It is six months since Declan Kearney introduced the word sorry into a reconciliation debate here; sorry in a humanising context to acknowledge the many hurts of war.
Since then he has described the events of Bloody Friday – the IRA bombing blitz of Belfast 40 years ago – as “unjustifiable”.
Republicans are stretching their words and language, but is it about healing or hiding?
Hiding the real truth of events; concealing the detail within that changing language and generalised apology?
It is a question that is being asked as this reconciliation conversation develops; a question I will return to later in this piece.
Martin McGuinness, the now Deputy First Minister, was part of a leadership that directed the IRA war.
Recently, he described the bombing of Claudy 40 years ago as “indefensible”.
Then, at the weekend, Kearney spoke again, at a Sinn Fein summer school in west Cork, stating “there is no excuse for the human loss and suffering of the Shankill bomb”.
Why this specific mention of one dark day that dates back almost twenty years?
It was because he was sharing a platform and a debate with Alan McBride, the victims’ campaigner who lost his wife and father-in-law in that explosion on a Saturday afternoon in 1993.
I remember being there that day; remember the people digging in the rubble of the blast; remember the body count rising; remember the then assistant chief constable Ronnie Flanagan whispering to me the possibility that one of the bombers had been taken to hospital.
It was one of those days that speak out loudest from this conflict, because of the civilian dead, the nine Protestant people killed in a botched attempt by the IRA to target the UDA leadership, including Johnny Adair.
I remember many months later an interview with a police officer, who was at the bomb scene that day; an interview with me in which he described seeing a child’s foot poking through the rubble and not wanting to dig any deeper because he knew what he was going to find.
Declan Kearney is right.
There is “no excuse” for what happened that day, and on many other days, many of which are forgotten or ignored because the body count was not as high; not as numerically startling; the scenes not as dramatic or dark.
These are not just days for republicans to speak to, but those on the many other sides of this conflict.
The story of the Shankill bomb should not end with Thomas Begley, the IRA ‘volunteer’ killed in the blast, or with Sean Kelly, another IRA man, injured and later jailed.
He was freed from prison in July 2000 as part of the early release arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement and for almost twenty years has been the ‘bogeyman’ of that bomb and that day in October 1993.
So, much of the picture is missing; the detail relating to planning, the decision to deliver a bomb on a short fuse to a target on the Shankill, the inevitability that even if the IRA had been able to target the loyalist leadership, civilians were also going to be killed; sacrificed to achieve the goal.
Begley and Kelly had parts at the end of the plan, but who designed it, who made it happen?
In whatever process is constructed to answer the questions of the past, individual accountability is not going to happen, but in an organisational sense, the IRA or republican leadership could speak about that day.
It could expand on what Declan Kearney said about there being “no excuse” for what happened; could answer some of the questions above.
There is something else I remember from that day; a statement from the UDA-linked Ulster Freedom Fighters warning that a “heavy price” would be paid for “today’s atrocity”.
Part of the context of that period, long before the events of that October day, was a re-arming of the loyalist organisations and a marked surge in their activity – spanning the years of the early 1990s.
Amanda Fullerton’s father, the Sinn Fein councillor Eddie Fullerton was shot dead in Co Donegal in May 1991 – shot dead by the UDA-linked UFF during a declared truce by the then Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC).
Amanda was also part of that weekend debate in west Cork, during which Declan Kearney made clear that dealing with the past and all its hurts is a challenge not just for republicans:
“That means accepting and acknowledging hurt was caused on all sides; to both Alan McBride and Amanda Fullerton’s families; and, many others,” he said.
I was one of a small number of journalists to whom the CLMC truce statement was given; and I remember weeks later asking questions of the UFF after the Fullerton killing.
There was an explanation that the truce did not extend into the Irish Republic, but there was no reference to this in the original statement.
In this period of the early ‘90s I took scores of statements from the loyalist leadership, delivered with now defunct codewords including ‘The Ulster Troubles’ and ‘Crucible’.
I spoke to that leadership on the Fullerton killing, to a man since exiled from Northern Ireland – ordered out under threat.
I am not referring to Johnny Adair, but to another one-time ‘inner council’ leader.
As far back as January 1993 this source told me that Ulster Resistance sold guns to the UDA, to individual units.
He was describing a significant development in that re-arming of the loyalist organisations that sparked that surge of killing in the years immediately pre-dating the 1994 ceasefire.
