Belfast Telegraph

How one past institution, the Civic Forum, can help give us a future

A revived and renewed Civic Forum – mothballed since 2002 – could play a crucial role in promoting reconciliation, says Declan Kearney

Richard Haass made an advance trip to the north last week before the all-party talks he will chair. While the timing of his visit was unconnected to the post-Twelfth violence, the coincidence is another reminder that we have still to fully embrace a culture of dialogue.

This is essential to give effect to the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement: parity of esteem, mutual respect and equal treatment.

There is an urgent need for fresh thinking. The post-Twelfth violence was demoralising. But bogus attempts to rationalise it as a response to a cultural war by republicans represent, for some, a desire to resurrect a failed past and avoid giving leadership for a shared future.

The sustained focus upon equality arises because inequality existed. Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, we must now agree the practical meaning of equality, respect and parity of esteem.

Orange traditions and British identity deserve respect. So, too, do Irish identity and republican tradition. But sectarian abuse, violence, or intolerance can be no part of either. Equality and parity of esteem are not about winners and losers. Their basis rests in compromise and accommodation, agreed through engagement and dialogue.

To accept that the current status quo is as good as it gets, is settling for less. Our people deserve better.

Republicans and unionists can become guarantors for a new phase of the peace process. We can do this with political leadership and a focus on bold initiatives to tackle sectarianism and segregation.

It will not be easy. Uncomfortable conversations will be unavoidable, but discussion threatens no-one.

There is a moral imperative to ensure future generations grow up in a better place than we did.

An inclusive healing process is required to address the suffering caused during the conflict.

It is an uncomfortable conversation in itself to accept the suffering of each other and the context of actions, practices and injustices, which created that pain. An initiative of common acknowledgement by all sides – British, Irish, republican and unionist – of the hurt and injustices caused by and to each other could bring a powerful new dynamic to the peace process.

It would challenge us all, but that is what conflict-resolution is about. Reconciliation must not be reduced to a poker game about the past. Unless we agree to decommission the past as a political weapon, it will continue to destabilise the future.

Colin Parry, whose son the IRA killed in Warrington, said: "Seeking personal justice may not always sit well with the search for peace. You may have to set aside your own goals for the greater good."

That may provoke uncomfortable feelings. But we need a new framework for the past.

As a community, we should begin inclusive discussions about the decisions and possible compromises required to stop the past holding back the future.

Sinn Fein believes our relationship with the past will be enabled with an authentic reconciliation process. Our priority must be to do our best to heal our community's wounds. Many things happened which we may all wish had been done differently, or not at all. As a society, we have much to forgive – and to have forgiven.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu advised: "Having looked the beast in the eye, having asked and received forgiveness, let us shut the door on the past, not to forget, but to allow it not to imprison us."

There is no design plan for reconciliation, but we share a responsibility – as churches, academics, business, civic society and politicians – to give leadership in spite of opposition and adversity. I believe the Civic Forum should be re-established as a vehicle for that task.

We have a strategic choice to make – to stay as we are, or open a new peace process phase – embracing reconciliation and guaranteeing equality and parity of esteem.

Belfast Telegraph

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