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Equality, Parity of Esteem and Developing a Reconciliation Process

2 March, 2013

This is another time of significant challenge for our peace and political processes.

We know from our history that particularly during such periods, more not less engagement and dialogue are vital.

A willingness to engage in dialogue paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). It’s fifteenth anniversary fast approaches.

Our peace process has been a journey of great change for us all.

Engagement and dialogue offer the best way to solve problems and manage and progress the transformation of our society.

The Agreement and political institutions provided a framework for political coexistence and the means by which unionists and republicans in partnership could deal with the great challenges of conflict resolution, political disagreement and government.

The core principles of equality, parity of esteem and mutual respect represent the bedrock of the Agreement.

They established a direction of travel for the peace process and set practical criteria for how it was to operate.

Today the North is unrecognisable from 15, 20, or 25 years ago. Huge progress has been made.

However, we are not yet at peace with ourselves because we are still emerging from conflict.

Although we are right to admire the progress, we have no right to be complacent. The peace process cannot be taken for granted.

The potential for increased instability from the ‘flags dispute’, extending into the marching season, demonstrates the fragility of the peace.

Key faultlines continue to exist in the North in the form of sectarianism, segregation, and divisions created by the hurt caused during the political conflict.

One by-product is that the practical outworking of key principles such as equality or parity of esteem has never been agreed.

Recent events show how much disagreement exists over their meaning with regard to the public use of symbols and emblems.

Equality and parity of esteem need to be embraced as instruments of inclusion and integration and a means to encourage mutual understanding.

They are not zero sum concepts designed to create winners and losers.

The decision to fly the union flag on designated days was a compromise.

Compromise doesn’t discriminate against one section of society; it benefits us all.

There is a solution to the ongoing ‘flag dispute’. It will be found through engagement and dialogue, and on an inclusive cross-party, community, sectoral basis.

There is obvious need for real engagement on what equality and parity of esteem should mean. This responsibility must be taken up by unionism and republicanism, and all political leaders. The alternative to that discussion is to continue lurching from one zero sum disagreement to the next with all the attendant fallout.

Affirming equality between and respect for all cultural traditions, and political allegiances in the North is not about ‘one-upmanship’. It should represent common ground to be built upon.

Sinn Féin’s position is absolutely clear, our Party will guarantee British and Irish identities.

Equality and parity of esteem should threaten no one, nor be allowed to engender fear in any community.

We have hurt each other enough, and we still live with too much fear.

Engagement and dialogue is the only way to deal with the reality of fear, real or imagined, and how we agree not to hold, or use it against each other.

During the last twelve months there has been acknowledgement in public discussions that reconciliation is required in our society.

This is an important first step and should be built upon. We share a collective obligation to ensure the next generation grows up in a better place than we did.

Reconciliation is a vision which we should all seek to share.

Discussion, including uncomfortable conversations, is central to that. Agreement on equality, parity of esteem and mutual respect are essential.

In taking that forward it is very important that we all communicate sensitively, and listen carefully to each other.

Republicans have to listen unconditionally to what unionist people are saying to us – to be flexible with our thinking, and allow our views and ideas to be influenced and shaped.

Our republican vision should be a synthesis of how we unify our people, as well as democratically achieving territorial reunification.

Seeking to persuade the hearts and minds of others with our vision for the future, also requires that republicans must be willing to open our own hearts and minds.

It’s a reality that the future we are destined to share with one another will remain contested for as long as we continue to contest the past, and how far back it extends.

So, perhaps we, as political parties and citizens, should begin to reflect upon and discuss the value of trying to build a reconciliation process in the here and now, by setting aside recrimination and committing to replace the divisions caused by the hurt inflicted during our conflict with new human and political relationships.

In other words, that we all begin to accept who we are, and where we are now, and start to look towards the future, new possibilities and new generations.

That idea is hugely challenging.

But it is not impossible.

The alternative is to let the discourse on reconciliation and its potential for opening a new phase in our peace process, be reduced to a poker game about the past.

The rhetoric of recrimination and whataboutery has nothing to offer. It will ossify politics and undermine the potential for new thinking.

This is a period which requires leadership, initiative and courage from all political parties and leaders.

A willingness to open our hearts and open our minds to the need for compromise, generosity and forgiveness by us all.

Acceptance that engagement and dialogue are key to continuing the journey of transformation begun by the peace process.

Commitment to design political processes which facilitate acknowledgement of the pain, resentment and hurt in all communities, unionist and republican; which has been done to us all, and caused to others.

And agreement to try to heal past hurt and injustices by what we say and do in the future as leaders and parties.

Engagement and dialogue have brought us to this point, and shown what is possible in our peace and political processes.

Now mature and all-inclusive discussion are needed to develop an authentic reconciliation process and a strategy to take that vision forward.

That is how we will create new relationships between republicans and unionists, and Ireland and Britain, and build the trust which will re-energise our peace and political processes.

This prospect may offer the best potential with which to positively manage and deal with the legacy of our past.

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