When I listen to the republican movement using the words “equality and respect” like a mantra, I’m reminded of a discussion that I had with my friend, the late Paddy O’Hanlon, one of the founder members of the SDLP.
We were talking about Irish nationalism’s idea of “equality” and I asked whether its definition of who was Irish included me. My definition of Britishness can certainly include Irish nationalists.
He laughed and said he would get back to me. He never did.
Years later I recounted that story to a leading member of Sinn Fein. He also laughed and assured me that he would come back to me. I’m still waiting.
As we shape the future of Northern Ireland, I believe the only definitions of Irishness and Britishness that should be accorded equal status are those that include the other.
We should also challenge strongly those who promote the flawed and exclusive identities that fed our unnecessary and tragic conflict.
As for respect, it is something that was earned by those who practised inclusion, adhered to the rule of law and sought change by peaceful means, whether they were bona fide civil rights campaigners or members of the government who played a role in reconciliation.
Those who railed against necessary changes in our society or who used unlawful violence either to overthrow the state or in a misguided attempt to defend it did not earn respect and their attempts to rewrite history should be rejected.
The BBC’s series ‘Peacemakers’ reminded us that thousands of people took to the streets to support the Peace People at the height of the Troubles. Ultimately, it was they who won the debate about our future, despite a distinct lack of political support at the time.
The majority of politicians I know want to make a constructive contribution and benefit everyone in our society, but there are a few who have used their talents in a malign, destructive way, to promote self-serving agendas that helped to destroy society, rather than build it.
Despite our current problems there has been a lot of progress in our society. We should be inspired by the thousands in 1976 who showed that there was a way to build relationships, even in the face of a vicious conflict caused by a very few who now want ‘respect and equality’ for the failed ideologies of the past.
They fuelled hatred. We should try friendship, but we should also be quicker to challenge their language and to expose the real intentions of the words that they hide behind.