Talking and walking in step – Brian Rowan on a process of challenges

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The deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness MLA delivers the keynote address at the conference “Belfast: A City of Equals on an Island of Equals” at the Europa Hotel.


(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

The story on Friday was not just about the handful of loyalist protesters outside the Europa Hotel – it was about the people who were inside.

Yes, it was a Sinn Fein organised event, under the heading: ‘Belfast a City of Equals on an island of Equals’, but this wasn’t an occasion when republicans spoke to themselves.

A big part of this conference was about listening to others not of their community; others including the Chief Constable Matt Baggott, victims’ campaigner Alan McBride, former PUP leader Dawn Purvis, one-time soldier Glenn Bradley, clergymen Harold Good, Norman Hamilton and Gary Mason and Kate Turner of the Healing Through Remembering project.

At this conference, people spoke with great clarity on a whole range of issues – the flag decision in Belfast, suspicion about what republicans are really interested in when it comes to explorations of the past, the reality and meaning of sectarianism and the need to examine not just one community’s truth, suffering and history, but the other truths, sufferings and histories.

There was nothing that was not said or could not have been said, and Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and Declan Kearney listened; listened in a place once described in the headlines of the world’s most bombed hotel.

I chaired the conference, and opened the event by thinking back on that period.

“I would say that there are many in this room who still remember the days of rushed evacuations from this place – when people were given just minutes to get out.

“So, I think it’s an illustration of the journey this place is on that in 2013 republicans have spent not minutes, but weeks, trying to persuade people into this hotel today and into this conversation on the unfinished business of the peace process.”

Today’s news, I suggested, is not about ‘get out’, but ‘get in’.

Of course there were those who stayed away, including the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, who was to have been one of the keynote speakers.

He pulled out offended by a careless “so what” comment from the Sinn Fein education minister John O’Dowd in the heat of a television discussion.

Loyalist leaders also declined invitations – one using the protest outside as a reason for not attending.

It sounded more like an excuse.

There was once a time in this process when loyalists walked at the front into difficult conversations and negotiations, and did so when others ran away.

They need to get back to the front of the line, and not be spooked by a few protesters.

It is time for leadership in addressing the unfinished business of the peace process – those issues of identity, cultural expression, equality, mutual respect, parity of esteem and the past.


Chief Constable Matt Baggott pictured at the conference.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott pictured at the conference.


The Queen’s University academic Professor Peter Shirlow made a presentation to the conference and, as part of his preparation, gathered opinions of Sinn Fein; opinions that included the following.

That Sinn Fein talks to a script, thinks in a box, they don’t listen, they broadcast and there is no right to reply and people question the constant referrals to the past.

What was stopping a unionist or a loyalist leader saying those things on Friday?

Part of the problem was that this was a Sinn Fein organised conference, with one source speaking of “the choreography having to be right” to make a wider conversation possible.

Martin McGuinness responded to this by saying unionists should organise the next conference, or “better still” it should be jointly organised.

Only a few weeks ago the PUP issued an opening statement on reconciliation which is to be followed up by other documents.

On Friday Mike Nesbitt wrote in the Belfast Telegraph addressing the unfinished business in this process, and Harold Good urged republicans to respond without delay to that article.

So, everyone knows there is the need for a bigger conversation, and the challenge for the architects is to design a model and a realistic agenda for that discussion to take place.

My firm opinion is that this is work for international facilitators listening to key figures here and then shaping the process.

One thing we need to understand is what is meant by dealing with the past.

On Friday Martin McGuinness argued that the real challenge was to learn from it and not be trapped in it.

There needs to a better understanding of victims’ needs – not just those who speak loudest.

On Friday, I said we also need to remember that we are not alone in having to face these next issues and the next challenges, and I quoted the Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost three of his daughters and a niece when an Israeli shell struck his family apartment.

In his book ‘I Shall Not Hate’ he wrote:

“Arguing over who did what and who suffered more is not going to get us anywhere.

“You can’t respect someone you don’t know.

