In the second of a series of seminars organised by Niamh Mental Wellbing, Reverend Dr Gary Mason facilitated a civic engagement in a packed room at Skainos on the Newtownards Road, Belfast.
The discussants were Declan Kearney (Sinn Féin), Reverend Harold Good (former President, Methodist Church in Ireland) and Nelson McCausland MLA (substituting for Jeffrey Donaldson MP).
For Mr Kearney, national reconciliation is for Protestant, Catholic, Dissenter and those of no religious affiliation and beyond. His concern is that the journey of reconciliation gets reduced to a political blame game.
Yet the prospect for reconciliation “could make us all winners”, he continued, but only if based on mutual respect and the assistance of civic society.
He saw the Stormont House Agreement as a catalyst for reconciliation, by establishing the framework for such a process.
And he agreed with Rev. Mason’s assertion that we must all be willing to engage in “uncomfortable conversations”.
Mr Kearney called for a genuine unity of purpose, required now more than ever: “It’s time to make reconciliation the new phase of the peace process.”
Reverend Good began by mooting the question, do we really need reconciliation? The strong consensus in our society is, yes we do.
But what does national reconciliation actually mean?
He applied a broad dictionary definition, that of friendship between former adversaries.
Citing the progress in the relationships between the northern and southern parts of this island, as well as between the British and Irish governments, he said that the real challenge is to reconcile within this part of the island.
So what would a reconciled community here look like? Rev. Good held up a copy of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement booklet, saying, “This is a good starting point.”
Furthermore, he described the origins and practice of National Reconciliation Week in Australia, which commemorates relatively recent events.
“How about we commemorate the 1998 Agreement?” Rev. Good asked the audience.
To achieve reconciliation here would require two attitudes, he suggested:
- Be realistic — but just because we’re not going to reconcile the narratives doesn’t mean we can’t be reconciled as a people
- Be serious — do we really want it; but to reconcile is an action verb not a noun
The Reverend ended with three words of theology — confession, grace and forgiveness; or for the secular — honesty, generosity and forgiveness. He doesn’t know of an alternative word for forgiveness.
And what is forgiveness? Rev. Good suggested that only those who forgive and those who have been forgiven know what it is.
Rev. Good concluded by quoting an inscription on a statue of nurse Edith Cavell that was executed for assisting both sides during World War I: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards any one.”
Nelson McCausland (DUP) began by reflecting how the topic of national reconciliation has not gained much traction in contemporary political discourse.
He made two major points to the audience:
- There are different views of what a nation might be; it does not need to be one nation for one island, giving the example of Scottish, English and Welsh nationalism on the neighbouring island
- Reconciliation does not need to be for unification, citing the current majority support for the maintenance of the Union
Mr McCausland called for reconciliation within a better and shared Northern Ireland, a place that is different from the rest of the United Kingdom and from the rest of Ireland. Here we have a mixture of peoples from elsewhere — English, Irish, and Scottish.
For him, forgiveness is preceded by demonstrations of remorse and repentance: “When I became a Christian, I repented and asked for forgiveness from God.”
Finally, Mr McCausland prefers any change in society to be incremental, because of the fear that can be caused by the proposal of sudden, major change.
The first of two formal responders was Dr Donna Hicks, who emphasised the role of dignity in both the creation and resolution of conflict — the restoration of dignity in society is the crucial link.
The Harvard University associate saw the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as not an emotionally acceptable agreement, reflected in the unaddressed issues — “the wounds that are still alive and need to be acknowledged”.
Dr Hicks acknowledged that jumping straight from hatred to forgiveness could be too much to ask, yet the recognition of dignity by all sides can serve a useful interim step in the process.
The next responder, former PUP leader Mr Brian Ervine, described nationality as something like beauty in the eye of the beholder, “and there’s some ugly ladies here!” He compared the historical one-party (Unionist Party) “corrupt state has now been replaced by a two-party corrupt state”.
For Mr Ervine, the Good Friday Agreement meant a spirit of generosity that has since evaporated: “Everyone is back in their silos; we need to have a shared culture, heal the wounds.”
To emphasise his point, he described a Quaker leaflet that depicted two donkeys, tied to each other, pulling apart with the consequence of neither reaching the piles of hay. Then when the donkeys approach each pile together, they eat twice. Interestingly, this very image was used in 1975 Alliance Party literature:
In the further question and answer session, the issue of the definition of a victim was discussed, with a criticism that current attempts by the DUP to codify a definition “is going the wrong way” and will take away recognition from more than the intended group.
Rev. Good went further, saying that to politicise the hurt, pain and grief of others is near unpardonable. Rather, there needs to be generosity in our attitudes and support of victims and survivors.
He answered the major objection to the Eames-Bradley Report — the proposal for a financial payment to those who have suffered — with an example elsewhere whereby recipients didn’t cash their cheques but framed them. It was the act of acknowledgement that mattered.
I directed my question to Mr McCausland, suggesting that the major changes in southern society — rapprochement with the British Government, dropping of their irredentist claims to the North, the increasing secularisation of its people — presents an opportunity in their reflection coming up to the centenary of its proclamation of independence.
“If reconciliation with northern nationalists is too much, then perhaps pursue it with southern nationalists. I reckon you’d have a willing audience,” I suggested.
He responded by acknowledging how Ireland today is far from deValera’s Free State for a Catholic nation, and that commemorations in the Republic will be far more tempered than those he remembered for the 50th in 1966. “But we’ll sit and watch” how they act.
Thus reconciliation with the Republic not yet on the contemporary unionist political discourse. “I wouldn’t just sit by and watch,” I replied.