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National Reconciliation in Ireland – The Need For Uncomfortable Conversations - Declan Kearney

24 October, 2012


British colonial interests and successive government policy have been at the root of political conflict in Ireland, and between our countries for centuries.

British government strategy and its threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ in the period of the 1921 negotiations after the Tan War was the midwife for the Irish Civil War, and the catalyst for partition.

That led to the onset of unionist one party misrule in the North of Ireland for 50 years. The constitutional, political and economic structure of the northern state was the context for over 30 years of war and armed struggle.

Citizens in Ireland today continue to live with the legacy of the civil war and northern unionists and nationalists live with the legacy of partition in all its forms.

Although British state policy towards the north throughout and to the present day has remained intrinsically unionist, several British administrations have made significant contributions alongside the work of many in developing the Irish peace process during the last twenty years.

That peace process is now irreversible. The war is over, and the conditions of conflict have been removed.

Our peace process is widely admired as a template for conflict resolution. But whilst the process is irreversible, we are still not at peace with each other.

The historical experience of the Irish civil war is that the failure to put in place a reconciliation process after its conclusion created massive fault-lines and division which endured for nine decades.

The immediate challenge as our island emerges from its most recent phase of political conflict is to engage on the development of a reconciliation process in the north, and which addresses the trans generational division and hurt created by the civil war and our political conflicts ever since.

In the past republican leaders have travelled here to Britain to negotiate and discuss the detail of frameworks and agreements which have helped to bring about the Irish peace process and to press the case for Irish unity.

Tonight I want to make the case for the imperative of opening up a new phase in our peace process; that is a phase based on reconciliation and healing.

Although the conditions of conflict have been addressed, the legacy of division, hurt and fear has the potential to be passed on to future generations.

Sinn Féin believes that our generation has a responsibility to stop that happening and to do our best to ensure those future generations have the opportunity to grow up in a better society than we did.

There is new ‘heavy lifting’ still to be undertaken in the peace process.

Enormous human hurt was caused during the political conflict.  

Republicans, unionists and Irish and British citizens share a deep collective pain.

Whilst we might all wish it could be otherwise, we cannot undo the past, but neither can we or should we forget.

During her visit to Dublin last year Queen Elizabeth said;

“With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

All reasonable people will agree with that assessment.

But neither should we allow the past to become a barrier to the future.

That is why Sinn Féin believes it is not only possible but essential that we open a new phase in our process, and facilitate dialogue on how all hurts caused can be equally acknowledged, salved, and if possible healed. And to seek to do this in a spirit of shared compassion, generosity towards one another and recognising our common humanity.

We all need to continue the unfinished journey of our peace process, so that future generations are liberated to explore new possibilities, rather than be burdened with legacies for which they carry no responsibility.

Maya Angelou put it well;

“History despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”

Applying the sense of that wisdom will not be easy. It can only come about by a collective resolve to do this by trying to better understand each other, and imagine what it is like to walk in one another’s shoes.

I have characterised the process of national reconciliation in Ireland as involving “uncomfortable conversations”.

These need to take place within and between communities in my country, and as part of that the British state needs to reflect and discuss how to address its responsibilities for the adversity and conflict it perpetuated in Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland.

The republican constituency has begun to discuss the need for national reconciliation. I and other republican leaders have said that means being prepared to move outside our own comfort zones, and being prepared to embrace new thinking.

The Sinn Féin leadership have spoken of and then acted on the need for more compromises and initiatives to advance the peace process, and the wider national interest.

Earlier this year Republicans across Ireland had a very uncomfortable conversation among ourselves about whether Martin McGuinness should meet Queen Elizabeth. Many disagreed, but many more agreed with doing so – because it was the right thing to do.

And that is fundamentally what reconciliation must be about, doing the right thing; even when faced with impasse and opposition.

At this time the potential for reconciliation is challenged by a developing status quo supported by some in the north, which perversely provides for acceptable levels of sectarianism division and fear; and, I would add to that, acceptable levels of instability provoked by militarists opposed to the peace process.

The outworking of that is evidenced in a unionist mindset which tolerates the insistence by loyal order band parades to disrespect the rights of Catholics and nationalist communities. And which also normalises an ongoing refusal to share power with republicans in majority unionist councils.

This summer political unionism singularly failed to give leadership and say or do the right things to confront sectarianism and the violence which it provoked.

Instead of going out front and forcefully defending the principles of equality and mutual respect the leadership of political unionism and specifically the DUP caved in to the lowest common denominators of sectarian triumphalism.

