What is National Reconciliation? Stephen Hopkins Analyses Sinn Féin’s ‘Politics of Reconciliation’

Over the last few years, Sinn Féin has adopted a discourse advocating ‘national reconciliation,’ which has met with mixed responses from unionist political parties, nationalists, the Protestant churches, the wider PUL community, the media, etc.

In the latest edition of the journal Irish Political Studies (March 2015), Stephen Hopkins from the University of Leicester offers an academic analysis of those discourses in an article titled, ‘Sinn Féin, the Past and Political Strategy: The Provisional Irish Republican Movement and the Politics of ‘Reconciliation’.’

Hopkins’ analysis is based on a secondary reading of various Sinn Féin speeches and documents, as well as comments on and critiques of their approach to reconciliation that have been published in the media. He does not appear to have interviewed members of Sinn Féin.

His overall argument is scathing (p. 79):

‘… SF’s approach to ‘truth and reconciliation’ has been characterised by an emphasis upon the movement’s efforts to legitimise its version of the historical narrative of the Troubles, rather than by any authentic attempt to address self-critically the previous commitment to ‘armed struggle’, or to seek genuine compromise with unionists, loyalists and the broader Protestant population. This approach has also been formulated for an internal audience, with the goal of convincing republicans that progress towards a united Ireland has not stalled.’

Hopkins writes that SF’s ‘historical narrative of the Troubles’ now emphasises that not only republicans, but also nationalists, had no choice but to resort to violence (handily writing the non-violent nationalists of the SDLP out of history):

‘Provisional republicans have recently discussed the IRA’s campaign as if it had been part of a broad struggle for equality and human rights, although such terminology is conspicuous by its absence in the republican rhetoric of the 1970s and 1980s’ p. 81).

He also analyses SF’s responses to various policies and documents on the past, such as the Bloomfield Report and the Eames-Bradley Report, noting that SF’s main policy priority on the past seems to be establishing the ‘necessity and legitimacy of the IRA’s campaign of violence’ (p. 84).

Hopkins dates SF’s ‘Reconciliation Initiative,’ to principles published in an article by the party’s National Chair, Declan Kearney, in An Phoblacht in 2012, which included a willingness to apologise for the effects of the IRA’s campaign (p. 85).

But Hopkins questions whether SF’s reconciliation initiative is a genuine attempt to reach out to unionists, or simply another strategy for achieving a united Ireland. This has been the perspective adopted by many unionist leaders in response to SF’s overtures – Hopkins quotes Mike Nesbitt, Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Allister to this effect. They would not have been reassured by a 2012 Kearney speech in Milltown Cemetery, where he said:

‘National reconciliation in integral to our strategic project. It is the basis from which to persuade for and build a new Ireland’ (p. 87).

As Hopkins notes in his conclusion:

‘… it is also the case that the movement’s emphasis upon the reconciliation strategy as a means to forge an ‘agreed [united] Ireland’ necessarily makes an authentic reconciliatory practice unworkable. Unionists cannot realistically be expected to ‘reconcile’ with republicans, based upon such an agenda, either in moral or political terms’ (p. 93).

Ultimately, Hopkins sees SF’s reconciliatory agenda as either naive or cynical – with the bulk of his analysis lending weight to the cynicism interpretation:

‘… [the] apparently unobjectionable policy of ‘reconciliation’ in fact masks a strategic desire to discomfort unionists, undermine the ‘dissident’ challenge, and at the same time, shore up the Provisional leadership’s support base within the movement.’ (p. 86) … a significant contemporary objective of SF’s political strategy has been precisely to wrong-foot and divide or demoralise unionism.’ (p. 93)

Hopkins’ analysis is very useful for understanding the reluctance of some unionists to engage with SF around ‘reconciliation.’

But where does it leave those who are convinced that all sectors of society in Northern Ireland need to be part of conversations, and meaningful action, in order for any small steps towards reconciliation to take place?

Indeed, a recent discussion around ‘National Reconciliation’ organised by Niamh Wellbeing’s Journey Towards Healing, which included Kearney as a panellist, included a range of panellists and allowed for candid dialogue.

Hopkins hints that the striving for reconciliation, which includes a willingness to give up preconceived notions about what it might look like or even whether it is possible, is a better and more realistic option than entering the process with an agenda.