“They couldn’t bomb unionists out of Northern Ireland…now they want to ‘love’ them out”

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With the recent hoo-ha about ‘reconciliation’ and ‘engagement’ it seems to have been forgotten that unionism has been engaging with republicanism for a very long time. The peace process involved pretty intense interaction—even if some of it was through intermediaries.

The 1998 Agreement was built on unionist/loyalist and republican/nationalist (along with civic) input and in May 2007 the DUP and Sinn Fein concluded a deal which shored up and stabilised the political institutions.

Almost every single day there is unionist/republican engagement and dialogue in the Executive, the Assembly, the Assembly Committees and local councils.

So it does irk me a little (quite a lot, actually) when I hear self appointed ‘representatives’ of the pro-Union community seemingly lecturing the rest of us about the need to engage republicanism.

As I say, party political unionism (which is where you find the MLAs, MPs and councillors—the people with a specific mandate and an electorate to account to!) has been engaging with Sinn Fein for a very considerable period—and has had many ‘difficult conversations.’

David Trimble—who took huge personal and party risks—was hung out to dry by Sinn Fein. Even though it was the UUP which stayed in the Talks process when the DUP and UKUP walked away in July 1997; even though it was the UUP which bent over backwards to keep the Agreement alive; even though it was the UUP which broke its own ‘no guns, no government’ pledge and kick-started the Executive in December 1999; even with all of that Sinn Fein did nothing to bolster Trimble, let alone general confidence in the peace process.

Even the deal they did with the DUP in May 2007 was a deal built upon a very cynical, clinical, calibrated carve-up of power and position between two sectarian blocs.

Unsurprisingly the two parties have subsequently been unable to reach understanding on a range of key issues: including a shared future. Everything boils down to a tit-for-tat exchange between them, with absolutely nothing done on the basis that it is ‘the right thing to do’ in the circumstances.

Yet out of the blue—and against a background of being serially incapable of nailing down a shared future strategy in the Executive—Sinn Fein has decided that ‘reconciliation’ is the strap line for the latest stage of their uniting Ireland project.

They couldn’t bomb unionists out of Northern Ireland. They couldn’t negotiate them out of Northern Ireland. Now they want to ‘love’ them out of Northern Ireland—believing, perhaps, that in this case love really does mean never having to say you’re sorry!

What is reconciliation, anyway? Broadly speaking I would see it as a coming together or meeting of minds between old enemies and opponents: where they find ways to live together without fear of each other or without threatening each other.

The Belfast Agreement should have been the first part of that process. Yet how could it be when Sinn Fein still refers to both the original Agreement and the St Andrews’ add-ons as mere staging posts?

How could you start a genuine reconciliation process when Sinn Fein seemed content to mark time in the Assembly and Executive, banking on demographic shifts and an assortment of propaganda exercises to propel them out of the United Kingdom and into a united Ireland?

So, rather than concentrating on a unionist/republican reconciliation programme at the heart of the Executive they opted, instead, for the continuation of an us-and-them solution to every socio/economic/cultural/educational problem.

As for the ‘Sorry’ debate! Declan Kearney told Stephen Nolan on Monday 28th that he would say ‘sorry’ if he thought it would be helpful. He then refused three requests from Nolan to say the word.

At what stage would it be helpful to say sorry? Let me give you the very blunt answer: the word sorry will be uttered in exchange for something very specific on Sinn Fein’s agenda. It will be a hollow, vacuous sorry; so nuanced and conditional that it will be utterly, utterly meaningless.

Sinn Fein can never use ‘sorry’ in the usual, normal sense of the word. You can say sorry for a mistake or an accident. You can say sorry for doing something very stupid. You can even say sorry for killing someone in a car crash.

But how do you say sorry for killing or injuring someone while, at the same time, the terrorist group responsible is in back channel negotiations?

How do you say sorry when the death or injury is one part of the armalite/ballot paper strategy? How do you say sorry when the terror was being used as a blunt instrument to force your way into government?

No-one should kid themselves: Sinn Fein has thought all of this through from start to finish. What we are seeing now is a well orchestrated propaganda exercise. It fits in with the ‘Unionist Outreach’ project and the ‘Uniting Ireland’ project.

It’s about hand-picking headline grabbers to address recent conferences (think David Latimer); it’s about encouraging dialogue between Sinn Fein and so-called ‘significant figures’ within the pro-Union community (Protestant clergy, loyalist paramilitaries, the usual suspects from the civic and cross-community sector, a smattering of business people and, of course, the voices of some ‘victims’).