The information was part of a BBC news report I compiled in January 1993.
Will those loyalists who know the story of this period come forward to fill in the missing detail that relates to their decisions; the orders and actions, how the strings were being manipulated in the background?
This takes us back to the earlier question of healing or hiding; hiding in terms of burying detail and information.
We don’t know what republicans are prepared to reveal, because we don’t know the contributions and responses of many others.
No one knows where this reconciliation debate is going; no one knows its potential because the question of amnesty has not been addressed and there have not been the conversations to determine levels of co-operation from all sides and within what type of mechanism.
Building that process and finding the international architects who can design it – make it happen – should be the principal aim of any on-going conversation.
Alan McBride suggested the report of the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past – binned three years ago – should be given another chance, but it has a design flaw.
It left the question of amnesty hanging, and suggested a Legacy Commission with investigation and information-recovery units.
Investigations won’t work, won’t deliver the missing detail, and there is no point establishing a Commission of any kind until levels of co-operation are known and terms and conditions agreed.
This is the unfinished work; determining who will co-operate – republican, loyalist, security forces/intelligence services, politicians/governments, churches, media and others;
Deciding how much information can be delivered and how best that is achieved; and remembering that a process on the past is not just about the IRA’s answers, but also about the questions those republicans want answered.
Who will help and who will hinder are questions for everyone – not just the IRA; not just Adams and McGuinness.
The full text of Declan Kearney’s address to the summer school in west Cork is below:
National Reconciliation – Uncomfortable Conversations. Dealing with the Legacy of the Political Conflict.
“In his own very individual gesture of reconciliation on Easter Sunday 1965, at a ceremony to unveil a monument to Michael Collins at Sam’s Cross Tom Barry said:
“Let us leave it that each of us, like I did myself, believed in the correctness of our choice. I concede that those who were on the opposite side believed that their decision was the right one too. But let us end futile recriminations of an event which happened over 43 years ago…”
Initiatives and gestures aimed at healing past hurt and division are crucial to peace building and reconciliation in the aftermath of political conflict.
But their potential can be trammelled unless they help build broader strategic commitment to achieving reconciliation.
No reconciliation process was established after the Irish Civil; War, and we continue to live with that legacy.
Britain’s occupation of Ireland has been the catalyst for centuries of conflict and enmity between our islands.
This reality resulted in the Tan War of 1919, and its conclusion became the mid wife for the civil war, and onset of partition.
The political and economic structure of the six counties state became the context for over 30 years of war and the armed struggle.
Today nationalists and unionists live with the legacy of partition in all its forms.
Citizens across this island continue to share a legacy of political conflict which has shaped the development of modern Ireland, north and south, and that finds expression in continued partitionism, sectarianism, division, segregation, distrust and fear.
So, we have a choice to make at this point in the Irish Peace Process.
We can acquiesce in a new status quo which normalises partitionism, sectarianism, division and fear, and do nothing: or, we can decide that what we have is still not good enough, and in the context of the Good Friday Agreement discuss what we can do to bring about more change and progress.
That’s why Sinn Fein has put forward the view that it’s time to open a new phase in the Peace Process, based upon the development of authentic reconciliation.
Of course republicans remain wedded to the achievement of a united Ireland…legitimacy and mutual respect for all political aspirations is what the GFA was all about.
Our vision is of an Ireland which is at peace with itself; confident, forward looking; based upon equality and dedicated to the celebration and protection of all its citizens diversity.
There is no place in our vision for division, hurt and fear.
The strategic challenge in Irish society now is to address and reconcile these fault lines within and between our communities.
Reconciliation must become a national imperative.
A prerequisite to Sinn Fein’s ultimate aim of an Ireland of Equals is an Ireland at peace with itself. That’s why over the last six months our Party has brought renewed impetus to this discussion within republicanism.
It is why we have challenged ourselves to think critically about our relationship with the Protestant, unionist and loyalist community in the north; sought to open new engagements with that community; pursued this reconciliation initiative; and, spoken of, and then acted on the need to make more compromises, and take more initiatives to advance the Peace Process, and in the wider national interest; such as meeting Queen Elizabeth during her recent visit to Ireland.
Continuing to move forward will mean republicans being prepared to step outside our historical and political comfort zones, and embrace new thinking.
Moving unilaterally is always risky and never easy; but those who are inspired by a vision of greater change must always be prepared to do that.
