The very idea of National Reconciliation

Last night Declan Kearney, National Chairman of Sinn Fein, made a speech at Westminster Hall, London. It has caused some reaction but before ever looking at the speech it was important for me to ask myself some questions about my expectations. So I came to the speech thinking firstly about the place in which it was to be given – Sinn fein in Westminster Hall with ‘British’ politicians in the audience and sharing the stage. I grew up in the constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone, a constituency represented by as diverse a group of people as you could call to mind and including Bobby Sands and Owen Carron. And now Sinn Fein are making significant speeches at Westminster even if they haven’t yet taken their seats inside. Given that I expected the speech to be shot through with rhetoric. How else would it be possible to say to yourself, never mind to others, that it is really OK to be in such surroundings. I wasn’t disappointed on the rhetoric front and that has been a sticking point for many. Of course the rhetoric didn’t arrive on the scene without a background. Sinn Fein’s anger and dismay at the public pronouncements of other politicians with other aspirations is presently palpable. For me there will be more maturity to the discussion and the intention towards reconciliation when each can speak for themselves without delivering a lecture, critique of tirade about the other. Perhaps as we try to craft a discussion around reconciliation from a variety of starting points there is a good rule of thumb there – to speak for oneself as an access into that discussion. However, the speech should not be passed be either. Sinn Fein view themselves as starting a debate on National Reconciliation and for months their integrity has been questioned both privately and publicly. In reaction to such talk there has been suspicion, a willingness to test it out and a complete unwillingness to accept any such idea. As ever society in Northern Ireland moves between it’s usual variety of poles. Are Unionists to be outmaneuvered by Sinn fein again, a friend asked me? Well only if that is how Unionists see themselves – as people who will always be outmaneuvered. I prefer to think of Unionism as having the bold capacity to engage in head-on debate, to speak out clearly and to argue its case. What I worry about is the capacity of Unionism to vision something better than we have and having visioned it to then address itself to a pathway to get there. I don’t mean that it is impossible for Unionism. I mean that I want to be led in that direction by a straight-spoken, clear-thinking Unionist leadership who don’t hand it all over the Republicans. I want to be led by a Unionism that is prepared to take the stage with friends and old enemies alike to craft a settlement to the outstanding issues that will not only enable us to co-habit in a certain contentedness in Northern Ireland but that will enable us to open up spaces for flourishing community and strong debate in which everyone has to take on new responsibilities and dreams. I don’t feel we are there yet but I do believe in Unionism’s capacity to do this. I don’t think everyone does. In Kearney’s speech he has set out some broad strokes, and some much less broad, about what could be done or considered in a conversation that would bring new relationships in politics at every level and free up a set of arrangements that would add a new dynamic. For me it is a fairly strong list of not unexpected things. But Sinn Fein doesn’t set the scope of this debate. They bring to it what they want to bring to it. Unionism needs to bring its own robust and equally uncomfortable list of areas for consideration. That’s if the traffic isn’t to flow all in one direction. I’m not for one way streets. So I would have expected this kind of list with it’s rhetoric. It doesn’t surprise me nor does it disappoint me. At some points though it could have been more nuanced and inclusive. But then this is a dialogue and each party to the dialogue has to be real as it is. If we are to craft something that will survive then, in my view, then other lists and other rhetoric will need to become part of a very uncomfortable conversation for us all. The the very idea of National Reconciliation need not enrage but become the very idea that might bring us to a more wholesome society in which diversity can be cherished and while everyone can’t get everything they want out of such a process at least we might begin to have some sympathy with each other and compassion for each other when it is clear that not everything can be healed or made right.


Any the wiser about Republicans and reconciliation?

Doesn’t it say something about our relationships in Northern Ireland when after all these months we are still trying to understand what Declan Kearney, Sinn Fein National Chairman, means when he talks about reconciliation! Since Easter we have been unpacking the notion publicly and Kearney has been interviewed a number of times and we are still not sure what it’s all about. Last week one of the Sunday papers carried a story about a possible IRA apology but Kearney was interviewed and said that there has been no IRA for the last seven years. This has, rightly, disconcerted some loyalists who thought that was what they were engaging about. If there is no IRA then is Kearney the person to be talking to or should they talking be with a group like Coiste? But the noises about reconciliation have come from Kearney, and we are still wondering.

Clearly if ‘an apology’ is anywhere on the cards it will have to be part of a wider process. There is no chance that the IRA or their representatives, or individuals from that now no longer in existence organisation, are going to make apologies if others aren’t going to step up to the plate too. So reconciliation will have to be about more than Republicans. We can be sure of that at this point.

Since the Easter speeches there has been ‘the handshake’. No matter how we feel about the handshake it is undeniable that something significant happened. Something happened that wouldn’t have happened even a year ago and it says something about our direction in Northern Ireland, which is a direction towards one another rather than away from one another.

Mind you, the frustrations remain about the speed of business politically and about some of the issues that remain to be addressed. Here we are in the summer recess and still no announcement as to the appointment of a new Victims Commissioner(s). The announcement about the pursuit of possible prosecutions regarding events on Bloody Sunday has angered some but the truth is that in deciding to do nothing about dealing with the past we have decided for the relentless pursuit of justice through the existing channels. So we thought all we were doing was not getting caught into some Republican, or otherwise, plot to put the past away? In fact what we were doing was choosing the relentless pursuit of justice through the normal channels and now we are, many of us in the unionist community in particular, frustrated and angered.

There is considerable discontent, despite the direction of our relationships. So reconciliation in Kearney’s terms might after all mean doing something about this constant anger at each other, this constant watching each other for who is going to get the upper hand, this constant dragging of the past back into our collective memory so that the past then takes a hold of us with all its bitterness, hatred, division, hurt, grief and despair. Maybe that’s what it’s all about – doing something about how the past still has a hold of us – and if it is then there are things we can get our teeth into. There are issues that need to be addressed if we are not to constantly get brought back to the place where memory and all in memory’s wake takes hold of us in heart, mind and spirit.

Further clues are given in an address Kearney made to the Crossfire Trust on Friday evening past. The whole text of that address is below. It is interesting to note that Kearney was invited to speak to this group. The Crossfire Trust ( was established in 1984, comes from an Evangelical Christian background and owns a property called Darkley House which immediately rings bells in memory. Darkley and Kearney  – not two names expected to be heard in one breath but it was at the invitation of the Trust that Kearney gave the Shane Harte Memorial Lecture.

It is without doubt courageous for Kearney to open his address with the acknowledgement of events that took place at Mountain Lodge Gospel Hall – courageous and absolutely necessary as he would have known when he accepted the invitation. On a November Sunday evening in 1983 Mountain Lodge Hall was entered by those intent on killing. The community of worshippers who should have felt completely safe worshipping God were confronted by people representing the South Armagh Republican Action Force who opened fire and killed three of the church elders. Courageous but absolutely necessary that Kearney address this memory, this reality, for the people of South Armagh. Nor does Kearney shy away from other atrocities. The South Armagh area has had its fair share and the names bring to mind a depth of suffering and loss and despair that cannot be quantified – Donnelly’s bar, the Step Inn, the Reavey brothers, the O’Dowd family, Kingsmills, Tullyvallen Orange Hall, Majella O’Hare and Fearghal Carragher.

In the course of his address Kearney has this to say:


Over twenty years later, the Ireland of today is unrecognisable due to the progress of the peace and political processes.

We should be rightfully satisfied at the changes achieved for the better, but we have no right to be complacent.

The reality is that our communities and country continues to be blighted by deep divisions, hurt and fear.  The war and conflict in our society were created and perpetuated by historic and systematic political and economic injustices.

 But while the conditions of conflict have been addressed the legacy of division, hurt and fear caused to all sides has the potential to be passed on from one generation to the next – unless we collectively decide to stop that trans generational cycle beginning.


