What does ‘reconciliation’ mean? In everyday language it suggests that people who for a short or long time weren’t getting along together have now made up their differences. Does it mean the same thing in politics? Presumably.
Sinn Féin is pushing forward with a reconciliation programme headed by Declan Kearney. It’d be fair to say that the bit in Gerry Adams’s Ard Fheis speech where he spoke about working class republicans and working class loyalists uniting to pursue mutual concerns was part of that reconciliation programme. Sounds good to me, especially when we remember that the thirty years of the Troubles were conducted - and suffered - very largely by people from and in working-class areas. The middle classes - again, for the most part - remained blessedly free from the impact of the conflict and so had an insulated view of what was happening. In which case it makes sense that the working class, who suffered most, should be the focus of reconciliation. If that’s what people want.
“Eh?” you say. “ ‘If that’s what people want?' Of COURSE it’s what they want”. Mmm - maybe. There are people so bigoted they can’t entertain the idea of getting closer to those who were their political and sometimes paramilitary enemies. These people feel more comfortable within their own insulated bubble, confining their contact to those of a like mind to themselves. It's cosier, less stressful.
But there are others who are open to new thinking, who see the need for new approaches to people who were pitched against them for decades. Recent comments from the PUP suggest they are open to such thinking. Their very existence suggests they don’t feel the DUP (or UUP) are reflecting their concerns or working for their benefit.
But there are at least three problems with the PUP position.
- They are electorally very weak. So weak, in fact, they’ve changed their leader almost as often as some people change their socks. Given that, what they have to say may not reflect the thinking in unionist working-class districts.
- The PUP has made it very clear that this coming-together, this reconciliation should be carried out at a social level and not a political level. I don’t know what that means - do you? Is it suggesting that the people we elect to represent us have no part to play in achieving reconciliation? On the face of it that’s absurd. Everybody has a political perspective, even if s/he isn’t aware of it. Politics is about pursuing particular goals for your society and reconciliation is one of them.
- The PUP, having finished saying that politicians or political involvement won’t work in terms of reconciliation, goes on to say that the position of Northern Ireland within the UK for the foreseeable future must be accepted by all sides if reconciliation progress is to be made. Whiffs of having your cake and eating it. Having dismissed politics and politicians as facilitators of reconciliation, the PUP immediately poses a precondition: anyone working for cross-community reconciliation must accept a common political viewpoint: that we’re all British and we’ll be staying that way for as far ahead as we can see.
In other words, they'll allow into the Reconciliation Tent only those who carry a ticket with 'British’ stamped on it. If that’s the case, the PUP have nothing to contribute to reconciliation and not much to anything else.