Cover broken on underground cross community reconciliation talks

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All of a sudden eyes have opened and ears are listening – the eyes and ears of the political and media worlds.

They have been brought to attention by two speeches at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, and the emerging news of a private dialogue between republicans and a “very significant group of people” from the Protestant/unionist community.

That dialogue is about reconciliation.

And, last night in Killarney, Martin McGuinness and Declan Kearney slipped snippets of information into their party conference speeches; just enough to get the journalists interested.

Then the former Methodist President Harold Good, a witness to IRA decommissioning, confirmed his participation in what have been off-stage talks.

All of this has been developing over a period of some weeks – its starting point an article penned by the Sinn Fein National Chair Declan Kearney in An Phoblacht at the beginning of March.

That article is remembered for one word – sorry, and Kearney’s challenge to republicans to use it, not to apologise for the IRA war, but to acknowledge the hurt of all armed actions.

He wrote about wanting to develop  “authentic reconciliation” – this to be the next phase in the peace process moving beyond the ending of armed campaigns, decommissioning and political agreements.

That article, and subsequent interviews by Kearney, became the focus of much comment and debate on this website.

And those involved in the conversation at will not have been surprised by the news coming out of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis.

Declan Kearney told his audience:

“A range of Protestant and unionist people have been engaged privately with myself and other party colleagues to explore our respective concepts, principles and language.

“They have come from within Protestant Churches, loyalism, business, community and civic life,” he said.

That story has been at for weeks. All it needed was a reading of the tea leaves across the various posts and responses.

And, some of those involved in that behind-the-scenes dialogue are regular contributors here – people who immediately recognised the potential in the type of initiative Kearney said he wanted to develop.

Two months ago on this website, the UDA leader Jackie McDonald criticised the supergrass and HET approaches to dealing with the past, and wrote:

“Surely talking to each other and engaging in conversations such as those involving Declan Kearney, Harold Good and many others is a more positive way forward.”

That talking finally became headlines last night – talking in which McDonald is involved.

In today’s Belfast Telegraph, he tells me: “I think it’s for real. Real questions are being asked and real answers are being given.”

Other loyalists are involved, including former prisoner John Howcroft, another regular contributor to this website.

Within days of the Kearney An Phoblacht article, Lord John Alderdice posted the following thought:

“There are some important lines in here, especially given who is saying them and where it’s published, and it would be a serious mistake not to explore them.

Alderdice is now part of that exploration of possibilities that is happening in private, as is Alan McBride – a man who lost his wife and father-in-law in the slaughter the IRA caused on the Shankill Road in a bomb explosion in 1993.

Someone else involved in the talks is the Presbyterian Minister Rev Lesley Carroll, who was part of the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past.

She recognised immediately the importance of that word – sorry, used by Kearney now almost three months ago.

On this website Rev Carroll wrote: “It is a humanising word for both the one saying it and the one to whom it is said.”

And in his Ard Fheis speech last night Declan Kearney spoke of a dialogue in which “we listen to each other unconditionally, language is humanised and all voices are heard, north and south, republican, unionist, nationalist and loyalist”.

His use of that word humanised is one small indication of how republicans are reading and listening to what is being said by those from the Protestant/unionist community who are engaged in this discussion.

In today’s Belfast Telegraph Rev Carroll tells me: “I believe this is a real and genuine request from within the republican movement which requires robust engagement to bring our society closer towards reconciliation.”

In his Ard Fheis speech Declan Kearney again urged political unionism to join this developing dialogue.

So far, the contribution from some in that that quarter could be characterised as more ‘Smart Alec’ than smart thinking, and, again in this process, the heavy lifting is being left to others in the Protestant/unionist community.

Writing elsewhere on this website Harold Good describes the search for the elusive ‘How’ – meaning the structure or process within which the past will eventually be addressed.

“It will only work if it is desired, inspired and owned by the grassroots, rather than yet another solution which has been thought up and handed down from on high,” he writes.

There is also an international thought from Aaro Suonio – the Finn who had a long role here with the IICD – the decommissioning commission.

He suggests that this generation “should record their views, thoughts and sentiments” then leave them for future generations to study with “less emotion”.

The big conversation that became news last night has been happening for some time now – and there are people involved who will find the ‘How’ that Harold Good speaks of.

Others need to join the dialogue, need to help shape the process, and think of reasons to join in rather than excuses to stay out.