That, it seems to me, is the best summary we have of what this reconciliation initiative is about from the Sinn Fein point of view. It is about acknowledging the changes that have come about which are for the better but also about a common acknowledgement that we have not yet completed a process that means the conflict or its like will never happen again. There are still divisions to be addressed and systems to be made wholesome and economic injustices to be faced. And alongside that work of any modern political system we have also to face the hurt and fear that exists on both sides so that we can address memory and its transmission. That means addressing all those things that cause memory to rise again in a manner that brings about a transgenerational cycle, passing memory from one generation to another of hurt and fear to a degree that has the potential to bring the conflict to pass all over again. That doesn’t mean forgetting but it does mean finding a way to put the past in the past and to put processes in place that will resist the recurrence of past scenes being played out over and over again so that we have to take sides all over again and be embedded in hurt and fear all over again. It doesn’t mean forgetting. It means remembering for the future.

So there are some clues as to what Republicans are after when they talk about a process of reconciliation. I still see no other way for that to happen well than for Unionists to step up and into the conversation with all the weight of their experiences with them and to be so real  in the presence of Republicans that there can be no turning away from what Unionists experienced – no justifying it and no explaining it away. I think Republicans deserve nothing less than this from the Unionist community.







Text of Declan Kearney’s address – 6th July 2012 

Crossfire Trust.  Darkley Lecture.


It is a privilege for me to share this lecture with your community tonight.

I am very conscious that my remarks will be spoken and heard in an area of South Armagh which has experienced its own deep hurt during our past conflict.

Mention of Darkley for many immediately evokes memories of the killings at Mountain Lodge Gospel Hall, not far from here.

That terrible event scarred our whole society, but also left a huge burden of pain within that small congregation which was attacked, and the broader community to which it belonged.

The legacy of the Mountain Lodge Gospel Hall killings is part of a legacy we all now share.

It is therefore incredibly important that despite such a painful and challenging experience, and from within the same area, today dialogue and processes of healing are being encouraged by this Christian community, as a contribution to ensure that events such as that awful night never happen again.

In recent months, I, Martin McGuinness, and other members of the Sinn Fein leadership have frequently addressed our vision and hope for an authentic reconciliation process across our island.

We have spoken directly to our own republican constituency, and broad nationalism; but, we have also sought to communicate our thoughts to the wider Protestant and unionist community.

Many years ago when we were first engaged with very courageous Protestant and unionist people, who risked being ostracised within their own community for speaking with republicans, we began a process of reflection upon our relationship with the Protestant, unionist community, in the context of the unfolding peace process.

Ever since then we have tried to more deeply understand their experience, feelings and convictions.

Over twenty years later, the Ireland of today is unrecognisable due to the progress of the peace and political processes.

We should be rightfully satisfied at the changes achieved for the better, but we have no right to be complacent.

The reality is that our communities and country continues to be blighted by deep divisions, hurt and fear.  The war and conflict in our society were created and perpetuated by historic and systematic political and economic injustices.

But while the conditions of conflict have been addressed the legacy of division, hurt and fear caused to all sides has the potential to be passed on from one generation to the next – unless we collectively decide to stop that trans generational cycle beginning.

We should learn for our history.

The failure to put a reconciliation process in place after the Irish civil war gave way to nine decades of trans generational division which have created ongoing fault lines in southern Irish society especially.

Much suffering has been inflicted and experienced by all sides in South Armagh.

Within a radius of miles from here many deaths, such as those at Donnelly’s bar and the Step Inn took place.  During a short space of days the killings of the Reavey brothers, the O Dowd family, in Gilford, and the workers at Kingsmills all occurred.  The Tullyvallen Orange Hall killings happened nearby, and Mountain Lodge Gospel Hall was closer still.  Many IRA volunteers, British soldiers, and RUC members were killed locally; as well as young people like Majella O Hare, and Fearghal Carragher.

There has been enormous human hurt, and republicans and unionists share a collective pain.

We cannot undo the past, nor can we, or, should we forget.

Last year during her visit to Dublin, the Queen said; “With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

That is an assessment with which we would all agree.

But we should not allow the past to place a brake on our future.

Sinn Fein believes it is possible to open a new phase in our peace process, facilitating dialogue on how all hurts can be acknowledged, reduced, and, if possible healed.

We are convinced that our peace can be powerfully advanced by a reconciliation process, supported by a robust scaffolding of economic and social rights and opportunities for every citizen.

The pursuit of authentic reconciliation, north and south, is bigger than all of us, and cannot be the property of any one Party or community.