For, as Gerry Adams keeps reminding us, all Sinn Fein is doing is trying to ‘persuade’ just ‘a section’ of the pro-Union community!

Those who criticise my cynicism and my reluctance to buy into this latest stage of the Sinn Fein campaign say that they won’t be taking part to give Sinn Fein an easy ride.

What I don’t understand, though, is why they want to get involved at all? What is their mandate? Who do they speak for? What is their end goal? Do they even agree with each other on crucial areas?

I make that observation because I’m aware that Sinn Fein has a mandate for this process, know who they speak for, know what their end goal is and agree with each other on everything.

When all is said and done Sinn Fein is in the business of convincing its’ base that Irish unity is not far away. The campaign never stops. The rhetoric never stops. The latest propaganda wheeze is always just around the corner.

Terror alone was a tactic. The armalite and ballot paper was a tactic. Undermining the UUP was a tactic. Playing fast and loose on decommissioning was a tactic. Unionist Outreach was a tactic. This reconciliation project is a tactic. No more and no less.

It sounds ‘reasonable’ and it is meant to sound ‘reasonable’. It has been couched and constructed to sound ‘reasonable’. It is meant to appeal to ‘reasonable’ people within the pro-Union community.

It has been specifically designed so that ‘reasonable’ people can say: “what have we got to lose by getting in and giving it a go”? Better still, it has been designed in such a way that anyone who objects is likely to find himself portrayed as some sort of unreasonable dinosaur who stands in the way of progress.

A point common to all of those who have been named as being involved with the engagement is their view that there is no other way of testing Sinn Fein’s bona fides? But if, as I contend, this is nothing more than a Sinn Fein propaganda exercise, there are no bona fides to be tested.

The key to all of this is that Sinn Fein has already defined what it means by reconciliation. Those who come to the table are starting from the very spot that Sinn Fein has set out for them.

This is not negotiation—because the non-Sinn Fein participants are not empowered to negotiate anything. Their job is simply to convince the rest of us that Sinn Fein is serious and sincere, because Sinn Fein has decided that they are the ‘sort of people’ it needs to get on board.

Yet the fact remains that these people have no mandate and what they are engaged in is, in effect, a series of private conversations between individuals and a political movement dedicated to the removal of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.

The Rev Lesley Carroll suggests that I have a ‘determination’ to be uncomfortable. There is no determination involved. It is simply the triumph of long experience over long dashed hope.

Also, I don’t even understand how you begin a process about reconciliation in which the invitations come from the well practiced justifiers of terrorism as part of their latest propaganda strategy!

I agree with those who say that unionists have ‘nothing to fear’ from this stunt; but nor is there anything to be gained which can be of benefit to all sides. So what’s the point of going?

The Rev Carroll also argues 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.’

Well, why doesn’t she get a political/electoral mandate? Why don’t the pro-Union people who support this sort of very odd engagement get together and get the mandate? Another question: if the unionist parties did get involved, would she then leave it to them?

Reconciliation, for Sinn Fein, seems to be more about unionists and republicans living in an ‘inevitable’ united Ireland than about living together in Northern Ireland as it is today.

It’s also about (and this is why I think it appeals to some elements of Loyalist paramilitarism) putting in place some sort of historical narrative which enables former terrorists to pass off their campaigns as both necessary and justified.

The IRA didn’t achieve one single thing that made Northern Ireland a better place: they simply used terror for their own very personal political ends. And today they are attempting to deploy their reconciliation process for the very same reasons.

Let me get this clear: I am not opposed to either reconciliation or a shared future. But I am very much opposed to the idea that the outcome of either process should be determined by parties or organisations which are still steered by their own self-serving, self-justifying agendas.

My instinct (and I have written about it many times recently) is that reconciliation can only truly begin when Northern Ireland has moved into a post-conflict era, complete with new, post-conflict parties.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have constructed an ongoing, seemingly unbreakable stalemate at the heart of government. By no stretch of the imagination is that reconciliation.

Sinn Fein wants to keep that stalemate in place while, at the same time, developing a form of ‘reconciliation’ which suits their own blood-drenched narrative. But by no stretch of the imagination is that reconciliation, either.

So maybe the best and most useful thing that the likes of the Revs. Good and Carroll, along with Lord Alderdice and others could do, would be to set out the parameters within which a reconciliation process could develop; and then issue their own invitations to a variety of parties, organisations and interest groups.

