SF’s difficult ‘psychological’ conversation needs to be with its own voters

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Last week, at the launch of Sinn Fein’s Towards An Agreed and Reconciled Future, Martin McGuinness suggested that some unionists have a “psychological problem with reconciliation … wondering if it’s a trick by Sinn Fein, a ruse by Sinn Fein.”

It’s neither a ruse nor a trick; but it is a key element of Sinn Fein’s ongoing journey towards a united Ireland.

As the document says, ‘Reconciliation is both a goal, something to achieve; and a process, a means to achieve that goal’.

That goal is Irish unity and Sinn Fein’s understanding of reconciliation is a process for preparing unionists for unity.

Speaking at the launch, Kathleen Funchion, Sinn Fein TD and chairperson of the Oireachtas Good Friday Agreement Committee said: “Over recent years republicans have embraced the challenge of reconciliation and healing. We do this because we recognise that the republic we aspire to is a new, reconciled Ireland. To achieve reconciliation and healing, however, we need to see reciprocation of our efforts.

“That will require mature leadership from political unionism because republicans alone cannot deliver reconciliation.”

In other words, unionists should embrace Sinn Fein’s concept of reconciliation because it makes it easier to deliver a reconciled, united Ireland, “which genuinely cherishes all her children equally”.

Last Friday Gerry Adams said that Sinn Fein was sending copies of another document, Towards A United Ireland, to Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and other party leaders and making it available on their website from this morning. “It sets out the arguments in support of Irish unity.

“Sinn Fein has a view of the kind of new Ireland that would work best, but others will have different opinions and ideas. The object of this initiative is to encourage the widest possible debate, including with unionists in the North, on the possible shape and detail of Irish unity.

“The discussion document will also argue for the use of a referendum on partition, which is a part of the Good Friday Agreement.

“This is the time to plan and to build the maximum support for Irish unity. The leadership of those parties which support Irish unity, acting together, can provide the leadership to deliver it.”

Again, how can McGuinness be surprised – or claim to be surprised – by unionism’s suspicions?

The ‘local’ reconciliation document was prepared in June, yet only officially launched last week, a few days before Sinn Fein launched a wider unity document across Ireland. Sinn Fein is an Irish unity party and, as it says in its reconciliation document, it wants an end to partition: ‘Ending partition and engaging with its impact, legacy and aftermath is vital if we are to deal with the past and build an agreed and reconciled future’.

Fine. But if Sinn Fein really does want a serious, difficult, uncomfortable conversation with unionists, then it must be a conversation built on honesty. Their understanding of reconciliation has nothing to do with unionism as an ongoing political force in Northern Ireland; rather, it’s about working out what sort of role, relevance, rights and future unionism would have in a united Ireland.

The problem Sinn Fein has with reconciliation can be summed up in this paragraph from June’s document: ‘There is much to be learned from the Republic of South Africa’s Day of Reconciliation which came into effect in 1994 after the end of apartheid, with the intention to reconcile the horror of the events of the past and the promise of a shared future together, regardless of race, culture or creed. It is a public holiday held annually on 16 December. Drawing on the experience from the Republic of South Africa, Sinn Fein is committed to designating a Day of Reconciliation that reflects different loyalties but which signals a commitment to building a better future.’

Here’s the problem, though. In South Africa the parties agree on the name of the country, on the geographical/territorial shape of the country and on the constitutional future of the country. Reconciliation has been reached within the country. Republicans and unionists don’t agree on the name, shape or future here, so it’s not going to be possible to reach that sort of reconciliation.

In fairness to Sinn Fein I can recognise their problem: if you don’t even believe that Northern Ireland is a ‘legitimate’ entity then it doesn’t make sense to reach reconciliation within it. Similarly, unionists have no interest in a form of reconciliation that requires Irish unity to make it work.

Here’s another problem – and it applies to both sides – we don’t really trust each other. The DUP and Sinn Fein don’t want to be in government together. They never did. The UUP and Sinn Fein didn’t actually want to do a deal in 1998.

The SDLP tolerates the present arrangement, but still prioritises Irish unity. What we have is, as I have described it before, the ‘as-good-as-it-gets-in-the-circumstances’ deal. But it’s the sort of deal which doesn’t allow for genuine internal/external reconciliation; because either it’s republicanism/nationalism reconciled to a status quo Northern Ireland, or unionism reconciled to Irish unity.

Deep down Sinn Fein understands all of this. Their document isn’t actually aimed at unionists in Northern Ireland; it’s aimed at the British and Irish governments. It’s also aimed at their grassroots here, who are beginning to wonder how long Sinn Fein will be stranded in government in Stormont, with the DUP, in a Northern Ireland still in the United Kingdom? The really uncomfortable ‘psychological’ conversation Sinn Fein needs to have is … with its own voters.