Although we have set out a vision of what Sinn Fein thinks is possible, our approach is non prescriptive, other than to encourage maximum inclusivity across and between communities.

Our Party wants an increased dialogue with the wider Protestant and unionist community.

I and other republican leaders have challenged our own constituency to free up our thinking, to listen unconditionally to Protestant and unionist fears and suspicions, to be prepared to have “uncomfortable conversations”, in order to achieve greater understanding, resolve divisions, and build new relationships.

We share this island with one another and we share a common humanity.

There is a massive imperative to do our best to explore how our shared experience of hurt can be acknowledged, reduced, and, if possible healed.

However, that will only come about by better understanding each other and imagining what it is like to walk in one another’s shoes.

And that is deeply challenging, given the division and pain, which have defined our historical, political and community experiences, and, the parallel fear which gives expression to that.

Some of that fear may well be unfounded, but if sections of our society express or reflect a sense of fear, which they hold to be real, then we need to accept that fear is real to them.

Fear is a powerful emotion, and in the context of conflict resolution it is an equally powerful dynamic.

Although we enjoy a substantial peace in our country, we are not at peace with one another.  And whilst the Irish peace process is irreversible, it should not simply be measured against the relative absence of violence.

This process to date has been a transformational journey for us all, but Sinn Fein believes we all have more to do – our work is not completed.

For as long as entrenched fears endure within our society, the actuality of that fear will act as a brake on the unfulfilled potential and possibility of the peace process, and slow our journey down.

A friend of mine draws the analogy between how the fear of flying limits the ability to travel, visit new places, meet new people, and have new experiences, and the dynamic of fear within our peace process, reducing or closing down the ability to explore new possibilities, and scenarios from which we might in fact, all benefit.

We should not allow that to happen.

This is why republicans speak of the need to open a new phase in the peace process.

A phase in which we begin to make friends with one another; start forging new relationships among and between our diverse communities north and south; and , to change the historical relationship of adversity between Ireland and Britain.

Put simply, a phase in which we begin to author a new future for our children and the next generation.

But that depends upon us all embracing the need for those “uncomfortable conversations”, and a willingness to step outside our own comfort zones as a contribution to developing new relationships, and a path towards authentic reconciliation.

Some days ago loyalist leaders spoke to me about the deep fear and suspicion in their communities, and how that paralyzes the expectations and aspirations of young loyalist people, and their receptiveness to explore new possibilities.

In some ways while the heavy lifting of the negotiations is over, the complexity of building reconciliation is just starting.

A willingness to explore, and develop new relationships is crucial to transforming the future.

The New Testament puts it thoughtfully so … “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Of course, none of this will be easy.

Courage, confidence, leadership and vision from us all will be necessary to open up this new phase; to open out the dialogue; to take a lead in stretching out the hand of real friendship; and, slowly, ever slowly creating trust.

That means political leaders showing example through our willingness to conquer our own personal and communal fears.

Nelson Mandela said it well; “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.  The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers it.”

We will need to be very compassionate, patient and generous with one another.

But we will also need to be prepared to take risks and make new compromises.

That is why our Party agreed that Martin Mc Guinness should meet the Queen of England, last week.

By meeting Queen Elizabeth, Martin sought to symbolically extend the hand of friendship to the Protestant and unionist community.

Some have sought to devalue the importance of this gesture for narrow political reasons, and others have sought to play it down; but this meeting was not only symbolic, it was hugely substantive.

All conflict resolution processes are strengthened by seminal events which build new hope and momentum.

Martin’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth represented one of those “Mandela Moments”.

Through that event Irish republicanism sought to extend a very conscious gesture of equality and respect to our neighbours who give allegiance to the English monarchy.

It was a demonstration of our resolve to achieve reconciliation among our people, and, to illustrate the sincerity of our commitment to creating a pluralist united Ireland, which can celebrate all our diverse traditions and identities.

Last Wednesday was a day with much transformative potential, but realising that will depend on what we all do in the weeks and months ahead, as citizens, Political parties, and governments.

More Mandela type moments and new compromises will be needed to maintain the trajectory towards national reconciliation.

Over the last few months and in response to Sinn Fein’s public comments, some citizens from within the broad Protestant, unionist and loyalist community have begun a process of private engagement with us.