We are forty years on from 1972 – and all of those Bloody Days in what was the worst year of this conflict.

Surely it is time to discuss not only what happened, but why – and, more important than that, why it should never happen again.


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at


  1. Morning Barney,

    For me (and I’m probably not a lone voice) the ‘reconcilation’ debate boils down to this: do I believe that Adams, Mcguinness, Kearney et al are serious about a shared, reconciled future with the pro-Union community?

    I don’t believe they are. Indeed, if I could go back in time (knowing what I know now) I would have joined the NO campaign rather than supported David Trimble.

    I’ll be posting a more detailed response to this story later in the week.



    • Peter Sheridan on

      Alex you may of course be right, but there is also the possibility that those who Barney names in his article as engaging with SF may also be right.  For my part I know nothing with certainty, neither do those who are engaged in the dialogue but if we don’t test out the possibilities surely that limits our ability to understand further, as I said previously if it is just a ploy it will be outed. In testing out the current SF message we may hear other versions of ourselves, we of course don’t have to accept those versions but likewise SF will hear other versions of themselves and perhaps there is within that there is the possibility as Rev Carroll to bring our society to closer reconciliation.

      • Hi Peter,

        But it still boils down to whether you believe that this is an ongoing political/propaganda campaign by Sinn Fein directed solely at the needs of the ‘uniting Ireland’ project: or whether it is part of a deeper, broader camapign to build real trust between old enemies and opponents.

        The fact that SF speakers still refer to ‘a section’ of unionism (by which I presume they mean the numbers required to get them over the 50% barrier in a referendum) worries me greatly.

        All that said,I do not doubt the personal sincerity or integrity of those of you who believe that this sort of dialogue is worth while.

        I spent a lot of time supporting the UUP’s involvement with theTalks process after the DUP/UKUP had left and a lot of time backing a YES vote in the 1998 referendum. I took a lot of flak from friends and within unionism for ‘surrendering’ and ‘rolling over’ to Sinn Fein. At one point I thought it would be easier if Ijust changed my name to Lundy—since it was what so many people were calling me anyway!

        But at meeting after meeting I banged on about the chance to build new relationships and a new era for Northern Ireland: and argued that we shouldn’t squander the opportunity to test each other and move forward.

        My view—almost 14 years later—is that SFdoesn’t actually give a damn about the Agreement, the Assembly or building genuine relationships with Unionism or the pro-Union community. All they care about (all they will ever care about) is the ending of the Union and the unity of Ireland: and to hell with the fact that they haven’t given any real thought to the consequences!

        OK, that’s it for today. I’m off to enjoy the sunshine.

        Best wishes,


    • Morning Alex – Good to hear from you. You’ll know that the private background conversations that have been taking place between Sinn Fein and people from the Protestant/unionist community have now been publicly revealed. I’m sure there would be a seat at the table for you, and that would be the best place for you and others to express  concerns. This cannot, should not and is not about everyone nodding in  approval. I’ve chatted over the weekend to a number of those involved in the talks including Rev Lesley  Carroll, Rev Harold Good, Alan McBride, Lord John Alderdice and Jackie McDonald, and have  reported their words in Belfast Telegraph (Saturday) and today in Sunday Life. For information, I’ll set out here some of what they have been saying.

      Rev Carroll: “I believe this is a real and genuine request from within the republican movement which requires robust engagement to bring our society closer towards reconciliation.”

      Alan McBride: “I can understand some people being sceptical, and some people will always be sceptical, but I’m prepared to give this [the talks] the benefit of the doubt. Republicans have been engaged in the peace process for many years and I think they have taken huge risks for peace. I think the Declan Kearney initiative is further progress.”

      Alan also said the demand for an International Truth Commission was unlikely to be met, and urged republicans to consider a “Plan B”.

      Jackie McDonald: “When you are in a room with someone you get a better sense of are they telling a story, telling a lie or being genuine and sincere. I have not sensed any lies, PR or propaganda. I think it [the dialogue] is for real.”

      Lord Alderdice: “I think that those who believe that this is an attempt to hood-wink unionists are mistaken. That is not what this is about.”

      He sees what is happening as “the logical next steps in this process” and describes “more difficult conversations up ahead to address the past and its legacy and to find a future that we can share”.

