ALEX KANE: SF needs to unite with unionists

DECLAN Kearney, Sinn Fein’s chairman, has been at it again: trying to convince the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland that Sinn Fein is genuine when it proffers regret and apologies about terrorism and equally genuine when it talks about reconciliation with “the unionist, Protestant, loyalist” people of Ireland.

As ever, though, his use of words like ‘sorry’ and ‘regret’ is so conditional and nuanced, so lacking in any sense of guilt, confession or moral responsibility, as to sound like a calculated insult.

To paraphrase: “Of course we are sorry about this incident or that incident, but it stems back to Britain’s illegal occupation and oppression of Ireland. We are sorry that some people in some circumstances had to die, but we didn’t start the war: your side started it. Those of us who believe in the true reconciliation of all our people regret the fact that we had to kill some of you.”

When David Cameron apologised on behalf of the British establishment for what happened on Bloody Sunday and at Hillsborough there wasn’t a hint of equivocation. He apologised unreservedly and unconditionally. He didn’t seek to blame others or hide behind excuses (something which former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie is still trying to do). He accepted that something very bad, very wrong, had happened and, on behalf of those with the authority to do something about it now, he admitted responsibility and apologised.

So why can’t Declan Kearney do that? Why can’t he say something like: “The Provisional IRA should not have waged a terror campaign against people in any part of Ireland. Instead, Sinn Fein should have embarked upon a programme of discussion and democratic practice, seeking to persuade the people on both sides of the Irish border that we had a better, stronger future together than apart. But IRA terror has pushed our people further apart and built up levels of hostility and distrust that will haunt us for decades to come. On behalf of Sinn Fein and the IRA I apologise for every single bombing, murder, injury and hurt that has been caused by us.”

Those are the sort of words that the pro-Union community needs to hear: a simple, straightforward recognition that there was never any justification for a terror campaign.

I’m not going to promise that those words will be followed immediately by something similar from anyone else involved in the ‘conflict’; but I am pretty sure that an awful lot of people would accept the honesty and courage of such a statement. And from that acceptance would flow a different type and better natured conversation between our respective communities.

I really don’t know if Declan Kearney is personally sincere and genuine when he talks about the hurts of the past and the need for people to come together. And the reason I don’t know is that I can’t get past the language he uses. Listening to him over the past six months is a bit like being trapped in a lift with the republican propaganda equivalent of Muzak on continuous loop.

For instance, he says: “We should not seek to romanticise war or armed struggle ... but neither will I or other present-day republican leaders hypocritically seek to distance ourselves from the consequences of the armed struggle. Asserting that a political context forced the use of armed struggle as a last resort cannot disguise the massive human hurt caused by IRA actions, but that past cannot now be undone nor disowned by republicans.”

I have two problems with that view. The use of the armed struggle was not, in fact, a last resort. It was the first resort of the newly launched PIRA in 1969/70.

The only reason it was abandoned was that it clearly wasn’t working for them, which is why they now sit in the Dail and Assembly and take expenses from Westminster. Also, while it is true that the past cannot be undone, it can still be disowned: the IRA and Sinn Fein can still admit that it was the wrong thing to do politically, morally and strategically.

But such an admission would require a very ‘difficult conversation’ within republicanism – a conversation they are not prepared to have with each other.

Also, if Sinn Fein is sincere about reconciliation then it needs to recognise the present parameters within which that reconciliation must begin. So it isn’t very helpful when Kearney argues that the choice for republicans is either to ‘acquiesce in a new status quo which normalises partitionism, sectarianism, division and fear, and do nothing; or we discuss what we can do to bring about more change and progress ...’ and eventual Irish unity.

But the status quo he refers to is the status quo which has existed for centuries – namely that Ireland hasn’t been a sovereign, independent nation and isn’t likely to be anytime soon. So I really don’t see how you construct a policy of reconciliation when Sinn Fein’s starting position is that the IRA’s terror campaign cannot be disowned and that the status quo of continuing partition is unacceptable.

Let me paraphrase again: “We bombed you for no good reason and didn’t actually get what we wanted anyway. So we are going to come to you with a strategy which involves justifying the terror, rejecting partition and continuing with the mantra that Northern Ireland is still a manifestation of the Britishness we oppose.”

Maybe I am wrong: maybe I am much too cynical and too ungenerous in my interpretation of Sinn Fein’s reconciliation project. Yet every time I sit down and try and make sense of it I come away with precisely the same conclusion and feelings of unease. Put bluntly, I don’t believe Sinn Fein is sincere. It’s not so much that they are lying to the pro-Union community as the fact that they are lying to themselves.

There isn’t a united Ireland and there isn’t going to be a united Ireland: so Sinn Fein needs to face up to that reality.

Actually, it needs to do more than that. It needs to put the myth and mantras to one side and, working much more closely with unionists, start tackling the huge socio/economic problems which effect working class unionists and republicans alike here in Northern Ireland.

The unlikely prospect of Irish unity isn’t putting food on anyone’s table or directing them from the dole office to a new job. Reconciliation must begin with making Northern Ireland a better place rather than a continuing effort by Sinn Fein to destabilise and undermine community relationships.