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Ard Fheis 2004 - Maskey - obstacles to dialogue must be overcome

28 February, 2004


Sinn Féin MLA for South Belfast Alex Maskey MLA speaking to motions 89 & 90 said "I want to say from this platform, to the unionist community in particular, and ask for your endorsement, that Sinn Féin is committed to building the peace, promoting national reconciliation, developing our own party's consciousness and structures which will enable us to genuinely reach out to unionists and the broader protestant community."

Unionist Outreach

Members are aware that last year the Ard Chomhairle established a unionist outreach committee and appointed myself to head up this work.

I am happy to say that since last year the party has intensified our engagement with the protestant and unionist people. Our committee has just reported to the Ard Chomhairle with proposals to expand and develop this engagement.

The unionist outreach committee which is handling this area of work identified a number of areas which require ongoing and special attention if we are to see progress being made with this important work of peace building.

The first and we believe important addition to this area of work over the last year has been to involve all levels of the party from the cumainn activists through the party's management structures to the Ard Chomairle, the leadership of the party.

Up until recently a small group within Sinn Fein were dedicated to developing this area of work. However as you know it was recognised that the workload involved and the objectives we set ourselves demanded the party at all levels be active in this engagement.

Another concern was that the engagement was primarily confined to the unionist and protestant people in the six counties. We believe this is an all-Ireland project and Sinn Fein has to engage with protestants who live on the rest of the island as well.

This is what we mean when we talk about working for national reconciliation.

I believe this area of work is a central and indispensable part of the peace process.

I also believe that the engagement to date has benefited ourselves as well as those who we are in contact with.

Now, it is obvious that there is a huge gulf of distrust, mis-understanding and suspicion on all sides.

Indeed ten years on in the peace process with all the initiatives taken by republicans and the policy changes that republicans have made, unionists remain sceptical about our sincerity.

How much of this has to do with the failure of the leaders of unionism over the last ten years is of course a matter for debate.

There is no doubt that many unionist leaders are either opposed to change or are reluctant to embrace it. They certainly do not encourage dialogue between communities.

There is also no doubt that many of the people we engage with are much more open minded about the need for change and dialogue than their political leaders.

This proves for me the potential there is for change once real dialogue takes place.

I want to say that while we are committed to developing dialogue. I am also struck by the fact that there is unfortunately a blind spot among all shades of unionism about their role in the conflict.

They seem not to realise the impact on northern catholics and nationalists of the years between 1920 and 1969 when a protestant and unionist state was imposed on us and those who lived through those years, never mind the role of unionism right up to this very day

In my opinion these are just some of the difficult realities that we have to deal with.

But no matter how difficult are the obstacles to dialogue they are they need to be tackled; they need to be overcome.

We republicans know that the task is not easy; indeed it is formidable.

We are trying to unravel centuries of conflict; centuries of living separately on a very small island.

We republicans know it is going to take time and political change before we arrive at a satisfactory point where we can say we have really begun the journey of genuine national reconciliation.

I want to say from this platform, to the unionist community in particular, and ask for your endorsement, that Sinn Féin is committed to building the peace, promoting national reconciliation, developing our own party's consciousness and structures which will enable us to genuinely reach out to unionists and the broader protestant community.

The first and important step to that end is open-ended dialogue and I am glad to say that we at least have that.

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