Compassion and equality the key to ending division
Wolfe Tone aspired to a vision of 'a cordial union among all the people of Ireland'. But how do we put that into practice today, asks Gerry Adams
A friend – a unionist – once told me: "The wise man builds his house upon the rock." Given our divided, tragic and often violent history, there is more sense in that short sentence than in many of the profound statements of the last 20 years.
As we collectively seek to chart a course forward, our starting-point has to be a recognition that building a new society means rooting it in firm foundations.
It's easy to talk about rights and freedoms. Equality and parity of esteem are words that are frequently bandied about.
But do we really know what they mean? Are we prepared for the compromises that these values demand of us? Nelson Mandela, who demonstrated wisdom, compassion and vision beyond most of our understanding, remarked that: "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
So, how do we in the 21st century set aside our past failures and build that house upon a rock in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others?
If I have learned anything in the 50 years since I became involved in republican politics, it is the value of listening and talking.
The failure of political leaderships to do this has left the north with one of the most deeply divided societies in Europe.
This is evident in the traditional voting patterns, segregated living and education systems and – most obviously – in the separation walls that scar Belfast. Nationalists, unionists, republicans and loyalists all have different opinions on why these divisions exist.
For republicans, they are rooted in the English conquest, the plantations, the partition of Ireland and the sectarian politics that have for four centuries been exploited to sustain these divisions.
Only once in the last 400 years have we witnessed a brief moment when, for some, those divisions were replaced by a common purpose. The United Irish Society, founded in Belfast, had as its goal the unity of 'Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter'.
Wolfe Tone, a member of the Church of Ireland, and the father of Irish republicanism, captured the spirit of what republicans of his and this generation seek to achieve when he wrote about the need for a "cordial union among all the people of Ireland".
How do we achieve that? For some, the way forward is to repeat the mistakes of the past; for others, it's about trying to build a better future – one that recognises that great hurt was done by all sides before and during the conflict. We need to heal those hurts in a positive and neighbourly manner.
The Sinn Fein-organised conference in the Europa Hotel tomorrow is part of our contribution to this. It is about listening and talking and finding solutions, based on equality, with our unionist neighbours.
I am an Irish republican. I believe citizens have rights. These include the right to a home, the right to a job, the right to access to education, to a health service from the cradle to the grave, the right to a safe, clean environment and to civil and religious liberties.
I also believe that these can best be achieved in a new republic and in a united Ireland. I believe that such a step makes economic and political sense. Unionists have a different view. They believe that their sense of 'Britishness' and their rights and entitlements can best be guaranteed through the retention of the Union with Britain.
The Good Friday Agreement has created a democratic process by which these opposing positions can be discussed and resolved. And, in this new dispensation, we each have a responsibility to validate the right of the other to hold to their opinion.
The future has to be about persuasion and dialogue and equality.
That's the focus of tomorrow's conference: to learn from the past, to find solutions to contentious issues, to build a fair and just society for the future, to reject those who want to turn the clock back, to find ways to end segregation and to talk about building a house that can accommodate everyone.