Breaking through the North’s dialogue of the deaf

Uncomfortable but necessary conversations

Ulster unionists for many years argued that Irish republicans should end their armed struggle, and also that they should treat more seriously the wish of the Northern majority to remain within the UK.

Both of those developments effectively occurred – quite a few years ago now – and they opened up possibilities for a different and more creative kind of politics to emerge on the island of Ireland.

Part of this involved the prospect of more serious conversations between nationalists and unionists about the best shape for the future of a shared Irish politics.

Sinn Féin national chairman Declan Kearney's new edited collection of Uncomfortable Conversations * marks an important step in those discussions, bringing together a diverse range of voices that helpfully contribute to political debate on Ireland's future.


The book comprises a series of articles originally published in the republican paper An Phoblacht, and it represents a healthy contribution to a much-needed process of debate on Northern Ireland and its future.

In particular, I think the book raises three vital issues.

The first is the importance of a mutual willingness to listen. In the book's foreword, Gerry Adams rightly stresses that "republicans have to address the genuine fears and concerns of unionists in a meaningful way". He adds that this involves a need "to listen to unionists", in addition to the reasonable outlining of republicans' own preferences.

And this point is reinforced well by Declan Kearney himself, who observes the need for republicans "to listen unconditionally" to what unionists have to say.

Such listening may be uncomfortable indeed, given the explicable hostility that so many unionists still feel towards the republican movement led for so many years by Adams.

And that process needs to be met by unionists listening in turn. Many pro-union people were louder in demanding that republicans should give up violence and that they should respect Northern majority opinion than they have been to engage in meaningful dialogue with republicans once those crucial changes were indeed brought about.


And reluctance to listen – on all sides – merely strengthens the sectarian divisions that generated the Northern conflict – and that were so sharply deepened by that conflict in its bloodstained turn.

The second main point brought out in this book is that when we do listen to each other, there are some aspects of the Troubles legacy that require more honest appreciation than they have yet received.

I still think we all have a tendency more quickly to stress what others did violently to our own community in Ireland during the Northern conflict than to focus humbly on the damage that our own side did to others.

But this can change, if we want it to. I was very struck a couple of years ago hearing a republican politician begin a talk about the peace process by referring – compassionately and humanely – to the damage done by a specific and horrific IRA bombing, to his sense of deep regret that this event had happened, and to the fact that republicans need to live with the damage done by their violence during the Troubles.

Now if every political debate on the North began – as on that occasion – with attention to the damage done by one’s own side to the other community, then that might be a helpful way of displaying the empathy and respect that are essential to what Declan Kearney in this book calls “authentic reconciliation”.

Third, uncomfortable conversations will involve unexpected futures for us all, and the way that we adjust to changed times will determine how well or how badly Irish – and certainly Northern Irish – politics develops in this century.

For unionists, there is the challenge of facing the real prospect that Scotland will, in name and/or in practice, leave the union. How will unionist politics adjust to the redefinition of the UK that this involves, given the deep historical attachment felt by so many of Ulster's unionists to that part of Britain?

In this book, leading Irish Methodist Heather Morris movingly sets out some of the insecurities already felt by Northern Protestants. Would those merely be negatively deepened by a post-Scotland UK politics, or would there be new opportunities for compromise and rethinking made available?

Similarly, there are implications for republicans if meaningful conversations still leave a united and independent Ireland unattainable. Some nationalists in the North remain sceptical about whether Sinn Féin’s political progress will in practice yield Irish unity, given the stark antipathy that the Northern majority still feels towards that prospect.

Are there opportunities for a democratic Ireland to be agreed for the long-term future, in ways that traditional republican politics has tended to reject? If so, then they need to be explored, considered and discussed in an inclusive and open way. Whatever the outcome of such debate, it needs to be pursued. And this book points valuably in that direction.

Surprising changes

And it’s worth remembering that Irish history frequently shows how unanticipated developments can produce very surprising changes of possibility. The Northern Ireland peace process and the 1998 Good Friday agreement were not inevitable. And the political future of Ireland and of a post-conflict North will be determined by the choices that people make now and in the future, rather than by any unavoidable historical paths.

If that future is to be benign rather than polarised, and if the next 50 years in the North are to be more fruitful politically than the last 50 have tended to be, then the kind of conversations reflected in this book deserve to be continued and deepened and expanded for many years to come.

Richard English is professor of politics at the University of St Andrews. His books include Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA.

*Uncomfortable Conversations: An Initiative for Dialogue Towards Reconciliation is edited by Declan Kearney.