The last five years have been a very slow learning curve on equality and respect for the DUP. 

Peter Robinson’s recent outbursts betray a real discomfort in trying to represent both unionists, republicans and nationalists. He needs to stop talking out of both sides of his mouth, and get with the programme. 

He cannot be a latter day James Craig or Basil Brooke, because the Orange State has gone.  He can only sit in OFM/dFM if he shares power properly with republicans.  The Orange Order and Loyalist bands cannot walk wherever they want; the eleven plus isn’t coming back; minorities do have rights; and nationalists in the north are no longer second class citizens.

The DUP leadership needs to get out of its time warp, get into real time, and start doing grown up politics with the rest of us.

Opposition to sectarianism is not a negotiation or an optional choice, it must be a leadership imperative.

The challenge posed by the unresolved parading issue could be resolved by agreement on the core issues of equality and mutual respect if these are taken forward with united political leadership from unionism and republicanism, particularly by Peter Robinson and Martin Mc Guinness. But failure to do so fuel the extremes within each community opposed to the peace process.

None of that should be allowed to frustrate the pursuit of reconciliation.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

The Good Friday Agreement has already enshrined the principles of equality, parity of esteem, mutual respect and political coexistence.  It provides a framework within which to find important common ground, if the political will exists to do so.

The Hillsborough Castle Agreement set out key principles in relation to parades, with which the DUP agreed, based upon local people providing local solutions, mutual respect, and the right of all citizens to live free from sectarian harassment.

Sinn Féin is calling for an all inclusive national discussion on reconciliation leading to the development of a national reconciliation strategy.

Let me tell you how such a road map might take shape.

We believe republican and unionist political leaders need to take the lead in beginning a national discussion on reconciliation.

This should be leadership frontloaded by;

-  * Firstly, concluding in the weeks ahead the Cohesion Sharing Integration strategy. This then needs built upon with a charter supporting anti-sectarianism, equality and mutual respect, sponsored and led by OFM/dFM. This initiative itself would contribute to easing the parading impasse; begin to ensure power-sharing happens across all councils in the north; and demonstrate to our communities in a very practical way the need for mutual respect.

-   * Secondly, and building upon work already undertaken by some local communities, to take a lead in developing cross-community and multi-agency initiatives aimed at reducing segregation through the removal of peace walls, and actively promoting increased integrated community life, and cross-community social and cultural activity.

-   * Thirdly, agreeing to take forward a united platform in opposition to anti-peace process militarists within nationalism, and against those unionist paramilitaries wedded to violence and criminality.

-   * Fourthly, cross-party and cross community agreement on additional strategic economic and social interventions and capacity building in areas of objective need across the north.

By ensuring this agenda is strategically driven and stratified across society it can provide the template for local community engagement about the future and the quality of political/community leadership, which we must all provide to move the peace process forward.

Critical mass and momentum is needed to build grassroots community support for reconciliation otherwise it remains theoretical and abstract.

A national reconciliation strategy coordinated under the auspices of the North-South Ministerial Council, and supported by both the Assembly and Oireachtas should be the mechanism into which these four measures fit and by which key measurable and actionable priorities can be agreed and implemented.

Reconciliation is not the property or responsibility of any single political party or community. Engagement between us all is required on how best to proceed.

But move forward we must, because what we have at present is not good enough.

Fear of change is part of our post-conflict legacy.

That can be real or imaginary, at times.

Some have expressed fear, scepticism and suspicion of this Sinn Féin initiative on reconciliation. But those concerns can only be allayed through dialogue.

The refusal of political unionism to engage in this discussion is a mistake, because the alternative is to offer the politics of despair.

A policy on non-engagement validates the segregation which blights our society and helps perpetuate the ‘them and us’ mentality and all of the misunderstanding and abuses which have flowed from that.

But political unionism’s refusal to engage on the development of an authentic reconciliation agenda is also duplicitous and contradictory.

That is illustrated in their bellicose demands for actions now, instead of words from Republicans, and more recently apologies from the 26 Counties government. 

All this while refusing to acknowledge fifty years of one party misrule; their own associations with actual and threatened violence and killings during the Ulster Workers’ strikes in the 1970s; during the anti-Hillsborough Agreement protests in the 1980s;  during the Drumcree crisis in the 1990s; and involvement with organisations such as the Third Force and Ulster Clubs.

