The deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness spoke last night before the Political Studies Association conference dinner in the plush surroundings of Belfast City Hall. He initially covered the mandatory tourism information, quoting travel guides that say “Belfast is a must see city in 2012” and adding that “Derry city – or as some people call it Londonderry – is a must see city in 2013”.
During his twenty minute address he mentioned the “tiny number of militarists who delude themselves in believing that the continuation of conflict will destabilise the peace process”. Sinn Fein and the DUP had received an electoral “reward” at the last election. McGuinness name checked Nelson Mandela and northern politicians involvement in helping other conflict areas, and reminded the delegates that the DUP had originally been opposed to the Agreement. In fact, when Tony Blair had suggested that the DUP would never share power with Sinn Fein, McGuinness explained that he had assured Blair that they would co-operate given enough time.
According to McGuinness, the current Executive is able to prioritise tackling deprivation, sectarianism and racism. (Some conference speakers would strongly disagree that the Executive is doing that. For the second time on Wednesday, by self-revisionist history alarm went off!)
It was a very upbeat and smooth version of the peace process, and one that omitted backward steps and human loss.
The deputy First Minister finished his speech with some comments on the subject of reconciliation:
I want to conclude with a word to two about reconciliation and its role within our process. Proper reconciliation is the key to the future. Reconciliation is essential between our communities: republicans and unionists, and also between my community and the British state. It will not be easy, but it must happen. Republicans realise that dealing with the past will not be an easy process for us. Republicans inflicted much hurt during the conflict and of course much hurt was also inflicted upon republicans. But if we are to build a new future, it is necessary and it is a road that I am not afraid to go down.
And in my experience over recent years, many within the unionist community are up for that journey of reconciliation and dialogue. For republicans, increased dialogue and engagement with wider unionist and Protestant community is absolutely vital and essential. That means being able to set aside our own assumptions about the nature of that dialogue in order to better understand the fears and apprehensions of Protestants and unionists.
I believe we have to listen unconditionally to what they have to say. Republicanism needs to become more intuitive about unionist apprehensions and objections and sensitised in our response. We need to be open to using new language, and consider making new compromises.
Our conflict is over. You’ve seen that whilst you’ve been in this city. Conflict is over and the imperative of creating a better society at ease with itself is a new challenge for us all. Republicans will approach that laborious work with compassion and imagination. We will ensure our engagement is based upon listening carefully to unionists and others, and we must develop the capacity to explore what more can be done to help meaningfully heal our society’s divisions.
Dialogue, using new language and making new compromises to create trust are the seeds of a new nation for us all. Acknowledgement and reconciliation are critical to reconciling our past with our hopes for our future. An American president Abraham Lincoln seeking to tackle the legacy of five years of bloody civil war in that country sought to articulate a vision for his battered nation. It is no less appropriate for us in our time.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all. With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to do all we may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
As an Irish republican, and as a democrat, I remain convinced of the right of all of our people – unionists, nationalists or neither – to determine their own future, a peaceful and prosperous future for us all.
Sometimes in politics compromise is a negative word. Even in the past people said it was a dirty word. But we should not be ashamed of the compromises we have made here. I am proud of the compromises I and my party have made to bring about a stable peace. We should all be proud of where we have taken our people. So our political message is fundamentally a hopeful and positive one, focussed on our young people, on our future, and a better quality of life for everyone …
One of the other key decisions that Peter Robinson and I took was how we would use the Maze/Long Kesh prison site. And we have decided that we are going to build on that site an iconic building for peace building and conflict resolution. It won’t be a shrine to anything other than peace. And we have made an application to the European Union which has been agreed, the money has been granted something like 18 million pounds. Other money will come from the Heritage Lottery Fund. And we will be very determined to ensure that this iconic building is constructed over the next number of years so that others from other conflict situations throughout the world can come and listen to our experiences and make their own judgements as to whether or not any of the lessons we have learned applies to them.
So I hope that when you leave here you go out with a very positive message. The war is over in the north of Ireland, the conflict is over. Leadership delivered what we enjoy today. We are going to continue to give that leadership and in the end analysis we believe we are the people who will prevail.
The language of “reconciliation … between my community and the British State”, “it will not be easy but it must happen” and “consider making new compromises” all points to republicanism chipping away at further sacred cows, no doubt starting with a firm handshake with the Queen in June.
But will it ever go so far as to include Sinn Fein bottoms sitting on the green leather benches in the House of Commons, perhaps to take part in non-devolved issues like International Development and Foreign Policy? (George Galloway could be given a run for his money if that were to be the case.)