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30 April 2012 Edition

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Who can fear reconciliation?

INTERVIEW WITH SINN FÉIN NATIONAL CHAIRPERSON DECLAN KEARNEY | RESPONSES TO HIS AN PHOBLACHT ARTICLE ‘UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATIONS ARE KEY TO RECONCILIATION’

• Declan Kearney speaking at the annual Easter Commemoration in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast – John Alderdice said Kearney’s Milltown speech ‘should be considered carefully and responded to thoughtfully’

We know the remarks from myself and Martin McGuinness have encouraged very progressive discussion amongst the wider unionist and Protestant community

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’ moment!

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 opposed?

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 objective.

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 Easter.

Some unionists have tried to trivialise and misrepresent what we have been saying in the last two months. Republicans 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-to-face 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?

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An Phoblacht
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