Does history have to repeat itself? First thoughts on Declan Kearney’s speech.-

A ‘wise-guy’ once wrote

History repeats itself

It has to

No one is listening.

At a human level we all know how hard it is to break a pattern of relationship, even patterns that are the worst kind with desperate consequences for those involved. To learn to side-step the old emotions and to check intuitive reactions is a challenge indeed. So it is refreshing to hear that there is a way for history not to repeat itself:

We can stop history repeating itself by leading on the priority for an inclusive reconciliation process, in which all sections of our society listen and engage unconditionally with each another, and on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

So spoke Declan Kearney today in Milltown Cemetery as Republicans gathered to remember 1916. History need not repeat itself but there are some movements in relationship that are needed if history is to be set on a different course.

The first movement is listening. How often do we fail at this first movement because we intuitively react to what we are hearing and are hit by the old emotions feeling that our old enemy is justifying themselves? So to help the listening the speaking has to take account of how to communicate with the other. From the beginning this is a two-way process, locking suspicious people together as they begin a new struggle. So the first movement of listening also requires a careful movement of speaking if we are to get beyond the first stage.

The second movement is engagement. Kearney expresses this movement as ‘engage unconditionally’. What precisely does that mean? Almost as soon as the word unconditional comes out of a Republican mouth a Unionist moral backbone has straightened and is worried that this means accepting that some things which should not have been done were tolerable if not acceptable in the context as set out by Republicans in their particular analysis of the conflict. So to be unconditional to the Unionist mind actually becomes a condition and the condition is to accept a Republican analysis. If that is what Kearney means then already the project has failed. I would suggest that there is another way to interpret this.

For those who were engaged in the struggle the particular analysis which was brought to the table and which engaged hearts and minds in a Republican outlook was dependent on there being some justification for the struggle. It was not enough that there was a romantic desire for an Ireland free, although that functions for some. The analysis had to contain elements of belief which urged an Ireland which would be better off economically and socially if it were united, not divided. So it was essential to prove that there was discrimination against the Catholic people in order to paint a picture of a better reality in which Catholics could enjoy the same economic and social benefits as Protestants. Having proven that, the struggle was justified. That internal analysis shored up Republicans as they engaged in violence against their neighbours who have never fully understood how Republicans understood themselves. Unionists have not often been able to accept that the analysis out of which the struggle was born was one that justified the struggle and it was a firm justification in Republican minds. There was no dithering but clear choice by people who had jobs and prospects to join the struggle. It was about freeing your own people and giving them a position through the structures of society which enabled them to access power and then legislate justly. It was an analysis which incorporated a vision for people able to achieve their full potential and be recognised by society. So the ideology was a fair one in the Republican mind and this is what Unionists have not yet fully understood, it seems to me.

So when Kearney asks for people to ‘engage unconditionally’ he is asking for an openness in the approach to dialogue – an openness that accepts there is an analysis which makes it possible to justify the struggle. That doesn’t mean that anyone has to fully embrace the analysis or even partly embrace it. It doesn’t mean that people have to no longer be critical of the analysis but it does mean that when Republicans begin to talk about what they did and why they did it the first response of Unionists is not condemnation but listening and unpacking what is being said in an attempt to get it all out on the table so that it can be viewed from every angle. The listening and engaging may be tight-lipped but the willingness to view the story from every angle is where the critical engagement takes place and that’s why it all needs to be told. Equality and mutual respect are of the same order. Equality is about giving the story equal space to be heard and mutual respect is about a human quality which acknowledges everyones right to choose to be and do what they are and have done. Mutual respect is not, though, it has to be said, about mutually respecting everything that each other did.

Kearney is calling for a new quality of relationship which opens up new space to listen, to speak and then hear. It is on this that he pins the hope that history will not repeat itself. It is this new space that will be a place of transformation where a different and unique kind of history can begin to be written.