“So let’s get to know one another by listening and opening our eyes to the other side.

“We need to encourage respect and equality,” he wrote.

So, here, we need to stop singling individuals out for blame – ex-prisoners and others.

We need to find the best mechanisms for unlocking information and answers, need to understand that culture is not about the different sides shoving flags down peoples throats, and we need help.

Help from people not trapped in the raw emotion of what happened here, people who can figure out the next steps and the best ways of taking them together.

In this constant tug-of-war between a United Kingdom and a United Ireland, we are ignoring and relegating other things that in the here-and-now need more urgent thinking.

We often talk about standing in the shoes of others, but too often we like the comfortable fit of our own.

It is time to walk and talk together before we poison another generation.

(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

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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. Brian, There are also some tough questions that need to be asked of the broadcasting media’s hegemonic discourse on the past, in particular around ‘victims’
    and ‘perpetrators.’

    It largely follows the unionist script on the past – which holds that Irish history began when, out of the clear blue skies of ‘Ulster’, IRA thugs, inexplicably launched a terror campaign on their good Protestant neighbours. Identification of ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ is a relatively easy task that can be achieved by simply thumbing down through the statistics of Lost Lives. This approach yields comforting conclusions – Republicans were responsible for most deaths, Loyalist for far fewer (and of course with no assistance – apart from perhaps a few rogue elements – of the ‘security forces’) and the good violence of the ‘police’ and ‘army’ with even less. The narrative is one of criminal terrorist campaign of republicans, reaction by loyalist extremists and benevolent ‘security force’ attempts at containment.

    In keeping with historical tradition, the view of the other community is overwhelming ignored and marginalised. We are made to read and listen to a partial account of history that guts the context in which we, our parents and our ancestors experienced life. In the Orwellian world of political unionism (like the nation which they express loyalty to) noble concepts such as ‘democracy’ and ‘rule of law’ have been appropriated as ideological weapons; while invidious labels like ‘terrorism’ are applied almost exclusively to working class people from the subordinate community. In this tale, inconvenient facts have been consigned to the memory hole. No room for the fact that the very existence of the state represented a denial of Irish democracy; or that for much of the 20th century one community governed, judged and policed the other community; or that this same community concentrated power in its own hands and used it to author the circumstances that persuaded young Catholics in working class areas to take up arms.

    To make moral judgement’s about the past, to apportion blame and establish victim-hood it is absolutely essential that everybody’s context is heard. So far, only one community has got an airing in the ‘little window on the world’ that sits in the corner of our living rooms. The prospect for change is not reassuring. The media in capitalist democracies – particularly the broadcasting arm – reflect the imbalance of power within a given society. The British state and unionism version of history is given free rein in this system, all of the assumptions that underpin the critical questions of the Ken Reid’s or Mark Carruther’s of this world, are pro-British and pro-unionist friendly. You simply could not make it in those corporations by thinking the wrong things.

    Consequently, we never hear the questions asked that a person from somewhere like Andersonstown, would perhaps ask. Have you ever heard a British spokesperson being asked by BBCNI, “Is your government prepared to tell the truth about your nation’s bloody role in Irish history?” Or have you tuned in and witnessed a unionist being grilled on UTV, “When will your community abandon its implacable resistance to the principle of living as equals with Catholics?” Or have you ever listened to the ‘combative’ Stephen Nolan wonder aloud about the contribution of the supremacist colonial-settler mindset to our previous and current difficulties? Of course you haven’t and you won’t.

    In contrast, nationalists who attempt to initiate even the most tentative moves towards symbolic equality for their community(and within the union!) are chided for their ‘insensitivity’ to unionists. In a state still awash with unionist symbolism and marked by public acts of deference to British imperial terror (And 15 years after an international agreement that promised political and cultural equality for nationalist) such objections are in reality code for ‘how dare you have the temerity to challenge the God-given right of unionists to dominate the state and lord it over the natives.’ Such dominant orthodoxies are so deeply entrenched they are unrecognised.

