The very idea of National Reconciliation

Last night Declan Kearney, National Chairman of Sinn Fein, made a speech at Westminster Hall, London. It has caused some reaction but before ever looking at the speech it was important for me to ask myself some questions about my expectations. So I came to the speech thinking firstly about the place in which it was to be given – Sinn fein in Westminster Hall with ‘British’ politicians in the audience and sharing the stage. I grew up in the constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone, a constituency represented by as diverse a group of people as you could call to mind and including Bobby Sands and Owen Carron. And now Sinn Fein are making significant speeches at Westminster even if they haven’t yet taken their seats inside. Given that I expected the speech to be shot through with rhetoric. How else would it be possible to say to yourself, never mind to others, that it is really OK to be in such surroundings. I wasn’t disappointed on the rhetoric front and that has been a sticking point for many. Of course the rhetoric didn’t arrive on the scene without a background. Sinn Fein’s anger and dismay at the public pronouncements of other politicians with other aspirations is presently palpable. For me there will be more maturity to the discussion and the intention towards reconciliation when each can speak for themselves without delivering a lecture, critique of tirade about the other. Perhaps as we try to craft a discussion around reconciliation from a variety of starting points there is a good rule of thumb there – to speak for oneself as an access into that discussion. However, the speech should not be passed be either. Sinn Fein view themselves as starting a debate on National Reconciliation and for months their integrity has been questioned both privately and publicly. In reaction to such talk there has been suspicion, a willingness to test it out and a complete unwillingness to accept any such idea. As ever society in Northern Ireland moves between it’s usual variety of poles. Are Unionists to be outmaneuvered by Sinn fein again, a friend asked me? Well only if that is how Unionists see themselves – as people who will always be outmaneuvered. I prefer to think of Unionism as having the bold capacity to engage in head-on debate, to speak out clearly and to argue its case. What I worry about is the capacity of Unionism to vision something better than we have and having visioned it to then address itself to a pathway to get there. I don’t mean that it is impossible for Unionism. I mean that I want to be led in that direction by a straight-spoken, clear-thinking Unionist leadership who don’t hand it all over the Republicans. I want to be led by a Unionism that is prepared to take the stage with friends and old enemies alike to craft a settlement to the outstanding issues that will not only enable us to co-habit in a certain contentedness in Northern Ireland but that will enable us to open up spaces for flourishing community and strong debate in which everyone has to take on new responsibilities and dreams. I don’t feel we are there yet but I do believe in Unionism’s capacity to do this. I don’t think everyone does. In Kearney’s speech he has set out some broad strokes, and some much less broad, about what could be done or considered in a conversation that would bring new relationships in politics at every level and free up a set of arrangements that would add a new dynamic. For me it is a fairly strong list of not unexpected things. But Sinn Fein doesn’t set the scope of this debate. They bring to it what they want to bring to it. Unionism needs to bring its own robust and equally uncomfortable list of areas for consideration. That’s if the traffic isn’t to flow all in one direction. I’m not for one way streets. So I would have expected this kind of list with it’s rhetoric. It doesn’t surprise me nor does it disappoint me. At some points though it could have been more nuanced and inclusive. But then this is a dialogue and each party to the dialogue has to be real as it is. If we are to craft something that will survive then, in my view, then other lists and other rhetoric will need to become part of a very uncomfortable conversation for us all. The the very idea of National Reconciliation need not enrage but become the very idea that might bring us to a more wholesome society in which diversity can be cherished and while everyone can’t get everything they want out of such a process at least we might begin to have some sympathy with each other and compassion for each other when it is clear that not everything can be healed or made right.

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