I spent an interesting couple of hours at the Sinn Féin conference in the Europa Hotel yesterday. It was titled Belfast: A City of Equals on an Island of Equals and the main speakers were Pete Shirlow from Queen’s Univeristy and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
The interesting stuff began outside the Europe, where a dozen or so protestors with large banners and union flags stood. ‘Our Deputy First Minister - When Will He Be Arrested?’ and ‘PSNI - Gerry Kelly’s Puppets’ were among the more prominent. I spoke briefly to Gerry Kelly and he confirmed that he’d had lots of verbal abuse hurled at him as he came in. One guy, apparently, kept calling ‘ No, listen Gerry, can you give me a second, I’ve something I want to say, c’mere over here!’ Gerry, having been round a few corners in his time, declined the invitation. “What he wanted was me near enough so he could hit me a dig”. I reminded him that the opposite of being loved was not to be hated but to be ignored. I’m not sure if he believed me either.
The conference was notable for the people who were there and for the things that were said. There was a former member of the Parachute regiment, the Chief Constable and Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI, Gerry Adams, Gerry Kelly, Jim Gibney, Dawn Purves, Alan McBride whose wife and father-in-law died in the Shankill bomb, Methodist minister Harold Good, Pastor Gary Mason from the East Belfast Mission, interested unionists, interested republicans - but no Mike Nesbitt. Poor Mike. Like Lanigan’s Ball, he stepped and he stepped out again. He was to come and then had second thoughts. He was, as they say, conspicuous by his absence.
I’m not sure the title of the conference conformed totally to the Trade Descriptions Act. There was much more talk about coming together than equality. Martin McGuinness and others said it was a pity the protestors outside couldn’t have been persuaded to come in and be part of the discussion. And that’s what the conversation was about: how can the people in this state come together and see where they agree and disagree, what their vision of the future is.
There was a group discussion afterwards which I found very informative. I’d say there probably was a balance of unionists and republican in our group, and the discussion time was sadly limited. But what I was impressed by was how open unionists were about their feelings. They spoke of the suspicion that is aroused among unionists when Sinn Féin take the lead in some initiative, including this conference. They spoke of their awareness that Britain would be shot of them tomorrow if she could. They spoke of their shock in discovering that their grandparents were from Westmeath, and urged that funding be made available so that more unionists could discover that their roots were not confined to this tight little corner of the island. They spoke of their concern to find out what republicans meant when they talked about a united Ireland. They spoke of their desire for a sense of belonging.
Very impressive. Martin McGuinness too touched on the problem of suspicion when Sinn Féin took the lead also. It reminded me of the days when people said they’d like to learn the Irish language but it had been hi-jacked by Sinn Féin. The answer to that, of course, was to hi-jack it back again, which is what is happening in places like the East Belfast Mission where unionists are learning Irish in growing numbers.
That’s what needs to happen in terms of discussion of how we see the future. All sides, from flag-protestors to Sinn Féin to eirigi, need to share a platform where each can articulate the problems they see with the present. and how they see the future and why.
My own feeling is that those who believe in a united Ireland - notably Sinn Féin - need to be precise and clear about the two or three major reasons why they think a united Ireland is desirable. One of those reasons would probably be economic, in which case they need to point to hard evidence, in terms that the ordinary unionist can understand. Likewise flag people and hard-core unionists need to make clear what benefits they see themselves enjoying as part of the United Kingdom, and how those would be lost - if that’s what they believe - in a united Ireland.
It was a morning filled with insights, particular during the group discussion. I’m left with the strong conviction that we’re in a time of flux, with the opportunity to shape the future so that everyone in the north feels a sense of ownership and inclusion. It’s a bit like siblings that’ve been separated for a lifetime and then meet. It can end in permanent estrangement or exciting new relationships. After yesterday, I’m considerably cheered that the latter may be the case.