Belfast Telegraph

An opportunity exists for reconciling aspirations

Inexorably, the day is approaching when unionists and republicans sit down and discuss the past face to face, says Brian Rowan

Dup MP Jeffrey Donaldson asked: "Why now?" And then there was another question: "What's behind this?" He was thinking out loud about a recent article in republican newspaper An Phoblacht, by Sinn Fein national chairman Declan Kearney, and then a follow-up speech at Easter.

That was delivered by Kearney at the republican commemoration in Milltown Cemetery; a speech, like the An Phoblacht article, that had as its central theme reconciliation and healing hurt.

Donaldson suggested: "They [republicans] are keen to find a process to draw a line." But he added: "We are not going to allow a re-writing of the history of the Troubles.

"If Sinn Fein think the narrative of the Troubles is about portraying the forces of the state as bad guys and the IRA as good guys, that simply will not be allowed to happen."

He also told me that any process to deal with the past must examine the role of the Irish Government and its forces.

His party, he said, was involved in discussions on the past, "which will result in our position being made very clear". Donaldson has said he accepts the IRA has "gone" - that it is "no longer active in any form". He made those comments in response to something else Kearney said - something said to be heard by the various dissident groups: "Make no mistake, there is no other IRA, here in Belfast or anywhere else, and there is no armed struggle to be finished."

The mainstream IRA war is long over and Donaldson accepts this on the basis of security and intelligence briefings he receives.

But he, like Kearney, also knows continuing armed actions by dissidents are a lingering threat that cannot be ignored. The dissident faction used a man in a balaclava and threatening words to find its way into the news; to send out a message, that whatever is being said elsewhere, it hasn't gone away.

And Kearney knows there is work still to be done inside his community; conversations still to be had.

"Some republicans oppose the peace process by militarist and political means," he said. "There is a political imperative upon us to attempt purposeful engagement with all republicans and that includes those who oppose Sinn Fein."

What we are hearing in recent days relates to the unfinished business and the next business of the peace process; the question of the dissident threat and how best to address the hurts of the past.

The latter is not about a "goodies" and "baddies"-type re-writing of the narrative, but about something much more serious. And it is something that will require the DUP and Jeffrey Donaldson to eventually speak directly to Sinn Fein and Declan Kearney.

Others from the Protestant/loyalist community are already engaged in private, off-stage conversations with republicans on this issue of the past. And, in other places, we read other responses.

On journalist Eamonn Mallie's website, the former senior police officer Peter Sheridan - who was himself targeted by the IRA - wrote: "I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to play our part in the current conversation.

"If - as some believe - this is a ruse by Sinn Fein, then in genuine dialogue it will be outed.

"For my part, I believe that engagement in the debate is much more likely to help all of us get beyond that past."

His challenge to everyone - including politicians - is to talk and to do so in the same rooms; to speak inside the debate, not outside it.

There is an opportunity to do it now; and to write into the narrative the maximum information and explanation - from all sides and not just one side.

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