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Alex Maskey: Unionist outreach

5 March, 2005

As I have said on a number of occasions in recent years this area of work for Sinn Fein, outreach with unionists and protestants, is probably the most important work we can be doing.

It is a difficult area of work. It is a difficult engagement because we are dealing with emotions on both sides generated by centuries of a brutal conflict.

We are also wrestling with the consequences of a society where political power was in the hands of one section of people who are having difficulties coming to terms with sharing that power with the rest of us.

This dialogue is taking place against a background of competing political allegiances and demands arising out of the conflict. These difficulties should spur us on not deflect us. National reconciliation between nationalists and unionists is very much underdeveloped yet it is a crucial element to creating the conditions out of which a new Ireland will emerge.

The atmosphere within which this work can best be developed and bear fruit is of course an agreement between us all. That is what the Good Friday Agreement was about. It recognised the triangular nature of relationships, within the six counties, within this island and between us all and Britain.

For republicans the most important dimension is the links between those who live here; those who have to share this space we call Ireland. There remains a lot of distrust on all sides. Republicans believe that unionists are insatiable, always demanding more from republicans and not appreciating the enormity of gestures such as that offered up last December by the IRA.

At times we wonder can a deal be done with unionists. And while we are very disappointed the reality is that we were close to a breakthrough last December. I believe if we had all the elements of the GFA functioning well then the task of reconciliation would be a lot easier.

The political leaderships of unionists and nationalists would be leading by example, sharing power at an all-Ireland level and within the northern Executive. This working relationship would send a powerful signal out to all the communities. It would help create a climate to build strong links at the interfaces in Belfast. It would help encourage those in the Orange Order who refuse to speak to residents to do so. That I believe is the best context for developing this area of outreach.

Of course we have to deal with the fact that there is no agreement and this area of work has to continue. And I am satisfied that over the next year we will continue to meet and discuss with all shades of unionism how we share the future for the good of all the people of this country.

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