It is worth asking what is in this for Unionism. Unionists have important things to say which they feel have never been heard. Those things are related to the injustices of the violence against them and the effects on their community identity and infrastructure. They have to do with covert, disciplined, what are seen as excessive campaigns of purging from border areas and they have to do with not being permitted to speak these out as new institutions were put in place. The Kearney call has to equally apply to Unionists – they have to be listened to in a way which allows them to put it all out on the table without judgement and dismissal being the first response. So how Unionist’s speak in the first movement of the new relating is every bit as important as how Republicans speak and how Republicans listen is every bit as important as how Unionists listen. There is an opportunity for Unionists here and it is one not to missed. What it offers is the possibility of truly opening up the complex dynamics of success and failure, domination and submission. What this offers is a way to continue to be Unionist rather than to be squeezed off the stage altogether and merged with a history long-past which is re-enacted sometimes on a daily basis but nothing more than a re-enactment of that which is past. So this invitation offers Unionism a n unusual opportunity for dynamism within the context of today’s politics.

The task ahead is mammoth, I have no doubt about that. But it is a task that has to be faced if we are to side–step into a new history. So far the past is ever before us and it’s time it was behind us. Here is an offer of an opportunity that should not be refused.

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5 thoughts on “Does history have to repeat itself? First thoughts on Declan Kearney’s speech.-

  1. Pingback: Talking about Reconciliation … « Slugger O'Toole

  2. Barney Rowan says:

    Hi Lesley – I think this is another beginning to another very difficult conversation. I think we all know the demand for ‘truth’ is too much to expect – from any side, never mind every side. So, I think the discussion should be about what is possible in terms of greater explanation and more information. What mechanism/process will deliver the most answers? I agree with you, that what is being suggested by Declan Kearney allows everyone to have their say and to be heard, and it is an opportunity that should not be refused. There are those who will need to be persuaded, but what is lost in talking and exploring possibilities?
    I also think we need an international facilitator/team to try to knit all of this into some sort of shape.

  3. Truth is hard to come by, there is no doubt about that and what is supposed to offer get us the truth doesn’t manage to do it. Hence the discontent with inquiries or HET or whatever other processes are underway. But people still need to listen to each other and get to the place where they can ask their questions. That, I think, would ease something of the log-jam around truth. As to an international facilitator – you might guess that I wouldn’t jump to that one too quickly for all sort of reasons. Greatest among those reasons is the fact that this idea of an international facilitator has been around for a while and backed by Republicans. That doesn’t make it an impossibility but there has been a feeling over the years that this international person was firstly difficult to find and secondly too costly to be possible. So that was interpreted as Republicans purposely setting the bar too high. There needs to be more discussion about this and there needs to be a toe in the water before too much is said and planned. Each needs to try this out and see what is happening and what can be possible. Then when there is a harmony of voices seeking someone international I will be there to support them in whatever way I can. There has to be something better than trade-off politics and I don’t see that there is any other way than dealing with the past to get to that politics.

    • Barney Rowan says:

      Lesley – just to clarify. I wasn’t suggesting an International Truth Commission, but an international team to first explore with all sides, off-stage, what is possible and what is not. The findings of that piece of work would tell us whether there is worth in some type of Truth Process here. I still think we’re better talking about explanation and information rather than truth. And you know, and I know, there will be information that will be for ever buried by all sides. I think the piece of work that needs done first is a realistic assessment of what is achievable, before any Commission is designed and put in place.

  4. What we have a clear indication of, I think, is a willingness to explore the potential of public acknowledgement – what it would look like and where it might lead. I think that is a good starting place and we need to be careful not to weigh it down too soon. After that we can work out the different between explanation, information, truth, apology etc. And we need to weigh up in our thinking what we want to achieve in terms of society as well. There is an air of expectation and hope and that is never a bad thing. Mallie notes it with surprise in his piece on paramilitaries and government and where information will come from given Patricia Lundy’s rather damning report on the HET.

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