(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)
In 1993 the ceasefires had not yet arrived and the IRA was still at war.
Its message that Easter was delivered on video – inside an envelope dropped onto a table in a café in west Belfast.
“That’s for you Brian,” a man said – the only words spoken in a passing few seconds.
After the BBC showed part of the film, it became newspaper headlines the following day.
STORM RAGES AFTER BBC SCREENS IRA ‘WAR VIDEO’, PROVO’S CHILLING THREAT and IRA IN VIDEO OF HATE were three examples.
The message to the British Government was encapsulated within a few words spoken by a woman: “We call on our enemy to pursue the pathway to peace or resign themselves to the inevitability of war.”
On the day of those headlines Gerry Adams was spotted visiting John Hume and the news focus then switched to their dialogue – the talking that eventually made ceasefires and political negotiations and agreements possible.
In conflict there always has to be space for dialogue and persuasion, and this Easter, twenty years on, there is another offer to talk.
Earlier this week as part of a news report for UTV, I interviewed the Sinn Fein Chairman Declan Kearney.
He had a message that he wanted to be heard across the entire republican community and beyond – a message that had dialogue and persuasion at its core, and a message that opened the door for all opinions to be heard.
It is the necessary work of peace-building, not something to be feared or condemned, but rather an initiative that will attempt to bring everyone inside the frame of exclusively peaceful, political and democratic methods.
This is an initiative that urges dialogue within and outside the republican community and, which at one tier, opens a door for talks with armed dissident groups.
There are, of course, no guarantees that the invitation will be accepted and that even if it is that it will achieve an end to violence – but it has to be tried.
“This should be a time for discussion within republicanism and then for republicans to engage in outreach much more expansively with all sections of opinion in Irish Society to work out collectively how we as a society can create an agreed Ireland and an Ireland that ensures that we live at peace with ourselves,” Declan Kearney explained.
“A united Ireland – an agreed Ireland – will today be achieved through persuasion, but it will not be achieved by any other means,” he argued.
Over the Easter period Kearney will one of the speakers at the many republican commemorations joining a Sinn Fein line-up north and south that includes Sean Murray, Jennifer McCann, Seanna Walsh, Mary Lou McDonald, Sean Lynch, Martina Anderson, Raymond McCartney, Gerry Kelly, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams.
Other republicans – those who fall within that frame of dissident – will speak at their events, and speak at a time when there is this offer to talk and the challenge to step inside a dialogue.
If they accept that offer, then part of any discussion will ask for an explanation of continuing armed actions – what they think can be achieved.
In that UTV report earlier this week Ciaran Cunningham of Republican Network for Unity (RNU) described armed struggle as a “result of the legacy of British occupation in Ireland…a residue of that legacy – not something we are going to be promoting or not something we are condemning.”
The answer avoids questions in the here and now – what is the purpose of continuing armed actions, what will they achieve?
Cunningham replaced Carl Reilly as national Chair of RNU, and Reilly is linked to the leadership of the faction Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH).
Its recent activity includes a planned mortar bomb attack on a police base in which the device failed to launch, a car bomb abandoned in Fermanagh, a device that only partially detonated near the M5, and two booby trap bombs, one that fell from a car driven by a soldier, the other spotted by a police officer.
These failures are not just down to operational/technical flaws and security vigilance.
There are other factors high among them the fact that this organisation is compromised both within its ranks and also by the surveillance conducted by police and MI5.
ONH is not the only armed group.
There is a dissident IRA formed as a coalition of several groups and individuals, but these wars are going nowhere.
No one is denying the right of republicans to organise politically against the Sinn Fein strategy.
Declan Kearney made that very clear in his interview.
So the question to those republicans in opposition to the Adams-McGuinness process is whether they are prepared to use words rather than bombs and bullets to make their arguments.
They cannot argue that they are being ignored or isolated.
“The door is absolutely open,” Declan Kearney told me – “and it would be our firm hope that all republicans would respond to this initiative.”
Unionists also need to give this initiative, not just space, but support, because if it happens, and if it makes progress, lives could be saved.
It is another part of the road to be travelled on a long journey out of conflict and towards some type of peace.
We have come a long way from the war message of 1993 to the talks offer twenty years later.
(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)
I just attended the Downpatrick Sinn Féin Easter celebration about an hour ago. I was impressed with Michael Brady MLA’s speech when he talked about an Ireland of equality, social justice, mutual respect, parity of esteem, a determination to support the peace process, respect for minorities and all creeds and religions and for those who have none. He even welcomed people to join his party from all backgrounds and persuasions. Surely this is not a threat to the North and the Unionist community. I’m not an apologist for SF, nor even call myself a republican, but I empathise with those values and maybe all of the parties need to recognise how far some have travelled since 1994. Debate and discussion must as you say go on and I like to think I add to that a little.
Of course there is the old arguments which can be dragged out such as ‘wasn’t the Protestant community treated badly after the Partition?’ but we are in a different historical period (from around 1922) and there is a pressure to move from the chains of the past.
Even the more fringe political groups on both sides need to step back now and take an honest look at the present political reality and let go of the idealism that all parties and movements get caught up in.
Chris Hazzard MLA read out the Proclamation and Sinn Féin are still committed albeit peacefully to a united Ireland. And as Michael Brady said, the demographics of the North are changing and the politics of the ballot box are more preferable to the politics of the gun and the bomb.
It’s a time for real courage. The courage of thought and action for a better society to live in.
The GFA agreement has saved countless lives and for that we must be grateful – we mustn’t through the baby out with the bath water. There is a foundation of trust now to start a real meaningful dialogue but it will be incremental. Acceptance between Unionists and Republicans and will only be won slowly.
But is can be done. (After all, who were the United Irishmen but politically dissenting Protestants?)
Many lives have indeed been saved and for that we should all be grateful. These continuing armed actions will achieve nothing – and the sooner that penny drops the better.
Easter commemoration comments:
Declan Kearney: “An authentic reconciliation process is essential to advancing the unity of all our people…engagement on reconciliation on a cross party and community basis is urgently required. Our party has called for an inclusive national discussion on how to bring this about. There is no alternative to that dialogue. And I would urge other voices from within unionism and across society to make themselves heard.”
Gerry Adams: Calls again for an Independent International Truth Commission: “The two governments, former combatants and those in leadership across Ireland and Britain need to be part of such a process. There can be no hierarchy of victims. The people of this island need a genuine process of national reconciliation. I am prepared to meet with victims families and others as part of this.”
Gerry Kelly: Speaking about armed dissident groups: “Let me say this loud and clear and proudly to this alphabet of organisations. There is only one IRA – one Irish Republican Army. These other wannabe groups trying to claim that title have no strategy otherwise they would be presenting it to the world. Whether they call themselves the New IRA, the Old IRA, the Belfast Continuity IRA, the Limerick Continuity IRA, RAAD, CAAD or SAD – a name or title does not give them legitimacy.”