Kingsley Donaldson replaced his older brother Jeffrey on the Healing, Honour and Hope – What Next? panel in the Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts alongside Sinn Féin MLA Declan Kearney, chaired by former Methodist President Heather Morris. (The Lagan Valley MP was called away to host the new International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who was visiting Northern Ireland yesterday.)
While moderate and thoughtful unionism was evident on stage, Declan Kearney was impatient with the way political unionism was continuing to hold back reconciliation through its “active commission or omission [that] reinforces, incites and perpetuates sectarian mind-sets and division, and blocks progress and positive initiatives”.
In her introduction, Heather Morris explained that the Féile An Phobail event’s title came from a 100 days of prayer for 100 years of history movement and the associated magazine, produced earlier this year to invite Christians to unite and prayerfully engage in their nation’s story. [EANI’s Peter Lynas noted that NI has 400,000 weekly church goers; twice the number of attendees at IFA matches throughout the season.]
Kingsley Donaldson began by assuring the north Belfast audience that “you’re not going to see a spat between a retired Brit and a republican”. The retired army officer was upbeat in his prepared remarks and up front about his career in the military. Kingsley reflected on Carl Frampton’s weekend victory and the subsequent celebrations.
He characterised the Irish as “famous for our sense of humour and company … and craic … we’re charitable, good neighbours”. Yet “at home we can’t apply this as effectively”.
Heavily involved in the WW1 Centenary Committee, Kingsley explained the efforts that had been exerted to ensure sections of communities were not intimidated by commemorations. Having attended 1916 in Dublin and marked Irish involvement in the Somme he saw this period of historical remembering as an opportunity to “reappraise our understanding of each other”. Understanding” could “help healing”, reducing the exclusivity of our narratives. The “reflective 1916 commemorations [were] a great signpost of much tolerance and sensitivity [equipping] us to better deal with our recent past”.
Kingsley was pleased that “individuals have chosen to make little political capital out of commemorations”. He spoke about the contributions of ACT and Intercomm and went on to say that “there is honour in the camp at Twaddell and honour in the residents groups at Ardoyne”.
Overall a balanced message of cautious optimism from the unionist side of the sofa. Towards the end of the Q&A [listen back] when asked about recent provocative acts around Twelfth celebrations, Kingsley asked the audience to “try not to judge us as a community by the actions [of those who burn flags and posters on bonfires]” but take into account those who believe in the Union but quietly walk past you in the street without “sticking two fingers in your face”.
Declan Kearney’s body language throughout the evening suggested a disappointed that his sharp message would not be delivered directly to a senior unionist elected representative. He began his talk saying:
This is a very welcome event. Its format, and actual location represent a serious effort to address the lack of structured political civic and community engagement on the development of reconciliation. We need to ask why no sustained public discussion is taking place on the need for reconciliation.
He asked whether “a momentum exist for reconciliation in wider society?”
Why does no shared definition of reconciliation even exist; why is that so? In my view reconciliation is not an option in our society; it is an imperative. Instead of a few trying to develop political and civic critical mass to support reconciliation and healing, we should be collectively accelerating its development as a new phase of the peace process. And if not now, then when; and if not by all of us, then by who?
Later in the speech he praised the rhetoric and reflection of the Queen, saying it was “a more developed and advanced view about the direction of our peace process than some unionist political leaders”. Sinn Féin had “avoided taking a prescriptive approach to the definition of reconciliation” but political unionism needed “a fresh start and new start … towards reconciliation”.
He criticised unionist leadership “which by active commission or omission reinforces, incites and perpetuates sectarian mind-sets and division; and blocks progress and positive initiatives”.
During the Q&A Declan Kearney characterised Kingley Donaldson’s WW1 and 1916 discussions as “negotiation” rather than “reconciliation”, sounding impatient as he explained that the “war was over [in Dublin and NI]” but reconciliation was needed in local communities.
The rest of his speech continued:
Huge suffering has taken place in Ireland, north and south, and that has extended to Britain. The divisions in our society which exist are visceral. The pain from past actions experienced by our generation is real, not abstract or somewhere else. I am very aware of the suffering experienced by the Donaldson family. Members of the wider Donaldson family have been killed as a result of IRA actions. I am sorry that hurt was caused to their family.
I have previously acknowledged and regretted the hurt experienced by the RUC family. That extends to the families of all combatants who acted on behalf of the British state, and also a deep loss and sense of injustice felt by the unionist section of our community. Not far from here the IRA caused a terrible catastrophe when its bomb exploded at Frizzels’ shop on the Shankill Road.
All wars and political conflict create carnage and death. No war should be glorified or romanticised. That applies to our most recent conflict in Ireland. Because there were two sides. Massive violence and injustice was carried out against republicans and nationalists.
The South Antrim MLA listed historical injustices from the north Belfast area, including Crumlin Road courthouse and jail, the “torture centre” at Girdwood, and “the massacres of the New Lodge Six and at McGurks’ Bar carried out by British soldiers and unionist paramilitaries”.
Pat Finucane was killed not more than one mile from here in a state-sponsored execution by British agents directed by Brian Nelson. Nelson’s own role as a British army agent personifies the reality of British state collusion, assassination and systematic illegality here in north Belfast and across the north.
Huge numbers of nationalist civilians, Sinn Féin members and IRA Volunteers were killed in this area, and the pain of their families is equal to the grief of any other family. My sorrow and regret for their loss applies equally to them.
There were different sides to our conflict and there are multiple narratives. They include, republican, unionist and constitutional nationalist narratives, a British state narrative, and the narrative of those who say none of this had anything to do with them. Nelson Mandela put it well; he said: “No single person, no body of opinion, no political doctrine, no religious doctrine can claim a monopoly on truth”.