If nothing else, that sort of process would begin at a level, neutral starting point.

One thing is pretty certain: the Sinn Fein version won’t have a wide enough appeal to make it viable, let alone ultimately successful.  Yes, reconciliation has to begin somewhere—but not with a Sinn Fein strategy penned in Connolly House and published in An Phoblacht!

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About Author

Alex Kane is a columnist for both the News Letter and the Irish News and a regular contributor to the Belfast Telegraph. He is also a frequent guest across a range of BBC, UTV and RTE programmes--specialising in political commentary.


  1. EamonnMallie on

    Eamonn Mallie

    Alex.Kane is putting it up to all of us/ you who contribute on this site. His charge against Sinn Féin …….you are frauds ……you are seeking to chloroform the gullible into a United Ireland: is this charge sustainable?The Rev Lesley Carroll’s contribution on this website has put a rod on some people’s back. This is a forum for independent thought. All are welcome as long as each one puts a name to contribution.

    There is mounting pressure on Republicans to flesh out their thinking on reconciliation. This is perfectly doable as that leadership found ways historically to grapple with bigger issues: the big challenge is of course can others recognise that change when it happens? The DUP in Executive with Sinn Féin with republicans is living proof political miracles have happened in Northern Ireland.

  2. Margaret Wilson on

    Thank you Alex Kane, I agree with every word. Sinn Fein do not fool me re this reconciliation farce.

  3. Alex writes from a perspective that says those who favour the United Kingdom are incapable of achieving any positive outcome from talking to Sinn Fein. Given history he is probably correct, the DUP and UUP have not been historically been capable of achieving any major change in the Sinn Fein position.

    However that should not be allowed to colour our views about what can be done in the future, we need to reverse the position by selling the advantages of the UK and the ‘new’ NI to the nationalist community and how together we can move forward towards One Northern where all have equal opportunity and accept that we have much more in common than those things that divide us.

  4. Ruairi Rowan on

    Hi Alex

    I’d like to respond to a few of the points that you have

    Firstly you mention that it was David Trimble who took
    huge personal and party risks and the UUP which broke its own ‘no guns, no
    government’ pledge to kick start the Executive in 1999. I agree with you that
    both Trimble and the UUP took personal and party risks but I believe to focus
    solely on one individual and one party is wrong. Often in Northern Ireland we
    tend to focus on our own views and those within our own communities and fail to
    see things from a different perspective. Fail to put ourselves in someone
    else’s shoes. Yes Trimble and the UUP took risks but so too did Gerry Adams and
    Sinn Fein. Instead of ‘no guns, no government’ you could insert ‘not a bullet,
    not an ounce’ or ‘no return to Stormont.’ Sinn Fein’s acceptance of policing
    and to an agreement which enshrined the principle of consent are other

    And of course in highlighting Adams and Sinn Fein I
    would not wish to undermine the contribution of John Hume and the SDLP and many
    others who have contributed to the peace process.

    You mention that Sinn Fein still refer to the Belfast
    Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement as mere staging posts. I don’t see why
    this should surprise or shock anyone as Sinn Fein’s ultimate goal is a united
    Ireland. They are perfectly entitled to try to convince people of the benefits,
    as they see it, of a united Ireland, just as unionist politicians are entitled
    to promote the benefits of remaining within the United Kingdom.

    Declan Kearney said: “Regardless to the stance of
    others, we should recognise the healing influence of being able to say sorry
    for the human effects of all actions during the armed struggle.” You say it will
    be a hollow, vacuous sorry; so nuanced and conditional that it will be utterly,
    utterly meaningless.” I imagine this word, if it is spoken, will be interpreted
    differently by different people. I respect this is your interpretation and that
    some families and individuals who have lost loved ones may dismiss the word in
    the same way you have. But there may be others who find comfort in that word,
    those who feel that in the saying of it some recognition has been bestowed upon
    their suffering and their loss.

    Regarding the participants in the current process you
    mention that Sinn Fein has decided that they are the ‘sort of people’ it needs
    to get on board. I’ve read these people approached Sinn Fein rather than Sinn
    Fein approaching them.

    You say that your instinct is that reconciliation can
    only truly begin when Northern Ireland has moved into a post-conflict era,
    complete with new, post-conflict parties. I am 25 years old and I can’t see
    Sinn Fein or the DUP being replaced any time soon and I’m not prepared to wait
    until this happens before attempting to engage in a process of reconciliation.
    More than half of the killings in the conflict took place before 1977. We do
    not have the time nor should we postpone attempting to find a mechanism for
    dealing with the past.

