I like Brian Rowan - always have. I used to see him in and around the BBC, and unlike some in that institution, he was friendly with everyone, regardless of rank or importance. He was also a good journalist, invariably clear and informed. These days he's making a stir because he chaired a political discussion in the Waterfront Hall recently, which included Ciaran Cunningham from the Republican Network for Unity (RNU). The group rejects Sinn Féin's strategy and the meeting was seen as ground-breaking, since it gave the RNU a platform to articulate its views and defend them.
Brian Rowan believes strongly in the worth of this: "It is a massive piece of work and may be that there are those who are not interested. But we will only find the answer to that question if a place for talking is established, and if everyone is invited into the room".
I'm with him completely - there should be room for every political voice, particularly those with whom we most disagree. That's what made the BBC and RTÉ broadcasting ban on republicans so stupid. But there are two areas that Brian has skipped around and they have to be faced.
The first is the danger of over-estimating the value of discussion. It's good, in that it forces participants to clarify their thinking. It's good that the beliefs of all sides are challenged, and where there are flaws, these are exposed. That said, I can't think of a single example where political discussion with opponents has changed the mind-set of those involved. "West Belfast Talks Back" always hosted people with strongly anti-republican views (as well as those with strongly pro-republican views), but I don't think any of those evenings ended with a panellist smacking his or her forehead and saying "Oh God, what a fool I've been! Now I see where I went wrong!". In fact you might even argue the reverse. As the Rev David Latimer cheerfully pointed out, his attendance at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis didn't make him any less of a unionist.
The second issue that's been gracefully skirted is the core one: the use of violence. It's clear that Sinn Féin have committed themselves to a non-violent path towards national reunification. You might almost say they've chosen the Christian path: they've beaten their swords into plough-shares and have extended the hand of friendship to those who have most reviled them. Not so some other republican groups, sometimes called "micro-groups", sometimes "splinter groups", sometimes "dissidents". I was on a BBC radio discussion programme with Ciaran earlier this week and it was notable that the key question - "Do you believe in the use of violence to achieve your political goals?" - was somehow avoided.
Maybe with good reason. If Ciaran Cunningham or anyone else were to answer "Yes" to that question, they might find themselves in a court of law. So I understand why Brian and others avoid it, but it really is the core question. Martin McGuinness condemns the violence that ended the young life of Ronan Kerr, not so much because he, McGuinness, is a pacifist, but because he believes such violence is futile and achieves nothing at this point in our history. The people who believe in such violence or carry it out think it does achieve something at this point. I very much doubt if they believe they can defeat the British army, but they hope it will do one thing and they believe it will do a second thing.
They hope that their violence will draw increasing numbers to their ranks - people who are impatient or disillusioned with Sinn Féin's strategy. And if that doesn't happen, they can console themselves with the belief that they are keeping the flame of violent republican resistance alive, so that another day or another generation will receive it and force a British withdrawal from Ireland. No other means, they believe, will do the job.
So as I say I applaud Brian Rowan's efforts to make room for all voices. But he (and we) would do well not to over-estimate the persuasive powers of talk; and he/we would do well to remember that it's not the issue of social justice that is the point of disagreement, it's the use of violence.