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.


Reconciliation – does the Bible help us?

When Irish Presbyterians come to resolve conflict they turn to the Bible and specifically to Matthew 18 where a process is clearly set out and to which church members are first referred should there be any disputes between them. The verses are entitled Dealing with sin in the church:-


15 ‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 ‘Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’


The verses follow from a section specifically about not tripping up young or not yet mature followers of Jesus. Those verses follow from an account of a dispute between the disciples about who was going to be greatest and have the best place when they were all in heaven. Leading into the verses about causing others to stumble are a couple of verses about searching out the one that wanders away, even if there are ninety nine left in the fold. After the verses about dealing with sin in the church, or resolving conflict, there is a story about mercy and forgiveness – about how one man found himself at the mercy of a powerful king to whom he owed much and when he begged for mercy he found himself forgiven the debt. Going out into the street, his heart and spirit light, he met another man who owed him a small amount and when this man threw himself on the forgiven servants mercy he found himself thrown into jail. So the verses about conflict and its resolution are set inside a whole series of thoughts about power and how it is used, about the role of mercy and forgiveness in relationships and about the power of example to trip others up or, it is implied, to inspire more from them. Clearly what matters to the author is good relationships and so when those relationships break down there is a clear path for their resolution.

1 Try to resolve the differences quietly and between yourselves, if that doesn’t work –

2 Bring some others along with you and try to work it out and if that still doesn’t work –

3 Its time to go to the wider church community

4 If there is still no hope of restoring the relationship then there is no alternative but to treat the ‘sinner’, the one with whom the relationship has broken down, as a pagan or a tax-collector.

Lederach takes this passage and effectively unpacks it into the life of the church community, critiquing it from within the practice of his own Mennonite tradition and as I read I discover that Mennonite practice isn’t that far off Presbyterian practice. It’s a good read for church people who want to be Biblical in the way in which they approach the broken relationships within all our church communities.

But Lederach takes this passage further and inquires into what it can offer by way of model and guide to those involved in conflict resolution in other scenarios and situations. There are some helpful thoughts and they have provoked me in my thinking. What does it mean, for example, to move a process of resolving conflict beyond a room where there are two people working it out or a small group trying to address it? What does it mean to roll out the conflict before a whole community and seek there its resolution? And if there is no resolution we are to treat the other, the enemy, as a pagan or a tax collector – is that a good thing?

There are those who resist any notion of dealing with our history in the context of Northern Ireland and certainly a resistance to dealing with our history in any kind of organised way. They argue that there is enough going on, that there is enough disturbance and sharing of information and dragging this community down with truth-seeking and they want lines drawn in the sand, under the past and across the pages of inquests and inquiries. There are all sorts of good reasons offered into the argument for this ‘line-drawing’. Society has had enough; it costs too much; the truth would do no good; the truth could never be found anyway; we need to move on. Most of us, if we’ve been paying any sort of attention at all, have heard all the arguments rehearsed. But I have to wonder as I listen and I as look at those who make the draw-a-line arguments if it hasn’t more to do with feeling that truth is a one way process and it’s time that one way process ended rather than go on in an unbalanced way. So the resistance is more about balance than about truth itself and truth can always be sacrificed if it has become a weapon against one section of the community.

The Matthew passage and Jesus urging about what to do when there is conflict tells us that we are to move toward the person who has set themselves apart from us, become ‘enemy’ to us. We are urged to move towards them, to talk directly with them and if we find that we can’t make ourselves understood then we are to take others with us. There is no immediacy in the breaking off of the relationship. Should talking with the person in the company of others still be ineffective in developing understanding and remaking a relationship then the wider community becomes involved. While the passage is written for individual situations or internal community disputes there are still important aspects to this for a process of national reconciliation.

  • move towards the other, the one considered to be the enemy. There is no standing back, no hanging out in the shadows waiting to see if something happens. There is movement and it is movement towards the enemy. It is up to the peacemakers and the conflict resolvers and those who want something better and believe in something better to move towards the enemy. It’s up to everyone to identify the enemy and move towards them.
  • move towards the other in the hope of a new relationship. Matthew 18 sets out the new relationships in terms of new understandings about power, new insights about who is important and sought out, new visions of mercy and forgiveness. (If you want it in the Biblical sense it is to give the chance to discover that in the Kingdom of God those who think of themselves as the greatest will be surprised then the least step forward ahead of them; it is a chance to discover that in the Kingdom of God the one is sought after even if there are already ninety nine safe in the fold, everyone counts; it is to provide the learning that example matters and everyone shares responsibility for the weak and the vulnerable and the easily swayed so that they do not stumble and fall; it is to open up the windows onto the issues of power and mercy and forgiveness that transform and reset relationships putting people into different and new and exciting places that they hadn’t imagined possible.) The process of resolving conflict is not only to move towards enemies but also to offer surprising and life-changing experiences of mercy and forgiveness to people who thought they didn’t matter to you or who imagined they wouldn’t register on your radar.
  • allow enemies to move towards one another in a way that is witnessed by the wider community for their healing, hope and change. There is a wider community to bear witness and to itself be changed.
  • if there is no new hope from moving towards the enemy then they are to be treated as ‘pagans or tax collectors’. Whole books have been written about what that might mean but in the Biblical sense it can be argued that what Jesus did with pagans and tax-collectors was to have dinner with them. They weren’t put so far from him that they suffered utter exclusion. The relationship can never quite be an easy or comfortable one but neither is it one that is cut off without hope.