    You finish your article by saying that reconciliation
    has to begin somewhere—but not with a Sinn Fein strategy penned in Connolly
    House and published in An Phoblacht. Let me finish by saying this, I support
    the current dialogue that is taking place but I view it as the beginning of the
    conversation and not the actual process of dealing with the past. These discussions
    can help form a process but no process can or should be set up without the
    engagement of all sections of society.

  5. Thank goodness we have Alex to educate us to the fact that the aim of Sinn Fein is a united Ireland!
    Who would have guessed it? And they are the only party with any ideas or plans for the future, so we should do nothing  politically until Alex discovers that he has found some unionist thinker to compete against this evil love-in.
    For God’s sake dry your eyes Alex, and accept that we are now in the imperfect world of real-politics – its much better than living, and dying, through wartime.

    • Hi Sherdy,

      To some extent you have validated my primary point: my obection to this Sinn Fein initiated reconciliation process is that it is a process dictated by their agenda. 



  6. VictorCarmichael on

    On the button with your analysis Alex, problem is, you are a lone voice in the wilderness. They will lock you up with that other dinosaur Jim Allister shortly! Where are the elected Unionists in all of this? And surely ALL parties should be shaping the agenda, not the chair of one of the main protagonists in the ‘war’?

    Adams was on the TV at the weekend, telling us all that a united ireland would be good economically for us. Not sure how a man who doesn’t know the vat rate in the ROI can say that with a straight face. And Declan Kearney couldn’t even make a simple gesture of saying sorry on the Nolan Show on Monday. Look at their policies north and south and they really do look like a basket case. Their only real credible policy is a united ireland. That’s not to say I agree with it, just the only one that they are serious about. Stepping stones like this initiative will take us up to 2016 and inevitably a referendum North AND South (good bit of negotiating that in hindsight, Trimble should be thanked by someone)

    A couple of specific points:

    1. the past is where it is, in the past. Should be viewed in your rear view mirror. We need to have some way of recording individual stories of many/all people affected by the troubles. A significant piece of work, but doable if the political will is there. Interviews taken in private, to an agreed format documented and crucially, published in 20 years time. Let’s hear the truth at a time when we are all ready to listen

    2. If the republican movement are serious about the people in the North, moving to a position where we are more content with a proper ‘shared future’ then be serious about it. Park any aspirations for a united ireland for 20 years. Let the wounds heal properly as there is absolutely no way that anyone will go for a united ireland if we still have a divided society. Remember, hard-nosed Dubs have to vote for it as well

    3. SF should fight for housing in North Belfast, based on need (for example). Not grandiose ideas of unionists embracing a UI and them getting an extra % on a referendum

    4. Saying sorry means nothing. Most of what happened was wrong then as it is now. We should not forgive what ALL terrorists put this country through, more importantly we should not forget. The armed struggle counted for absolutely nothing, maybe this initiative is some way to justify to the world that what they done was right in the name of a free ireland.

    5. There should be no hierarchy in pain/grief. There is a hierarchy in right and wrong. Loyalists who went into a bar and shot random catholics – wrong. republicans who blew up the chip shop on the shankill – wrong. Loyalist shoots Republican (and vice-versa) – wrong. The republican who shot the RUC man in front of his wife and kids – wrong. The soldiers who shot the IRA unit in loughgall – right. Some people stood between anarchy and the rule of law, and we need to remember that

    6. The only benefit of this initiative is that the whole shared future ‘thing’ may be accelerated.  Someone needs to pull their finger out, not holding my breath too long. Robinson has turned into Marty’s hen-pecked husband, not sure if anyone else has the power to push things forward

    regards, Victor

  7. Colin Lamont on

    Hi Alex,
    Don’t mean to be pedantic but just want to correct you on one small point regarding an article posted in the Newsletter today in your name.
     Although I agree with the parallels you draw in your re-wording of the ‘First they came’ poem; it was always my understanding this was penned by the pastor Martin Niemoller, not that other famous anti-Nazi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom you credit it to.
     Small point as I say, though an imprtant one for the sake of historical accuracy. However, I continue to enjoy your thought-provoking articles both in print and on the web, and I very much agree with your analysis by and large, particularly in relation to Sinn Fein’s blatant historical revisionism and current ‘reconcilliation’ strategy, if you can call it that.

    • Hi Colin,

      Not pedantic at all: I did attribute the poem to the wrong person.

      And thanks for your very kind comments.