ve got, the history of the killings and the Troubles, that the last thing we want is that inflamed situation in terms of talking about the future and the fact that we need to keep it calm.
“[The researchers] will look at whether there are examples of people seeking to inflame the situation.
“That’s not to criticise the media, that’s simply as a piece of information to consider how people approach the future conversations.”
Another guest on the show, Mairia Cahill – a former SDLP councillor – said: “[Regarding] people ‘inflaming the situation’, surely the media’s role is to actually look to give those people a voice, also.
“Because their opinion – however much it may be distasteful, or you may not like it – is important to them and it’s also part of society.”
“No-one is seeking to shut down any debate,” said Mr Gosling.
“What is being suggested is we need to make sure as best as possible there is a factual conversation…
“This research does not have an agenda behind it, in terms of coming out with a preferred outcome.
“It’s about considering how we have conversations that help us work together, that bring us together, rather than actually divide us.”
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