The fact is, unionist politicians throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s legitimised and rationalised sectarian killings by unionist paramilitaries; and have continued, including this summer, to publicly associate themselves with unionist paramilitary leaders.

Senior DUP leaders need to realise that political responsibility for ‘acts of commission and omission’, to borrow a phrase from a DUP minister, cuts both ways.

In recent months it has been breathtaking and bewildering to listen to the recriminatory rhetoric used by representatives of political unionism in public discussions on reconciliation.

Their contributions sit in stark juxtaposition to the involvement of DUP politicians in Ulster Resistance; its documented role in importing weapons later sold to the UDA, with the support of several British agents, not just Brian Nelson; and, subsequently used in multiple sectarian and political assassinations during the 1980s and 1990s.

The DUP would be wise to pause and take a step back.

Unionists and republicans both have to take responsibility for our actions. 

Sinn Fein is saying that now we all have to decide what we are going to do about the future. Our course is set.

The DUP and UUP have a very simple choice to make.  They can continue to throw recriminations all over the place, and accomplish absolutely nothing, except leave their own communities to languish in the status quo; or join with the rest of us, embrace new thinking and continue to make more change.

But ordinary unionist and loyalist citizens are not powerless. They do have a choice, whether to put up with deficits in vision and strategy from the unionist political leadership, or begin to demand uncomfortable conversations with DUP and UUP leaders, and tell them to start leading into the future and not backwards.

None of us as unionists or republicans should let our past shackle how we move to the future. Reconciliation is something we can and should do together in the here and now.

Inevitably we need to deal with the past and all the unanswered questions; and that should be done by agreeing to the establishment of an independent, international truth commission.

Some say that republicans are not serious when we advocate that option.

But what we say means everyone – governments, political parties, and British, unionist and republican combatants, and others – going into that arena together and at the same time; and to deal there with all the causes and consequences of the conflict.

That is Sinn Fein’s unambiguous policy position.

Significantly others have gone or remained silent on this issue, most notably the British Government.  Owen Patterson’s precondition of gaining a consensus on the way forward is aimed at pursuing gridlock, by making a demand which cannot be delivered on.

Perhaps the unavoidable and many uncomfortable conversations which the British state needs to have within itself, and the rest of us about its past use of Military Reconnaissance Force counter gangs; Force Research Unit agents; and, present day running of agents in the unionist paramilitaries, and anti peace process militarists, explains its’ silence?

If the British state is not prepared to contribute to truth recovery by owning up to all aspects and consequences of its military, intelligence, and black operations campaign in Ireland, then it must spell out their alternative to an independent, international process. But let’s be clear, that will have to mean everyone’s role in the past being placed on an even playing field.

For now the responsibility of this and future British governments must be to facilitate, and politically and economically invest in a new phase of the peace process.

The incumbent administration should be persuaders and facilitators for reconciliation.

This requires acknowledgement by them, in some form or another, of the role of successive British governments and their agencies in past conflict.

And it requires a significant input by them to a regeneration programme in the north which redresses the legacy of conflict, past divisions and the decades of underfunding of public services.

It requires an enabling programme with a new dynamic.

A useful beginning would be;

-   * The implementation of outstanding elements of the Good Friday, St. Andrews and Hillsborough Castle Agreements;

-   * Committal of the previously agreed £18bn for much needed capital spend projects in the six counties

-   *A disapplication of the Welfare Cuts agenda to the north and the lowering of corporation tax there;

-   * A review of the Barnett Formula and the transfer of fiscal powers to the Executive.

Add to this;

-   * the closure of the NIO,

-   * withdrawal of the British Secretary of State,

-   * the transfer of reserved powers to the Executive, and

-   * the setting of a date for a Border Poll.

Then we are at once into a major advance in the outworking of the conflict resolution process and a new dynamic; and all in a non-prescriptive way recognising that it is for the people of Ireland, north and south, to determine and shape their future.

New and big thinking needs brought to the political and peace processes in Ireland.  The British state and political unionism need to step up to the mark.

Sinn Féin has a vision of an authentic reconciliation process with the capacity to heal divisions within and between diverse communities on the island of Ireland and between our country and Britain.

We aspire to a new phase of the peace process, which allows for the replacement of division with new human and political relationships.

Our ambition is to achieve reconciliation in our time and the beginning of an era in which we all as Republican, unionist, Irish and British citizens can become friends with one another:  a time when our children learn to play and grow up together; and in which, to paraphrase Bobby Sands, the future can echo with their laughter.

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