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8 September 2012

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Declan Kearney at Sinn Féin Summer School – 'Uncomfortable Conversations: Dealing with the Legacy of the Political Conflict'

Declan Kearney: In west Cork, quoting the words of Tom Barry

'Initiatives and gestures aimed at healing past hurt and division are crucial to peace building and reconciliation in the aftermath of political conflict'


IN HIS own very individual gesture of reconciliation on Easter Sunday 1965, at a ceremony to unveil a monument to Michael Collins at Sam’s Cross, Tom Barry said:

“Let us leave it that each of us, like I did myself, believed in the correctness of our choice. I concede that those who were on the opposite side believed that their decision was the right one too. But let us end futile recriminations of an event which happened over 43 years ago . . .”

Initiatives and gestures aimed at healing past hurt and division are crucial to peace building and reconciliation in the aftermath of political conflict.

But their potential can be trammelled unless they help build broader strategic commitment to achieving reconciliation.

No reconciliation process was established after the Irish Civil War, and we continue to live with that legacy.

Britain’s occupation of Ireland has been the catalyst for centuries of conflict and enmity between our islands.

This reality resulted in the Tan War of 1919, and its conclusion became the midwife for the Civil War and onset of partition.

The political and economic structure of the Six-County state became the context for over 30 years of war and the armed struggle.

Today, nationalists and unionists live with the legacy of partition in all its forms.

Citizens across this island continue to share a legacy of political conflict which has shaped the development of modern Ireland, North and South, and that finds expression in continued partitionism, sectarianism, division, segregation, distrust and fear.

So we have a choice to make at this point in the Irish Peace Process.

We can acquiesce in a new status quo which normalises partitionism, sectarianism, division and fear, and do nothing; or we can decide that what we have is still not good enough and, in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, discuss what we can do to bring about more change and progress.

That’s why Sinn Féin has put forward the view that it’s time to open a new phase in the Peace Process based upon the development of authentic reconciliation.

Of course, republicans remain wedded to the achievement of a united Ireland –legitimacy and mutual respect for all political aspirations is what the Good Friday Agreement was all about.

Our vision is of an Ireland which is at peace with itself: confident, forward-looking, based upon equality, and dedicated to the celebration and protection of all its citizens' diversity.

There is no place in our vision for division, hurt and fear.

The strategic challenge in Irish society now is to address and reconcile these faultlines within and between our communities.

Reconciliation must become a national imperative.

A prerequisite to Sinn Féin’s ultimate aim of 'An Ireland of Equals' is an Ireland at peace with itself. That’s why over the last six months our party has brought renewed impetus to this discussion within republicanism.

It is why we have challenged ourselves to think critically about our relationship with the Protestant, unionist and loyalist community in the North; sought to open new engagements with that community; pursued this reconciliation initiative; and spoken of and then acted on the need to make more compromises; and take more initiatives to advance the Peace Process; and in the wider national interest; such as meeting Queen Elizabeth during her recent visit to Ireland.

Continuing to move forward will mean republicans being prepared to step outside our historical and political comfort zones and embrace new thinking.

Moving unilaterally is always risky and never easy, but those who are inspired by a vision of greater change must always be prepared to do that. 

For our society that means building new relationships, developing trust and creating new possibilities. Recent events in Belfast – and parallel failures of leadership from within Orangeism and political unionism – should reinforce, not reduce, our resolve to do so.

The welcome Royal Black Institution's apology to the parishioners and clergy of St Patrick’s is a significant acknowledgement of local communities’ rights to be treated with respect by those who wish to parade. 

But we are left no wiser by this statement as to what sense of injustice or hurt can be caused by determinations requiring loyalist bands to desist from playing music outside Catholic chapels – and why that should lead to three nights of orchestrated street violence.

Even in these circumstances, republicans need to have the courage and conviction to keep taking initiatives, regardless to the stance of others. 