For our society, that means building new relationships, developing trust, and creating new possibilities. Recent events in Belfast, and parallel failure of leadership from within Orangeism and political unionism should reinforce, not reduce, our resolve to do so.
The welcome Royal Black apology to the parishioners and clergy of St Patrick’s is a significant acknowledgement of local communities’ rights to be treated with respect by those who wish to parade.
But we are left no wiser by this statement as to what sense of injustice or hurt can be caused by determinations requiring loyalist bands to desist from playing music outside Catholic chapels; and, why that should lead to three nights of orchestrated street violence.
Even in these circumstances republicans need to have the courage and conviction to keep taking initiatives, regardless to the stance of others.
Leadership and vision are paramount.
But the question must be asked, and by many more than just our Party; where are the initiatives from unionism, or the British government? Where is their big thinking?
That is surely an uncomfortable conversation which must take place within the Protestant, unionist and loyalist community, and also in Hillsborough Castle.
The future of the Peace Process rests upon the successful development of reconciliation, and more political momentum is needed for that.
Leadership is required from all sides. For our part, we will face up to the challenges which supporting reconciliation brings.
No right thinking republican has ever glamorised war.
We should not seek to romanticise war, or armed struggle; nor the actions of the IRA in this, or any previous generation.
And, there never was “a good old IRA” – way back when – as some establishment revisionists in this state might suggest.
But neither, will I or other present day republican leaders, hypocritically seek to distance ourselves from the consequences of the armed struggle.
Asserting that a political context forced the use of armed struggle as a last resort, cannot disguise the massive human hurt caused by IRA actions.
There is no excuse for the human loss and suffering caused by the Shankill bomb. No reasonable person would try to say otherwise.
But while we might wish it could be otherwise, that past cannot now be undone, nor disowned by republicans.
So our political commitment and dedication today is to ensure that such pain and suffering never again become the experience of any republican, unionist, and English or Irish citizen.
We must also do our best to acknowledge, salve and heal that hurt with humanising language, compassion and considered initiatives; and try to replace divisions, with new human and political relationships.
And it will be for many others to do likewise, without futile recriminations, if possible… to paraphrase Tom Barry.
That means accepting and acknowledging hurt was caused on all sides; to both Alan McBride and Amanda Fullerton’s families; and, many others.
There are those in government and state structures, political parties, combatant groups, media, and churches – and, some who have been in several of these roles, north and south; who author their own moral duplicity.
Those who speak in moral tongues yet conveniently ignore St Matthew’s caution about ensuring they remove the beam from their own eyes before considering the size of the mote in the eyes of others.
They too have uncomfortable conversations to reflect upon.
Some sections of society north and south seem content to manage a remodelled status quo based upon normalised partitonism, sectarianism, and division, and to tolerate “acceptable” levels of fear; and even instability.
That agenda is impossible and has to be confronted with leadership and vision.
I believe at the outset of this decade of centenaries to commemorate epoch making events of modern Ireland, we should begin a national discussion on reconciliation at every level in Irish society; and, which also addresses the historic division between Britain and Ireland, and the British state’s contribution to how that is done.
A national discussion aimed at finding new common ground on those issues which divide us, or threaten the Peace Process; forging new relationships; building increased mutual respect and trust among our people north and south; and, developing a national reconciliation strategy, rooted in the principles of the GFA.
In short, to commit to a new phase of the Peace Process which promises new economic and social opportunities for all citizens.
Truth recovery is also an important part of how we all deal with the legacy of the conflict.
It is another uncomfortable conversation, particularly for those who have sought to avoid this issue and distance themselves from their role in our most recent political conflict.
The silence of the British government on the past is an unsustainable policy position.
Ending that silence and facing up to the implications of its role in the war would be an initiative in itself from the British Government and NIO.
We believe truth recovery needs to be comprehensively discussed, and a society wide consensus, involving both governments, agreed on how to proceed.
The Irish Peace Process is rightly held up as an international conflict resolution model.
But there is much heavier lifting to do.
The continuing fault lines in Irish society have the potential to be recycled on a trans generational basis.
We can stop that happening with courageous leadership and more bold initiatives.
However, we also need to convince the widest cross section of opinion in Irish society to take ownership of a national discussion on reconciliation.
A strategy for national reconciliation and building support for that is essential to ensure future generations can share a new Ireland, truly at peace with itself.”