Uncomfortable Conversations for Reconciliation

Uncomfortable Conversations for Reconciliation


Uncomfortable Conversations – An Initiative for Dialogue towards Reconciliation is a book published by Sinn Féin which contains contributions from key figures in the Churches, academia and wider civic  society, as well as senior republican figures.

On Thursday in Dublin the Mansion House was the scene for the southern launch of the book. The Mayor of Dublin, Sinn Féin Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh, welcomed everyone to the event which was hosted by the party’s National Chairperson Declan Kearney, who was responsible for collating the articles first published in An Phoblacht.

The speakers included Rev Dr. Heather Morris who in 2012 was elected as the Methodist Church in Ireland’s first female President; the British Ambassador to Dublin Dominick Chilcott; agus mise.

Below is the text of my remarks:

Building new relationships

Ard Mhéara, Ambassador, Reverend Morris, agus a chairde.

I am very pleased to have been invited to speak at this launch of “Uncomfortable Conversations for Reconciliation” by Declan Kearney.

The islands of Ireland and Britain have had a long, entangled, conflicted and tragic relationship.

Because of our shared centuries of occupation, conflict and open war, nationalists and unionists historically have defined themselves, our cultures and aspirations in terms of our relationship with Britain.

Because of our experience of colonisation and oppression nationalists have largely rejected Britishness in its entirety, whilst unionists have embraced every British symbol and gesture.

Consequently many unionists distrust the entire nationalist population fearing that if our respective roles are ever reversed we would imitate and repeat their excesses.

In Belfast parlance the boot would be on the other foot.

There is an onus on Irish republicans to address these fears.

We must do so in a genuine and meaningful way.

Most people in England consider anyone who comes from the island of Ireland as Irish – as Paddy’s or Patricia’s.

The same is true in the USA and Canada and elsewhere.

This can come as a shock to unionists when they travel there.

And of course England itself has changed much in recent decades.

In cities like London and Birmingham there is now a cosmopolitan mix.

Most citizens in England would have little in common with what unionists describe as ‘British culture’ most often represented by ‘blood and thunder’

loyalist marching bands and demands to walk through nationalist areas.Declan Kearney At the same time the story of colonisation and conflict has run parallel with many positive and shared experiences over the centuries.

Irish people have settled in Britain for generations.

Irish artists have contributed enormously to English literature, music and the arts.

On the sports field our people enjoy a robust and healthy rivalry.

In more recent years Irish personalities have been popular and prominent in the British entertainment industry.

The relationships between Ireland and Britain as well as those among the people of Ireland itself, are currently in transition.

Tá na caidrimh atá ann idir Éire agus an Bhreatain agus na caidrimh idir na pobail in Éirinn fosta, ag athrú anois.

The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement have provided the basis for building an entirely new relationship between our two islands based on partnership, equality and mutual respect.

All of us – the Irish and British governments, as well as Irish republicans, nationalists and unionists must play a full role in developing this process. Rev Dr. Heather Morris agus mise And let us remember that it is a process. There will be ups and downs but the direction is clear.

Sinn Féin is committed to this process and to working with the political representatives of unionism to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement.

Uncomfortable Conversations opens up the pages of what is possible is people are prepared to listen and to talk to each other.

During her historic visit to Ireland in 2011, Queen Elizabeth made clear her desire to be part of a process of reconciliation and healing.

The subsequent meeting between Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth in Belfast and the state visit by President Michael D Higgins to Britain were widely acknowledged as groundbreaking.

Last May, Martin McGuinness, Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and I met Prince Charles in Sligo.

This arose because I originally went to the British Ambassador Dominick Chilcott and suggested the possibility of such a meeting and he worked behind the scenes to make it happen.

We had a cordial and relaxed discussion with Prince Charles. Despite some of the difficult issues we spoke of, it was a positive conversation.

We acknowledged that Charles and his family had been hurt and suffered great loss at Mullaghmore by the actions of Irish republicans.

We spoke also of the hurt inflicted on our friends and neighbours and on our own communities in Derry and Ballymurphy and Springhill by the actions of the Parachute Regiment and other British Army regiments.

He shared his own memories of the conflict starting in the 1960s. It was obvious to me that he wishes to play a positive role in making conflict a thing of the past.

Thankfully the conflict is now over.

The past is not another country; it shapes our lives, our politics and our present.

The sense of loss remains with families and communities.

I’m mindful that this week two of the disappeared were buried, and tomorrow we reinter Tomas Ceannt.

I also recognise that the Ambassador’s predecessor, Mr Ewart Biggs was killed by the IRA.

We cannot undo these things but we can work to ensure that they are never repeated.

We can work to reconcile ourselves to each other and to the past.   To

build a future based on equality, respect and inclusion.

So, the peace must be sustained. It needs to be nurtured. It needs to be inclusive.

The resolve and responsibility of all political leaders now must be to ensure this; to ensure that no else suffers as a result of conflict; that no other family is bereaved; that the experience of war and of loss and injury is never repeated.

This means all of us working together. It requires generosity and respect from all and for all.

The British government has a key role in encouraging and developing this process of healing and reconciliation. It must act on this. Mr. Cameron’s government has not done so.

Victims and survivors of the conflict, who are still seeking justice and truth, must be given the strongest possible support and assistance.

Whether they were bereaved by the IRA, by British state agencies, or through collusion with unionist paramilitaries, the victims and their families and communities deserve justice. That is an essential ingredient in the reconciliation process.

