Sinn Féin relaunch reconciliation policy: implementation will speak louder than words

This morning Sinn Féin (re)launched a policy document on reconciliation and healing that had been endorsed by their ard fheis in Dublin back in April. The event in Clifton House was introduced by Kathleen Funchion TD and addressed by Declan Kearney MLA, Canon David Porter and Martin McGuinness MLA.

Attending the Sinn Féin ard fheis over the last couple of years in Derry and Dublin, I’ve observed that Declan Kearney and Martin McGuinness were really the only two senior leaders speaking from the platform that emphasised the need for reconciliation. While there was much mention of the peace process by other speakers, the ‘R’ word seemed more exclusive and omitted from the wider republican rhetoric.

david-porter-declan-kearney-martin-mcguinnessThe series of Uncomfortable Conversations, published in An Phoblacht and later collated into a booklet, was an earlier part of the process. And given unionist distrust of Sinn Féin’s ability to “colonise language” as one contributor at the launch phrased it, perhaps it was wise for the party to take a gentle approach.

But now that reconciliation is being firmly placed further up the agenda, the crucial question – and one that was not addressed during the event this morning – is how Sinn Féin will implement this policy at a local level? What will the grass roots initiatives they intend to encourage in communities look like? As part of reconciliation and healing, how will pardon and promise be balanced?

Meeting members of the Royal Family is symbolic, and has happened. Yet Sinn Féin politicians still growl at mentions of Aid Cadets and the British military. Old habits die hard, but future consistency across elected representatives and republican figures will be an important barometer of success. So too will small acts and gestures at local government level, regarding symbols, any politicised use of Irish, the use of the name and memory of combatants, and respecting different traditions (with their competing narratives).

Some unionists will defensively bat away Sinn Féin’s rhetoric as hollow and specious, marred by murderous activism. Some will be only too aware of their own lack of meaningful reconciliation, a matter they too will have to address. Others may decide to stay tight-lipped and wait to see what fruit of the spirit policy are visible characteristics of attitudes and relationships changed by imbibing this reinvigorated policy.

Implementation will speak louder than words.

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declan-kearneyIntroducing the Towards An Agreed and reconciled Future report (PDF) party chairperson and MLA Declan Kearney (audio) referred to the party’s invitation to David Porter to speak at the event and respond to the policy document.

“Some might ask why invite someone … with a unionist and protestant perspective to an event like this today, but in fact that goes to the very essence of this morning’s event and the launch of this document because the ambition and the challenge and the journey of reconciliation requires that we must listen to each other, we much take on board diverse perspectives and we must share ideas in order that we can in fact collectively work out the direction of travel for a shared future for us all.”

He added:

“Sinn Féin’s national primary aim of course is to create the conditions for an agreed united Ireland. And that’s an Ireland which is at peace with itself, in which all of our people can together forged a shared future. And we believe that reconciliation and healing are absolutely central to that.”

Kearney finished by quoting President Michael D Higgins’ remarks at Béal na Bláth last August: “The ability to hold together a forgiving consciousness of the past and an openness to the potentialities of the future – forging the alliance of pardon and promise – this is the essential imperative for our living together in harmony and cohesion on this island.”

“Reconciliation is not an option. It is an imperative. It’s not a one way street. But we must ensure that some do not push that agenda into a dead end street. So a new standard of real leadership is needed which demonstrates mutual respect for each other. There is a need for a new start, and a fresh start, from political unionism towards reconciliation. Republicans cannot do this on our own. The peace process needs to be reenergised with hope and ambition.”

david-porter-responding-to-sf-reconciliation-policy-reportCanon David Porter (ECONI, Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past, Coventry Cathedral, Lambeth Palace) began by remarking on how he had come to be at the launch, addressing the invited audience and media. While he praised aspects of Sinn Féin’s policy in his “constructive critique”, he took issue with the document’s lack of recognition for “the thousands in local communities and civic society who gave of themselves during the worst days of the conflict to build community relations and hold us together”.

“Good relations did not begin when Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionists came to share power and a programme for government together. Many laid the foundations of the bridge that you were able to cross. … They were often dismissed as promoting an agenda … The community relations industry was ridiculed by others as a softening and blurring of the boundaries to prepare a unionist community for unacceptable concessions. Too many who stood in the gap during the years of conflict have been taken for granted … Those who walked across the street or beyond the walls to build friendship and trust. They have laid the foundations on which your policy now depends.”

You can read David Porter’s full comments below and watch his speech above.

martin-mcguinnessDeputy First Minister Martin McGuinness spoke about “the remarkable journey over the course of the last twenty years” and warned against complacency.

“We don’t come along here expecting that people just listen to what we have to say, or heed what e have to say, but we also have to come along and listen very carefully to what others have to say and to heed also what they have to say.”

Throughout his largely unscripted speech, Martin McGuinness emphasised “how what we have done here in this small place has inspired others” (including Columbia). he also drew on his unexpected warm relationship with Ian Paisley as an example of reconciliation.

