Is Reconciliation Making a Tentative Return to Public Debate in Northern Ireland?

imageMy last two weeks have been more unsettled than usual, involving presenting my research at two conferences: The Political Studies Association (PSA) conference at the Europa in Belfast (3-5 April) and the British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion Study Group conference in Chester (28-30 March).

This, in part, explains my unusually long absence from blogging. Keeping up with my regular work duties and continuing to prepare for the Rotterdam Marathon on 15 April (I’m running for the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice, so please sponsor me if you can) has meant the blog has been neglected.

There has been some good coverage of the PSA conference by Alan in Belfast and Mick Fealty on the Slugger O’Toole blog, which I commend to readers. I’m grateful in particular that they attended some sessions which I did not, so their reports have given me a glimpse of what was happening elsewhere in the Europa.

My own paper at PSA was titled, ‘Reconciling the Past? Religion in Northern Ireland’s Post Violence Transition,’ and was featured on a panel called, ‘Negotiating Past, Present and Future in Post Conflict Northern Ireland.’

This is the abstract of ‘Reconciling the Past? Religion in Northern Ireland’s Post Violence Transition’:

This paper asks how reconciliation might productively return to public debate in Northern Ireland, specifically through the introduction or re-introduction of discourses and practices of reconciliation from churches and faith-based groups. The paper examines conceptions of reconciliation developed over the course of the conflict by Corrymeela, the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE) and Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI). It is observed that their conceptions of reconciliation – particularly their emphasis on building relationships – are reflected in the secular political realm in the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, the A Shared Future document, and Hamber and Kelly’s working definition of reconciliation, used by European Union funding bodies. It advocates a return to the emphasis on the relationship-building aspect of reconciliation in the public domain. But it argues that ‘social justice’ aspects of reconciliation have been relatively neglected and it remains a challenge for the churches and faith based groups to engage in creative action that could change Northern Ireland’s sectarian socio-political structures. Further, in the present context, reconciliation can be useful as both a religious and a political resource only if it is grounded in practical projects and policies that advance Northern Ireland’s efforts to deal with the past. The paper thus contributes to wider international debates on the utility of reconciliation, both as theoretical concept and as socio-political policy. Reconciliation must be context-specific, rooted in traditions and discourses that are culturally relevant, and connected to concrete social and political policies.

Other presenters on the panel were Sara Templer, a doctoral candidate at Queen’s, on A reflection on dilemmas of duty: ‘Some challenges in developing policy for victims and survivors in Northern Ireland,’ and Katy Hayward, lecturer in Sociology at Queen’s, on ‘The Unspoken Future of Northern Ireland.’

All of our papers are available for downloading on the PSA conference site. Katy’s is due to be published in Nordic Irish Studies Journal (vol.11), while mine is still very much a first-draft, work-in-progress. Sara’s is based on her soon-to-be-completed doctoral work.

With the conference being held in Belfast, the annual meeting of the wider-UK political studies/political science association attracted more presenters than usual from the island of Ireland and also featured input from local clergy, civil servants and former combatants.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness addressed the conference dinner on Thursday night – an event I missed due to duties as a Board member of Athletics Ireland – but it has been captured by Alan in Belfast for Slugger O’Toole.

Much of my paper lamented the disappearance of ‘reconciliation’ from the public sphere in Northern Ireland – both as a discourse and as an aspiration or aim of concrete policies. This echoes recent work by Grainne Kelly, which recommended that Northern Ireland’s leaders ‘embrace the language of profound change.’ Kelly also emphasised ‘the need to restore the language of reconciliation to the centre of government policymaking.’

In light of that, I’m especially intrigued by what McGuinness said about reconciliation in his address to the conference, as reported by Alan in Belfast:

I want to conclude with a word to two about reconciliation and its role within our process. Proper reconciliation is the key to the future. Reconciliation is essential between our communities: republicans and unionists, and also between my community and the British state. It will not be easy, but it must happen. Republicans realise that dealing with the past will not be an easy process for us. Republicans inflicted much hurt during the conflict and of course much hurt was also inflicted upon republicans. But if we are to build a new future, it is necessary and it is a road that I am not afraid to go down.

And in my experience over recent years, many within the unionist community are up for that journey of reconciliation and dialogue. For republicans, increased dialogue and engagement with wider unionist and Protestant community is absolutely vital and essential. That means being able to set aside our own assumptions about the nature of that dialogue in order to better understand the fears and apprehensions of Protestants and unionists.

I believe we have to listen unconditionally to what they have to say. Republicanism needs to become more intuitive about unionist apprehensions and objections and sensitised in our response. We need to be open to using new language, and consider making new compromises.

Our conflict is over. You’ve seen that whilst you’ve been in this city. Conflict is over and the imperative of creating a better society at ease with itself is a new challenge for us all. Republicans will approach that laborious work with compassion and imagination. We will ensure our engagement is based upon listening carefully to unionists and others, and we must develop the capacity to explore what more can be done to help meaningfully heal our society’s divisions.

Dialogue, using new language and making new compromises to create trust are the seeds of a new nation for us all. Acknowledgement and reconciliation are critical to reconciling our past with our hopes for our future. An American president Abraham Lincoln seeking to tackle the legacy of five years of bloody civil war in that country sought to articulate a vision for his battered nation. It is no less appropriate for us in our time.

Do McGuinness’ words, coupled with First Minister Peter Robinson’s similar conciliatory speech on ‘Edward Carson and Irish Unionism’ last week in Dublin (read it on the Open Unionism blog), signal a genuine shift towards prioritising reconciliation, or were they simply telling these audiences what they thought they wanted to hear?

Coverage of PSA on Slugger O’Toole

John Bercow: What should a 21st Century Parliament Look Like?

Analysing Government-Media Relations in Northern Ireland

NICVA Fringe Event

McGuinness: Open to Using New Language, and Making New Compromises

Jackie McDonald Questions Orange Order Covenant Parade Taking Motorised Machine Guns Past Short Strand

Dealing with the Past: Conflicting Schools of Thought

PSA Conference Preview and Live Blog

The Peace Process in an Age of Uncertainty (special issue of Political Quarterly featured at PSA)

One Response to Is Reconciliation Making a Tentative Return to Public Debate in Northern Ireland?

  1. Alan in Belfast April 29, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    [Sorry - as usual I'm catching up with a huge backlog of blog posts in Google Reader!]

    Your “intrigue” with the words of McGuinness at the PSA dinner was well placed. This week’s edition of An Phoblacht draws attention to the importance of his under-reported speech – though given the slow-boiling-a-frog approach republicans sometimes take when gradually shifting their language and tone, folk could be forgiven for not noticing for a while!

    I think reconciliation is back on the agenda – and is being synchronised. Peter Robinson’s talk of the peace centre at “Maze Long Kesh” [his words] being a tourist “Mecca” is an amazing quote from a politician who I gather would have preferred the whole Maze site to be bulldozed a few years ago.

    So sorry I missed your session at PSA. Way too many good sessions running in parallel.

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