I know only too well from speaking directly to families of victims of the conflict, including victims of the IRA, that the past is part of their present.

I also know from talking to these families that closure and healing is possible.

For that reason the Stormont House Agreement which deals with these matters must be implemented.

When we speak about reconciliation it cannot be confined merely to a reconciliation between this state and the British state.

What is required is a genuine process of reconciliation between the people of the island of Ireland and Britain, between North and South and between the various traditions on this island.

Reconciliation must go beyond the big houses and palaces. It must be felt on the streets of Belfast and Derry and everywhere else.

Forgiveness is also and important element in all of this.

Many years ago during the 1970s I was arrested and taken for interrogation by the British Army and RUC. British soldiers beat me unconscious several times in the course of this. On one occasion a British Army doctor came in to see if I was fit for the beatings to continue.

Many years later I was in Parliament Buildings when this wee man came up to me and said; “I used to be a British soldier and I battered you when you were arrested and I’m sorry.”

I said: “Do you promise not to do it again?”

We shook hands and he went off happy and so did I.

Reflect on this. If Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin had not taken our recent initiatives the people of the north, despite the presence of the President, would not have felt part of those historic developments.

In fact many may have felt alienated from this state as well as the British state in Ireland.

So any future initiatives must try to involve those communities in the north who have borne the brunt of the conflict.

This should include the consistent and non-threatening presence of Irish government ministers in all communities in the north working to break down misunderstanding, to assist regenerational work and to build working relationships.

It also must include the government here delivering on important projects like the Narrow Water Bridge, the A5 motorway and delivering on cross border co-operation.

It must have a tangible presence in those communities who have borne the brunt of the conflict.

The North has been transformed in recent years by the peace process.

However it remains a work in progress.

As we have witnessed in recent weeks, there are serious and significant challenges facing the political Institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement.

Nobody is well served by the current machinations at Stormont.

Let’s remind ourselves that the pledge of office taken by Ministers in the Executive commits them to discharging their duties of office in good faith and to serve all the people of the north “equally, and to act in accordance with the general obligations on government to promote equality and prevent discrimination.”

The Code of Conduct demands that Ministers “operate in a way conducive to promoting good community relations and equality of treatment.”

How are these commitments honoured by resigning or standing aside from Ministerial office one week, only to be reinstated in post a week later, and to then resign again?

How does this assist the efforts to resolve the crisis or build confidence in the political process?

I welcome Peter Robinson’s indication yesterday that he will join the talks on Monday.

Mr. Robinson knows that there is an urgent need for real talks to commence and solutions found.

Sinn Féin is up for that and that should be the goal of all political parties.

Building on the peace and developing reconciliation is not just a matter for people in the North.

There is a particular responsibility also on leaders in this state, in the government and in Opposition – and let me say also – in the media, to deal with legacy issues in a way which takes us all beyond invective.

The partitionist mindset in this part of the island poses particular difficulties.

The government and its permanent government – the civil service – think in

26 county terms.

A recent example of this was Labour Minister  Aodhan O Riordain tweeting his annoyance at the branding of a chicken product from Tyrone as ‘Irish’.

So too is Micheál Martin’s call for the suspension of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and the Taoiseach’s support for the DUP’s move to adjourn the Assembly.

Policy decisions in this state on the economy, on planning, on health and education and infrastructure are all generally taken in that context.

They need to broaden out and have an all-island context.

There have been some exceptions as a result of the north-south bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement.

The policy makers have to think outside the narrow frame of partition.

Greater cohesion and co-operation and the normalising of relations would be good for every part of this island, especially the border region.

I have always regarded reconciliation as a personal issue. There are things such as the Partition of Ireland to which I and most Irish people will never be reconciled.

However, as an Irish republican I believe fundamentally in what Wolfe Tone termed a ‘cordial union’ between all our people.

I firmly contend that all those of us who, want to see a united Ireland have a duty to reach out, to stretch themselves, to go the extra mile.

The united Ireland that emerges in the future may not be the one traditionally envisaged over the years.

But it must be pluralist, inclusive and accommodating to all our people in all their diversity including those citizens who currently regard themselves as British Orange is one of our national colours.

There will be Orange parades in a united Ireland.

I would appeal directly today to the Orange Order to also begin playing its part in the Peace Process by following the example set by Queen Elizabeth.

I would remind people also of the words of Britain’s King George V Message on 7th June, 1921:

“May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one Parliament or two, as those Parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect.”

So, we need republicans need to be open, imaginative and accommodating in our approach to achieving Irish unity.

We must be open to listening to unionism about what they believe are the virtues of the union.

We need to look at what they mean by their sense of Britishness and be willing to explore and to be open to new concepts.

We need to look at ways in which the unionist people can be comfortable and secure; ways in which they have real ownership in a new Ireland.

We need to able to consider transitional arrangements which could mean continued devolution to Belfast within an all-Ireland structure.

While much of the history of our two islands has been marked by sadness and tragedy, we now have a unique opportunity to be the authors of a new, peaceful, hopeful and exciting chapter.

To forge a new chapter of peace and reconciliation in our long history of division and conflict.

The future is not written yet.

All the people of this island and the governments of these islands can do this. Together.

Sinn Féin is up for that challenge. I know others within unionism and the British establishment who are also.

I believe we can do it – all of us working together.

It needs political will and a vision of a new Ireland that appreciates that Ireland is the island and the people of the island.

That is our challenge and our opportunity.

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