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 www.anphoblacht.com
INTERVIEW WITH SINN FÉIN NATIONAL CHAIRPERSON DECLAN KEARNEY
RESPONSES TO HIS AN PHOBLACHT ARTICLE ‘UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATIONS ARE KEY TO RECONCILIATION’
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,
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
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
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
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
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?