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.

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  • Slater

    If the Provos come to recognise their 35-year war was wrong and anti-Republican not to mention counter-productive then the problem is solved as they will not do the same again.

  • Nevin

    “The fact is that it is the human rights machinery created in the Agreement that has built up the pressure for a less sectarian society”

    Brian, perhaps you should return sometime and take a look round some of your old haunts in Derry and Coleraine. I’d have said that the latter is far more sectarian now than it was at the height of the Troubles.

  • Brian Walker

    Nevin, Indeed there’s along way to go. Unionism has done far too little to educate its people about the changes they agreed to only with reluctance, but at least there are far fewer deaths…

  • Brian Walker

    slater Relief that it’s over seems pretty deep seated to me, But who knows what people really think?

  • Nevin

    Brian, hardening of the political arteries, unionist and nationalist, is hardly the way to go but it was a predictable outcome of the 1998 tug-of-war constitutional arrangement and London and Dublin’s appeasement of the more extreme elements in both camps; the so-called pressure for a less sectarian society is coming from limp lettuces in the chattering classes. ‘Charitable’ bodies which embrace senior police officers and ‘community representatives’ aren’t going to build confidence in policing.

  • Granni Trixie

    Nevin I so agree.

    The problem of sectarianism is exacerbated by lack of acknowledgement that it exists. Many expected that post GFA there would be leadership to identify and address the problem. Alas this has not happened. Think DUP. Think SF. And before anyone says it SF talk the talk of reconciliation but their actions convey the opposite.

    As it happens I plan to attend this event in Westminster but not hopefully.

  • Turgon

    I think Nevin makes a very fair point. There are many places which are more sectarian than they were years ago.

    Part of the problem is the idea that “our community” did this that or the other. That is utter nonsense and a lying calumny against the people of Northern Ireland. It is also a lie which we all were careful to nail as a lie throughout the Troubles (by journalists such as Mr. Walker amongst others).

    Throughout the Troubles we accepted that people in Northern Ireland held differing political views but almost all of us opposed the murderous violence of the terrorists who claimed, lyingly, that they acted on our behalf. They did no such thing. Now, to pretend that we actually supported the men of violence from “our own” communities is simply a lie.

    However, repeatedly telling people that they and their parents supported in some shape manner of form the vile violence perpetrated against “the other community” simply reinforces sectarianism and division.

    What we have here is a political difference admittedly largely along social / ethnic lines which has always been non violently held by the vast majority of our citizens. A group of sectarian criminals piggy backed onto this political difference to further their own loathsome aims. Presenting it as anything else simply plays into both division and into the hands of the very terrorists who helped cause the problems.

    It is, however, the sort of platitude which furthers the careers of the amateur and professional conflict revolutionists who have made a pretty good living telling us all how to think (with tax payers money) over the last 20 years.

  • Turgon

    That is simply incorrect and is indeed a slur; complete with a dishonest circularity whereby if one disagrees with the untrue claim that we are sectarian that somehow makes us more sectarian. That is the sort of platitudinous remark which helps hold society back.

    There was and is a political disagreement. The vast majority of us are not sectarian. I doubt you are Granni Trixie but if you wish to wallow in the self righteousness of your self appointed guilt go ahead. Most of us have political views which we hold to with varying degrees of importance. We are not, however, sectarian.

    Do not tar the rest of us with the sectarian brush. Throughout the Troubles and now most of us got on with life, treating our work colleagues and anyone else we met decently and honourably whatever their political or religious or any other views. If you have something to apologise for go on ahead. Most of us reject completely this sort of nonsense.

  • Nevin

    “a lying calumny”

    Turgon, ‘misrepresentation’ is about as far as you need to go; there’s no call for gross incivility. I endorse your rejection of the ‘communal guilt’ narrative.

  • Brian Walker

    Denial and self justification have always been part of the wrangling that gets us nowhere. Blaming
    everybody is as silly as everybody saying it wasn’t me guv. Don’t lets waste energy on another round of breast beating .

    Richard English and others are right to point out that listening with an open mind is a crucial part of political development.. I’m making a further point about taking politics forward.

    It is self evident that politics is in deadlock and may even be on the point of failure. Unfortunately individuals getting on with their decent lives will have little effect on that.

    There is a disconnect between the protestations of government acting in the interests of the whole community and the zero sum practice of politics.

    I think we are reaching an interesting juncture in politics when they are running out of concessions to trade. “I give you your parades if you give me my Irish Language Act” somehow doesn’t satisfy anybody.

