Talking about Reconciliation …

After last week’s Political Studies Association (PSA) conference in Belfast, I asked if ‘reconciliation’ was making a tentative return to public debate in Northern Ireland. Well, the R-word got some more airing over the weekend, with Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney making it a centrepiece at the Easter commemoration at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast.

Though he doesn’t mention Kearney’s address, Brian Walker notes that there have been plenty of ‘soft politics’ over the Easter period and speculates that the DUP and Sinn Fein may be adjusting – out of necessity – to deeper yearnings for change within the populace. Or at least that’s how I interpret Walker’s post!

Echoing other Easter speeches by Sinn Fein politicians, Kearney said:

We can stop history repeating itself by leading on the priority for an inclusive reconciliation process, in which all sections of our society listen and engage unconditionally with each another, and on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

It was also Kearney, writing in the republican newspaper An Phoblacht, who encouraged republicans to say ‘sorry’:

“Regardless to the stance of others, we should recognise the healing influence of being able to say sorry for the human effects of all actions during the armed struggle.”

There’s not much new in Kearney’s call to say ‘sorry’ – for some time some republicans have been willing to apologise for causing hurt. But this is never accompanied by an admission that they believe the ‘armed struggle’ was unjustified or morally wrong.

For some unionists, this type of apology is hollow, and misses out on the all-important ingredients of confession or repentance, as illustrated in these comments from the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson:

“Whilst our armed forces have opened their books on the past and played their part, those who waged the terror on our streets have kept silent about their activities,” he said.

“We don’t need a truth commission to hear the truth. We just need the people who were involved in terrorism to confess their wrongdoing and own up to their part in the past.”

Such comments might indicate that republicans and unionists are still talking past each other, but this may not necessarily be the case. Writing on her own blog, Rev Lesley Carroll, a member of the Consultative Group on the Past, offers this interpretation of Kearney’s speech:

What precisely does that [engage unconditionally] mean? Almost as soon as the word unconditional comes out of a Republican mouth a Unionist moral backbone has straightened and is worried that this means accepting that some things which should not have been done were tolerable if not acceptable in the context as set out by Republicans in their particular analysis of the conflict. So to be unconditional to the Unionist mind actually becomes a condition and the condition is to accept a Republican analysis. If that is what Kearney means then already the project has failed. I would suggest that there is another way to interpret this.

… So when Kearney asks for people to ‘engage unconditionally’ he is asking for an openness in the approach to dialogue – an openness that accepts there is an analysis which makes it possible to justify the struggle. That doesn’t mean that anyone has to fully embrace the analysis or even partly embrace it. It doesn’t mean that people have to no longer be critical of the analysis but it does mean that when Republicans begin to talk about what they did and why they did it the first response of Unionists is not condemnation but listening and unpacking what is being said in an attempt to get it all out on the table so that it can be viewed from every angle. The listening and engaging may be tight-lipped but the willingness to view the story from every angle is where the critical engagement takes place and that’s why it all needs to be told.

Lest she be mistaken for saying that ‘listening’ is all about being open to the republican point of view, Rev Carroll also makes some astute observations about listening to unionists:

Unionists have important things to say which they feel have never been heard. Those things are related to the injustices of the violence against them and the effects on their community identity and infrastructure. They have to do with covert, disciplined, what are seen as excessive campaigns of purging from border areas and they have to do with not being permitted to speak these out as new institutions were put in place. The Kearney call has to equally apply to Unionists – they have to be listened to in a way which allows them to put it all out on the table without judgement and dismissal being the first response. So how Unionist’s speak in the first movement of the new relating is every bit as important as how Republicans speak and how Republicans listen is every bit as important as how Unionists listen. There is an opportunity for Unionists here and it is one not to be missed.

I think that reconciliation discourses can be used constructively in Northern Ireland’s public sphere. The varied responses to republicans’ tentative attempts to start talking about reconciliation illustrate, I think, an opening up of space for people to start talking about what reconciliation means from their perspective, as seen in Donaldson and Carroll’s comments.

Of course fine words need to be backed up by even better actions. Political parties’ commitments to reconciliation will be tested when it comes to devising practical policies that can tackle the legacies of the past – policies to address the trauma still suffered by victims and survivors, and the continued economic deprivation in areas that were most affected by the violence.