This third area, the wider community, is one worth considering further and I will do that at another time. It has begun to run around in my mind that this wider community of whatever and from where ever it is constructed, might be something like a Commission of Witnesses to Transformation. We don’t need a Truth Commission here, we are never going to agree on one. There are all sorts of thoughts around as to how we become a society more defined by how we are reconciling than we are by our divided past. There are things that need to be done and there are those who are able to identify those things and even ask for them. We are more constrained in what we can do than we were a few years ago, before the economic downturn. But still we need something, a process, a dealing with the past, a way for enemies to lay down the burdens of the past in the best way that they can so that the tools for building the future can be held in their hands. Wider society needs to become part of it but the process is fraught with danger, with justice concerns, with sell-out concerns, with moral murk and emotional despair and maybe a Commission of Witnesses could help with that and enable those who are already being transformed to put that clearly into the public domain, to work further into their transformation and to have it borne witness to in a manner which will help all of society to bring energy to its own transformation. I’m not quite sure how it would work but somewhere in here there might be a grain of guidance and hope. From the Bible, after all – the book about God’s mission as reconciliation.



Reconciliation – let’s get real, not abstract

 I came in this afternoon from an event on Duncairn Gardens and thought to myself – get real, not abstract. I have a tendency to get abstract but always with the intention of getting real. So maybe now, for a moment at least, I will. I realised too how different things are. Twenty years ago I remember coming out the same doors to the same church halls and looking anxiously around to see 

  1. if there were any bricks flying overhead
  2. to see if there were any tense small groups of people on either side of the fence, and
  3. to see if any damage had been done to my car or to anyone else’s car. 

Today I came out of those same doors to the noise of sizzling burgers, the gusts of wind into bouncy castles and the music of fun and laughter as people from across the divide gathered to meet, to eat, to chat, to laugh and to learn that they could be in the same place at the same time and the world wouldn’t end. It was great!

It was great not to have to escort children through the mayhem, not to have to worry that tonight the stones and bricks could be tracer or sniper bullets. It was fantastic to feel that something had been gained, not that something had been lost, by people sharing space. Small steps in the eyes of some maybe but radical transformation due to hard work, risk taking, willingness to step out and readiness to make friends. I was reminded, and it was a timely reminder, that the work of reconciliation is one that requires everyone to get real. Some people have and sometimes they have paid a price for what they have done but their work has paid off and is continuing to pay off.

We have to get real because often the work is long and slow and the rewards can take years to appear. But today is evidence of the fact that the rewards do come and no one has to lose anything in the process. In fact, unless one prefers a warlike curfew to the freedom of the streets, unless one prefers the buzz of making it across the divide alive rather the rush of joy that comes with hearing people laugh and and chat, there is only gain.

Reconciliation is a real process with real challenges.


Reconciliation is – a process of the heart. 

Reconciliation is a process of the heart because it is one through which everyone wants to be treated humanely and well. In seeking reconciliation there is a heartfelt cry to move away from language like scum, rat, exploiter, colluder, tout, bigot, dog. There is a longing of the heart to hear others say – ‘I know where you’re coming from’ (even if there is no real agreement about that). There is a desire in us all to be treated better by others, to be made more human by compassion and understanding and that heartfelt cry is there in the search for reconciliation. And more deeply than that there is a daring to hope that one day there will be forgiveness. Confession and sorrow yes, but further down the road, perhaps, and maybe when much water has flowed under the bridge, forgiveness and a new reconciliation borne out of walking the long, hard and sometimes rough road that comes from opening hearts up to new possibilities and new relationships. 


Reconciliation is – a process of the head

The road to reconciliation is not travelled without some skills accumulated, learned and shared along the way. So in the local and community processes there has to be some thought given to how to go about it. That is true at the wider political level too. Thought has to be given to how to go about walking the road of reconciliation and some thought has to be given to the potential fall out, to the potential gains and losses and to how the losses can be mitigated. Some thought has to be given to how those already damaged can be protected and brought through if they themselves are too vulnerable to face into a new process of relationship building and some are. But reconciliation is a process of the head because of the commitment and understanding that will have to be set out before others and renewed again and again as the practice trips and falls. A process of reconciliation has to make sense and leaders locally and nationally are duty bound to help citizens make good sense of it.


Reconciliation is – a process for local communities. 