    The “power” has been “shared”, so what now?

    The parties pay lip service to “cohesion sharing and integration” in its bland and bureaucratic language, but if for instance it means in practice giving up the religious
    basis of Catholic schools and amalgamating them with state schools then neither side wants it.

    Do we want to integrate or not?

    Do we want to share? What are the cost benefits of doing something or nothing?

    This is what we should be opening up politics with, You never know, people might have opinions.

  • Nevin

    Brian, why are you indulging the anti-Agreement anti-unionist closed-mind rhetoric of Richard English?

    Both of those developments effectively occurred – quite a few years ago now – and they opened up possibilities for a different and more creative kind of politics to emerge on the island of Ireland.

    This language is not dissimilar to Humespeak. There are three strands to the 1998 Agreement, not just this nationalist one.

  • Sharpie

    To deny that sectarianism was at the core of society and remains there, is disingenuous and dishonest. I have heard it, seen it, experienced it, cooperated with it, condoned it, condemned it and complained against it – from both sides.

    On a practical level people know they couldn’t buy certain land, get promotions above a certain level, invest in certain areas if they were of a certain hue. They know that to do social climbing they had to don the vestments of the establishment and attend the “right” school or emigrate.

    They know that local businesses were boycotted, they know that mixed relationships were targeted in small towns across Northern Ireland, starting with the ones that happened as school kids with rebellious teenagers.

    To believe that communities didn’t only excuse but give cover to those who would visit violence on the other community, to believe that songs, sport, education, farming, and even business itself wasn’t divided along sectarian lines is denial.

    You may hold yourselves (You and Nevin to start with) aloof or separate from this very recent manifestation but indeed much older phenomenon of vicious separateness. I am sure you, me and countless others can cite outstanding examples of outreach, quiet behind the scenes work that we can all be proud of.

    But the voting patterns and political leaders, the levels of violence, the mistrust abroad in society, the existence of segregated education, the existence of separate sporting experiences, the segregated housing estates and communities: these are the safe warm damp holes where sectarianism is formed and feeds. Even for a Christian there exists the sin of omission. Perhaps a lawyer can separate each function of local and regional society and each utterance of every politician and distinguish if by voting for them you supported a “sectarian” outlook, but whats the point in that? splitting hairs. The place is a sectarian quagmire and admitting that is the first step in fixing it – whatever your own part of that may be.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think the problem is at the moment Brian that there isn’t a big enough problem to truly focus minds.

    To many, the historic deal was done in 1998 and it more or less holds. We may realise more is needed to normalise NI society but those with most skin in the game – the ones I would see as most needing to get up to speed on 21st Century realities, the DUP and SF – don’t have a real trigger for action and they just don’t have a strong enough incentive.

    The only thing I can see changing it is a revived politics of the centre, whatever that centre may look like. You hope generational change will bring that. With a stronger centre, the competition then can become one of, who can win this growing constituency of people in the middle who don’t want to poke sticks at the other tribe and will punish politicians electorally who do?

    But the old moderate parties of the UUP and SDLP have just enough life in them, it seems, to crowd out more promising new vehicles for revised and refreshed politics. I’m not blaming them, indeed those parties can still lead the centrist revival, if they have the gumption. I really don’t mind what the vehicles are, as long as they adopt a liberal, progressive alternative to the two revanchist extremes that have led us to nowhere great over the last 10 years or so. But I fear there’s too much old-style nationalism and unionism about those two – and too much baggage – to offer a great deal of hope. And we have Alliance – we should cherish that party and that movement, it’s been a beacon of hope, if an imperfect one, for 40 years and more. We don’t spend enough time bigging them up.

    Of course, I’d like that liberal, progressive alternative to be Labour. Who knows …

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Oh and in the interests of candour, I think SF’s outreach is another political stunt aimed at making it look moderate to the Catholic community, not a serious move. I’m afraid, to be candid, we just need to eclipse the extremes at this stage, and seek leadership from another source. What we don’t need is to flatter them and legitimise their hopelessly inadequate political movements. And I include the DUP in that.

  • Nevin

    MU, I suspect the ‘liberal’ language of both the DUP and SF reflects a desire to sit in the FM rather than the DFM chair; an outcome that requires a further contraction of the UUP and SDLP vote. We’ve actually seen a small drift in the opposite direction perhaps as a consequence of the two large parties having to do business together.