We need truth to allow us to move on in society, says Graham Spencer

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THE pattern is by now a familiar one. Sinn Fein communicates an agenda which depicts unionism as an obstruction to progress and unionism responds in a way which confirms this depiction. And so it is with regard to Declan Kearney’s recent talk in London on the need for national reconciliation in Ireland and Peter Robinson’s response to Kearney the day after.

Kearney used the opportunity to talk at the home of the British political establishment in Westminster in order to push for a national reconciliation strategy as part of a need to recognise ‘our common humanity’ and to ‘continue the unfinished journey of our peace process’.

Robinson’s response was to try and use Kearney’s argument to go backwards and so retreat to familiar, if legitimate, questions about the IRA and the past. One obvious reading of this is that whilst Sinn Fein wants to expose the shortcomings of unionism by attaching it to a future it doesn’t want, so unionism wants to attach republicanism to a past it doesn’t want either.

For Sinn Fein the aim is to create context more than detail, whereas, in opposition, it is clear that Robinson is more concerned with detail than context. These two conventional positions which republicanism and unionism have taken throughout the peace process disadvantage unionism precisely because popular perception is more attracted to context than detail.

A more imaginative approach from Robinson would have been to absorb the criticisms of Kearney (clearly designed to provoke DUP animosity) and put forward a national or even international reconciliation strategy which might serve unionism for the future. Interestingly, whilst Kearney used the word ‘truth’ in relation to a proposed international truth commission and attached it to the British state’s resistance to ‘truth recovery’ (a ghastly phrase), it is clear from his presentation that this new direction is designed to further the Sinn Fein project and so is an extension of republican political ambition.

This is hardly the basis for positive interaction. But, rather than reacting negatively to Sinn Fein’s recommendations, Robinson would have done better to have left conditionality until the context had been established and could have influenced this context by looking at other reconciliation processes, such as South Africa. This would move emphasis away from the internalised perspective preferred by Sinn Fein and so weaken the focus of that argument.

Both unionists and republicans would do well to remember that in the case of South Africa (admittedly a different social and political situation) and as Alex Boraine, who was deputy-chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, explained, truth had four different meanings: objective, factual or forensic truth where a recognised body would provide context and explain patterns of violations, social or dialogical truth established through discussion and debate, personal or narrative truth or stories from victims and perpetrators and healing and restorative truth (less well defined). Importantly, and as the title of the TRC in South Africa suggests, it is truth that becomes a prerequisite for reconciliation not political conditions or structures likely to favour one community over another.

It is the disputed terrain of what constitutes truth where one might find a possible context for moving ahead and on this problem both Kearney and Robinson had little to offer.

l Graham Spencer is reader in Politics, Conflict and Peace at the University of Portsmouth and has written widely on Northern Ireland.