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Mary Lou McDonald speech at QUB Civic Engagement

18 February, 2019 - by Mary Lou McDonald TD


"I have just completed my first year as Sinn Féin President. Throughout that year I have consistently reflected on and addressed reconciliation. 

Many times, these words are lost to the latest headline, controversy or dispute. 

Reconciliation is and will continue to be a constant focus of my leadership. 

Dialogue is crucial at times of challenge and change. 

A couple of weeks ago I addressed the Future Ireland conference in the Waterfront Hall. 

It gathered together, the many diverse strands of Nationalism from across the island. 

It was the first time, since the New Ireland Forum in the early nineteen eighties, that Nationalism met to discuss the present and the future. 

There were those who welcomed the meeting and those who opposed it. While it was a Nationalist gathering it looked to a shared future. It was not a narrow or exclusive nationalism but a progressive and inclusive nationalism. 

At the conference I categorised our contemporary challenge as a duty of care – to act in the best interest for all; and a duty of candour – to be truthful with each other. 

For reconciliation that means a duty of care to each other to heal the past, end the hurt and work to build a future together.

It also means a duty of candour – to have the hard conversations, to accept difference and acknowledge change.

To manage and resolve disagreements, to find our common humanity and shared values amongst the rubble of the past and conflicting hopes for the future. 

I am an Irish republican leader. I want a united Ireland and a republic of equal citizens. A united Ireland that must be a home to all in our community including Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist citizens.  

Anything short of that is a betrayal of all that we stand for.  I have no interest in that. 

Partition has been disastrous, causing and entrenching division. We all paid the price.

At the time of the partition the North East was the economic engine of Ireland.  Belfast was the largest city.

Poverty was common across all sections of the working class. Generations were fodder for the shipyards, hard labour and emigration. Dying young after a life of backbreaking work. 

For nationalists it was decades of discrimination, repression and conflict. 

For unionists the north became a gilded cage. 

In his poem Desertmartin, Tom Paulin observed a “a plain Presbyterian grace sour, then harden”.

The mantra became, “what we have; we hold”.

For some that remains the position. 

In the South Home Rule did indeed become Rome rule.

It was mostly women that paid the price in the mothers and babies homes, as slave labour in the laundries. 

A new elite emerged and inequality was rampant. 

Today the old conservative state in the south is gone – swept aside by marriage equality and the repeal the eighth referendums.

Dublin is now a prosperous European capital. 

Modernity beckons and change is all around. That is the thing with politics – as with life – change happens. 

The challenge we face is to manage that change.

For that is where the past and future collide.

Some say you must choose between reconciliation or unity. That is a false premise. 

Reconciliation is central. 

Reconciliation is not a Trojan horse for unity. Reconciliation cannot be made wait for unity. 

Reconciliation sits above the constitutional question. 

We have an agreed process to deal with the constitutional question. 

We now need an agreed process for reconciliation. A process to resolve the past, to live together in the present and to unlock the future. 

It is an imperative to address sectarianism, segregation and separation.  It is not about winner and losers. It is not about apportioning blame. It is not a zero sum game. 

It must an outcome in which we all win. An outcome in which society wins. 

It can no longer be: “what we have; we hold” now is the time to move to “what we have; we share”.

I do not underestimate the scale of this challenge. Conflict and the drivers of conflict; injustice, repression and exclusion take root when our common humanity, our civility and our compassion for the other is lost.

After decades of conflict and segregation, our challenge is to rekindle that shared humanity. 

There are some who use the past to abdicate responsibility to lead in the present – those who want to refight old battles, to demand repentance, victory and surrender. 

That is not the basis for reconciliation. That way only perpetuates division and separation.

We cannot ignore the past. 

We cannot wish it away. 

Wrongs that have been done cannot be undone. 

The dead cannot be brought back or the injured made whole. 

We must all face up to the past as a society. 

We must recast our approach to the past.

It cannot be about legitimising or delegitimising deeds, or groups, or outlooks, but about accepting and acknowledging our collective history. 

I often quote the short poem from African American poet and activist Lucile Clifton. In her poem ‘why some people be mad at me sometimes’, she simply wrote. 

'they ask me to remember

but they want me to remember their memories

and I keep remembering mine.’

My starting point is to be thankful that the conflict is over. That we have an agreement and peace. 

We need more. We need a new conversation about the past.

A focus on finding common ground; a compassionate approach to the past. 

All suffering is real and sincere.

No one has a monopoly on suffering. 

I have stood with the families of the Republican dead. 

In my own city each year I have stood with families bereaved in co-ordinated bomb attacks in Dublin and Monaghan – the largest loss of life in the conflict.

Queen’s has not been immune from the conflict, pain and loss. It impacted on staff and students. Edgar Graham a lecturer was killed by the IRA. Sinn Féin member and Queen’s student Sheena Campbell was killed by loyalists. Her portrait now hangs on the Sinn Féin Offices in Leinster House.

I cannot undo that damage or that loss. 

I and my generation of Republicans will work tirelessly to build a society in which no other parent is left without a child or a child left without a mammy or daddy. 