“How is reconciliation possible? I don’t think there’s anybody in our society who more than ten years ago who would have imagined that Ian Paisley and I could have been reconciled given the history of the past. Yet when Ian Paisley decided to lead the Democratic Unionist Party into the political institutions, not alone were we able to develop in the year he was in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister a positive working relationship, but we actually developed a friendship that lasted until the day he died. What does reconciliation mean in that context? Does it mean that Ian Paisley became an Irish republican? Absolutely not. He was a very proud unionist. Did it mean I became a unionist. Absolutely not. I was and still am a very proud Irish republican.”

He added:

“If what is preventing people from becoming involved in reconciliation is the belief that we’re involved in some sort of a ruse or it’s an attempt to trick people into becoming united Irelanders or Irish republicans, then nothing could be further from the truth.”

On the seriousness with which the party considered reconciliation:

“I think republicans have rightly embraced the challenge of reconciliation, and we do so because we recognise that the Republic that we aspire to guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens. So if we are to give effect to those principles then there is a duty on us to pursue reconciliation with the same energy and vigour as we would any other aspect of our work.”

Martin McGuinness said that Sinn Féin had demonstrated their commitment to reconciliation through a number of public initiatives “which at times have also presented challenges for republicans and indeed I have ben criticised for some of the initiatives that I have been involved in”.

He praised people that he has met who have “put their head above the parapet”, singling out David Latimer, Harold Good as well as the aforementioned Ian Paisley.

“The very first phone that I got immediately I stepped off the podium [when Derry~Londonderry was announced as UK City of Culture] was from Ian Paisley. And of course he had left the Office [of First and Deputy First Minister] at that stage and he said ‘I’ve just been watching you on TV, this is a great result for our young people’.”

He finished with a quote from the film Into The Wild: “Happiness only real when shared”.

In the post-event press release, Martin McGuinness reminded other political parties that “for our people to be truly reconciled, there needs to be a reciprocation of our efforts; this cannot be a one-way process”.

“There needs to be respect for all the traditions on this island, for all narratives. The Irish language, Irish identity, culture and aspiration is as valid as any other and needs to be respected as such. That will require mature leadership from political unionism because we alone cannot deliver reconciliation. A genuine reconciliation process must seek to create common ground where the collective focus is to build for the future.”

– – –

Full text of Canon David Porter’s remarks:

david-porterThe Demands of Reconciliation

Good morning everyone and thank you for the invitation to be here today. When Declan Kearney made the contact with the request to speak at this event, I was acutely aware of two things – the first is to make it clear that I am not here on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or in anyway a representative of Lambeth Palace or the Church of England. I accepted the invitation out of a longstanding relationship and as someone who has been involved across the spectrum of political and community life in Northern Ireland, addressing the demands of reconciliation in a divided society for over 30 years. My involvement with ECONI, the Civic Forum, the Community Relations Council and the Consultative Group on the Past are the more significant aspects of my being here today than my current day job.

The second point was that whatever my misgivings, this was something I could not decline to do. 21 years ago Tom Hartley and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir accepted an invitation to speak at a public gathering of mainly evangelical protestants in the Belfast YMCA in February 1995. Over 200 packed the room for a honest and frank encounter, the first public participation by Sinn Fein representatives at a protestant church based event.

Much has happened since then. Northern Ireland is a transformed society. Yet after ten years of Democratic Unionists and Republicans at the heart of government, sharing the office of First and Deputy First Minister, there remains a need for deep roots to a process which is often driven by pragmatic political considerations rather than a fundamental reimagining of a community at peace with itself. The Uncomfortable Conversations initiated by Sinn Fein in 2012, in which I have participated in England, by their very title, indicate what is required of us. Hard listening and honest speaking.

My task today is to give a constructive critique in response to the policy document being released. As a conversation partner I am not here to endorse a political party or its policy, but to engage critically with a policy which has as its objective the reconciliation of relationships with people like me and many of you who are here today. Time does not permit a detailed response, so I want to gather my brief comments around two themes – political and theological.

Politics is the art of negotiating relationships. Relationships in which issues of power and identity, experienced through the narrative of historic hurts and wounds, are intrinsic to our ability to form communities based on equality and respect. There is much in this document about power, identity and hurt.

Yet there is an assumption (that Declan has already referred to) that ultimately reconciliation will only be achieved through uniting of the island into one state. Timothy Garton Ash is critical of reconciliation in the political sphere because it presumes we are being asked to be reconciled to something, an authoritative account of the way things should be. The real partition in Ireland, as the late A T Q Stewart asserted, is not the lines drawn on the map but in the hearts and minds of the people. Uniting Ireland is a legitimate political goal for republicans to hold and to advocate. However it falls short as the ultimate test of reconciliation, which is essentially relational and not constitutional.

There is much to be welcomed in tone and a commitment to working for good community relations and the healing of the hurt of the last forty years. It is clear from the document that much work has been done between the parties in agreeing the context and processes for dealing with the past. Like all stages of the political and peace process, we continue build on the work of previous initiatives whose time was not right but whose analysis still holds true. There are welcome commitments to a public policy framework and forums that can address the political task building a reconciled community.

