Today, I had the chance to read a piece by Connall McDevitt, SDLP MLA for South Belfast over on Eamonn Mallie’s site where he was discussing the notion of reconciliation among the main ‘warring tribes’ in the North and how the truth is also needed, in what he suggests are ‘are two sides of the same coin‘. This piece is the latest in a long series which Brian Rowan and Eamonn Mallie have been running with following on from Declan Kearney’s initial piece in An Phoblacht where he challenged Republicans to say sorry, not for the reason for their actions but for the human cost of all of their actions. This apology would be part of a larger reconciliation process involving all actors here in the North.
Very little of what Connall says is controversial and he ties in his experience of living in post-Franco era Spain and the ‘grand bargain’ the state’s main political stakeholders made with one another on an amnesty for previous Franco era actions so that instead of civil society in Spain tearing itself apart due to bitter recriminations from its (then) recent past it would instead concentrate on the future with a post Agreement North and the observation that society here is not reconciled with one another and the actions of our political representatives including the men of arms they may have supported, whether state forces or paramilitaries.
To be fair, whilst Connall’s piece was at times well reasoned and somewhat rambling in relation to his own personal history growing up in Andalusia and his early activism, I felt somewhat deflated by it in the main. Why? Well, I don’t know what Connall was trying to say. Is he trying to have a go at Declan Kearney’s initiative at kick starting reconciliation where we all have a talk and create a mechanism where we all get to hear our truth? Is he merely giving his opinion that we require truth and reconciliation if this place is to progress and become a ‘normal society’ (whatever that means)? If I were cynical, I could even ask was it petty political point scoring by noting in the main the violence of the IRA, for example the loss of Anne Travers’ sister, Mary, and her campaign against the appointment of Mary McArdle as a special adviser owing to her involvement in the murder, whilst not mentioning much in the way of state and loyalist paramilitary violence against nationalists in general. Some may level an accusation of ‘whataboutery’ against me or someone pointing this out, which is fair, however, I would note that I am merely highlighting that he focused on IRA violence and made passing references to other violent actors. Unfortunately, my rather cynical question will be something that many in the North will ask and Connall is big enough to answer for himself on that score.
From the outset I must declare, I am not a member of any political party and come election time my vote is up for grabs to any nationalist who I feel is in tune with what I want and is also, in my opinion, a good representative of their community. Moving on, Connall notes in his opening stanza that:
‘We are not all to blame for the troubles. That is the first message I want to send those like Sinn Fein Chairperson, Declan Kearney who are suggesting that we all, somehow, have to share responsibility for what happened.‘
I think Connall may actually be misreading what Declan Kearney has been saying, whether this is deliberate or not who knows, but talk of all of ‘us’ having some kind of responsibility for the troubles and needing to reconcile with one another is, I believe, rather stretching the intention of Kearney’s words. By ‘us’, I believe Kearney means society in general needs to reconcile itself with our collective past, each community as opposed to absolutely everyone in the North going outside and having a group hug.
He further goes on to note in the next stanza that:
‘Former IRA and Sinn Fein leaders seem to suggest that this is not so. That is a disingenuous approach which will do nothing to transform our island or heal the divisions of the past.‘
Unfortunately, the link brings us merely to Eamonn Mallie’s homepage rather than develop this point. However, I find this assertion of Connall’s slightly at odds with what has been said by Declan Kearney on numerous occasions in this series and also slightly disingenuous on his part. Whilst I do not know where these discussions will take us, especially in light of the fact that there is no general amnesty in effect as there was in Spain, nor are all parties taking part in the discussions, it has been noted that every topic is on the table in these discussions, so you would imagine there would be talk of how to discuss the truth behind each actors deeds whether it is the rationale or the operational aspects of an act. To be fair, who would be willing to have reconciliation without the truth? As Connall noted, they are two sides of the same coin after all.
The problem I have is that while I am somewhat skeptical of the whole reconciliation process, not because I think it is not a noble cause but due to the nature of the creation of the North by way of a sectarian headcount I believe that it (the North) is actually irreconcilable in its current guise, and I am also pretty certain that the issue of reconciliation will be heavily politicised by various parties (or perhaps stakeholders is a better word for parties?) into a blame game.
I sincerely hope that I am wrong on this and for what it is worth I wish the likes of Brian Rowan et al who are driving and/or facilitating these conversations all the very best of luck; they are acting as honest brokers and should be commended. My worry is that as there were no clear winners from the Troubles, an era Ian Paisley Jnr on Tuesday described as ‘the dirtiest war ever this side of Kosovo‘ (I thought it wasn’t a war?), it means that a victor is unable to press the terms of any peace (amongst civic society in the social sense) without agreement from all, something that is in short supply unless all are confronted without much of a choice.
I found particularly interesting UDA leader Jackie McDonald’s thoughts and misgivings on the reconciliation process in general:
‘There are a lot of skeletons in the cupboard. It’s about who are the guilty parties. It’s not just the IRA, or the UDA or the other paramilitary groups. There are a lot of skeletons in the cupboards. There are a lot of things that have been done wrong. And if everybody was to hold their hands up and admit it [the fear is] that the IRA would probably come out of it smelling like roses more than anybody else.‘
I find this proposition hard to believe in all fairness, Bloody Friday, Kingsmill and La Mon clearly are testament that there is some truth in what Ian Paisley Jnr said on Tuesday, but it does strike me that this initiative will be one without mainstream political unionism effectively joining in and one which many unionist commentators tetchily dismiss out of hand, thus meaning we will not have a mechanism to find out the truth come the end of all of this.