To work to promote peace and reconciliation, to acknowledge all suffering and provide a space to remember. 

A space for each to remember in their own way. 

It is about remembering the dead, not celebrating conflict.

In 2013 Martin McGuinness, in a speech in the Warrington Peace Centre made clear, 'The glorification of conflict is the antithesis of peace building’.

I am a peacebuilder in the tradition of my friend Martin. 

Reconciliation is not only about resolving the past it is about the present. It is about how we live today. 

It is wrong that division remains within our society. It is neither inevitable nor divined by a god. It is manmade and sustained. It can be ended. We must challenge sectarianism wherever is arises.  To confront the lazy stereotypes and baiting of the other. 

We can end sectarianism; we can end segregation. 

We must end sectarianism and we must end segregation.

To recognise and respect the equality of all. This is not only about unionists and nationalists. 

It is about building an open and diverse society. 

A place where the rights of women to bodily autonomy are safeguarded, the rights of our LGBTI community are embraced and the rights of Irish speakers are recognised. 

We cannot only govern and legislate for ourselves but for all. 

This is a challenge to move beyond ourselves and recognise the multiplicity and diversity of others. 

Reconciliation is also about the future. 

Tomorrow will not be the same as today. 

Change is happening all around us. 

It is our job as leaders – each and every one of us – to now manage the evolving process of change with care and honesty with patience and generosity. 

 It is a false dichotomy to choose between reconciliation and the promotion of Irish Unity.  

For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that neither is there a contradiction in seeking the establishment of a functioning Assembly and an Executive, and calling for a unity referendum. 

All are grounded in the Good Friday Agreement 

It is not a case of either/or. 

It is a disgrace that the institutions are not functioning. This time last year we believed we had a deal to re-establish the Executive. It was not to be. 

The process is now hostage to Westminster and Brexit. The deal between the DUP and Tories has undermined the process and that is why we described the meeting last Friday as a sham. 

Both the DUP and British government know what is required to deliver a credible process of talks. It about the implementing of previous agreements, protecting rights and dealing with the legacy of the conflict, putting in place the measures to support victims. These are not Sinn Féin demands.

The deal between the Tories and DUP will end.  

Let us hope that it leaves no lasting damage to the process and agreements in its wake.

Sinn Féin is determined to re-establish the institutions and deliver genuine power sharing in line with the Good Friday and subsequent agreements. 

We can have institutions operating to the highest standards of governance that safeguard rights and deliver for all. 

The call for unity is building.

When I talk of unity it is not about bolting north to south. 

We have before us all the opportunity to think anew and to build anew. 

A United Ireland must be a new Ireland. 

The failed policies of successive Irish governments must go. 

The south is a place of potential, prosperity and opportunity, but it is also blighted by inequality, a housing crisis, homelessness and a chaotic health service. 

Together, united, we change that.

Ireland, north and south, has great wealth and great resources, and we are blessed with an industrious and innovative population. 

The wealth of the nation can be shared with the people of the nation. 

A new Ireland must be a place of equal rights, equal opportunities and shared prosperity. 

It must have a truly national healthcare system operating to the highest standards, delivering for all on the basis of need and not the ability to pay.

It must be the Ireland of the helping hand and the safety net. 

It must be a place for all to call home and it must provide a home for all. 

A place where we are united in our diversity. 

Where you can be British, Irish, both or neither. 

Where citizens are respected, and rights safeguarded. 

The Good Friday Agreement not only provides a peaceful and democratic road map for constitutional change, but also safeguards the right to citizenship, equality and parity of esteem in a united Ireland

In Derry last year, a young woman, a highland dancer asked would there be a place for her and her dancing in a united Ireland. It was a genuine and sincere question. 

I assured her that highland dancers will be most welcome, and I said, you are British today and you will be British tomorrow regardless of whether the border exists or not. I look forward to that young woman dancing in a united Ireland. 

The right to British citizenship and all that entails is safeguarded. 

There can be no diminution of these rights in a new and united Ireland. 

The Unionists will not only have a home in Ireland, they will have a place at the table. A place at the centre of political life and not left in the margins of Westminster. 

The Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist citizens are part of the diversity of our nation. 

You are as much as part of the discussion to shape a new Ireland as republicans and nationalists. 

We are partners in this enterprise. 

Our shared, but oft times, troubled history can be reconciled.

We are unique and diverse in our traditions, but I believe that together, united, the people of our nation add up to a sum greater than our individual parts.

We seek to unite Protestant, Catholic and dissenter. 

There are no second-class citizens in this land. There will be no second-class citizens in this land.

We have much to discuss, and much to agree. The debate is on and change is all around. The notion of a perpetual unionist majority is gone. The very basis of this state. 

Unionism will bring forward a case for continued partition. But it must also look at a contingency, a Plan B, to define your role in a new and united Ireland. 

I want to hear from the unionist community their fears, their needs and their ambitions in a united Ireland. To listen and to understand.

This debate needs to be respectful and informed. It needs to be inclusive and free from threat. 

It will be for the people to decide, democratically.

We have an opportunity of a generation, to break from the past and think anew. 

Let us all grasp that opportunity."

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