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Focus on Sinn Fein

June 3, 2013

I was happy to attend the Sinn Fein Youth Congress in March as someone who has been a community worker in what would commonly be called a “PUL” area for ten years; as a member of the Alliance Party; but most of all as a mother of two children. The topic was “reconciliation”.

The first step to what is generally called “reconciliation”, I think, is to recognize the last of those designations. We have become too used to dismissing other human beings. It is too easy to ignore someone else’s view simply because of that person’s label – “Unionist”, “Republican”, “British” or whatever. Of course, we all have our backgrounds, but the legitimacy of our views – however challenging – must be determined objectively and rationally on merit, not on the assumed label of the speaker. That does not mean that all views are equally legitimate – some, on rational reflection, have more merit than others. But it does mean that everyone has an equal right to express one!

I do wonder about the word “reconciliation”. Were we ever truly “conciled”? We grow up with our identities, they are not generally rationally chosen. None of that makes our identity any less real, of course. Every national identity is conditioned by upbringing in this way – it is just that, in Northern Ireland, we have two prime national identities rather than one. The notion that Republicans are merely guests in “British Ulster”, or that Unionists are Irish people who just got confused a bit, needs to be consigned absolutely to history. The constitutional question, and dealing with the past and working through all the other things which we tend to divide upon along the usual sectarian fault lines, cannot and will not be settled by emotional arguments suggesting people are not who they are! If we are to be “conciled”, we need to accept and indeed even rejoice in our unusual status as a jurisdiction with two principal national identities. And let us be clear, we will support Rory McIlroy in the Olympics just as we supported the rower Alan Campbell and the boxer Paddy Barnes – whether or not we share their chosen national identity, we do share their homeland! It is worth reflecting on that point.

What should “Loyalists” do and what should “Republicans” do to “concile”? Loyalists – by which I mean people who live in majority-Protestant, inner-city communities with typically poor levels of education and health – have suffered from very poor political leadership from the main Unionist parties (something which perhaps explains both my decision to join and my decision to leave the UUP). This concerns a range of areas, notably education, but it also includes the fact that they have come scarcely to recognize the country they live in. The constant refrain that this is “our country” – by which they mean a “British (and really Loyalist) country”, does not do justice to the intertwined nature of our relationships, nor to the dual national identity that we all signed up to (including the so-called “Loyalist” parties) in 1998. Loyalists have to come to terms with the fact “our country” includes Loyalists, Unionists, Protestants and British people – but not exclusively! In fact, for this to be “our country”, they have to find an accommodation with all those with whom they share a homeland. We are citizens of the same homeland – equal citizens.

However, you should be under no illusions that the path for “Republicans” is just as challenging. My family lived under security threats from “Republicans”, like many others. My father’s “offence” was that he was a businessman trying to make our homeland work! I suspect most of you would accept that was ludicrous. So, take that a bit further and ask yourselves this – if the Enniskillen bombing was wrong, which parts of that campaign were “right”?

That does not mean the “Loyalist” and “Republican” traditions are all or even mainly bad. On the contrary, part of the healing process should be restoring the strong points of each. Loyalists do have a proud military and industrial heritage, notably in World War One and around shipbuilding and other manufacturing. Of course, they fought alongside friends and relatives from every part of Ireland; and their manufacturing effort included their Catholic and Republican fellow countrymen. Republicans derive from an enlightened, cross-community political tradition based on notions of citizenship and freedom which are sharply at odds from the ethnic nationalism so-called “Republicans” too often promote. Daily, I seek to find ways to help young Loyalists focus on the prouder, inclusive aspects of their heritage. Here, I would ask you, as young Republicans, also to focus on the prouder, inclusive aspects of your heritage. Many people most “loyal” to the cause in World War One were Irish Catholics; many “Republican” leaders prior to that were Protestant. So why is it that essentially no modern “Republicans” are Protestant? Whatever it is that has gone wrong, on each side, can be put right. But first we have to identify, and accept, what went wrong.

In closing, I am not here representing the Alliance Party but I would like to say a few words about it. In the past three months, our party membership has grown by more than 10%, the fastest growth since foundation. Naturally this is welcome, but it dramatically changes the party – as people who are openly “Unionist” and openly “Nationalist” choose to join the party in the interests of a “shared future”. This changes us – it moves us away from being a party of the “neither” or “none” to the party of the “both” and “all”. Where once the Alliance Party was a default home for those who rejected “Unionism” and “Nationalist”, it now incorporates them. That will be a challenge – the “change challenge” – as the party comes to assess issues of identity, symbolism and so on in a way it had never done before.
The Alliance Party stands for a “Shared Future”. This does mean “equality”, “parity of esteem”, “reconciliation” and so on – but it also means judging people on merit, incorporating a sense of fair play, not being afraid to reward hard work and efficiency, even promoting a dose of good old common sense! A “Shared Future” – and indeed “parity of esteem”, “reconciliation” and “equality” – is the precise opposite of “Nationalism”. “Nationalism” seeks to promote the values and interests of one particular “nation” (or, in our case, “community”), in the worst case suggesting these are superior to another nation’s or community’s and even in the best case suggesting they can be “equalized” with those of another nation in a way always bound to create instability. A “Shared Future”, on the other hand, seeks to promote the values and interests of everyone, as equal citizens of the same homeland. So here is your “change challenge” – are the values of Irish Republicanism, in its traditional form, more adequately represented by the narrow interests of “Nationalism” or the broad interests of a “Shared Future”? I think it’s the latter!

Finally, therefore, my own work is to broaden the appeal of Loyalism – as once the focal point of an outward-looking industrial and trading heritage; and to broaden the appeal of a “Shared Future” – to incorporate rather than reject people’s various identities. If you could broaden the appeal of Republicanism, and make its past as an outward-looking, radical, civic tradition more relevant to the future, I think that future will be very bright.

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