Interfaces are easy, at least I find that they are. The divisions are clear, the local sites of separation can be picked out, the identity markers are there and the local communities are among the most proactive and engaged that you will find. Some people seem to think the problem is at the interfaces. I tend to think that if others would try to do what the local interface communities try to do in terms of reconciliation then there might be more progress made. Reconciliation is something that every community needs to get real about and some ‘out of town, middle class’ communities discovered that over the Jubilee celebrations when what they call bunting was construed by others to be sectarian identity marking. Local communities need leadership up and down the land and there are natural leadership locations in schools and churches. We might add to those natural centres for leadership GP surgeries, social security offices, town halls etc. Local communities can make a difference. Some are trying. Others still have to get real.


Reconciliation is – a process at the political level. 

Reconciliation can be viewed in different ways and there is a clear political dimension to it. Political reconciliation sticks in the throat of many because of the compromises that are made in order to move things forward. We have faced into so many now that it has almost become second nature to us here in Northern Ireland, the North, the North of Ireland, Ulster. We have become used to the murk and mess of what is known as political reconciliation and the truth is that the murk and mess will continue if political reconciliation doesn’t press on, on the one hand, and if, on the other hand, there aren’t other processes in progress too to build the relationships that will lift society from what has become acceptable in so many ways and move society towards what is truly desired in terms of a community that provides space and grace for human flourishing. Political processes are not yet complete and there is leadership to be given. Often these political processes are despised and often too they are disowned. But they have their own integrity and purpose and should be valued for what they have helped this society achieve. Now is not the time for them to stall but for them to construct out of experience a way through the big issues that remain and rub against the move towards a more shared and reconciled society.


Reconciliation is – a process for individuals. 

This is a really difficult one and I will say nothing much about it because all of us are different and we all have had different experiences. But there is space for many of us to move into and it will take courage and grace. A human touch from others will make it easier and in the process at this level safe spaces are all important. There are some individuals whose courage has inspired and there are other individuals who need to set down the guilt about how they feel when they hear about reconciliation. Everyone is different and healing comes in different ways. But some of us individually need to act and to protect the broken from carrying yet more of the burden. But I might also say that some of the most challenging and society-changing relationships are found among those most personally broken by the conflict. Your courage and inspiration should not be allowed to pass without note.


Heart, head, local, political, individual.

Courage, inspiration.

Relationships, new possibilities, broken, healing.

Nothing lost, something gained.

Things are better than they used to be.

Process, process, process.

Reconciliation – let’s get real, not abstract!


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?


It turned out for good

Today we are launching our newly refurbished premises. The premises sit straddling one of Belfast’s so-called peace lines and represent all that has been ‘caught in the middle’ during the conflict. They also represent all the bridges that people have courageously and often quietly built. Building bridges can be a thankless task, not least because of the serious commitment it takes and the drain on time and energy which can never be matched by the gratitude of those who, not so close up to things, wonder why it takes such a long time. So bridge-building can be a thankless task but it is also work that teaches us to see the small things as being of great significance. Those small things are built together, constructed into something new and sustainable precisely because each little bit is in its place.

In the early autumn of last year we had just kicked off our winter programme. A new full-time worker was on board and two new volunteers for the year were ready to get to work. It was a time of excitement and planning and hope and the programme for the winter was beginning to take shape when the premises were broken into. The thieves who wanted the copper piping didn’t take very much but they left the pipes running water all over the place so the floor that had been laid just a couple of months earlier after flooding from the cold snap at the beginning of the year was destroyed – and so much more. Looking back I thank God for it:

– For the new relationship with builders who have been helpful, accommodating and a pleasure to work with

– For the building of a strong team of leaders who pulled together to get things decided and done

For the workers on the ground who shared premises and groups with us and allowed us the privilege of developing stronger community relationships on both sides of the ‘divide’.

So today we have a far better building but more importantly we have far better good relationships. It may all have been intended for self-interested benefit but it has come out good in the end.

The dreams we have are for so much more. At present there are two doors into the building – one part of the community gets to access through the front door and the other section of the community gets to access through the back door. Hardly ideal for a partnership approach, for shared space and for developing reconciling relationships at the very edge of divided community. There has to be serious thought given to a shared entrance and financing it or we are not matching the integrity we claim locally and theologically. So there remains a vision, a dream, a hope. Truthfully at this point in time we have reached a good place and we are grateful for it but the other truth is that there will be a double reaction to the way ahead. Some will say – what more do you want and there isn’t the money anyway. Others will want to push on and make the bigger dream a reality. If North Belfast is to be transformed then lots of individuals and groups are going to need to keep on pushing forward, building stronger cross-community relationships and building up a store of social capital that so connects us with our former enemies that there is no danger of taking up arms against one another ever again. For the churches the question remains – do you want to makers and builders of peace or not? God in Christ gave us the ministry of reconciliation and Jesus himself said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. If the churches aren’t interested in the blessing of peacemaking then I am sure God will find others who are.

There are tough choices ahead. We haven’t got much in the way of resources but we will have to consider risking what we do have to and for this work believing that the blessing is a matter for God. Or we can go to the funders and maybe they will help us but on the other hand if we aren’t prepared to risk why should they be prepared to? Accountants tell us one things. The economy of the gospel tells us another. So there are tough choices ahead but hopefully it will all turn out for good.