These have been important discussions and we are inspired by the encouragement expressed for the leadership shown by our Party.  We wish to build and expand on this challenging work, and to encourage dialogue across all sections of Irish society on how to foster reconciliation and trust

The significance of these discussions received recognition and impetus from the important resolutions of support passed by the recent Presbyterian Assembly, and the Methodist General Meeting.

But Sinn Fein wants to see political unionism play a full part in this dialogue also.

Some unionists seek to undermine these discussions by misrepresenting republican sincerity as a devious trap.  They are utterly disingenuous: the only mind games being played out are in their own heads.

Unionist political leaders have a very important contribution to make to the pursuit of reconciliation.

I understand that they may harbour doubts and suspicions, or even fears, about the challenges and risks we all face in building reconciliation and trust.

If that is so, then let’s discuss how these suspicions or fears can be addressed.  None of us should fear reconciliation or equality.

Instead we should try to build common ground.

Agreement and consensus on the need for mutual respect and equality could assist us all in designing a framework to advance reconciliation and establish new accommodations.

The gift of a new future is far greater than any sectional interest, and, the possibilities far outweigh the risks.  We have surely proved to one another how we can collectively overcome other seemingly impossible challenges.

The journey of our peace process can be moved forward if we all accept the importance of freeing up our thinking.

The achievements of our process demand that we now complete that journey.  And, accepting this will mean that we keep stretching ourselves, and taking more bold steps.

So political, civic and community leaders have to provide real leadership and vision.

Republicans and unionists should become leaders in reconciliation, and by showing mutual respect for our different political aspirations, prove to our communities that friendship is possible and fear can be overcome.

As Henry Thoreau, the American philosopher put it; “I may not agree with your politics, understand your religion or speak your language, but you are part of this community and it makes sense to embrace your differences and ask that you accept mine.”

Our peace process is unstoppable, and this next phase of reconciliation, building trust and making friends is inevitable.

How long that will take depends upon how quickly it takes us to collectively agree, to inspire more “Mandela Moments”, and to start thinking really big about the future.

The greatest moral and political challenge facing our generations on this island is to ensure our children and the next generation grow up in a better place than we did; to have the choice of living in a place free from fear, division and hurt; and, to live in a society which prizes economic equality, social justice, and celebrates difference, diversity and mutual respect.


Who can fear the pursuit of reconciliation, equality and protection of rights?

So the words about reconciliation arrived not entirely out of the blue but with a fresh feeling to them and a fresh hope as well. Kearney identifies a reticence within political unionism to move with any speed to respond positively to the offer of talking but within wider unionism, and of course with its diversity in mind, he sees more hope. He would, have liked to see something more robust and welcoming from political unionism. But then I guess you can’t have it all and you certainly can’t have it all when it comes to the process of reconciliation. If you have it all then you would be engaged in a process of domination and assimilation.

Kearney displays some ambivalence in his interview. In one moment he is looking to what can constructively be built together, unionists and republicans, and in the other he is saying that ossified unionism has little to offer. A part of me reacts strongly to this – who does he think he is? I suspect he might feel the same sometimes when he listens to voices from across the broad unionist family. The other truth is that if there was no ambivalence there would be no need for reconciliation.

It is worth reading the text of the interview pasted below. It is worth listening to your own reactions as you do and it is worth asking if destructive reactions can be kept in check enough to enter into a new set of uncomfortable conversations in order to at least explore the possibility of something new, something a stage nearer to reconciliation than what we have. It is worth too knowing that uncomfortable conversations will have to be had and that in itself will take courage.

Mind you, alongside the inability we have to talk meaningfully and honestly about the past one wonders how far uncomfortable conversations can go. But then again maybe something to help this society deal with the past will emerge from the uncomfortable conversations. We already know some of what has to happen but we don’t know if we are yet ready to commit to that.

