Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

We can't share the future if we live in the past

As the reaction to our exclusive about an IRA spy turned school vice-principal showed, we are no closer to understanding the 'other side', says Alex Kane

The Dolours Price funeral
The Dolours Price funeral

If there is ever going to be anything resembling a 'shared future' here, then it must be built on a combination of both trust and a long-term willingness to work together for the collective good.

But that, in turn, requires us to 'understand' each other. It requires us to come to terms with what the 'other side' did.

Indeed, it probably requires us to put ourselves in 'their' shoes and accept that, had the positions been reversed, we would have done much the same thing.

Yet once you pursue that line of thought it raises the possibility of accepting – admitting, even – that the 'other side' had a point.

It raises the possibility of having to say the words, "I can understand why you joined the IRA, or why you became involved with the UVF. Your personal circumstances dictated the decisions you made. We all bear collective responsibility. Let's work together to make sure we never repeat the mistakes of the past."

So, how likely is it that a unionist could ever stand up in the Assembly (or anywhere else for that matter) and say something like, "Difficult though it is for me to say it, had I been born a nationalist and been treated as a second-class citizen by successive unionist governments, I would probably have supported Sinn Fein and the armed struggle"?

I think we all know the answer to that question. There's hardly a day goes by when a unionist MLA doesn't refer to 'former terrorists' – even if his own party sits in the Executive with Sinn Fein.

Look at the unionist response to the Belfast Telegraph's exclusive story about former IRA member Rosa McLaughlin being appointed a school vice-principal.

Sinn Fein got on its high horse and talked about reconciliation, rehabilitation and being willing to 'put the past behind us and focus on the future'.

Yet it seems to be forgotten that McLaughlin was recruited and on so-called 'active' duty at a time when the IRA was supposed to be on ceasefire.

She, along with others, was preparing for the restart of the terror: and that, to most unionists, says more about her character and suitability than any amount of glowing references to her teaching skills.

Again, look at the unionist reaction to the news that Shankill bomber Sean Kelly had been arrested and questioned about a shooting in Belfast.

It was widely assumed, irrespective of the evidence, or eventual truth, that he must still be a terrorist.

Peter Robinson issued a statement noting the "involvement of those associated with Sinn Fein in this attack. This connection raises potentially grave consequences for the [peace] process..."

There was a Sinn Fein presence at the funeral of Dolours Price, someone who believed that republican 'dissidents' were right to continue the 'armed struggle'. I see no evidence whatsoever that anyone in mainstream unionism (or loyalism, or civic unionism) believes the IRA had any justification for what it did.

Even those who acknowledge that unionism should have reached out and been more inclusive will never accept that unionist governments were so bad as to deserve 30 years of a terror campaign.

Similarly, no one in republicanism or nationalism is ever going to stand up and say, "Actually, Northern Ireland was never so bad that life here became intolerable for non-unionists. We could probably have done more ourselves to get involved in the political process, rather than having mostly opted out for so long. And we could probably concentrate more on building better relationships within unionism than focusing on Irish unity at every opportunity."

That's the blunt reality of our present situation; the bedrock and underpinning of our ongoing stalemate – we do not understand each other. We don't even want to understand each other.

We see everything in orange or green, or black and white, with no hint of either turquoise or grey.

Everything will always be referenced back to some past grievance or manufactured sleight. In a recent speech – the one in which he told 'dissidents' that their tactics were interfering with his border poll campaign – Gerry Adams went back to the moment when "England first involved itself in Irish affairs".

In a political process in which 800-year-old events are still viewed as recent and reversible, it strikes me as very unlikely that agreement is going to be reached anytime soon on constructing a future together.

You cannot shift into a post-conflict process if both sides believe that the responsibility for the conflict rests squarely – or mostly – with the 'other side'. You cannot easily clear up a mess if you believe that it is not of your making.

And no integrated school is ever going to get past the problem that we still blame each other for what has happened: because no version of history is ever going to be acceptable to both sides.

The Alliance Party has a point when it says that it may require 'outsiders' to bring the sort of clarity and understanding we need to construct a shared future.

But I wouldn't over-egg that option; the last 'outsiders' guided us to conflict stalemate, rather than conflict resolution.

The next step is for a few brave souls – on both sides – to stand in the shoes of their opponents and view the past from their perspective. Let's get on with it.

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