The pitch made within the precincts of Westminster last night by Declan Kearney the up and coming Sinn Fein chairperson, for “national reconciliation within Ireland through uncomfortable conversations” was more than the usual rally cry for exiles and republican sympathisers. It was a pull-together of the Sinn Fein package for the future, carefully and not unattractively wrapped. Cynics will dismiss it as a cracked record and it can be pulled apart (and no doubt duly will be). But cumulatively and as a presentation it deserves to be taken seriously. Sheer persistence in politics is sometimes rewarded. There was more to it than the BBC’s coverage of it as knockabout suggested. Maybe Stephen Walker (no relation) is more jaded than I am.
When you think about it twice, it’s the only show in town, and that’s quite a thought.
Also invited to speak at the Grand Committee Room meeting chaired by West Belfast MP Paul Maskey – a new departure this for an SF meeting – were representatives of other parties, albeit from the Lords, Angela Smith a former junior NI minister for Labour, Lord (John) Alderdice the former Alliance leader, first Assembly Speaker and now a leading Lib Dem, and the not so typical Doagh man Lord Glentoran a former Conservative front bencher. As was well noted, the DUP declined to attend.
I confess my heart sank when Kearney launched off with a fundamentalist republican analysis going back centuries. Nor did he improve quickly. He laid into the DUP for a sectarian response to parades unrest, refusal to share power in unionist majority councils, even the Third Force, whereas Sinn Fein now robustly opposes republican paramilitarism.
Now these were fair, telling points. But as all the other speakers ever so gently pointed out, was this quite the way to enlist DUP cooperation? Was Kearney placing an each way bet, quids in if the DUP respond and if they don’t, Sinn Fein will at least have made them look bad.
I needn’t have worried. This was a solo hard cop, soft cop speech, reassuring to his own constituency on the one hand and challenging to unionists on the other.
To summarise the concrete points buried in the rhetoric.
A national conversation on reconcilation should be leadership frontloaded by;
– * Firstly, concluding in the weeks ahead the Cohesion Sharing Integration strategy. This then needs built upon with a charter supporting anti-sectarianism, equality and mutual respect, sponsored and led by OFM/dFM. This initiative itself would contribute to easing the parading impasse; begin to ensure power-sharing happens across all councils in the north; and demonstrate to our communities in a very practical way the need for mutual respect.
– * Secondly, and building upon work already undertaken by some local communities, to take a lead in developing cross-community and multi-agency initiatives aimed at reducing segregation through the removal of peace walls, and actively promoting increased integrated community life, and cross-community social and cultural activity.
– * Thirdly, agreeing to take forward a united platform in opposition to anti-peace process militarists within nationalism, and against those unionist paramilitaries wedded to violence and criminality.
– * Fourthly, cross-party and cross community agreement on additional strategic economic and social interventions and capacity building in areas of objective need across the north.
High on rhetoric and low on specifics and more back- to- back separate development than true integration. But movement of a kind certainly, if anything like it were to happen. And the external measures?
– * The implementation of outstanding elements of the Good Friday, St. Andrews and Hillsborough Castle Agreements;
– * Committal of the previously agreed £18bn for much needed capital spend projects in the six counties
– *A disapplication of the Welfare Cuts agenda to the north and the lowering of corporation tax there;
– * A review of the Barnett Formula and the transfer of fiscal powers to the Executive.
Add to this;
– * the closure of the NIO,
– * withdrawal of the British Secretary of State,
– * the transfer of reserved powers to the Executive, and
– * the setting of a date for a Border Poll.
Well, you can see the dynamic in the last bit can’t you? But look again. There is nothing essentially anti-unionist about any of this. It resembles “devo max,” the favoured option for Scotland if they reject independence. The difference is, our referendum would come at the end. We are all, all integrationists now, if only anyone knew what we meant by it But by the time Kearney had spelt out his programme, I had warmed to his criticism of the DUP.
Some have expressed fear, scepticism and suspicion of this Sinn Féin initiative on reconciliation. But those concerns can only be allayed through dialogue.
The refusal of political unionism to engage in this discussion is a mistake, because the alternative is to offer the politics of despair.
A policy on non-engagement validates the segregation which blights our society and helps perpetuate the ‘them and us’ mentality and all of the misunderstanding and abuses which have flowed from that.
But political unionism’s refusal to engage on the development of an authentic reconciliation agenda is also duplicitous and contradictory.
The strategy for Dealing with the Past was a reworking of the Ard Fheis speech and is as familiar as it is an unlikely outcome.
Inevitably we need to deal with the past and all the unanswered questions; and that should be done by agreeing to the establishment of an independent, international truth commission.
Some say that republicans are not serious when we advocate that option.
But what we say means everyone – governments, political parties, and British, unionist and republican combatants, and others – going into that arena together and at the same time; and to deal there with all the causes and consequences of the conflict.
That is Sinn Fein’s unambiguous policy position
But equally, there was no “unambiguous” republican nostra culpa for the armed struggle. Yet?
With the reservations noted earlier, the others on the platform praised Kearney most sincerely. But then politicians at Westminster will commend the slightest move coming out of Stormont.
Can the DUP be teased or prodded into a response? After all they agree with much of it . Or will they continue to give it the dusty answer Liam Clarke noted previously, because the Shinners have grabbed an initiative? Is stony silence to right way to keep treating a coalition partner?
What is the next step? Kearney didn’t say. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know. I suggested SF could meet the DUP on substituting a weighted majority for the designations in the Assembly, thus at least allowing ad hoc different majorities to emerge for particular proposals. He didn’t reject this out of hand. But the DUP’s refusal to rotate mayoralties in majority unionist councils was a bad omen. “All we have is the Good Friday Agreement”. But to get what they want, the GFA would have to be modified anyway as John Alderdice pointed out. Perhaps if hopes were raised for this Assembly reform, the trade-off could be the underpinning of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights?
The effort of setting an inclusive platform at Westminster suggests that once again, here are local politicians making a barely suppressed appeal for outside intervention to kick start action. To guess whom? But this time, will it be heard?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London