Leadership and vision are paramount.

But the question must be asked – and by many more than just our party – where are the initiatives from unionism, or the British Government? Where is their big thinking?

That is surely an uncomfortable conversation which must take place within the Protestant, unionist and loyalist community – and also in Hillsborough Castle.

The future of the Peace Process rests upon the successful development of reconciliation, and more political momentum is needed for that.

Leadership is required from all sides. For our part, we will face up to the challenges which supporting reconciliation brings.

No right-thinking republican has ever glamourised war.

We should not seek to romanticise war or armed struggle; nor the actions of the IRA in this or any previous generation.

And there never was a 'Good Old IRA' way back when – as some Establishment revisionists in this state might suggest.

But neither will I or other present-day republican leaders hypocritically seek to distance ourselves from the consequences of the armed struggle.

Asserting that a political context forced the use of armed struggle as a last resort cannot disguise the massive human hurt caused by IRA actions.

There is no excuse for the human loss and suffering caused by the Shankill bomb. No reasonable person would try to say otherwise.

But while we might wish it could be otherwise, that past cannot now be undone, nor disowned by republicans.

So our political commitment and dedication today is to ensure that such pain and suffering never again become the experience of any republican, unionist, and English or Irish citizen.

We must also do our best to acknowledge, salve and heal that hurt with humanising language, compassion and considered initiatives; and try to replace divisions, with new human and political relationships.

And it will be for many others to do likewise, without futile recriminations, if possible . . . to paraphrase Tom Barry.

That means accepting and acknowledging hurt was caused on all sides: to both Alan McBride and Amanda Fullerton’s families, and many others.

There are those in government and state structures, political parties, combatant groups, media, and churches – and some who have been in several of these roles, North and South – who author their own moral duplicity.

Those who speak in moral tongues yet conveniently ignore St Matthew’s caution about ensuring they remove the beam from their own eyes before considering the size of the mote in the eyes of others. 

They too have uncomfortable conversations to reflect upon.

Some sections of society, North and South, seem content to manage a remodelled status quo based upon normalised partitonism, sectarianism and division, and to tolerate 'acceptable' levels of fear and even instability.

That agenda is impossible and has to be confronted with leadership and vision.

I believe – at the outset of this decade of centenaries to commemorate epoch-making events of modern Ireland – we should begin a national discussion on reconciliation at every level in Irish society; one which also addresses the historic division between Britain and Ireland, and the British state’s contribution to how that is done.

It should be a national discussion aimed at finding new common ground on those issues which divide us or threaten the Peace Process; forging new relationships; building increased mutual respect and trust among our people, North and South; and developing a national reconciliation strategy rooted in the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.

In short, to commit to a new phase of the Peace Process which promises new economic and social opportunities for all citizens.

Truth recovery is also an important part of how we all deal with the legacy of the conflict.

It is another uncomfortable conversation, particularly for those who have sought to avoid this issue and distance themselves from their role in our most recent political conflict.

The silence of the British Government on the past is an unsustainable policy position.

Ending that silence and facing up to the implications of its role in the war would be an initiative in itself from the British Government and NIO.

We believe truth recovery needs to be comprehensively discussednand a society-wide consensus, involving both governments, agreed on how to proceed.

The Irish Peace Process is rightly held up as an international conflict resolution model.

But there is much heavier lifting to do.

The continuing faultlines in Irish society have the potential to be recycled on a trans-generational basis. 

We can stop that happening with courageous leadership and more bold initiatives.

However, we also need to convince the widest cross-section of opinion in Irish society to take ownership of a national discussion on reconciliation.

A strategy for national reconciliation and building support for that is essential to ensure future generations can share a new Ireland, truly at peace with itself.    

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Uncomfortable Conversations 

uncomfortable Conversations book2

An initiative for dialogue 

for reconciliation 

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Contributions from key figures in the churches, academia and wider civic society as well as senior republican figures

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