Declan Kearney on unionism, compromise, and building reconciliation as the next stage in the peace process

Sinn Féin’s Declan Kearney is back in the February issue of An Phoblacht with a bit of a lecture for unionism as well as an extended call for inclusive talks to advance reconciliation as the next phase of the peace process. It’s an issue that also contains Gerry Adams response to Kilsally’s blog post on Slugger about the border poll, Adams’ concerns that Arlene Foster (along with everyone else on the island) “is not well served by partition”, as well as Gerry Kelly’s call for “calm and measured dialogue” that includes not only unionism but also “their nationalist and republican counterparts and neighbours”.

An Phoblacht title banner Feb 2013This morning there will be a lot of talk about what the Sinn Féin chairperson wrote and what he meant by what he wrote. To set that the sound bites, media reports and blog posts in some context, here are some extended extracts from his An Phoblacht article. If the article goes online on the paper’s website, I’ll update this post with a link.

Kearney’s article begins with an analysis of the protests in Belfast and beyond. He rejects the “simplistic assessment” that it is a “Groundhog Day scenario”.

At its core this impasse represents an anti-democratic backlash against the continuing change and transformation which the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) began and which the outworking of the political process and demographic changes are now reinforcing.

The ‘flag issue’ underlines the continuing opposition of many within the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party to progressive political and social change.

There are many lessons for us all in recent events. The main one for unionist leaders is that change is happening around you and in spite of you. Better for everyone that it was with you or even because of you. But that requires vision and a willingness and ability to compromise.

The GFA is replete with the language of equality, mutual respect, parity of esteem and rights protection. Yet, almost 15 years after that Agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed, North and South, neither leader of the two main unionist parties can bring themselves to discuss, let alone support, any of these principles.

Consequently, a small and unrepresentative minority from within the unionist community has been allowed to set the agenda on the streets for two months.

Kearney goes on to talk about compromise and in particular the Belfast City Hall flag-flying compromise.

Compromise doesn’t discriminate against one section of society: it benefits us all. Agreement to fly the Union flag over Belfast City Council on designated days is a compromise. It is not about winners and losers. Common ground found through democratic compromise sets a clear direction of travel. Forward, not back.

From the specifics of flags, Kearney moves to the more general subject of reconciliation and leadership to deal with the legacy of conflict.

Yet political unionism refuses to enter a proper dialogue on the development of a reconciliation process. It insists that the legacy of our past conflict poses questions only for republicans. It chooses to ignore the origins of the conflict or the roles and actions of the British state, their agencies and of unionism itself in our conflict.

The events of recent weeks starkly demonstrate our Peace Process cannot be taken for granted. It remains under threat from violent wreckers and militarists within unionism and nationalism. It needs to be defended with unequivocal and strong, united political leadership.

On victims and the need for dialogue:

There are many victims on all side … We may perceive, describe or prioritise this reality differently, but it is our reality. Demanding that Sinn Féin repudiates the IRA is as much a cul de sac as any expectation that political unionism will repudiate the B Specials, RUC and British Army. That becomes a blame game which resolves nothing …

Our future will remain contested for as long as we continue to contest the past and how far back it extends. So perhaps we should reflect on the value of trying to build a reconciliation process in the here and now, by setting aside recrimination, and by committing to replace the divisions caused by hurt inflicted during our political conflict with new human and political relationships …

Rather it is to advocate that the framework of political co-existence we have agreed is reenergised now with a process of dialogue about future relationships in this part of Ireland without prejudice to preferred constitutional positions or outcomes.

Dialogue could include discussion about symbols and emblems.

This engagement should deal with the reality of fear – real and imagined – and how we agree not to hold or use it against each other. It must also include proper discussion about identity and the public use of symbols and emblems.

Accusing republicans of cultural war is a propaganda ploy which merely seeks to avoid real discussion and promote old-style dominance.

Sinn Féin will guarantee parity of esteem for British and Irish identities.

Cross-party political leaderships’ agreement on a popular drive to eradicate sectarianism and segregation is essential. The alternative is an outcome which perpetuates a ‘them and us’ society, polarising all issues and attitudes. One-sided discussions on any or all of this are doomed to repeat the past.

So what needs to be agreed?

We need to collectively agree political processes which facilitate acknowledgement of the pain and resentment within all communities, the hurt done to us all and caused to others; processes which seek to acknowledge, and try to heal past hurt and injustices by what we do and say in the future, as political leaders and parties.

A new approach to how we manage our past will need to be underpinned by cross-community and cross-party support. Progress will depend upon the sensitivity, patience and wisdom of newly-emerging political relationships.

This idea may be met with suspicion or ridicule from some, including individuals with sincerely-held views but also by others who have sought to use the past as a weapon of recrimination or to damage or retard the political process.

There’s a reiteration of the Sinn Féin vision of an “international truth recovery process”.

Sinn Féin has argued that the only credible option to deal with the past is through an all-embracing, independent, international truth recovery process. We are the only party to put forward this position. To date, however, we have been non-prescriptive on the detail.

The reality is that victims and survivors on all sides want many different and often conflicting things … The implications for future inquiries, prosecutions, the role of the Historical Enquiries Team and other legal processes obviously need to be discussed out.

Inevitably, the implementation of any processes to deal with the legacy of the past will require discussions on issues such as prosecutions, amnesties, non-judicial processes, judicial processes with no prosecution, and the expunging of all criminal records arising from conflict-related offences.

The views of everyone need to be equally and fully included and heard.

Finally …

Can republicans, and unionists and the British state agree to face up to the implications of what that will mean in the here and now? And are we prepared to have inclusive party and cross-community discussions to agree the commonground principles which will advance reconciliation and the Peace Process, building upon what is already achieved? …

The longer this dialogue is postponed the more urgent if becomes. Notwithstanding how uncomfortable the conversation, decisions on these issues will be central to the future of the Irish Peace Process. Consensus is both essential and achievable. But courage from everyone is paramount.

There’s a lot more in the full article – available in newsagents and online.

The public reaction of unionism will be interesting. Aspects of the article restate familiar and settled elements enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement – though the current DUP leadership sometimes prefers to point to St Andrews than the earlier agreement the DUP voted against.

There seems to be little political appetite outside of Sinn Féin for any form of truth recovery process, never mind an independent and international one. And when the speed of progress on a Shared Future is already so glacial, can Sinn Féin really hope to start another front of negotiations around dealing with the past? And at the same time as pushing for a border poll to deal with the future?

Over to the pundits …

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