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 (http://www.crossfiretrust.net/sections/default.asp?secid=0) 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.

 

 

 

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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.

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