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.