Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Mike Nesbitt: We can't move forward without an agreed past

As long as republicans believe that their terrorism was justified, reconciliation will remain an impossibility, writes Mike Nesbitt

Mike Nesbitt - UUP leader
Mike Nesbitt - UUP leader

I am sure Sinn Fein's leadership would be horrified today if anyone planted a bomb like the ones that used to go off in Belfast city centre. The problem is that, for a long time, Sinn Fein argued that conditions existed that justified terrorism.

If you make that argument, you provoke three conflicting opinions: there are those who share my view – that the conditions never existed and that no one needed to die to get where we are today; then there are those who agree with Martin McGuinness – that the conditions for violence did exist, but not anymore; and the third argument – used by those who continue to murder – is that the conditions still exist.

If you accept the principle that there can be conditions that justify terrorism, you write the handbook that people from the republican community continue to use to justify terrorist murders.

We also need to consider the term 'dissident'. What does it mean? It's not the use of violence. It's disagreement over whether 'the conditions' justify it.

That makes them no more or less dissident than Martin McGuinness is from my position that the conditions never existed. So, if we want to build a shared rather than a shared-out future, I challenge republicans to address that issue, because for as long as republicans hold to the view that their terrorism was justified, I struggle to see how reconciliation is possible.

This is not to say that all bad decisions were made by republicans. Unionists need to reconcile themselves to some inconvenient truths. Sectarianism and bigotry is not the exclusive preserve of the other community.

I have no doubt that unionism made mistakes, at policy and practical levels. We need to reconcile ourselves to the fact of our own imperfections if we are to have the confidence to discuss how to do things better tomorrow.

It is time to engage in difficult conversations. However, they must be conducted on the basis of sincerity and good faith.

We cannot build a shared future unless the foundation stones of dealing with the past and reconciliation are first secured. A good starting-point would be to agree what these terms mean.

Tricolours and the Irish language do not intimidate me. When we start a meaningful discussion about flags, symbols and emblems, I shall enter that discussion with a spirit of generosity.

But in return I ask for acknowledgement of a key fact: the Belfast Agreement, the St Andrews Agreement and the Hillsborough Agreement were all enacted within an understanding that Belfast and Northern Ireland are part of the United Kingdom. The Union flag should be raised above the debate about symbols and emblems.

The decision regarding the flag at Belfast City Hall was regrettable on several fronts, all of which created suspicion and hostility in the unionist community, leaving people unsure of republican motives.

Was that deliberate? Actions have consequences and one of the consequences is that people start thinking the worst of others.

Can republicans reconcile themselves to the fact that the Union flag is the flag of this country? Equally, can unionists demonstrate confidence in their own position by showing a generosity of spirit when we debate symbols and emblems below Union flag level?

Can we admit we left stones unturned that permitted republicans to claim – wrongly – that the conditions existed that justified terrorism? I am reconciled to having those conversations.

Start with what we can all agree. A healthy, safe, prosperous, welcoming Belfast that demonstrates generosity in recognising differences in identity and culture.

A city that recognises that, while it is part of the United Kingdom, it is not as British as Finchley.

To those who call themselves patriots, I give you with this definition of patriotism from the great poet John Hewitt: "Patriotism has to do with keeping the country in good heart, the community ordered with justice and mercy."

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