    As in all histories, while many things change, some things stay the same.

    • Ciaran,

      I find myself imagining what your life is like. I ask questions such as what do you envisage Belfast to be like in 30 or 40 years time or if you have any close friends from the other community with whom you can get down and dirty with the nitty gritty stuff that matters like emblems, legacy, dissidents and the lighter topics such as Ulster Rugby, New Casement Park, and Rory & GeeMac..These conversations are something I love to explore and they are something akin to cathartic therapy for me.
      I am a million miles away from your perceptions above and our futures are destined for change through agreement.

      Anam cara.

      • Hi Raymond

        I work with the unionist community every day of my life in relation to many of the matters you mention, and I have many good friends in that same community. Like the people on the other side of the divide they are warm and hospitable, and they contend with the exact same personal and economic issues. But there is also crucial political-cultural differences in relation to equality, parity of esteem etc and these have strong historical roots.

        Re ‘My life.’ I am a raker and a joker who lives life to the full with my wife and two beautiful children!

        • Hi Ciaran,
          I am glad to hear that you have mellowed your approach in public places. Your original piece had me thinking of a term Mr McGuinness used when addressing the Tory party annual conference in 2010. I thought you were a Conflict Junkie.

          • Hi Raymond

            In contrast I think that any resort to force must meet an exacting level of evidence. My own father – a Catholic civilian – was murdered by the UVF, and I spend a great deal of my life working with the community they came from to break down barriers. What riles me most is the hypocrisy of our servile intellectual culture that applies a moral microscope to small scale terrorism (that often has its roots in some form of injustice) while simultaneously, variously ignoring, normalizing and facilitating large scale state terrorism(such as that of Glenn’s old army above)

          • Hi Ciaran,
            I am sorry to learn about the murder of your dad. God bless.
            Are you referring to the Woolwich attack when you mention small scale terrorism and ignoring the war in Afghanistan?
            If we get the Maze project right, it could be an ideal venue for the main players in that conflict to come for talks.

  2. Glenn Bradley on

    The post below by Ciaran is one example of the difficulties this change management advance faces. I have no doubt the writer is utterly convinced of his mindset but his presentation is so entirely one sided based around myth & propaganda that it reflects a damaging delusion for those attempting to reconcile & work in the now to achieve sustainable agreement for future.

    This process of peace and reconciliation would be a lot easier if we’d simply an indigenous Irish ‘paddy’ Vs a foreign Invading ‘franko-limey’ however the origin of names to leading Republicans like Bell, Adams, Murray, Anderson, Walsh are clues themselves that our society is not so easily defined, and evidence that this Island today is made of a rich ethnicity of peoples whose ancestors came here at various times over history.

    Specific to Friday: as a former member of the UUP then amongst the various architects of the GFA I was disappointed that Mike Nesbitt let a media-spat (that harmed or killed no one) make him feel it was ‘impossible’ for the Party to attend. Such political lack of leadership stalls dynamism and was made more frustrating by his delusional rant issued via the Tele – a rant that no doubt will have the mini-fascists of our society cuddling the Union Jack with zeal but which denied the reality we agreed in GFA i.e. Irish, British and Other on an equal, level democratic playing field where debate and power of persuasion win ‘battles’.

    This process will have no victors. Anyone seeking to achieve ‘victory’ or the ‘humiliation’ of any section of our society are building a doomed foundation of failure.

    Therefore let those of society who are willing to, lead this, with international support. Let those of us willing to come together do so as individuals or groups working in a spirit of generosity, strong ethics & the absolute commitment that we will never again permit a generation to endure suffering by, collectively, busting myths & propaganda; learning from the past as people living today; speaking a new language of equality, respect & dynamic change; outreaching to minority sections of society to eradicate ignorance and importantly live by example: being the change we wish to see.

    • Hi Glenn,

      “..his presentation is so entirely one sided based around myth & propaganda.”

      Please explain why?

      The myths and propaganda are what the corporate media types consider the ‘objective’ view (or the view of the British state).