      Harold Good has had a key role in the developing dialogue, and yesterday told me: “This must be all-inclusive. It’s about finding ways of bringing everyone and all parties into this conversation. There is no intention to exclude people.”

      I think this is an important message. People should not be excluded and nor should different opinions be locked outside the door of that dialogue. It requires all voices, whether they are saying Yes or No. And let’s remember this is only the start of something – not the middle or the end. Some weeks ago when this latest debate began, I wrote that if republicans are involved in a genuine initiative “then we need momentum, not stalling; quicker, not slower. And if the initiative is not serious, then there will be only one loser. Unionists have nothing to fear.”

      I look forward to you detailed post later in the week. 




      • Barney,

        I wouldn’t be comfortable at that table and my discomfort would probably have a knock-on effect on the sort of dialogue taking place.


        • Barneyrowan on

          Alex – the theme of the dialogue is “uncomfortable conversations”. I am sure being at the table will not be easy for Alan McBride, but he’s there, and I think that sets an example and a standard for everyone. I have no idea what they are talking about in that private dialogue, but I’m pretty sure it’s a two-way conversation and not all in one direction. There was something I said on radio some years ago during an earlier negotiation, that this process is not just about what unionists want, and not just about what they think the IRA/republicans should say or do. There are big chunks of unfinished business in this process – a big conversation to be had within the republican community, and a separate dialogue involving the republican community and all others in relation to the past, the here and now and the future. The more people who take their seats at those various tables the better.


          • Jackiemcdonald on

            Some people in this country have made a career out of negativity,remained within comfort zones and played the populist card every now and again,they are in all parts of our society,Politicians,Journalists,people with influence and of course some Newspaper Editors.They realised a long time ago that the safe position was to condemn the enemy-the other side-Loyalist or Republican,the no risk strategy. For a long time I would have put Doctor Paisley and many of his colleagues in that category but when he eventually said YES I think it was the bravest decision he ever made. Just think for a minute where we might be now if he hadn’t,or if Peter Robinson hadn’t been courageous enough to show true leadership,regardless of predictable criticism.They broke the mould of safe tribal politics to progress the Peace Process which by the way IS a process,it’s not the finished article..yet! We wouldn’t have peace at all if there weren’t people brave enough to make tough decisions,to change the language and be prepared to listen to others. I’m defending Loyalism here,Loyalists made those brave decisions too,knowing they wouldn’t please everyone. Who could ever forget the horrendous things that have happened in our Country,the horrific sights we have seen. La Mon,Enniskillen,Narrow Water,the Shanlkill Bomb.The list is endless and I’m not forgetting those carried out by Loyalists,or the British Army.All that had to stop and it took those who were involved in those actions to put an end to them,as I’ve said before it takes who made war to make peace! There was a time when I was as bigoted and biased as anyone,but I saw suffering inside prison as well as outside,many young men and womens lives were not only lost in the conflict,many were ruined and many of them are still paying the price today,drink problems,prescription drug/drug addiction,unable to sustain relationships. The conflict is still having a massive impact on both communities. Talking to Republicans,listening ti them or engaging with them seems to leave a bitter taste in some people’s mouths,I can’t think of a more bitter taste than carrying the coffin of a loved one or a close friend or neighbour down the street,I have carried hundreds and I don’t want me or anyone else to carry any more under similar circumstances. Some people seem to want left in peace,that isn’t quite the same as engaging in the Peace Process. Peace is the greatest gift we can bestow on our children/grandchildren,don’t deprive them of it by taking it for granted.

    • EamonnMallie on

      Eamonn Mallie

      As a reader of history, history teaches us that sooner or later all manifestations of hubris give way to pragmatism. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein are living proof of this. Who can say people in Northern Ireland are not living through a political miracle today despite the many deficits in the system?

      The next phase of the peace process ought to be the easier of the two phases, one of which, the constitutional position, has been clarified in recent years.

  2. Today I was down on a warm sunny beach with my grandchild. It was packed with families and people of all religions and none also people from many different races all enjoying this unusual spell of weather. I came back unto the Shankill and many people were in their gardens soaking up the sun, some having barbeques and others a few beers. A few hundred yards away there was a protest march in support of Marion Price on the Falls Road that didn’t stir any major attention, even Lanark Way gates remained open, while there were a few christenings in the Churches and party’s afterwards.I then got my dog Blu and took him a walk around Woodvale Park and it too had hundreds of families , youths and children all enjoying the warm sunshine. In my youth the serenity and freedom of movement could not be achieved because of the bombs and the bullets.
     leave the peacemakers to continue to ensure theree will be only days like this.

