Politicians from Republic of Ireland take guided tour of Shankill
A Sinn Fein TD inspired by the hunger strikers was among politicians from the Republic given a tour of the loyalist Shankill yesterday by local community workers.
Senators and TDs from the Oireachtas's Good Friday Committee accepted the invitation as part of a two-day visit to Belfast.
Fine Gael Senator Frank Feighan said the views of unionists had not been heard since the committee was established in 2007.
"I can understand the difficulties but we feel that it is a very important forum and we'd love to see a unionist voice on that committee," he said.
"We're up to listen. Trips like this are very important, now more than ever without Stormont sitting for over a year.
"We can't allow a political vacuum to be filled by people who have a divisive agenda."
Fianna Fail TD Declan Breathnach added: "We've decided, because of that lack of participation, to get out and meet people on all sides to hear their arguments and difficulties in an attempt to try and create an Ireland for all regardless of your persuasion."
Chair of the committee, Sinn Fein TD Sean Crowe, said: "We are up here to listen."
Mr Crowe, who once described the 1981 hunger strikers as his greatest inspiration in republican newspaper An Phoblacht, added: "We probably all have preconceived ideas about how we can solve our problems but, at the end of the day, it's by listening to people and engaging in dialogue, that is the way forward."
Independent Senator Frances Black made her first visit to the Shankill yesterday.
She urged local politicians not to squander the progress made since the 1998 peace deal.
"I believe in the Good Friday Agreement, I believe it's very important for peace here," she said.
She said the lack of political agreement came down to a breakdown in communication.
"I know they've been trying, but it's important never to give up and keep that communication open," she added.
"Maybe our presence here today might help in some way."
Ian McLaughlin from the Lower Shankill Community Association acted as a walking tour guide for the visitors.
"We hope today is the start of an engagement process between ourselves and members of the committee," he said.
On the lack of unionist involvement previously, he added: "We believe that we're open for engagement. The current climate we're in lends itself to that. We're absolutely delighted to try and put a viewpoint across to this committee.
"In relation to the Good Friday Agreement and its impact on our communities, we hope that it's the beginning of meaningful dialogue."
Yesterday's visit was organised through the LEGaSi project, funded by the peace-building charity Co-operation Ireland, which aims to help people within Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) areas to strengthen their communities.
Dr Alan Largey from Co-operation Ireland said: "We are very happy to follow on the conversation that began when the LEGaSi group visited the Dail last May and look forward to a continuation of the constructive dialogue with the committee."