Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein duo in talks with top UDA figures

By Brian Rowan

Senior loyalists have held talks with the Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney — the latest move in a reconciliation initiative designed to address the hurts of the Troubles.

This was the first specific loyalist/republican engagement and the conversation was facilitated by the former Methodist president Rev Harold Good, a witness to IRA decommissioning.

The meeting in Belfast on Tuesday involved Kearney and Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey.

They met UDA leaders Jackie McDonald and John Bunting, and former life-sentence prisoner John Howcroft.

None of those involved was prepared to reveal the fine detail of their discussions, which are part of what is being described as a private dialogue.

McDonald would only tell the Belfast Telegraph: “It was an interesting conversation. We’ve learned another bit about each other and we will meet again.”

The meeting is understood to have lasted about 90 minutes.

McDonald and Howcroft had been involved in previous talks, but as part of a much wider group from the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community.

But this was Bunting’s first meeting with Kearney, coming as part of this first direct republican/ loyalist engagement.

Speaking to this newspaper, Bunting suggested there was no fixed agenda, describing Tuesday’s talks as “more off-the-cuff”.

The north Belfast UDA leaders said: “The meeting was more about understanding where we are coming from and where they are coming from.”

Rev Good told the Belfast Telegraph: “The fact that this kind of dialogue can now take place, and the spirit in which people are prepared to engage, shows how far we have travelled.

“Perhaps it is an example for others,” he said.

Kearney is the lead Sinn Fein figure in this reconciliation initiative. It is being developed in off-stage discussions that were publicly revealed at his party’s recent ard fheis. The dialogue builds on an article he wrote for the republican newspaper An Phoblacht back in March.

In it Kearney raised the possibility of republicans using the word ‘sorry’ to acknowledge the hurt caused by all armed actions.

This was one of the issues loyalists wanted to explore at Tuesday’s meeting.

“For me it’s a chance to listen to and understand their particular positions,” Howcroft told this newspaper.

On the question of ‘sorry’, Rev Good said: “Like many journeys, we set out not knowing exactly where it’s going to take us, but in sharing the journey with others it leads you into a new understanding and relationship, which opens up as yet unseen possibilities.

“Sorry is never one-sided,” he said.

A Sinn Fein spokesman confirmed the meeting had taken place, adding that senior party figures, including Kearney and Martin McGuinness, had publicly indicated a republican commitment to “developing a genuine process of national reconciliation”.

“This is part of all of that,” he said.

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