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.


  • chrisjones2

    “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.’ ”

    Another Trojan Horse then!! Where they breeding them? Is there a Trojan Horse Farm hidden in the Midlands bogs alongside the school for trampolining dogs?

    This all just looks like ‘parity of esteem’ (remember her?) in a new suit

  • aber1991

    Why should there by any compromise with those who want to maintain Protestant Privilege? Why should there be any reconciliation with those who want to continue aggression against Catholics?

    I hope that Sinn Fein’s “Unionist Outreach” bullshit has been designed for the purposes of electioneering in Eire where most of the population seem to be wallowing in non-sectarianism.

  • chrisjones2

    Does Gerry know you are off message?

  • mickfealty

    If you are committed to doing nothing, then of course it is a waste of time: http://goo.gl/ACgLA5

  • Jay

    The main goal is a UI. Compromises can be made along the way. They have to be, unionism will soon be a minority, let’s show them they’ve nothing to fear.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “Over the last few years, Sinn Féin has adopted a discourse advocating ‘national reconciliation….”

    Have they?!!

    Can I ask which marketing company or PR consultancy they’ve been using just so that I can avoid being marooned with their services some time down the future line:

    SF HQ: “So lads, what have ye’s come up with? How do we outreach to Protestants & unionists and make things better?”

    PR gurus: “Ahem, well, we thought you might want to try and rename a park or something after a figure that they despise. That should break down barriers. Be smart about it though, have one that wasn’t officially convicted of murder though, that’ll be a stretch otherwise.”

    SF HG: “Serious?! Every time we advocate re-naming something like the New Lodge flats or QEII park in Magherafelt they go a bit, well ‘fleggy’. Are you sure this’ll help?”

    PR Guru: “Definitely. Will smooth over tensions in no time”

    SF HQ: “Well, if you’re sure. What’s plan B?”

    PR Guru: “Ach, just mention Cromwell road or a war memorial and hammer the context until fits. Worst comes to worst it’ll distract everyone…. Or just mention things that unionists do”

    SF HQ: “But unionists aren’t ‘outreaching’, we are, surely that’s a big difference?”

    PR Guru: “Doesn’t matter, tit-for-tat is a great source of deflection.”

  • npww

    Gladys, what Hopkins and the parties don’t address is the historic reluctance to engage with women around issues of peace and reconciliation. As different as their approaches may be, the parties seem to agree reconciliation, like politics, is male territory. This was evident in the ‘National Reconciliation’ event you mentioned. Like so many other similar events it featured an all-male panel of speakers. Gender segregation is commonplace. The exclusion of women in these conversations is an extension of the male-dominated political parties, churches and social structures. It also reveals a troubling lack of regard for women as powerful peace leaders.

    The political parties and public debates reflect a gender segregation that undermines the peace process. I agree with you that reconciliation depends on the engagement of ‘all sectors of society in Northern Ireland’. Women are the largest half of society, and yet not fully engaged as reconciliation partners. The journey towards healing must be inclusive. Our conversations and actions need to reach well beyond the political parties and loudest (male) voices. There can be no peace without women.

  • aber1991

    Yes, Mr Fealty, you have hit the nail on the head. You are so honest, I really like you.

  • mickfealty

    We’re here to engage and debate, ‘liking’ is neither here nor there. But respect for difference and a willingness to engage is vital.