Towards an Agreed and Reconciled Future – Sinn Féin latest policy benchmark on promoting reconciliation and tackling sectarianism

Sinn Féin’s national chairperson Declan Kearney voiced his support for a policy document on Inclusion and Reconciliation in a New Ireland, that was adopted by delegates at last weekend’s ard fheis in Derry.

In November 2016, the party launched Towards an Agreed and Reconciled Future document in Clifton House, with speeches by Martin McGuinness, Declan Kearney and former ECONI director David Porter. In 2017, they added on the policy statement: One Community: Tackling the Scourge of Sectarianism in Irish Society.

Addressing the November 2019 ard fheis, Kearney said:

“Our most recent and devastating phase of conflict has yet to be reconciled or healed. Britain’s partition of Ireland is the central fault-line at the heart of Irish politics and society. It has been a disaster for all our people.

“In its aftermath 2 conservative states were formed. In the south a theocracy emerged and existed for decades. The northern state institutionalised sectarianism in every fabric of society to maintain the dominance of a conservative unionist elite. Sectarian discrimination in employment, sectarian segregation, inequality and division became the hallmarks of that state. Today the sectarianism which defined the nature of the northern state after partition still exists.

“Today the political landscape is changing rapidly across this island. Brexit has changed everything. The Brexit hurricane has swept away all of the established constitutional, political and economic assumptions about the status quo. Brexit, demographic changes, the demise of the unionist electoral majority, and refusal of political unionism to support proper power sharing and a rights-based society, have changed the context of the north.

“Partition is rapidly running out of road. Brexit has brought the prospect of Irish unity into stark focus. A debate on constitutional change is now centre stage.”

The preface to the new policy document says that “Sinn Féin believes that full reconciliation and healing among our people will only be achieved through a reconciliation process which is institutionalised and mainstreamed throughout Irish society”. The introduction suggests that due to Brexit:

“while many are now beginning to contemplate a future no longer defined by partition, the divisions and fault lines caused by past events remain unresolved … Such enduring fault lines present major challenges today for all who seek fundamental constitutional, political and societal change.”

Thinking about a united Ireland, the policy document states: “Creating the positive conditions in which a unity referendum is held will be as important as the outcome of the referendum. This means addressing sectarianism, and its manifestations; promoting reconciliation; and dealing with the legacy of the past. It also means facilitating an open, including and informed societal dialogue that engages the broadest section of stakeholders … The failure to ensure the Brexit referendum campaign was properly informed should act as a lesson in how not to prepare for constitutional change in Ireland.”

Sinn Féin’s policy underlines that “we do not own, or claim to own, the sole rights to the process of constitutional change … Our job is to be persuaders, to work in partnership to convince people …”

In many ways, this latest policy document sets out Sinn Féin’s own self-imposed ground rules for any unity debate. All citizens must be welcomed to the conversation about the type of future society they want. They want argument for Irish unity or continuing the Union with Britain to be “coherent and persuasive”. And they acknowledge that debate is required both north and south of the border. The thick 670-page long tome produced by the Scottish Government in the run up to the first Scottish independence referendum “offers a template for the type of informed national dialogue required”.

Sinn Féin are calling for detail over emotional appeal.

“Citizens have every right to expect, shape and debate plans to overcome division, tackle sectarianism and to discuss how they expect the rights of all identities, cultures and traditions to be protected in law. They have every right to input into plans to enhance and grow the economy and to influence all Ireland policies on health, taxation and foreign policy. In summary, citizens voting in a future Irish unity referendum must have a clear idea about the consequences of their decision.”

And returning to reconciliation, the policy states that “Sinn Féin believes that the objective of achieving reconciliation in Ireland must be central to any discussion on Irish unity”.

In a section on how to tackle sectarianism and sectarian segregation, physical walls of division, the erection and flying of flags in the public space and contentious bonfires are listed.

However, education is notably absent from the list of issues to be addressed in order to challenge sectarianism and promote reconciliation. Upon first reading, the ambition is welcome, but somewhat limited in scope in terms of addressing segregation.

