A new narrative of ‘hope and future’: McGuinness and young people discuss
by Tony KELLY for Northern Ireland Foundation
22 March 2016
At an event organised by Professor John Brewer (Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, Queen’s University Belfast), young people discussed with Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness MLA, the experience of negotiating peace in Northern Ireland alongside expectations of the future.
Mr McGuinness compared the Northern Ireland peace process with work in Sri Lanka and Colombia.
In Sri Lanka, he said that failure there left much regret, particularly the fallout that led to a human rights catastrophe in the country between the government and the Tamil Tigers.
In Colombia, he learnt how President Santos studied the peace process of Northern Ireland, going back to the early 1990s, and including knowledge about businessman Brendan Duddy, who played a significant role in behind-the-scenes mediation with the British government; President Santos even nicknamed a key FARC negotiator, “Brendan”.
Six students from St Mary’s Christian Brothers Grammar School and Methodist College Belfast each had a four-minute platform to express their views on “reimagining reconciliation for the future”, the title of the event. They challenged Mr McGuinness on many topics, including the use of violence without a political mandate, such as the 1916 Easter Rising, and how some dissident republican groups use this to further their aims.
Students spoke of taking the ‘Orange’ and ‘Green’ out of Northern Ireland politics, with a future of non-tribal politics. One student argued that the desire for peace had always been what the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wanted, and that the assertion that an appetite for peace was only around in the 1990s was wide off the mark.
Several students used their platform to express disappointment with the failure to introduce marriage equality; one student, reflecting young people’s support for gay marriage, argued that the people of Northern Ireland had been let down by the politicians. The nature of local politics had caused many students to feel alienated from politics; one student stated that none of the present parties represented her views, even though she had aspirations to become more involved in politics.
Mr McGuinness referred to the 1916 celebrations as an opportunity for everyone to understand and respect the traditions of both communities. He was disappointed at the refusal of David Ford (Northern Ireland Minister of Justice) and others to accept an invitation to attend the celebrations in Dublin. The Deputy First Minister also stated that his reasons for joining the IRA had been as a direct result of what was happening in Derry in the late 1960s, rather than what happened in 1916.
He reflected on his meeting with Queen Elizabeth, and how he understood the importance and his own respect of the Queen in Unionist society. When the Queen visited Dublin, she likewise showed her respect for the victims of previous conflicts and her desire to embrace Irish culture by addressing her audience with some words of Irish.
The Deputy First Minister understood that it would be be difficult to see politics changing in Northern Ireland anytime soon. However, he felt that the future lies with leaders and communities embracing and respecting the culture and traditions on both sides, and the future was with the young, who he believed were much more tuned in to what was going on in politics and daily life.
He looked back on his relationship with Reverend Ian Paisley especially, which led to a friendship that continued long after he left office. Mr McGuinness told the audience that he presented a framed copy of the Seamus Heaney poem, ‘Hope and History’, to Rev. Paisley. The Deputy First Minister also said that he later presented a poem penned by himself. Sometime later he was delighted to see the two poems on the wall of Paisley’s study, when they were jointly interviewed by Sir David Frost.
The Deputy First Minister throughout today’s event emphasised his commitment to peace and the importance of dialogue. Meanwhile, the greater aspirations of the young audience, with their display of critical thinking, provide a potential for a new narrative of ‘hope and future’.