“Why do Sinn Féin always refer to difficult conversations rather than just conversations?”
“Maybe they are difficult for republicans” was the reply.
It became clear at a recent meeting of the Commission on the Future of Ireland in Derry/Londonderry what the speaker may have been referring to.
The gathering was weighted towards Sinn Féin’s agenda with Declan Kearney introducing the event in his capacity as Chair of the Commission and local Sinn Féin MLA Pádraig Delargy welcoming an audience which included Gerry Adams, former President of Sinn Féin, Mitchel McLaughlin, former General Secretary of Sinn Féin and Geariód ÓhEára, former Chairperson of Northern Sinn Féin my attendance.
Old comrades comes to mind.
The theme was on exploring PUL Culture and Identities with a panel of two female community activists who would identify as PUL and a facilitator with a PUL family background who now works in reaching out to the perceived PUL community to promote the Gaelic language; not an easy task in Londonderry.
The city is not where it was during the 2013 UK City of Culture in terms of Good Relations with PUL groups and individuals cognisant of recent Sinn Féin decision–making and tactical silence to any critique voiced.
This became apparent during the panel contributions and the Q and A which followed the opening remarks of Declan Kearney which to the ears of this listener ranged from lecturing to patronising; once the rhetoric had been filtered out.
Following the obligatory reference to Wolfe Tone’s pedigree, he suggested that whilst “we may not agree about the past we can agree about the future” the inference being the inevitability of change to the political and constitutional context of Northern Ireland.
It implies a foregone conclusion that necessitates the PUL community addressing what a shared future will look like; to “liberate their mind.”
There was little evidence to support the assertion being marketed rather like a salesperson peddling a product whilst ignoring its inherent risks and flaws.
There was little detail at all with opinion substituted for thinking. As a result, the Chairman came across as condescending; reiterating a dogma lacking in any inner truth. If the intention is to appear inviting it has the opposite effect.
It betrays a stance too secure in its limited groupthink; that PUL groups and individuals are a problem to be managed. Sinn Féin continues to stand on the past with no ability to renew or refresh.
Most people who identify as PUL, as displayed on the evening, are able, valuable and responsible.
Sinn Féin does not seem to understand why the PUL community identifies as such; is too much reliant on its view that anyone who does so is somehow misguided and blinded by symbolism and tradition.
It succeeds only in creating a negative discursive environment with the Commission and groups like Ireland’s Future functioning mainly as echo chambers.
Intentionally or otherwise, the politics and practices present are just plain thoughtless and this is exacerbated by an evident disconnect within Sinn Féin in terms of direction and purpose. In these circumstances people can only judge from what they happening before their eyes.
The growing feeling in Derry/Londonderry is that a future Ireland as envisaged by the Sinn Féin Commission is one where PUL identity and culture will be tolerated and accommodated subject to republican approval.
At best, it will be hard to integrate with those who denigrate; who claim to welcome diversity yet act to control and limit it
It is equally hard to escape the conclusion that de Valera’s view of Unionists as remnants of an English garrison still determines strategic outcomes which disregard all save predetermined political and essentialist objectives.
At a time when the city has been awarded a Peace Prize and the Derry Model for reconciliation is lauded and generously funded, the PUL panel members left no doubt as to the disenchantment which runs deep within those who identify as PUL and more widely.
In addressing the audience, the two community activists voiced frustration with Unionist leadership and addressed the cultural heritage and traditions which shapes elements of their identity and preference for the pro-Union position.
In doing so, they expressed their desire for everyone in the city to work together to address pressing social needs across the whole community. They called for economic regeneration that can offer better opportunities for younger people and reduce any necessity to leave their home. They welcomed how many of the younger generation, now growing up in a global environment, are more likely to develop relationships and socialise beyond binary identities, without feeling their political preferences lessened or threatened.
Based on their work within single-identity groups however, there is an honest recognition that this is not the complete picture.
Both of the panel members commented on how segregation, pressing social needs arising from inflation, Government policies and the impact of Covid have acted in some communities – PUL in particular – to deepen community consciousness and identity awareness.
The mounting evidence is that the actions of what is a Sinn Féin dominated Derry City and Strabane Council have produced in these communities a feeling that their culture and heritage is under threat; that their voice is unwelcome and excluded.
The attitude and actions of the previous and the present Council towards the NI Centenary, the Coronation of King Charles III and a recent decision establishing linkage between the Annual Parade of the Apprentice Boy and flags which the vast majority find offensive and the sale of which very few approve, raises the possibility that future parades will be at the whim of Council.
They will be subject to scrutiny not levelled at other organisations; a throwback to earlier years when parades were curtailed and blocked.
It’s a far cry from the words of the late Martin McGuinness when he expressed at the beginning of the UK City of Culture in 2013 his desire to see Orange parades made welcome in the city on an equal basis with other events.
By failing to preserve the dignity of the other, some will be more equal than others.
It is a sure way to entrench polarisation.
Underpinning this is the decision by Sinn Féin, now the biggest party, to exercise d’Hondt and end the established practice of sharing the Offices of Mayor and Deputy Mayor inclusively; a return to the politics of division and the side-lining of those with the least representation.
In comparison to past decision-making pertaining to the positions, it runs counter to consensus and reconciliation. It is lacking in any genuine generosity for differing interests regardless of their numerical strength.
This is a view shared by many engaged in peace-building from across all sections of the community.
Concerns beyond PUL voices have been expressed to Sinn Féin but these have been met with a strategic silence. Was the decision taken locally, in Belfast or Dublin? All are equally silent.
Since Sinn Féin boast that everything they do is strategic, clearly in some place someone or group thought it was a good idea.
The negative impact on Good Relations in Derry/Londonderry was made very clear to the Commission of the Future of Ireland but eminent individuals remained unresponsive.
When asked after the meeting about the new Mayoral policy, one former very senior Sinn Féin official said: “Well, I didn’t take the decision.” One of the local Sinn Féin MLAs could not throw much light on the situation.
Is there now a reluctance to own what is sending out a very clear message about what a unified Ireland would look like? Not quite consistent with the claim that Michelle O’Neill MLA will be First Minister for all.
Based on current actions in Derry/ Londonderry which many nationalist representatives are content to define as a Nationalist city, respect, equality and parity of esteem will be carefully apportioned, discriminatory and identity curated.
The decision was taken some weeks ago but the undercurrent of discontent goes on with a number of PUL groups hesitant in becoming involved in Peace Plus cross-community projects where collaboration and inclusivity is not seen as respectful, genuine and transparent.
Remaining silent does not address the problem the new permanency has established.
Gerry Adams on his way home may have been minded, having been present for the difficult conversation, to advise his travelling companions: “They haven’t gone away, you know.”
Ethics is not about right response to a radically exterior/ized other, but about responsibility and accountability for the lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part.”
— Karen Barad
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.