Again Kearney recognises that the process is not a one way street. So we will have to cope with truth-telling as a two-way street, with the kind of justice that restores as a two-way street and with the ‘special’ arrangements to access the truth as a two-way street. And unless we accept that forgiveness is a two-way street, forgiveness that will be offered to others and forgiveness that we will have to seek from others, then there is probably little distance that can be travelled. That short distance should not, though, be sniffed at. It is better than nothing at all. But at some point in the process of reconciliation each party will have to look forgiveness straight in the eye and decide whether or not to walk forward with forgiveness in mind. That will be a tough moment but the most illuminating and life-giving one if it can be grasped.

Reading the interview I was uncomfortable, angry, willing to get involved and take it seriously and uncertain if there would be any point. I felt the unionist community both diminished and affirmed and I am sure that Republicans feel the same when Unionists speak about them. I felt all those things but I cannot agree with Alex Kane that this is the Sinn Fein steamroller effect in action. If it is, if it is just another ploy to get what they want, then engaging them in a process of reconciliation is precisely the right way to go because they will have to be faced with things that make them uncomfortable. Discomfort is not a one-way street. To think otherwise is to entirely miss the point of reconciliation and dialogue and a robust process will take care of arrogance, self-righteousness and any sense of entitlement that parties to the process might feel. So bring it on – there is nothing to fear, except the better and different world that will emerge if the process is rigourous enough and has the commitment of the participants. In his Thoughts in the Presence of Fear Wendell Berry has written some helpful things and we are in the presence of fear when we express willingness to get involved in and then actually begin uncomfortable conversations in search of reconciliation:

What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being….. The key to peaceableness is continuous practice.

Continuous practice – not sitting still and accepting what pertains, Not passivity – but activity. Not tolerance which is far from enough – but reconciliation. A friend said to me not so long ago that he thought there needed to be some thought given to what reconciliation means. I’m not entirely sure what he meant but I might reply that reconciliation is something that comes after uncomfortable conversations. Those conversatoins need to happen and the skeptics are especially welcome for they will bring a depth to the transformation that is possible for all parties to the conversation. To look for, prepare for and search for reconciliation is a noble pursuit and its outcomes cannot be pre-defined. In fact, argues Charles Villa-Vicencio, to try to predefine what reconciliation is or looks like will so limit the scope of what is possible that the project will have faltered even before it starts. Thus in a lecture given to The World Association for Christian Communication Villa-Vicencio said:

… reconciliation is a notion that reminds us that some concepts transcend the prose of consumer society. To fail to hold to this transcendence is to ignore the important utopian challenge that lies at the root of all history affirming religions. It is to surrender to a view of a closed history, which suggests that only the possible is possible. It loses sight of the eschatological notion of what Karl Barth called the ‘possible impossibility, which demands decidedly more than the realism of Franz Kafka, which spoke of hope that is ‘not for us’.

At this point in our history on these Islands we do not, in my view, want to surrender to the possible alone but rather to seek out that which is impossible because in so many ways we have already seen that the impossible can be possible. There has to be more.

16 | May / Bealtaine 2012



What has been the reaction to your initial

article in the March edition of An

Phoblacht and your subsequent keynote

address on behalf of the Sinn Féin leadership

to the Easter Rising commemoration

in Belfast at Milltown Cemetery?

There has been much considered public

and private response. It’s obvious many

others want to focus along with Sinn Féin

on how we build upon the peace and

political progress and collectively develop

an authentic reconciliation process benefiting

the entire island.

Republicans were already discussing

these issues and that discourse is growing

within the wider republican and nationalist

community. We know the remarks

from myself and Martin McGuinness have

encouraged very progressive discussion

amongst the wider unionist and

Protestant community, including senior

loyalist figures. These are very diverse and

important voices and I would encourage

them to engage directly with us.

The reaction from political unionism

has been very disappointing.

Can you expand on that?

The media response from DUP and UUP

representatives and some other commentators

has been essentially rejectionist.

They are missing the pulse here and

failing to recognise the importance of

meaningful engagement on how we

should try to address the hurt experienced

by all our people during the war.

Why now? Well, there’s never a ‘right’


I believe all political leaders need to

take responsibility for creating the best

possible circumstances to allow our children

grow up in a better place than we

did. It’s a huge challenge but that’s no reason

to avoid making the effort. Sinn Féin is

prepared to face up to our responsibility.

Do you think political unionism is totally


Some unionist spokespersons are trying to

block and undermine this discussion by

talking about the need for republican

actions to prove our bona fides in calling

for an authentic reconciliation process.

