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31 May 2007 Edition

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Unionist engagement : Charter launched

Sinn Féin’s Minister for Agriculture, Michelle Gildernew, Director of Unionist Outreach, Martina Anderson and Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness at the Stormont launch of Charter for Unionist Engagement

Sinn Féin’s Minister for Agriculture, Michelle Gildernew, Director of Unionist Outreach, Martina Anderson and Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness at the Stormont launch of Charter for Unionist Engagement

Historic initiative heralds new political era

BY LAURA FRIEL

After years of initiatives and political landmarks being heralded as historic the term has become somewhat jaded. But there was nothing jaded about the launch of Sinn Féin's Charter for Unionist Engagement and nothing else describes the moment better than historic. There was an undeniable sense that we were all participating in a collective leap of faith that would enable us all to move forward. And it wasn’t just a paper exercise.
The charter emerged out of a legacy of hard work and commitment, not just by Sinn Féin but also groundbreaking engagement by many members of the unionist and Protestant community. And that core strength of commitment was evident not only by the diversity of the people attending the launch but also the willingness to ask tough questions and listen to the answers.
Speaking at the Stormont launch Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness described it as a privilege and honour “to be with you here today at this important event”.
Sinn Féin had formally established a department of unionist engagement over a year ago but, as McGuinness pointed out, this arose out of many years of prior “quiet engagement” with the churches, trade unions and groups within the voluntary and community sector.
McGuinness described the experience of this process of engagement as “blessed” emerging as it did from the ability of people to rise above differences to work for the common good. The minister welcomed people from the Shankill and other unionists and Protestants attending the launch.
The launch of the charter was a significant milestone, said McGuinness that heralded a new political era on the island. It represented a commitment to reach out and to listen, because only by listening and understanding can we dismantle our tragic history. This process of engagement and dialogue held the potential to put behind us decades of conflict and division, said Martin.
McGuinness acknowledged republicans had “contributed to the hurt” and the impact of the conflict on other combatants, members of the British army and RUC. “We have all contributed and consequently we all bear a responsibility to advance reconciliation on this island,” he said.
The Assembly was only part of the process, said McGuinness. He hoped the example of engagement and dialogue, and the working relationship of the First and deputy First Minister within the Assembly would encourage others to follow that political example.
“Our objective is to encourage the participation of everyone, including those traditionally excluded, in a new society. But we can’t achieve that while communities remain fearful and divided,” said McGuinness.
Addressing the launch Sinn Féin's Director of Unionist Outreach, Martina Anderson said engagement based upon equality and respect “affords us the opportunity to discuss the past in order to learn from it, to discuss the present, to manage it and to discuss the future, to plan it”.
The Charter offers a framework for dialogue, “a dialogue about what shape the New Ireland will have, a framework to which all can subscribe, that allows us to explore together, how we can take control of our own destinies and enshrine all the rights of all the people who live here,” said Martina.
“We want this dialogue to be inclusive and open, without limits, a dialogue that would dispel fears, cast away myths and misconceptions and establish trust. It this way we can begin to build a consensus, grounded in respect for each other’s differences and based on our common humanity,” said Martina.
“There are already many people from different backgrounds and allegiances working together, moving the process of conflict resolution and social transformation forward. Some of you have joined us today and I thank you for attending and for giving leadership beyond this Assembly and into the communities,” said Martina.
“The charter offers a framework which we believe contributes to a process of dialogue within which every voice, including those of the most marginalised, is heard as loud as the most powerful. Only in this way can we hope to build an inclusive society where discrimination and inequality become a thing of the past,” said Martina.
Outlining a framework for engagement, the charter promotes dialogue without limits and listening to each other as a means to tackle common problems, manage change together and serve the people.
Minister for Agriculture, Michelle Gildernew said to engage in dialogue with others who have a different perspective is not a weakness but a strength. “I know there are those who say that the launch of initiatives by republicans is part of some hidden agenda to con or trick unionist people. This is an insult to the intelligence of the unionist people.”
Sinn Féin is genuinely committed to building an understanding and establishing a consensus for a shared future based on respect for each other’s differences.
“In the forward to the charter Gerry Adams makes it clear that Sinn Féin wants to build a new Ireland that is based on a new relationship between Orange and Green and all other traditions that make up our society, where every citizen can share and have equality of ownership of a peaceful and prosperous and just future,” said Michelle.
As Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Gildernew said she understood the importance of “standing together” and finding common cause in ensuring the restoration of the farming, fishing, rural, coastal ways of life.
“By coming together we can give a voice to rural and coastal communities and reverse the trends eroding this way of life, depopulation, decline and misuse of natural resources,” said Gildernew.

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