  3. When it comes to this question about reconciliation and about whether or not Sinn Fein and their cohorts can be trusted I think there is a misconception about the meaning of reconciliation, or perhaps it might be better to say that there are different understandings of how reconciliation works out. So maybe there needs to be some unpacking of that notion done. 
    Alex Kane’s determination that he would be uncomfortable at the table suggests that everyone else is comfortable. That is, quite simply, not the case. In fact for me the very reason to be at the table is my discomfort. So reconciliation is not for me something that happens before the talking starts but something that is held out as a prize which may only be a possibility, but a prize which is examined in the process of conversation which is seeking reconciliation. Reconciliation is a journey, taken in bits and pieces. It is never a matter of one side in the process having got it all right before they started and entering a process in which others will be enticed over to the other side. For it to be real reconciliation has to be a process to which people sign up in the knowledge that they have hard things to say – but also that there will be hard things to hear. So reconciliation is not an easy way out of the difficulties we are in as we reach a sticking point on the big issues, the smaller ones having been tediously but resolutely cleared away. We will be in trouble politically if we do not address the big issues – the war and why it happened; the mayhem that we lived through and who did what that they shouldn’t have done; the dehumanising of each other; the torture, murder and corruption that was embarked on within communities never mind between them. To those broad sweep issues, and there are of course many more, we have to say things like – Finucane; collusion; Stevens; settlement and majority decision. We have to be prepared for the time when we hold our hands up, each and all of us, and say that we have done things we should not have done and we have left undone things we should have done. 
    All of that happens at the table, not before we ever get there. So we need to be sure what is meant here by reconciliation. What I mean by it is that I want to tell others why it is they need to be reconciled to me – what they have done to break a relationship, what they have done to me, to my loved ones, to the community into which I was born, to my life and hopes and dreams. But more than this. I have to sit and hear why I need to be reconciled to others – what my community did to them, why they felt they had to do what they did, how they justify it to themselves and cast me in a certain light to do it. Then, I suspect, that we will together have to face what has happened in our name that we never intended. We will have to face the collapse of relationships that led to all kinds of immorality which was easily justified as part of the cause either of the war or as resistance to the terrorist threat. War is dirty and it makes a society dirty too. There is no innocence but equally there have been outrageous acts of inhumanity which some have carried out and which others have been struck dumb by. We aren’t all equally bad. But no one of us is entirely clean either. The process of reconciliation will need all of that to be aired one way or another. It may not all be resolved but then that’s also part of the process. Each will have to be prepared to listen and to modify and to take on board. And we will have to attempt to construct a way out of it. We will have to deal with what we can and decide what to do about the things we can’t deal with – record our history of those things and park them for a future generation or whatever. But a way out will have to  be found and from time to time we will have to turn away from one another in the hope that a way will be found for us to turn back.
    If that’s not what Sinn Fein mean then we will only know when we try it out and it may be that another opportunity to try it out won’t come our way again for a very long time. So I believe that Unionists need to deal with this by standing up and being counted, by speaking out and telling, by being big enough to listen and to argue and debate. I believe this doesn’t mean giving it all away. I also believe that non-engagement is giving it away. So far Sinn Fein have got themselves up onto the high moral ground. So far they have only a few lightweights around them. And I don’t use lightweights pejoratively because the conversation is far from light-weight. I mean that there need to be people with a political mandate there and if the unionist people haven’t mandated their leadership to get out and tell how it has been for the unionist community then I am not sure what they have been mandated to do. I am convinced that Republicans have opened a door but if no one goes in they will have the high moral ground to themselves and that would be a pointless victory for them and an own goal for unionism. But somehow unionist leaders still need to be liberated to get involved and I am not sure how that is going to happen. Maybe it is the case that all Sinn Fein are interested in is their political goal but if there’s no real, relational resistance what are they to believe? What are they to believe about unionists and the Union?

    • Hi Lesley – Thanks for taking the time to write such an important response and contribution. It is a homework that should be read and learned by those who don’t get what this talking is about, or don’t want to get what it’s about, or who know exactly what it’s about, and don’t want to go there; afraid of the question they might be asked.