They know that’s a spurious position and

totally unsustainable. Their rejectionist

language echoes of 15 or 20 years ago but

the Peace Process has moved on from

that time, and so have our people.

Political leaders need to give leadership

and be courageous: that’s what Sinn

Féin is doing. I said on Easter Sunday that

republicans need to listen carefully to the

diverse voices within the wider unionist

and Protestant community. Political

unionism should do the same. This is not

a one-way street.

How about the responses from republicans?

Sinn Féin has been discussing our relationship

with unionism and how to move

the Peace Process into a reconciliation

phase for a long time. Those internal discussions

now have new impetus.

There is a massive sense of hurt within

the republican community caused by

past injustices and that should not be

underestimated or devalued. But republicans

are agents of change so, however

difficult, we must keep looking and moving

forward. A peaceful Ireland is essential.

Republicans are very engaged with that


Martin McGuinness’s speech to the

Political Studies Association in Belfast

City Hall on 4 April didn’t garner huge

headlines but it was important in maintaining

the momentum you initiated,

wasn’t it?

Against the backdrop of all our other political

work – providing opposition in the

South, government in the North, and in

the all-Ireland institutions – the party

leadership is totally committed to persuading

for and achieving national reconciliation.

So Martin’s speech to the Political

Studies Association contained very important

messages, as did his Easter Sunday

oration in Drumboe, alongside the contributions

of Gerry Adams and others over


Some unionists have tried to trivialise

and misrepresent what we have been saying

in the last two months. Republic

don’t need to rewrite any narratives.

We are very confident in ourselves and

full of hope for the future. Sinn Féin is

looking forward. We want to talk with others

about how we collectively author a

new future for our children and that will

require courage, compassion and imagination.

Lord John Alderdice and Chris Ryder

have both told An Phoblacht that DUP

leader Peter Robinson’s Carson Lecture

– hosted by the Irish Government in

Dublin in March and reflecting on the

100th anniversary of the signing of the

Ulster Covenant against Home Rule in

Ireland – was “similarly significant” to

what you had said in An Phoblacht. How

does Sinn Féin view that event and what

Peter Robinson said?

In the context of the decade of centenaries,

the Carson Lecture and Peter Robinson’s

participation in that was very welcome and

interesting. He was clearly using Carson’s

unionism as historic legitimisation to try

and redefine present-day unionism as a

modern, pluralist philosophy.

However, the reality is political unionist

thinking is ossified and unwilling to

bring new momentum to the Peace

Process. Sinn Féin is suggesting how that

can be done, if we apply our collective

genius and wisdom to shaping an authentic

reconciliation process.

The logical extension of Peter

Robinson’s lecture is for him to give the

leadership required to free up unionist

thinking, to become partners in reconciliation

with republicans and not just partners

in government.

Political journalists Eamonn Mallie and

Brian Rowan have recognised the

importance and sincerity of your An

Phoblacht article and have expanded on

it in print and through hosting face-toface

debates with unionists. You obviously

must welcome all that but where

do we –all of us – go from here?

Republicans need to continue thinking

and talking to each other. But we also

need to be prepared to listen unconditionally

to others within the unionist and

Protestant community.

Republicans know well about injustice

but we have always risen above that. Now

there is a new phase to be mapped out in

the Peace Process and that’s about building

reconciliation and an Ireland at peace

with itself. ‘Uncomfortable Conversations’

will be part of that process but we should

embrace such dialogue confidently, generously,

and be open to exploring new language

and thinking.

We should not let political unionism

derail our efforts with negativity or rejectionism.

We are republicans in the tradition of

Tone, McCracken and Hope – committed

to breaking the English connection

and uniting Protestant, Catholic and

Dissenter. We want national reconciliation,

equality and the legal entrenchment

of rights. That agenda seeks to

serve the interests of the overwhelming

majority of our people. We will persevere

with that agenda despite political

opposition to it.

Let’s open new possibilities for

progress by learning to understand each

other better and making new friendships.

Let’s start the big thinking now about

our collective future.

Who can fear the pursuit of reconciliation,

equality and protection of rights?


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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