Conversations about the future require candour, not platitudes

Because of a clash of commitments I’m having to miss out on the Westminster launch on Tuesday of  Uncomfortable Conversations: An Initiative for Dialogue Towards Reconciliation  edited by the Sinn Fein chair Declan Kearney.  It will follow a similar launch in the Linenhall Library in Belfast  which Sinn Fein covered on YouTube in April. It is also the second bite of a cherry first produced as long ago as  October 2012.The words  “trust”, “genuine “ and “dialogue”  figured prominently  but specific outcomes were scarce. Not much has changed since; in fact we may have gone backwards.

This latest pitch is given a welcoming nudge in the Irish Times by Richard English, the eminent historian of the IRA and  global terrorism, who moved from Queen’s to Aberdeen some years ago.

….When we do listen to each other, there are some aspects of the Troubles legacy that require more honest appreciation than they have yet received.

I still think we all have a tendency more quickly to stress what others did violently to our own community in Ireland during the Northern conflict than to focus humbly on the damage that our own side did to others.

But this can change, if we want it to.

…uncomfortable conversations will involve unexpected futures for us all, and the way that we adjust to changed times will determine how well or how badly Irish – and certainly Northern Irish – politics develops in this century.

Are there opportunities for a democratic Ireland to be agreed for the long-term future, in ways that traditional republican politics has tended to reject?

For unionists, there is the challenge of facing the real prospect that Scotland will, in name and/or in practice, leave the union. How will unionist politics adjust to the redefinition of the UK that this involves, given the deep historical attachment felt by so many of Ulster’s unionists to that part of Britain?

Who can be confident that the peace process would be sufficiently robust to withstand the actuality of Scottish independence?  What are the developments of the mid-term future that we know will affect us directly? Behind the peace talk lies the reality of the elephant in the room, the impending Catholic majority. What sort of numbers game will the political parties play? For reconciliation at a political level to be about more than platitudes, this is the sort of theme that needs to be defined and debated.

The two governments need to spell out to the local parties that the game will operate within limits.  To win – and they will play to win -both sides need to talk the talk to win over a proportion of the other and allow the rest to become – yes – reconciled – to the prospect of whatever political future seems likely. Unionism has the advantage of the status quo.   But its  pretence that unionism  of the Ulster variety is essentially “as British as Finchley” convinces no one, least of all its militant flag waving adherents, and is unnecessarily defensive as well as  crudely philistine towards  Irish culture which is shared historically by all traditions.  As the upper reaches of the DUP have begun to realise, they would do better to have the sense to embrace rather than grudgingly concede the pluralism that Britain likes to think of as embedded in its political and social cultures. They have done far too little – less than Sinn Fein – to educate their natural supporters in the new reality they themselves  have signed up to.

Reconciliation  for northern republicanism is conditioned by the requirement of a narrative which assumes the inevitability of Irish unity and therefore has to work all the harder to be trusted.

Whatever is felt about 1916 and the necessity of a national myth which all nations share, Irish nationalism as a whole needs to  continue widening its view of traditions, including the treatment of Protestants in the 20th century, to have any hope of reconciling a significant minority of the north to unity. And it needs to do so regardless.

There are  more than enough opportunities for developing  reconciliation  through the structures  of the Good Friday Agreement. The human rights machinery created in the Agreement  has  built up more pressure  for a less sectarian  society  than anything said or done by  the  political parties. Politics is still the default for insecurity rather than the hope of progress.   To be fair, through mayoral and other examples of office rotation such as the Assembly Speakership, both sides have shown they can offer public gestures.   A good deal of institutional reconciliation has been achieved already. Between the states it’s a living reality. But overall, the communal politics of the North have yet to catch up.

Rival narratives about the past are  embedded in verbal concrete. The Troubles legacy is still couched in terms of justification for the armed struggle versus the reluctance of the state to admit that wrongdoing was anything other than aberrations under pressure. Confession time all round is at best a distant prospect and may have to wait until we are all safely dead.

Heresy though it may be to those who believe that healing is remembering, it is surely obvious that the present and the future cannot wait on reconciliation about the past.  However much  it can be  promoted by state support and innumerable private contacts,  human reconciliation  is ultimately a private matter.

The concept of the peace process should be succeeded by a drive on policy development. Civil society which largely opts out of political involvement needs to find its voices.  Do we want an integrated society or not? This is the sort of debate we should be having. Such reconciliation as is available will follow in its wake.

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