Belfast Telegraph

Unionists must realise it would do them good to talk

Republicans have kick-started a debate on the past. Not engaging with it is an own goal unionists can ill afford, says Brian Rowan

There are people out there wondering what the Provisionals are up to. Why this reconciliation dialogue has begun; why that word 'sorry' has been introduced. And why now?

It began three months ago, with an article written in the republican newspaper An Phoblacht by Declan Kearney, Sinn Fein's national chair, and it has been developing since.

What lifted it onto the public stage were those weekend speeches by Kearney and Martin McGuinness at their party's ard fheis; revealing a private dialogue with people "from within Protestant churches, loyalism, business, community and civic life".

DUP MP Gregory Campbell issued a dismissive statement yesterday: "For nearly a decade now, Sinn Fein have been pursuing this notion of talks with carefully selected people from the unionist community. It started off with so-called outreach to unionists; now it is supposed to be about reconciliation."

And he had a message for the republican leadership: "They need to realise that our Britishness cannot be negotiated away, just as it couldn't be blasted away."

Sinn Fein did not select those they are talking to. It is a group of people from the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community that has come together; recognising, they believe, something significant in Kearney's words.

In his An Phoblacht article, the senior republican challenged his community to use the word 'sorry' - not as an apology for the IRA 'war', but to acknowledge the human hurt of all armed actions. Kearney also knows that this is not just about one side's sorry'.

He has been urging political unionists to get involved in the talks. But there are those who fear that this is some clever ploy by republicans to try to lure them into a united Ireland.

It is not. And if it were, then those involved would not be in the room. They include people such as: Lord Alderdice, a former commissioner with the IMC, the body that monitored the IRA transition from war to peace; UDA leader Jackie McDonald and other loyalists; Alan McBride, who lost his wife and father-in-law in the Shankill Road bomb; former Methodist president Harold Good, a church witness to IRA decommissioning in 2005 and Presbyterian minister the Rev Lesley Carroll, who was part of the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past.

She wants political unionists involved in this conversation with Kearney and other republicans, including Ted Howell, who for decades has been closely identified with Gerry Adams.

"There need to be people with a political mandate there," Rev Carroll wrote on journalist Eamonn Mallie's website. "And, if the unionist people haven't mandated their leadership to get out and tell how it has been for the unionist community, then I am not sure what they have been mandated to do," she continued. She described war as 'dirty': "And it makes a society dirty, too."

In that observation, we see the bigger challenge in these talks. If this process is about 'healing hurts' then it is not just about the IRA.

There is much to be sorry for and it cannot be reduced to a narrow, one-sided demand.

At the weekend, Kearney again urged political unionist to get involved and the Rev Harold Good - a key figure in the developing dialogue - emphasised: "This must be all-inclusive. It's about finding ways of bringing everyone and all parties into this conversation."

Dealing with the past has become an industry here, in which much of the conversation goes round in circles. That cannot go on forever. Maybe this developing initiative can begin to shape something.

"Republicans have opened a door," the Rev Carroll said. "But if no one goes in, they will have the high moral ground and that would be a pointless victory for them and an own goal for unionism."

She is telling the DUP and Ulster Unionists to take their seats at the table.

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