‘Healing our society needs to be placed above the challenges of the political process. A shared future should be about respect and equality for political, cultural and religious difference. We share a common humanity. Authentic reconciliation will depend upon us all embracing new thinking, having conversations to build new relationships between all sides.’
Not my words but Declan Kearney’s. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Healing our society needs to be placed above the challenges of the political process, and yet the political rhetoric, ‘breakthe bastards’, ‘if you feed the crocodiles…’, is inflicting more damage, not healing our society.
Sinn Fein have made reconciliation one of their buzz words. “Republicans seek authentic reconciliation with Unionism. A new phase of the peace process based on reconciliation and healing must be our future.” Declan Kearney again, a couple of weeks ago. I completely agree that reconciliation and healing must be our future. I am old enough to know how bad it was and how far we have come, and I know we are stalled, badly. Frankly reconciliation is receding far into the distance. There are major obstacles in the way, first and foremost sectarianism, deeply entrenched and passed from generation to generation. So how could anti-sectarianism be wrong?
Anti-sectarianism is wrong when it is perceived as hypocrisy, when someone whom you consider to be sectarian accuses you of being sectarian-and this is the experience of Unionists and Loyalists when listening to Sinn Fein. Whether you agree with me or not, this is the perception of many Unionists and Loyalists.
Let me give you some examples:
- Demanding Irish language signs in the university while banning the sale of poppies
- Imposing increasing regulation and restrictions on bonfires while demanding cultural equality and rights
- The refusal by a Councillor to condemn the Enniskillen bombing while proposing a motion in Enniskillen Council condemning sectarianism.
- Calling for victims’ rights while naming a children’s playpark after a convicted terrorist.
- Demanding respect and equality for Irish identity while banning British Armed Forces from school recruitment events and continuing to talk of the ‘British occupation’. I am British and I am certainly not occupying Northern Ireland. My family have lived here for generations and this is home to me, my children and grandchildren.
- Sinn Fein leaders making speeches about ‘Unionist death squads’ while in the same speech eulogising IRA volunteers who bombed and murdered innocent men, women and children.
- Demanding truth and justice for all victims while focusing exclusively on Republican and Nationalist victims and offering nothing to victims of IRA violence. If all victims have a right to truth, Sinn Fein’s silence is deafening regarding La Mon, Claudy, Kingsmill, Enniskillen, Birmingham, Hyde Park and many, many others.
Before you come back at me with counter arguments and justifications, or John Brewer accuses me of a severe case of whataboutery let me say that sectarianism is endemic in the Unionist community as well. I know that I can react in a sectarian way if the right buttons are pushed.
Unionists need to begin the painful task of facing up to our sectarianism, our failings in the past, our need to change, our culpability for thirty years of conflict, our responsibility to create a just and fair society. Too often Unionists have been acquiescent towards sectarianism if not actively complicit. We have failed to recognise its corrosive and egregious effects. Some Unionist politicians have treated Republicans with distain, if not contempt. That is wrong and I for one do not agree with it.
However, from our perspective what we experience is Sinn Fein claiming exclusive right to the moral high ground, virtue signalling about how blameless they are regarding rights, equality, tolerance and respect – if only those Unionist bigots would stop being sectarian reconciliation would be possible.
To stamp out sectarianism it is imperative we begin with our own tribe, or to use the biblical analogy, take the plank out of our own eye before taking the speck out of our neighbour’s.
Self-critical evaluation is necessary, shows integrity, gives moral authority, opens significant opportunities for reconciliation, makes people more willing to engage with you and facilitates conflict transformation.
Reconciliation offers enormous benefit to us all, but to achieve it we need to come down from the moral high ground. True reconciliation will involve finding level ground on which to interact and be reconciled.
The Unionist community has experienced massive suffering, trauma and injustice at the hands of Republicans who show no perceptible evidence of contrition, repentance or of asking for forgiveness. Unionists simply do not trust Republicans. Republicans may well say the same- that underlines the magnitude of the task facing us.
To move forward we need to be agreed that we want this place to work. We need to agree that we want our people to live together peacefully; our children to grow up happy, confident and well educated; our economy to be vibrant and successful; our artists, musicians, sportsmen and women enriching our lives with their skills; our elderly, infirm and vulnerable well cared for; a society that is fair and equal, based on mutual respect. This needs to be prioritised above the constitutional question or, in Declan Kearney’s words ‘Healing our society needs to be placed above the challenges of the political process.’
The best way to overcome sectarianism is through respectful cooperation, working together to achieve economic and social prosperity. In the past twenty years we have had periods of relative success, glimpses of what might be achieved but we need to do better. We can do better, but not as ourselves alone. Neither Sinn Fein, successful as you have been, nor the DUP, dominant as they are in Unionism, can do it alone. We can only do better by working together.
As the GFA stated ‘The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We acknowledge the substantial differences between our continuing and equally legitimate political aspirations. However, we will continue to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements.’ Renewing that commitment would be a start.
Anti-sectarianism is to be welcomed and embraced, but the long road to reconciliation begins with the painful process of self-examination and confronting one’s own sectarian attitudes. The prize, as Senator George Mitchell so eloquently spoke of recently, is peace.
Dr Kyle made the above remarks in an address to;
George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice Queen’s University.