I have been reading Uncomfortable Conversations, an interesting little book on reconciliation published by Sinn Fein earlier this month. It contains one rather good idea, but is also notable for what it leaves out.
The booklet is largely based on a series of articles in An Phoblacht initiated by Sinn Fein national chairperson Declan Kearney, who seems to be a key player in its outreach to unionism. There are a number of responses from Protestant, unionist and other figures, including Heather Morris, former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland; Dawn Purvis, former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party; Lord John Alderdice, the former Alliance leader; Baroness May Blood, chair of the Integrated Education Fund, and Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist ministers.
Unfortunately the opening line of Gerry Adams’ introduction makes it clear that the context here is an ironclad nationalist and republican one: “Sinn Fein is an Irish republican party. Our strategy to achieve a united, independent Ireland marks us out from other Irish political parties.” So there’s clearly not going to be a smidgin of compromise on that in pursuit of reconciliation within Northern Ireland.
However Declan Kearney is more interesting than his leader. In his address to the 2015 Sinn Fein ard fheis in Derry last month (reprinted here), he said: “Healing our society needs to be placed above (my italics) the challenges of the political process. A shared future should be about respect and equality for political, cultural and religious difference. We do share a common humanity. And there is no hierarchy of victimhood.”
He went on to call for “an initiative of common acknowledgement from all sides for the pain caused by and to each other” which “could powerfully contribute to forgiveness and healing. Doing so would require grace and generosity from all sides.”
He continued: “All hurt is the same and warrants acknowledgement with sincere remorse. Expressing remorse and regret for death and injury during the conflict could help deepen mutual respect and understanding, and move us all closer to a healing process”. In my experience, such language of remorse, forgiveness and healing is highly unusual from a republican spokesman. It is also language understood by Northern Protestants.
24 hours after this speech realpolitik replaced remorse when the Sinn Fein leadership, afraid to be painted as a party of government cuts south of the border, all but torpedoed last December’s Stormont House Agreement by going back on its commitment to welfare reform as part of that accord.
But let us take Declan Kearney’s constructive proposal in good faith. It is not the first time he has said such things, but previously they have gone largely unreported. They are the nearest the republican movement has come to echoing Gusty Spence’s memorable 1994 UVF ceasefire expression of “abject and true remorse” for the nearly 1,800 IRA killings during the ‘Troubles’. Before this, the closest the IRA ever came to saying sorry was a stilted and unconvincing statement in 2002 that “the future will not be found in denying collective failures and mistakes or closing minds to the plight of those who have been hurt. That includes all the victims of the conflict, combatants and non-combatants.”
Kearney now goes further. He says: “Sinn Fein believes that, with good faith, remorse should be embraced.” He says republicans should “recognise the healing influence of being able to say sorry for the human effects of all actions caused during the armed struggle.” He says: “The political reality is those actions cannot be undone or disowned. It would be better they had never happened.”
Could a campaign – led by a coalition of reconciliation and other civil society groups – provide the drive for Kearney’s idea of an ‘across the society’ acknowledgement of the pain inflicted by all sides which would kick some life into the frozen inter-party talks aimed at finding a formula to deal with the painful past in Northern Ireland? This, in many people’s eyes, is one of the last great blockages to the beginning of mutual understanding there. Writing in An Phoblacht last summer, Kearney appealed for “sustained positive leadership from within civic society on the need for grace, generosity, remorse and acknowledgement”, suggesting this “would introduce an entirely new dynamic. Civic society must challenge politics, make demands of political leaders and set tests for all political parties to do better.”
Could every key figure to do with the North be persuaded to sign such a declaration? Could the British prime minister, the Irish taoiseach, the head of the PSNI and the British Army, and every Northern political, paramilitary, church and community leader, including recognisable former IRA leaders, sign up? It might be difficult for some on the unionist side, but I believe it could be done. It would be a kind of reconciling Ulster Covenant for the 21st century, a major statement that would begin to heal the wounds opened by the original Ulster Covenant and its militant (and military) nationalist response in the 20th.
Sinn Fein is making this proposal from a position of some considerable strength: it may soon become the largest party in Northern Ireland; it may in the not too distant future become the largest opposition party in the Dail; it knows that as long as austerity exists in the South people will vote for it in numbers; it knows that the growth of the Catholic population and the weakness of the SDLP in the North means that it can only get stronger there.[The tensions it will increasingly experience as a party of government in the North and a party of protest in the South are already apparent and can only grow, but that is a topic for another day.]
But a position of strength can also be a position of generosity – something that is always in short supply on the North’s ‘narrow ground.’ Would it be a good idea for leaders of reconciliation groups and groups dealing with the difficult legacy of the past – Corrymeela, Glencree, Cooperation Ireland, Healing through Remembering and so on – to arrange a meeting with Kearney and other Sinn Fein leaders and interrogate them on this very interesting proposal?
Or maybe, given the deep suspicion that continues to exist in the unionist community about Sinn Fein’s actions and motives, it would be better if these peace and reconciliation groups were to take Kearney’s idea and run with it entirely on their own.
What is missing from this little book is any evidence that republicans are ready to consider compromises on their most fundamental beliefs for the sake of a more reconciled North. Is it mainly the unionists who are going to be discomfited by these ‘uncomfortable conversations’? Or will republicans also have to converse about compromising even marginally on their non-negotiable demand for a united Ireland? Should they also be made to consider whether their recourse to violence in 1969 was plain wrong, as Presbyterian minister Steve Stockman and Catholic priest Martin Magill suggest in their joint contribution?
There is other interesting evidence of republican rethinking about the past in this book, notably from Mitchel McLaughlin, one of the Sinn Fein leadership’s most thoughtful members, on the impossibility of denying “the courage or the suffering and sacrifice of the men who fought in the First World War.”
However Declan Kearney’s proposal is what matters: it seems to me to be a real and rare opportunity for all sides to begin to act together. “Moulds need to be broken and initiatives taken,” he concludes. “Unambiguous unity of purpose between republicans and unionists, and significant shared gestures, are more important than ever. These will rebuild confidence and inspire hope. The Peace Process belongs to everyone. It is time to make reconciliation the new phase of the Peace Process.”