Time for a new kind of ‘Ulster covenant’ to rekindle the peace process

Could a campaign – led by reconciliation and civil society groups – drive a fresh initiative?

‘Gerry Adams’s handshake with Prince Charles this week was not an isolated gesture of reconciliation. Sinn Féin has for some time had a section devoted to outreach to unionism, with party chairperson Declan Kearney playing a leading role in its work.’  Photograph: BRIAN LAWLESS/AFP/Getty Images

‘Gerry Adams’s handshake with Prince Charles this week was not an isolated gesture of reconciliation. Sinn Féin has for some time had a section devoted to outreach to unionism, with party chairperson Declan Kearney playing a leading role in its work.’ Photograph: BRIAN LAWLESS/AFP/Getty Images

 

Gerry Adams’s handshake with Prince Charles this week was not an isolated gesture of reconciliation. Sinn Féin has for some time had a section devoted to outreach to unionism, with party chairman Declan Kearney playing a leading role in its work.

Last month the party published an interesting little book on reconciliation called Uncomfortable Conversations, which contains one rather good idea.

The booklet was largely based on a series of articles in An Phoblacht initiated by Kearney. There were responses from Protestant, unionist and other figures, including Heather Morris, former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland; Dawn Purvis, former Progressive Unionist Party leader; Lord John Alderdice, former Alliance leader, and Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist ministers.

In his address to the 2015 Sinn Féin ardfheis in Derry in March (reprinted in the booklet), Kearney said: “Healing our society needs to be placed above [my italics] the challenges of the political process. A shared future should be about respect and equality for political, cultural and religious difference. We do share a common humanity. And there is no hierarchy of victimhood.”

He went on to call for “an initiative of common acknowledgment from all sides for the pain caused by and to each other”, which “could powerfully contribute to forgiveness and healing. Doing so would require grace and generosity from all sides.”

He continued: “All hurt is the same and warrants acknowledgment with sincere remorse. Expressing remorse and regret for death and injury during the conflict could help deepen mutual respect and understanding and move us all closer to a healing process.” In my experience, such language of remorse, forgiveness and healing is highly unusual from a republican spokesman. It is also language understood by Northern Protestants.

Twenty-four hours after this speech, realpolitik replaced remorse when Sinn Féin, afraid to be painted as a party of cuts south of the Border, all but torpedoed last December’s Stormont House agreement by going back on its commitment to welfare reform as part of that accord.

But let us take Kearney’s constructive proposal in good faith. It is the nearest the republican movement has come to echoing Gusty Spence’s memorable 1994 UVF ceasefire expression of “abject and true remorse” for loyalist killings about the nearly 1,800 IRA killings during the Troubles. Before this, the closest the IRA came to saying sorry was an unconvincing, stilted statement in 2002 that “the future will not be found in denying collective failures and mistakes or closing minds to the plight of those who have been hurt. That includes all the victims of the conflict, combatants and non-combatants.”

Embracing remorse

Could a campaign – led by a coalition of reconciliation and other civil society groups – adopt and drive Kearney’s idea of an “across the society” acknowledgment of the pain inflicted by all sides and thus re-energise the stalemated inter-party talks aimed at finding a formula to deal with the painful past in Northern Ireland?

This, for many, is one of the last great blockages to the beginning of mutual understanding there. Writing in An Phoblacht last summer, Kearney appealed for “sustained positive leadership from within civic society on the need for grace, generosity, remorse and acknowledgment”, suggesting this “would introduce an entirely new dynamic. Civic society must challenge politics, make demands of political leaders and set tests for all political parties to do better.”

Could every key figure to do with the North be persuaded to sign such a declaration? Could the British prime minister, the taoiseach, the head of the PSNI and the British army, and every Northern political, paramilitary, church and community leader, including recognisable former IRA leaders, sign up? Then the people of the North could follow.

It would be difficult for some on the unionist side, but I believe it could be done. It would be a kind of reconciling Ulster Covenant for the 21st century, a major statement that would begin to heal the wounds opened by the original Ulster Covenant and its militant nationalist response in the 20th.

Sinn Féin is making this proposal from a position of some considerable strength: it may soon become the largest party in Northern Ireland; it may in the not-too-distant future become the largest opposition party in the Dáil; it knows that as long as austerity exists in the South people will vote for it in numbers; it knows the growth of the Catholic population and the weakness of the SDLP in the North means that it can only get stronger there.

Generosity

Of the four well-informed Northerners I asked about Kearney’s proposal – two journalists, one academic and one Church of Ireland minister – three were dubious, saying respectively that Sinn Féin would never put healing the North’s divisions above its political ambitions; that this was an example of its talking out of both sides of its mouth , reconciliation on one side, continuing to undermine the Northern Ireland state on the other; and that words like forgiveness and healing had become almost meaningless in the slippery and ambiguous language of the peace process.

So for Declan’s Kearney’s idea to have any chance to work, Sinn Féin cannot be involved. Given the deep suspicion that continues to exist among unionists about that party’s actions, motives and language, it would be better if peace and reconciliation groups like Corrymeela, Glencree and Co-operation Ireland could come together to adopt a version of his proposal and lead a civil society campaign around it on their own.

Andy Pollak was founding director of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies and is a board member of the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.