I accept there are issues about the past upon which we must agree to disagree. It is just as futile asking political unionists to repudiate the B Specials, RUC and British army, as it is futile asking a republican such as me to repudiate the IRA. I may disagree fundamentally with the British state and political unionist narratives, but I also recognise that for those of that tradition these are valid and legitimate.
During her visit to Ireland in 2011 Queen Elizabeth spoke about how with the benefit of hindsight we can all see things which should have been done differently or not at all. Prince Charles made similarly helpful comments in 2015. There is an importance to that perspective in helping our society to move forward. Republicans have publicly and privately acknowledged the Queen’s sentiments and generosity. But I have yet to hear unionist political leaders do the same. The British royal house seems to have a more developed and advanced view about the direction of our peace process than some unionist political leaders. [emphasis added]
There are no right victims and wrong victims; no innocent and guilty victims. There are only victims: republican, unionist; Irish, British; green and orange; Gael and planter.
And the collective responsibility of all political and civic leaders is to ensure that there are never again any more victims. When we speak of the legacy of the past it is not abstract for many families, but real and living.
So it is not acceptable to pass that legacy on to a new generation to sort out. That would be reckless and a failure of leadership. Such an approach will repackage and recycle fear, suspicion, division and a sense of ‘them and us’. The legacy of our past and absence of reconciliation has ensured that we remain a deeply divided society in the present. How would it be otherwise?
Whilst we now have the most integrated workforce since the beginning of this state, society in the north remains communally, educationally, socially, culturally and psychologically segregated.
The root cause of that has been British influence in Ireland – to paraphrase the Easter Proclamation – “… A consequence of the divisions carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past” and since entrenched and perpetuated by partition.
The causes of division must be discussed. The legacy of the past cannot be avoided if we are to move forward to a new phase of the peace process. We all need to be prepared to deal with these issues by coming together privately and publicly to engage meaningfully, and not to score points.
Reconciliation will not be built upon resentment and recrimination. The mechanisms agreed under the Stormont House Fresh Start Agreement are an essential vehicle for moving forward. It is unacceptable and wrong that the potential of this framework is being held back by the British Government’s veto on maximum information disclosure, and refusal to release the funds which would allow legacy investigations and inquests to proceed.
The peace process has transformed much in our society, but it needs to go a lot further. As the last six years proved, it cannot be taken for granted. There is no point in ending the war for it to be carried on politically and psychologically – by refusing to engage, to reach out, and to lead.
Our peace process must not simply be a relative absence of political violence. It needs to go further. We must be better than that. Otherwise we risk an existential crisis of permanent sectarianism, sectarian segregation, insecurity and fear of each other.
For our part Sinn Féin has avoided taking a prescriptive approach to the definition of reconciliation. Our public, private, political and policy contributions have sought to encourage and support an inclusive public discourse.
We are absolutely committed to ensuring a process of reconciliation and healing is established. Republicans have stretched and challenged ourselves to develop the peace process. And we have done so in pursuit of reconciliation and healing – and sometimes at a cost.
It is now time that others began to do the same. Reconciliation is not a one-way street.
Those of us who share a strategic vision for the peace process must reach out to each other and encourage an inclusive national conversation. That is an authentic public discourse on reconciliation between republicans and unionists, Irish and British, and those of all faiths and none.
Private dialogues now need to be translated into actions. The silent majority needs to challenge itself and be heard. Significant prophetic voices need to start speaking out. Civic leadership needs to take public responsibility.
It is also long past time for all political and governmental leaderships to step up to the mark. That should include active and unambiguous commitment from the leaderships of political unionism. There is a need for both a fresh start and new start by political unionism towards reconciliation.
Political leadership which by active commission or omission reinforces, incites and perpetuates sectarian mind-sets and division; and blocks progress and positive initiatives, is the opposite of leadership.
At this year’s Ard Fheis Sinn Féin adopted our policy document on reconciliation and healing ‘Towards an Agreed and Reconciled Future’. It is a substantive, public policy contribution to designing a roadmap towards making reconciliation the new phase of our peace process.
Others should bring forward their proposals and strategies. We want reconciliation placed at the heart of government in the north and across Ireland.
He saw Brexit as destabilising.
In recent weeks the Brexit decision has swept away all of the old assumptions. Everything has changed as a result. The British state as we have come to know it is in constitutional and political crisis. New serious divisions will potentially be caused as a result, and have triggered massive uncertainties. Brexit has become the price of Ireland’s continued partition.
Yet a real potential has opened up to begin a new political and civic conversation about Ireland’s future in a post-Brexit context. An unprecedented opportunity is emerging to begin a new popular and inclusive conversation in the north, and throughout the island about how our shared future can evolve. It should seek to end, not reinforce divisions among our people, or between north and south.
It should incentivise the encouragement of, and participation in the development of healing and reconciliation. The focus of that conversation should be on starting to explore new relationships, compromises and imaginative accommodations that transcend old communal and sectarian divisions.
A moment has arrived to begin thinking and talking about new relationships between us all; between the island of Ireland and Britain – and the importance of a new, confident, outward looking relationship between Ireland and Europe, as well as the global community.
All of this will require leadership and vision; a willingness to meet together publicly and privately, to listen and talk together. It means being prepared to reach out and to undertake meaningful initiatives which show real respect to each other; and through combined, collective leadership to demonstrate zero tolerance against bigotry and intolerance.
As to, what next and tonight’s discussion; we need more events like this, not fewer; we need maximum engagement, not less. That must mean for our society, healing, and not recycled hurt; honour, and not disrespect; and hope, not despair.
Sinn Féin is fully committed to that agenda. We cannot do this alone. It is crucial that others also embrace this challenge and responsibility.
Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.