Belfast Telegraph

Stephen McCarthy: Mary Lou sees reconciliation as preparing for a New Ireland, not recognising people's hurt

Stephen McCarthy, a Catholic Ulster Unionist councillor from west Belfast, listened to Mary Lou McDonald’s appeal to unionism for reconciliation. Here, he argues that Sinn Fein’s approach to dealing with the past is more about being seen to do the right thing than actually doing it

Stephen McCarthy
Stephen McCarthy

Reconciliation is a word, a lot like equality, that Sinn Fein have actively campaigned to distort.

They have gone so far in making the word fit their definition, that Monday night's discussion at Queen's University between Mary Lou McDonald and representatives of 'civic unionism' was no more than a box-ticking exercise.

Her intended audience was not actually in the room.

It was more of an opportunity for Mary Lou McDonald to seem reasonable and almost compassionate to her own potential voters, by 'extending the hand of reconciliation', than meaningfully engaging with unionism on our divided, traumatic past.

It was rightfully pointed out during the Q&A afterwards that she managed to go through her entire speech on reconciliation without once mentioning the word compromise. This encapsulates the general overall tone of the evening.

In preparation for the event, my thoughts centred on apologies and remorse, with the apology of Gusty Spence in mind and how I have felt some closure on the UVF murder of my grandfather as a result.

I raised directly with the Sinn Fein President the point that reconciliation requires a degree of trust and that many in unionism view her as the leader of a political party that has succeeded an organisation that murdered and maimed their loved ones. I asked her about her view of an apology to the unionist people as a heartfelt gesture of recognising the hurt caused to them.

A gesture that would signal a sincerity upon which true reconciliation could be built.

What I got in response was an effective dismissal in her assertion that it would be unfair for her in turn to hang the burden of the actions of the British state and loyalist paramilitaries around my neck as a young unionist man.

We already have Sinn Fein establishing a reconciliation stalemate.

As a young unionist councillor from a nationalist background I am not accountable for the actions of armed loyalists - my family has been devastated at their hands and I wholeheartedly condemn the hurt that they have caused. Nor am I accountable for the actions of the state, but I wholeheartedly condemn those who have broken the law while serving and the hurt that it has caused. I welcomed David Cameron's apology to the people of Derry for Bloody Sunday.

It was the right thing to do and it set an example that Mary Lou McDonald seems incapable of following.

Even on Monday night when the stage was set, she mentioned the callous murder of Edgar Graham - not to comment on its cruel nature, to express remorse or provide condemnation, but simply to name-check for the unionists in the room.

For Mary Lou, reconciliation is about mopping up in preparation for a New Ireland (which in terms of content, was a much more dominant theme in her speech than reconciliation), rather than recognising the hurt, distrust and sense of injustice. Once again, victims and survivors are being politically used, only to be woefully let down.

I would again argue that the purpose of Sinn Fein's approach to reconciliation is more about being seen to do the right thing than actually doing it.

Mary Lou, in response to my question, referred to the IRA's apology to 'non-combatants' in 2002, but much like Monday's event, it wasn't the first step in a meaningful dialogue with those hurt or maimed.

It came from the anonymous P O'Neill rather than the leader and was printed in An Phoblacht - it was not aimed at victims in unionism or victims in general, it was not meant to signal a conciliatory change.

It was a political tactic, and so is this current effort.

Mary Lou McDonald performs well, she is personable and can deliver a speech.

Reconciliation requires much more substance than that.

Stephen McCarthy, a Catholic Ulster Unionist councillor from west Belfast, listened to Mary Lou McDonald's appeal to unionism for reconciliation. Here, he argues that Sinn Fein's approach to dealing with the past is more about being seen to do the right thing than actually doing it

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