boschert-eilishReconciliation hustings #AE17
By Eilish BOSCHERT for Northern Ireland Foundation
19 February 2017

A panel of politicians gathered for a hustings event (video) at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church on Sunday evening to discuss their party’s approach toward reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Included in the panel were Mártín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Féin, Claire Hanna of the SDLP, Clare Bailey of the Green Party, Steve Aiken of the UUP, Emmett McDonough-Brown of the Alliance Party, and Christopher Stalford of the DUP.

Hosted by the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship in coalition with the Corrymeela Community, each of the six political representatives were given five minutes to discuss their party’s visions of reconciliation and what reconciliation means to them personally.

Minister of Fitzroy, Reverend Steve Stockman, set the tenor of the evening by requesting that each member of the panel “demonstrate the tone of reconciliation”, and stated that no party could critique another without first critiquing themselves.

Ó Muilleoir spoke first, explaining that, for him, reconciliation meant peace with each other, the past, and the future. Claiming that most people in Northern Ireland will remain fundamentally divided on the past, Ó Muilleoir proffered that there could still be agreement for a shared future that deviates from the ‘us vs them’ mentality if we focus on creating an ‘us’ and encourage leadership from within divided communities.

Following Ó Muilleoir, Hanna discussed Northern Ireland’s shared legacy and hearkened back to the fundamental aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. “Reconciliation has been the core of the mission,” she said. “It’s fundamentally about power-sharing and reconciling the parties.” While symbolic gestures between the parties are important, Hanna believes that formal structures need to be implemented to address the history of conflict before a shared future can be pursued.

Beginning with her past in the integrated school system, Bailey stated that she “knows the value of integration”, and finds it “missing from our society today”. She emphasised the necessity to invest in integrated education to combat Northern Ireland’s pervasive segregation, and stated that the general population needs to be included in any great decision making. Incorporating the people’s voices “will bring a mechanism of reconciliation that will help address the trauma of the communities,” Bailey said.

Lack of vision for the future was the key issue for Aiken who believes, like Bailey and Hanna, that Northern Ireland has failed to contend with the past and needs to develop a partnership with the people. The absence of a shared understanding of the past has perpetuated fear and prevented a vision for the future. In order to reconcile conflicting communities, addressing the past and creating a shared future together is integral, Aiken added.

Since 1998, McDonough-Brown asserted, goodwill between communities has deteriorated. The absence of violence is taken for granted, and communities, in turn, do not seek out the ‘other’ and remain largely segregated. The first step toward reconciliation in Northern Ireland is focusing on the agreed issues and recognising that communities have much more in common than they believe, McDonough-Brown concluded.

Stalford ended the panel with introspection. Reflecting on the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, he stated that reconciliation required an acknowledgement of personal weaknesses. “Our standards toward one another have not been perfect or right,” he said. In the same vein as McDonough-Brown, Stalford acknowledged the importance of recognising that all communities are impacted by the same issues, and that it is in the interest of all to work for a common good.

After the structured panel, the politicians were invited to respond to questions from the audience, the first of which tackled the idea of trust: what can lead to trust between politicians, and between politicians and their constituents?

Bailey raised the issue of trauma — reflecting that distrust was deep seated and hard won in Northern Ireland society, and would require great compromises. Hanna contended that consistency was an integral to trust — failed commitments unravel the confidence of the general population. Cooperation and action are key to overcoming distrust, Hanna suggested.

Coming at it from a personal angle, Stalford warned against the inclination to demonise one’s opponents, while Aiken encouraged mutual respect.

On the topic of paramilitarism, particularly in West Belfast, the panel ruminated on strategic ways for the Northern Ireland Assembly to combat the issue of violence.

Hanna argued that young people receive mixed messages about paramilitarism — there is the idea that violence was acceptable in the past, but not now. She clarified, “Just because you had a past, doesn’t mean you can’t have a future, but [paramilitary violence] cannot be the past, present, and future.”

Countering Hanna’s argument, Stalford argued that while he is absolutely not for appeasing paramilitary organisations, we must be careful not to blacken the names of those working toward change in contentious areas.

Bailey and Aiken both addressed bureaucratic errors in addressing paramilitarism, such as the understaffed PSNI and lack of community resources.

Additional panel questions included Brexit’s impact on reconciliation processes, social inclusion of disabled peoples, and integrated education.

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