Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Changed times as Martin's thoughts are with the Queen

Protesters outside the Sinn Fein-organised conference entitled Belfast: A City of Equals in an Island of Equals at the Europa Hotel in Belfast City centre on Friday
Protesters outside the Sinn Fein-organised conference entitled Belfast: A City of Equals in an Island of Equals at the Europa Hotel in Belfast City centre on Friday

Sometimes it's easy to forget just how far Northern Ireland has progressed in recent years. Events like yesterday serve as a timely reminder.

It wasn't only that the venue was Belfast's iconic Europa Hotel, the target of numerous IRA bombs during the Troubles.

It was about who was there and, more importantly, what they were saying.

Inside the packed room sat leading figures from Sinn Fein and the republican movement, the PSNI chief constable, a former member of the Parachute Regiment and a man whose wife died in an IRA bombing.

Yet this wasn't a day about looking back on the past, it was about focusing on the future.

Martin McGuinness spoke of how his home city of Derry has progressed in recent years and how it serves as a role model for others to follow.

Alan McBride, whose wife Sharon and father-in-law John Frizell died in the Shankill bombing, described his journey from a protester outside Sinn Fein offices to someone who, in his words, had come in from the cold.

He referred to the progress made but warned there was still a long way to go.

So too Glenn Bradley, a former member of the Paras, who spoke of the need to "bust myths".

An example of the bridges which still need to be mended was outside where a group of around 20 loyalist protesters were gathered, heckling Mr McGuinness and Gerry Adams as they arrived at the conference.

They waved union flags and held placards which read "PSNI -- Gerry Kelly's puppets" and "Equality for Loyalists".

Inside, however, the mood was relaxed.

Security journalist Brian Rowan, who chaired the conference, opened by joking that anyone who didn't want to sit beside Matt Baggott should move to the back of the room, while those wishing to avoid Gerry Adams should head to the front.

Anyone wanting to avoid John O'Dowd didn't have to worry, he added, because the Education Minister wasn't coming.

Remarks by Mr O'Dowd before the conference had led to Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt pulling out.

Once underway, much of the dialogue touched on reconciliation and reaching out to the loyalist community.

Writing in a programme for the event, Mr McGuinness quoted Martin Luther King: "People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other."

He said he would love to attend events in loyalist heartlands such as East Belfast or Portadown but invitations were few and far between.

At one point Mr McGuinness also referred to Prince Philip's admission to hospital, and extended his best wishes to the duke.

A small gesture perhaps, but one which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

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