While acknowledging the “reassurance” in the Good Friday Agreement “that there can be no constitutional change without the consent of citizens”, the paper calls on the Irish Government “to facilitate a new national dialogue on constitutional change” and “begin planning now for future constitutional change and political dialogue”.

Recognising the need to “meaningfully engage with the legacy of partition, division and pain”, Sinn Féin’s new policy makes specific proposals on:

Commemorations: Sinn Féin will “respond positively to shared commemoration invitations which contribute to reconciliation and healing outcomes” and “commit to making a positive contribution to a shared culture of commemoration which is inclusive, respectful and based upon parity of esteem, and which acknowledges the pain and division caused by all lives lost in conflict”.

Dealing with the Legacy of the Past: While Sinn Féin would prefer the establishment of an Independent International Truth Commission, they acknowledge that they compromised on this policy position and accepted the Stormont House legacy mechanisms agreed in 2015. They will explore the introduction of a National Reconciliation Day, and are open to “the transformative potential for an initiative of common acknowledgement … by all sides – British, Irish, Republican and Unionist – of the hurt and injustices caused by, and to each other, [which] could introduce a powerful new dynamic to the Peace Process.

The Role of Political Institutions: The party would like to incorporate a citizen’s anti-sectarian charter into the pledges of Ministers, MLAs, TDs and local councillors across the island; introduce a clear legal definition of sectarianism as a hate crime with legally enforceable sanctions, and establish “a civic forum in the north [to] encourage cross-community and anti-sectarian solidarity within civic society”.

Enhancing Political Leadership and Policy: Public representatives and political leaders must set the example and desist from language or actions which cause insult or demean the identity of anyone in our society. Full compliance with equality and anti-discrimination legislation [by] successful bidders for Government contracts or public funding in the private and voluntary sectors, and that previous compliance record be taken into account when awarding contracts.

Engaging Community and Civic Society: Bolder initiatives are required to tackle sectarianism given the progress to date of community-led and Executive-led initiatives like Together: Building a United Community (TBUC). Every citizen must demonstrate zero tolerance against the pervasive influence of sectarianism, with modules integrated into the education curriculum and reinforcing messages within mainstream and diversionary youth development activities and organisations.

Kearney concluded his speech to the Friday night ard fheis:

“The fact is that, the past cannot be changed or undone, nor can the suffering or pain experienced in our society be disowned – by any side. It is essential that all participants in the conflict, including British state forces, make a positive contribution to acknowledgement, reconciliation and healing. There are victims and survivors on all sides. There must be no hierarchy of victimhood when it comes to acknowledging the loss experienced by so many families.

“For our part, Sinn Féin acknowledges the grief associated with all lives lost, and on every side. Everyone deserves acknowledgement as a first step towards the healing process.”

As with all political party policies, there is much that is old and reinforced, as well as new nuance and specificity that a party’s actions (and those of its elected representatives and members) can be held to in the future.

Spelling out in black and white that public representatives must “resist from language or actions which cause insult or demean the identity of anyone in our society” will catch provocative language at home and away.

Saying that Sinn Féin will “respond positively to shared commemoration invitations which contribute to reconciliation and healing outcomes” will allow those who want to design inclusive commemorative events to expect Sinn Féin attendance. Though there is little to suggests that Sinn Féin is at this stage going to corporately make a larger gesture around its participation in armistice events also involve the British military.

Baby steps are always more welcome than giant leaps that don’t allow the political base to keep up. Remember the collapse of the talks in January 2017 after the ‘draft’ agreement failed to garner support outside of the DUP negotiation team? Yet baby steps have to add up to something, have to become a confident toddle and then a brisk walk.

The peace process ebbs and flows. It comes under attack on many sides. Without constant maintenance, the rot sets in. Sinn Féin have established a new baseline for reconciliation and anti-sectarianism in this new policy. But the operationalisation of these words, the echoing back of the principles by those with other political ideologies, and the trust that can be built up with the many communities across this island will be key to whether this policy can deliver.


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