Uncomfortable Conversations – the Chief Constable, Sinn Féin Chair and me

Tomorrow night in Derry, I’ll take part in an “Uncomfortable Conversation” that will include the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, Sinn Féin Chair Declan Kearney and Alan McBride, member of the NI Human Rights Commission and victims’ campaigner.

The event, part of the Gasyard Féile, is one of a series of conversations around how we both deal with our past and build our future as communities, towns and cities and indeed islands seeking to emerge from conflict. These events and the book of the same name launched at an event in the Linenhall Library in April of this year are branded as “an initiative for dialogue towards reconciliation.”

There is no doubt, however, that the tone of the conversation tomorrow will be different to the one which took place at West Belfast’s Féile an Phobail where George Hamilton shared a platform with deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. In the intervening time we’ve seen the killing of Kevin McGuigan and the PSNI assessment that dissident Republicans, Direct Action Against Drugs and the Provisional IRA were somehow all responsible.

We have heard assertions that the IRA has gone away.  We’ve heard from Teresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, that it hasn’t gone away but we never said anything so long as they were quiet.  We’ve seen the parties in Leinster House be pushed into a harder line stance than the intelligence of the Garda on the matter ought to dictate.

In the midst of all this, hardly anyone has mentioned the £7million man in weeks!  We’ve all heard of the 24 hour news cycle but who thought that story was going to disappear as quickly as it has?

The result is that on top of a Stormont crisis brought about by welfare cuts and failure to agree a budget, Unionists are now considering excluding Sinn Féin from the political institutions as a result of this PSNI confusion, thus rendering the institutions of the Assembly unworkable. Crucially though, everyone will still show up and still get paid in that scenario.

But I digress – that’s probably a topic better written about after tomorrow night’s debate. It will be a challenge keeping the original theme alive in the midst of current events, but it’s a challenge we must rise to.

On the same day as the event, the Department of Justice will meet with victims’ families in Derry to discuss proposals for legislative reforms that will see changes in how historical investigations and legacy cases are investigated and processed by the justice system.

The events of recent weeks and days serve to give proof, if it were needed, that rather than being a post-conflict society we are still a society in transition.

What of reconciliation in these conversations? I was at the Linenhall Library book launch and the emphasis at that event very much was on forgiveness as an essential component of reconciliation. For me the first part of that uncomfortable conversation needs to be about the burden of forgiveness as an element of peace-building.

We also need to admit what we’re seeking is conciliation and not reconciliation – we never did get along in the first place. And just as the conflict wasn’t just internal to the six counties of Northern Ireland, neither can the solution be. More of these conversations need to take place on an all-island basis and between this island and our neighbours to the east. There is much to say.

But as important as these uncomfortable conversations are, the talking is probably the easy part. We can’t overlook uncomfortable listening either and the inevitable acknowledgement that accompanies it.

“Uncomfortable Conversations” takes place at Clooney Hall Centre, 38 Clooney Terrace, Derry BT47 6AR on Wednesday 26th August 2015 at 7.30pm

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