McGuinness and Sinn Fein finally return to the pluralist language of Tone…

Martin McGuinness’ keynote speech to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis is up on the party website. It’s worth quoting at length, because at risk of invoking a trite pun it is worth noting at least as much for its reference to Tone (Wolf Theobald) and its generally emollient tone.

Partition created two conservative states on our island. The rights and entitlements of ordinary citizens were secondary to the needs of the political class in both states. That is why every Irish government, since partition, including the present one, is happy to pay lip service to a united Ireland and more importantly to the rights of citizens.

That is why it was acceptable to abandon nationalists in the north to whims of a unionist regime and the reality of second class citizenship.

That was a political reality that I could never accept as normal. Through forty years of struggle and our involvement in peace negotiations we have managed to dismantle one party rule in the north and brought second class citizenship to an end. We have replaced this with equality, partnership and power sharing.

We have erased the physical nature of the border. We have constructed all-Ireland political institutions. But we have yet to achieve our primary political objective of re unification and sovereignty. That is the mighty task which we now face.

And Irish unity is not simply a republican objective, it is I believe necessary for our people, catholic, Protestant, Dissenter and others to achieve our full potential.

And then:

It is now time to move from the peace building phase of the struggle to the nation building stage of the struggle. That requires the very same confidence, strategic thinking and determination that has marked our approach for many years.

This is not about trying to turn unionists into nationalists or to try and hook wink people about our intentions. The reality is that much hurt has been caused on all sides during the conflict and indeed by the very imposition of partition itself.

To date much of the public running in this debate has been undertaken by Republicans. It is however a mistake to think that many within the broad unionist community are not thinking their way through the necessity for reconciliation.

Shades of Peter Robinson’s ‘Only those who can adapt to changing circumstances’? Well, not quite. Instead it’s a mention of how the British are, like Sinn Fein themselves, not co-operating with the Smithwick Inquiry:

It is my view, backed I believe by plenty of evidence, including the lack of co-operation with the Saville, Barron and Smithwick Inquiries that the British government is not interested in a process which would deliver truth and reconciliation. This is in the main motivated by self interest. Put simply it does not suit

Britain’s own strategic interests to face up to its role in Ireland.

However we cannot let the divisions fostered through the decades of conflict and the British government stalling on the issue of the past to hold back the potential that now exists to move forward politically and democratically to a new Republic.

In that context, we have a responsibility to reach out to unionists and to others to engage with them about the past and indeed even more importantly about the future.

A united Ireland will succeed with the input of all sections of our people. We seek an Ireland in which unionists would feel comfortable not just in being a part of but being in the leadership of.

I have said many times that it is possible for unionists and republicans to stand together without dilution of our beliefs. The Executive of which I have jointly led with Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson for the past five years is evidence of that.

I said in my Easter speech that in the discussions leading to re-unification we need to be imaginative and generous towards unionists. The ability to be generous to each other should be seen as a strength not a weakness. Passport rights, symbols and other issues of identity crucial to building a fully inclusive united Ireland respecting the traditions of all our people in all their diversity can be addressed.

And we need to remember at all times that dialogue isn’t a one way street. We also need to listen to what unionists say to us and indeed about us. That is the role of nation builders. That means always stretching ourselves and always taking risks to advance the task of building a new Ireland.

Ireland as a nation can only truly prosper if we are at peace with ourselves as a people. Having the confidence to build a new better relationship with Britain will also be important.

It means overcoming the historic fracture between Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. In the Ireland of 2012 it means building a pluralist, ethnically and culturally diverse society that embraces all our citizens.

It’s pretty clunky in places, and as you might expect at a party conference somewhat washes out the contribution those other than Sinn Fein to the establishment of stability in Northern Ireland.

But it carries something of, if not a reciprocation towards Robinson’s long bid for an new and open pluralist space, and a mild iteration of Adams’ seven goals towards unification.

Such public espousal of Tone’s pluralist vision may indicate a welcome turn in the party’s thinking about the future…

But after twenty five years of prosecuting an inter communual war and nearly twenty of relative peace, they’ve a long march ahead to open up the narrow ground into which succeeding (and ever dwindling) numbers of Protestant Republicans have been squeezed, by both sides.

Something, ironically, that’s probably been understood best amongst Irish nationalist parties by Fianna Fail up to now…

Still, tus maith, agus eile…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty