Expect a very long stick of seaside rock

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In a recent exchange between Declan Kearney and Jeffrey Donaldson (following Kearney’s latest ‘reconciliation’ speech in, of all places, the House of Commons) Kearney said: “What we need in a discussion about reconciliation is to drop the recriminatory language, to drop the whataboutery. Everybody should drop the whataboutery. Let’s accept that there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done in the process still: that we need to give a voice to everyone.”

If someone asked me to define whataboutery I would say it’s the deployment of finger-pointing and distraction when people would rather not answer questions about their own past behaviour or opinions. We saw a classic example of it a few days ago when Ann Travers appeared before the Assembly’s Finance and Personnel Committee to give supporting evidence for Jim Allister’s Private Member’s Bill about the appointment of ministerial advisers.

In explaining why she opposed the appointment of people with serious criminal convictions she said: “I do feel this Bill would be a signal for all victims, even for victims who are looking for answers elsewhere, it would be a very strong sign that actually victims are being supported.” This was the response of Mitchell McLaughlin, Sinn Fein’s former chairman: “..there is a long history here and we are trying to deal not with what Mary McArdle did as an individual, we are trying to deal with why weren’t these issues addressed in the past”

Seriously!! A young girl was shot dead by the IRA and that’s all McLaughlin can say? Crossing the road after going to Mass; side-by-side with her Dad; being in the wrong place at the wrong time and McLaughlin — seemingly incapable of saying sorry and meaning it —argues that Mary Travers was killed because “issues (weren’t) addressed in the past.”

Or look at what happened in the Assembly on Monday when Jim Wells’ alleged ‘aggressive behaviour’ towards Mary McArdle and Caral Ni Chuilin led to a censure motion against him. It struck many people—myself included — that Sinn Fein was being remarkably thin-skinned. They complain about finger-wagging aggression in a corridor but can’t bring themselves to say that the IRA’s terror campaign was utterly pointless, utterly immoral and utterly unjustified.

So not much sign of the ‘reconciliation’ Kearney talks about. Nor in Caitriona Ruane’s comment that Wells’ behaviour was an example of ‘anti-Catholicism, sectarianism and misogyny.’ I wonder what she would have said about him had he a conviction for murdering people who were Protestant, Unionist or British?

Now then, as I have been saying since Kearney’s first ‘reconciliation’ article back in March, it strikes me that any reconciliation process cannot succeed if it is led and directed by a political party; and particularly by a party like Sinn Fein. Political parties bring too much baggage with them and the accompanying temptation to blame ‘the other side’ for starting the conflict.

The other very important reality to acknowledge is that Northern Ireland is not like South Africa. Unionists and Nationalists here still disagree on the very existence of Northern Ireland. Nationalists — even if they have bought into the general parameters of the Belfast or St Andrews Agreements — still want and still work towards a united Ireland. In other words, they want Northern Ireland to disappear. For them it remains a headcount campaign, a never-ending propaganda/electoral effort to tip the balance in their favour: meaning, of course, that it remains a continuing headcount campaign for Unionists, too.

I would contend that it is not possible to achieve ‘reconciliation’ against a background in which the key players do not agree on the constitutional and geographical integrity of the country they are supposed to govern together. Unionists do not want a united Ireland and they will never want a united Ireland. Nationalists want to see the end of a United Kingdom in which Northern Ireland is a constituent part. The political parties, for the most part, reflect those basic, brutal realities. Even Alliance, which sets itself up as a halfway house between the two, is, to all intents and purposes, a product of a divided society and polarised political opposites — which explains why it has never really made a breakthrough.

What do we do, then, if ‘reconciliation’ (in the generally accepted sense of the word) seems to be a non-runner? Well, maybe we just accept that we are lumbered with conflict stalemate rather than conflict resolution and try and make the best of an unsatisfactory situation. Declan Kearney is not going to persuade me to abandon my unionism and I am not going to persuade him to abandon his republicanism.

That said, we cannot continue to nurture a political process in which mutual antagonism is counterbalanced with a mutual veto. Fine, the Assembly and Executive can probably stumble along at a purely administrative level, doing the sort of day-to-day stuff that a Direct Rule ministerial team could do. But it will not be able to go beyond that and produce, let alone promote, a collectively agreed agenda for a genuinely new era, post-conflict Northern Ireland. How does such an Executive engage with and enthuse an electorate which sees precious little evidence of a legislative programme or vision relevant to their everyday lives and concerns?

Many commentators have pointed to the very significant downturn in voter turnout since 1998, tumbling from 68.8% to 54.7%. Yet it is worth noting that the biggest drop was between 2007 and 2011—after four years of the so-called stability provided by the DUP/Sinn Fein carve-up. Does this suggest that increasing numbers of former voters, along with many others who have never started to vote, feel themselves disconnected (maybe even disenfranchised) from this stalemate and veto? Does it, on the other hand, suggest that most of us are so content with the new status quo (and detect no immediate threats to it) that we don’t feel the need to vote? Or, more worryingly, are increasing numbers of people so turned off by the Sinn Fein/DUP love-in (and the absence of any obvious alternative) that they refuse to go near a polling station?

The psychologist George Allport listed five stages whereby opposing groups can come to terms with each other. The first is Curiosity: when they ask questions like ‘why do they do that’ or ‘why do they behave like that’? From that stage they move on to a very general phase of Dialogue: teasing out answers to questions raised by Curiosity and discovering areas for discussion. Then comes Communication: which involves opening channels between all levels and sub-sections within the opposing groups and ensuring that no significant sections are left behind.

Then comes Living with Difference: when the groups accept that if they cannot actually ‘beat’ each other then they need to accept that they can live with their differences. Finally they have reached the point of Overcoming Threat, when, having worked their way through the other four stages they stop seeing each other as ‘The Enemy’.

Could Allport’s structure lead us to some sort of reconciliation? Again, I’m not sure. Like the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone the issues of shifting demography and contradictory positions on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status are not going to go away. If they are not going away then I’m not sure how opposing groups reach the point at which ‘The Threat’ (of being obliged to stay in the UK or being forced into a united Ireland) has been removed enough for them to simply live with their differences. And if people can’t live with their differences then they will continue to live, socialise and educate apart.

This is ‘The A Team,’ ‘Mission Impossible’ moment. The task for the next generation — if you can find them and if they accept it — is to find the solution to this conundrum. If we can’t agree on a reconciliation process; or a truth process; or a dealing with the past process; or a shared future process; then how do we move to the point at which we can stop looking over our shoulders and start looking forward? Peter Robinson says that he and Sinn Fein have the long awaited Cohesion and Social Integration strategy almost ready to roll out, but I would be very surprised if it isn’t, in fact, an enormous stick of seaside rock with the word stalemate running right the way through it.

The present generation of former warriors and cement-footed political parties is not going to be able to drop the recriminatory language or whataboutery. It’s all they know. It’s all they have ever known. They are too old and too set in their ways to learn new tricks: so set in their ways that they have already lined up the spanky new clones to fill their shoes and seats.

Northern Ireland needs a new political generation, a new agenda and new political parties. It needs people who will work together to make Northern Ireland a success. It needs a generation of politicians who will refuse to accept that stalemate, mutual veto and same-old, same-old elections are the best we can hope for.

At some point we have all been told: ‘you broke it, so you can fix it’. When it comes to Northern Ireland, though (and I am as guilty of this as anyone else), nobody will admit to breaking it. And without that admission — and the necessary acts of contrition, confession and healing—it will not be possible for this generation to fix it.


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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. I totally concur particularly with the conclusion in the second last paragraph. I am fed up of the ‘he said – you said’ style of politics that is only perpetuating the agony we all live in. Who coined the phrase ‘peace and reconciliation?’ Dangerous words, as it implies to me we need peace chronologically first before peace is achieved. While there is simmering sectariansim and paramilitary activity etc it can be argued peace does not exist therefore reconciliation can never happen. Should be reconciliation and peace, which suggests a process of coming together which includes coping with the negativity of ongoing sectarianism and violence, but the main goal is peace and we can only achieve it in relative degrees. Not as a transcendental state.
    The Kearney-Donaldson exchange is political sabre rattling from a bygone age.
    If the vote has dropped so significantly I’d say the party political system is at fault as it is not delivering the aspirations of the voter. I believe we are soon to experience a process of change. Just look at the UKIP shake up in England. People are fed up with the same old ‘same old’ as you say, and the role of political commentators is significant too in that they can spread the seeds of political change and be a part of that dynamic process.
    Allport’s ideas should be well and truly well aired.

    • Alex Kane in his posting ‘Expect a very long stick of seaside rock’ provides an interesting partial commentary on Declan Kearney’s reconciliation initiative. Quoting Declan Kearney’s comment about dropping the “recriminatory language” – the article fails to engage with the main thrust of the reconciliation initiative which Alex himself quoted is “to give a voice to everyone” – equally it does not provide the necessary scaffolding for readers to make sense of the significance of the debate. The commentary also fails to engage with the historical roots of this reconciliation initiative and acknowledge the significance of the reconciliation initiative within Republicanism. In my response I will talk about the changing constitutional position of the North of Ireland, the historical roots and republican reconciliation intervention and also some of the dilemma’s that this process raises in terms of a high level reconciliation initiative and how the message is heard by victims who desperately seek and deserve answers.

      Alex’s states “that it is not possible to achieve ‘reconciliation’ against a background in which the key players do not agree on the constitutional and geographical integrity” which fundamentally misses the issue at stake. The key point is that Republicans have been engaging with the challenges of reconciliation from the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – the GFA created the architecture for political reconciliation. What SF is now doing is seeking to bring reconciliation home – down into communities.

      The current non-reciprocal and bitter approach to the past makes Declan Kearney’s reconciliation initiative a political and moral imperative. The political imperative is that the ‘difficult conversations’ should happen within a framework that does not jeopardise or impinge our political stability – which de facto is located within the boundaries of the current constitutional position of the North. And secondly it should strive as an outcome to provide an agreed victim-centred framework that acknowledges all lost lives.

      As a starting point let me address the question of the complexity of constitutional import the Good Friday Agreement. For the first time the Good Friday Agreement acknowledged and accepted the legitimate aspirations of Unionist and Republicans. It further recognised that the presently stated wish of the majority was to remain part of the United Kingdom. This affirmation, of the consent principle, was given concrete expression in Annex A, Section 1, paragraphs 1: “It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Section 1.”

      The full implication of the consent principle was that the future constitutional status rests with the people of the North of Ireland alone. It is no longer a permanent and stable state: it is a state in transition. The principle of consent effectively defines the northern Irish state and its territory as fluid and evolving – that is not likely to change anytime soon. In effect the Good Friday Agreement (1998) represents a new NI constitution that has not only addressed the duality of identities in the region but shaped a new constitutional discourse and parameters that separates the North as distinctive from other parts of the UK state: it has given over to the people alone to determine their own future.

      The historical roots of the reconciliation are to be seen in the words of Gerry Adams as far back as 1999. Thirteen years ago Gerry Adams acknowledged that, “In war all sides do terrible things. The IRA have done terrible things. That is the nature of war but it does not excuse the awfulness of some incidents. He continued: “The IRA itself has been responsible for 50% of those deaths.” Again at a significant commemorative event Gerry Adams also said: “Republicans freely acknowledge the grief of all those – enemies as well as friends – who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Republicans are also very mindful of the plight of the families of the civilian dead, whose grief, bewilderment and sense of loss is undoubtedly different from any other section.” Again The IRA statement of July 2002 is also worth referencing, “There have been fatalities amongst combatants on all sides. We also acknowledge the grief and pain of their relatives.”

      These are important statements as they define the Republican reconciliation initiative as distinct and different – they are without precedent but define a maturity in terms of seeking to address past actions. The fact is that it has not been reciprocated nor positively engaged in – in all reality there needs to a focus on the blockages political or psychological to the UK state or Unionists meaningfully engaging in the process. Indeed a good start would be the identification of the blockages that prevent them bringing forward their own reconciliation proposals. Despite this lack of reciprocation it is to say that there is a positive and generous Republican narrative that in time will assist healing within the current constitutional context.

      The key point to be made is that this current phase of the reconciliation initiative is that it is not about blaming ‘the other side’ but more about making sense of the awfulness of so many atrocities over the past 40 years. For Republicans the reconciliation initiative creates a framework to take ownership of past actions – which they have done in terms of engaging with the Bloody Sunday Inquiry or engaging with the dark chapter of The Disappeared. These interventions directly challenge Alex’s assumption that “political parties bring too much baggage with them and the accompanying temptation to blame ‘the other side’ for the starting the conflict”. In both interventions Republicans have exercised leadership and taken bold steps – arguably in a clearly defined reconciliation framework that engaged all actors more would be possible.

      For Republicans the challenge must also be to ‘land the strategy’ – the difficulty is that more must be done to detail what the reconciliation process entails and its potential and what expectations Republicans hold of other actors and how and where the strategy lands. For the process to gain traction others must engage and also feel a sense of ownership of the process.

      This disconnection and ambivalence of others came into sharp focus last week in the DFP committee and the evidence of Anne Travers. Alex again further confuses the debate by presenting conversation responses to the Special Advisors Bill which is designed to be provocative and discriminatory in intent – such a framing is no more than petty politicking. It also misrepresents and deliberately confuses the forward and reconciliatory trajectory that Republicans are and have been on from 1998. The choice of any particular atrocity – among arguably thousands of cases of lost lives and serious injury – is a distraction to creating a framework that acknowledges all losses and which seeks to provide some form of closure.

      For Republicans it is impossible to tell the story of the conflict through individual atrocities but families of the decease are essentially focussed on their own loss which must be respected. For many especially those who lost loved ones they do not want to hear talk of context, wider truth processes or the constitutional question – this simply clouds the issue for them. That will not be easily resolved.

      Which speaks to the fact that Alex is fairly selective in his examples which speak to his more general lack of grasp of the potential destination of the reconciliation initiative and more cynically seek to misrepresent its intent. The selective reference solely to the Travers family loss – which was sad and tragic – and the focus on response of Mitchel McLaughlin creates a distorted lens through which to judge the Kearney led reconciliation initiative and which also seeks to frame the reader’s dismissal of the initiative. Without doubt the Mary Travers killing was undoubtedly a terrible tragedy for which Republicans have a moral responsibility to provide closure.

      In conclusion this is the core dilemma of the reconciliation initiative: families of deceased want answers and in absence of a process designed to facilitate answers there is an impasse. It is hard to see how this circle can be squared without full participation of all actors in a comprehensive process that protects and facilitates disclosure from all. Perhaps next time Alex will seek to give full voice and appreciation to what SF are trying to achieve within on narrow ground and within a deeply complex legal terrain which is also defined by procrastination, resistance and lack of engagement from other political quarters.

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