How can we give young people hope for future?
Published 17/08/2012 | 08:00
Declan Kearney, Sinn Fein's National chairman, is doing his level best to raise a debate about reconciliation but is, so far, getting a fairly dusty reception from 'political unionism'.
It is starting to get to him and the frustration is making him sound exasperated and preachy. "Those unionists who describe our vision of reconciliation as a republican con-job on unionists, or who demand so-called tangible actions from republicans to match our words, are locked into a tired narrative of 'what aboutery','' he complained during a meeting at Londonderry's Gasyard Féile last Monday.
Why would unionists regard talk of reconciliation as a con-job? The clue comes a few lines later in his speech when he tells his Derry audience that "reconciliation is indivisible from nation building".
It may not be quite the same thing but many unionists will see it as evidence that Mr Kearney is indeed softening them up for the sucker punch.
Many unionist politicians will hear his words as saying that building reconciliation is the same thing as building a united Ireland and they will pull back.
That is a mistake because in reality there is no reason to believe that reconciliation will lead in that direction at all. So far the evidence points in the other direction - once the peace process got bedded down, support for Irish unity fell.
Both the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey and our own LucidTalk poll in June show less than half of Catholics put any priority on political union. That makes it very unlikely that it will be achieved by Mr Kearney's generation of republicans.
On the other hand Irish identity and culture is strong, growing and respected. It is obvious that many people cultivate and embrace their Irish identity within Northern Ireland. Interest in the GAA, our largest spectator and participant sport, is growing and it is making some inroads into state schools.
Many people, including a class on the Shankill, are learning or speaking the language.
The broadcaster William Crawley, a lapsed Presbyterian minister, is making a documentary about his efforts to do so and has taken to saying "sin e!" (that's it) at the end of some broadcasts.
This gives Northern Ireland a different flavour, but being relaxed about Irishness doesn't mean the border is about to vanish. Sinn Fein sometimes seems to be in denial about normalisation. For instance republicans supported the removal of 'Welcome to Northern Ireland' signs from our roads.
They seem to have forgotten that Northern Ireland's existence was underwritten by the Good Friday Agreement and simultaneous referenda on both sides of the border. So unionists can take predictions that reconciliation will finish off Northern Ireland with a large pinch of salt. He has no crystal ball.
The fact is that, wherever it leads, reconciliation is worth pursuing.
Mr Kearney's programme of ending "the continued sectarianism, entrenched divisions, and the fear which have existed here for decades" is worthwhile.
It is time for our politicians to stop obsessing on our increasingly porous border with the republic and instead focusing on how we live together and avoid passing on the cancer of sectarianism to another generation.