      “This process of peace and reconciliation would be a lot easier if we’d simply an indigenous Irish ‘paddy’ Vs a foreign Invading ‘franko-limey’ however the origin of names to leading Republicans like Bell, Adams, Murray, Anderson, Walsh are clues themselves that our society is not so easily defined”

      Of course we are all ‘mongrels’ to some degree – my own family tree is a good example of this. I am still struggling to reconcile what this has got to do with any of the points I made? What I am saying is that a substantial section of the unionist community are still deeply resistant to the idea of political equality for nationalists; and this represents a strong line of historical continuity. Undoubtedly, huge progress has been made in the direction of equality for nationalists, but features of the colonial-settler mindset remain deeply embedded.

      • Glenn Bradley on

        Your initial post is a 1 dimensional perception largely against British Imperialism and the policy of various HMGs over decades that denies context of those times or reality today, here, in Belfast.

        You surprise me using the term ‘Mongrels’ because your initial post reads as someone outpouring a ‘republican purist’ spiel and thus my reply was to highlight little or nothing is ‘pure’ including the origins of some major activists in the Republican movement. Our society is not ‘pure’ and it is an illusion to think in any shade that it is.

        Finally I used your initial post as an example of difficulty because it read as exclusive rather than inclusive.

    • Hi Glenn

      One other thing. As an ex-British soldier do you advocate we start ‘busting the myths and propaganda’ of the British state? For example, the porkies used to encourage young men to sign-up to kill and die in unprovoked wars. I am thinking about the fictitious nonsense about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, propaganda that causes huge murder and misery. Or perhaps you subscribe to these ‘damaging delusions?’

      • Glenn Bradley on


        Professional soldiering was just over a decade of my 4+ decades of life. I saw operational service in various theaters where the failure of politics or resource interests meant armies where deployed. No one fears war more than a soldier because it is they who’ll do the fighting and yes many times I questioned or challenged the why, what, for of deployments however I did my duty – not from some sense of ‘Queen & Country’ or ‘Democracy’ or ‘Human rights’ but to support my comrades to the right & left of me and yep, no doubt, battle kills!

        Your language is, again, not inclusive and reads as an anti-Imperialistic spiel against successive HMGs so I’ll be clear – I don’t represent the British State however I have no problem challenging the myths or propaganda it or other States have made.

        Going forward I’ll try do it in co-operation with other unapologetic peace processors seeking to build a solid foundation of equality and respect for all in the generations to come.

        • Hi Glenn

          ‘..however I did my duty…but to support my comrades to the right & left of me’

          But this precisely the sort of unthinking herd-like behaviour that ensures that western governments can carry out their policy of permanent wars abroad. Wars that are not in the interests of the young men who are doing the killing and dying(many of are enlisted from the ranks of the unemployed) and certainly not in the interests of the involuntary participants – the mostly dark skinned expendable people in faraway lands. If people like you you do not start to tell the truth about these wars – that have nothing to do with their lofty pretexts and everything to do with powerful vested interests – then people will continue suffering and dying needlessly.

          • Just read my last post – sorry for the missing words – I am a very busy bee today 🙂

          • Glenn Bradley on

            With the greatest respect – your posts have advanced well beyond the context of Barneys article, my replies or the theme of peace & reconciliation in Belfast (and wider Ireland). Personally, I think our hands are full trying to reconcile our own differences without taking on ‘the world’?

            My criticism of your initial written article stands – its an exclusive, delusional purist spiel, and your subsequent posts have widened to an anti-Western World rant through your selective chagrin at my former profession, and now personal criticism of me yet….

            You don’t know me.

  3. A grand event at the most bombed hotel in Western Europe. The only thing missing was the real sinn fein/ira slogan. “ALL PIGS ARE EQUAL, BUT IN NORTHERN IRELAND SINN FEIN PIGS HAVE TO BE MORE EQUAL THAN EVERYONE ELSE” (OR ELSE IT PLACES A GREAT STRAIN ON THE PEACE PROCESS)

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