Yet I am left with a distinct unease. There is an absence of any recognition or acknowledgement of the thousands in local communities and civic society who gave of themselves during the worst days of the conflict to build community relations and hold us together. Good relations did not begin when Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionists came to share power and a programme for government together. Many laid the foundations of the bridge that you were able to cross. They did so because they thought it was the right thing to do. They were often dismissed as promoting an agenda which reduced the conflict to a sectarian squabble and not as the political struggle as defined by republicans. Or the community relations industry was ridiculed by others as a softening and blurring of the boundaries to prepare a unionist community for unacceptable concessions. Too many who stood in the gap during the years of conflict have been taken for granted. The parents who prevented their children – and he children of others – from joining a paramilitary group. Those who walked across the street or beyond the walls to build friendship and trust. They have laid the foundations on which your policy now depends.

When I first heard Sinn Fein speak of reconciliation I have to confess that my immediate reaction was, here we go again. Republicans have form in colonising language. Speaking of peacemaking, peacebuilding and now reconciliation. Often this has alienated their political opponents – maybe at times deliberately – from such language and made their opponents appear not interested in peace. However in using the word reconciliation all political leaders, in different peace and political processes around the world, are using a profoundly Christian and biblical word. From this context of a Christian understanding it has appropriately transitioned and given meaning relevant to politics and the restoring of broken relationships after conflict and violence. This was best exemplified in the process of reconciliation in Europe after 1945, in which the work of churches and religious organisations was integral to political, cultural and economic stability, not least the work in Coventry Cathedral where I moved in 2008 to head up their reconciliation ministry.

So I want to take the liberty of liberating the word from political colonisation by saying something of what the word reconciliation demands from its religious roots. It is not inappropriate considering that Christian faith informs many in this society in their civic participation and, whether we like it or not, undergirds many of the shared values we have as a community.

Reconciliation demands that we deal with the hate and hostility. There is an anger that remains in our community. It derives its energy from many things but most of all from the distinction we make between us and them. Whether in political, religious or cultural terms, sectarianism is the original sin on which we have fuelled our strife. The Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman speaks of the history of humankind in relation to the use of the personal pronoun “we.” Whatever the moment in history there have always been those who were the “us”. We the people, defined in exclusive terms. Everything outside such collective identities could be summed up with the word “other”, those who are not us. Life in Northern Ireland is too often understood in terms of us and those uns. Oppositional identity may be comfortable, for it is always someone else’s fault. But its fruit is hate and hostility.

In Christian terms the need is for the robust practical and political outworking of Jesus’ command to love – love for our neighbour, for the stranger, the alien, even for our former enemies. If future generations are not to inherit the hate we need to exorcise that hate and anger by moving beyond the “us and those uns”, to a collective ‘we the people’ that includes all who call Northern Ireland home, and based on a commitment of mutual flourishing.

Reconciliation also demands that we address the hurt that exists due to the cycles of violence over the centuries. In inter-communal violence the hurt that we have done to each other is always difficult to talk about never mind find the capacity to heal the wounds. We rightly seek truth and justice, but they are harsh masters. They insist that each takes responsibility for their actions and those culpable for choosing to inflict harm are held to account. However they need to be tempered with mercy if reconciliation is to flourish. Without mercy – as Pope Francis has reminded us all during his Year of Mercy – a mercy expressed in forgiveness and, importantly, a willingness to be forgiven, there is, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, no future.

And reconciliation demands that we face the future with hope. Political parties and leaders must be judged on their vision, their words and actions which speak of the flourishing of all and not just their community or electorate. Without such a commitment in which we embrace the future well being of the other there is little hope and policies and words about reconciliation will be found wanting. A culture of respect means we are respectful. An equal society defends the rights of all to cultural, religious, personal and political expression.

Our wee country now seeks to find its agreed and reconciled future in a radically different global context from when the troubles began fifty years ago, and even the peace process twenty years ago. We are not so much in an era of change but a change of era. Sectarian strife within the islamic world threatens to draw us all into a global conflict, if it has not already done so. Bitter tribal and ethnic divisions destabilise states across Africa and historic enmities rise again in central and eastern Europe. There is an uneasy edge to our world.

Forty years ago I left Belfast for the first time to work in Lahore, Pakistan and a year that changed me and informed my commitment to working for peace in Northern Ireland. I have quite literally just come back from Lahore, visiting this weekend the congregations of two churches devastated by suicide bombs. What I found there was a commitment by Christian and Muslim leaders to reconciliation in the face of hate and anger. A determination to overcome hurt – in recent years over 60 thousand Pakistani civilians have died in the violence, most of them Muslims, in sectarian attacks and four thousand military personnel. And there a hope that flies in the face of circumstance, that even there, a better future is possible.

In this year of centenary commemoration, as the lights once again flicker in our world and in many places do go out, the process here, however flawed, is a light to which many look and from which they take heart. Let us not be found wanting.

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