A piecemeal approach to reconciliation cannot last
Republicans sharing a platform in honour of a loyalist murdered by the IRA is just the latest 'Through the Looking Glass' moment, says Brian Rowan
Two upcoming events - one this evening and the other tomorrow - would have been difficult to imagine not that many years ago.
The first, at Westminster, will see Sinn Fein's national chairman Declan Kearney deliver a keynote address on reconciliation.
At that event, he will be joined on a panel by former IMC Commissioner Lord Alderdice and former NIO minister Baroness Smith.
John Reid, secretary of state during the Castlereagh break-in and 'Stormontgate' period, is also expected to be there.
Then, tomorrow evening in Lisburn, the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) will host the John McMichael Memorial Debate - the first in a series of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the murder of one of the UDA's most senior leaders.
At Westminster, the Kearney address is the next step in a reconciliation initiative that began over a year ago and was given impetus when he wrote an article for the republican newspaper An Phoblacht at the beginning of March. In it, he used the word 'sorry' - challenging others to acknowledge the hurt caused by all armed actions.
But there are those who fear this initiative is becoming another 'talking in circles' conversation, without obvious signs of progress; the fear is it could run into the sand.
So, north Belfast Presbyterian Minister Lesley Carroll argues: "We need to change the dynamic."
She wrote recently of a sense of being lost in a maze and she wants this initiative to have a sharper focus - some better understanding of what it is trying to achieve.
The Rev Carroll was part of the Eames/Bradley consultative group on the past and is now part of a group from the Protestant community involved in private contacts with Sinn Fein. In recent days, the group met with Kearney, Mitchel McLaughlin and Ted Howell, who for several decades has been part of Gerry Adams's 'kitchen cabinet'.
But there is no point in an initiative that just talks. Something needs to happen; what one other source described as "climate change".
And this will require not just better understanding of Sinn Fein's thinking on reconciliation and the past, but an idea also of the likely contributions from governments, politicians, loyalists and security forces/intelligence services.
The debate needs a better structure, a wider involvement of key parties. It cannot be one side deciding direction on these key questions, but all sides and within a process that has purpose and point.
Otherwise, we will travel through another series of anniversaries no closer to questions being answered: 25 years after the Enniskillen bomb next month; the 20th anniversaries of the Shankill and Greysteel atrocities next year.
The Westminster event is important in terms of a wider engagement on these issues and so, too, is the McMichael debate.
But, sooner rather than later, the talking needs to become structured within an information-sharing and questions and answers framework. Otherwise and forever, one anniversary, or one incident, or one question will be singled out and elevated above all the others.
Tomorrow, Sean Murray - one of the most senior figures in the IRA's 'war' - will participate in the McMichael debate. This is an indication of progress.
He will be on a panel with DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt and Paul Clissold of the Ulster Political Research Group.
Murray believes the panel "speaks volumes" of the progress that is being made and he describes as a "two-sided coin" his engagement with the loyalist/unionist community; they get a greater understanding of the republican position and he hears "their worldview".
And these talking events are important - this one particularly significant, because Murray and another republican, Danny Morrison, are on the panel in a debate remembering a loyalist killed by an IRA bomb.
But Lesley Carroll is right: the bigger project on reconciliation needs steered, needs direction and needs every side to be involved.