28 March 2006

Let’s talk some more

Daily Ireland

Laurence McKeown

A statement from, ‘The Unionist Group’ appeared in the press this past week. The group describes itself as made up of members of the Ulster Unionist Party drawn from various constituency associations across the north and representing an informal coming together of members of the party. In their opening paragraph they state that they initially met with members of Coiste na nIarchimí in 2003 and then later with other parties including loyalists, the SDLP, Alliance, Official Republican Movement, the IRSP and ministers of both governments. As a member of the Coiste delegation who met with the group – and continues to meet with them – I can state that the meetings are insightful, sometimes heated, but always good-mannered. When we break for the evening we leave on good terms. The way meetings should be – even between those of very different political persuasions.
The statement from the group refers to “healing and growth in this society” and a “better understanding within and between all parts of these islands”. It speaks about possible mechanisms for a truth process and has possibly been prompted by the recent television programmes. There also seems to be influences from the Healing through Remembering project which seeks to look at how we can address the legacy of the conflict. There are aspects of the statement I wouldn’t agree with – which is fine. It is clearly a discussion document rather than a statement of policy.
But it was not so much the content of the statement that interested me. The most significant element of it was that it was a very public declaration that discussions with republican ex-prisoners had taken place – and the individuals involved signed their names to the statement. Any uneasiness I ever felt in engaging with unionists was never about the content of the discussions but the fact that such meetings had to be kept quiet, hidden away, almost secretive.
People meeting and talking is a very human, social, positive and ultimately productive practice. Unfortunately, all too often, progressive voices within the unionist community have felt the need to constantly look over their shoulders. While it’s crucial to know where you have come from, the problem with looking over your shoulder all the time is that you’re unable to focus on the path ahead – and inevitably end up going around in circles. Hopefully the path ahead, at least for some, is coming more sharply into focus.

Laurence McKeown was a republican prisoner for 16 years in Long Kesh and spent 70 days on the 1981 hunger strike. He is the author of a doctoral thesis, co-author of the feature film H3 and plays The Laughter of Our Children and A Cold House.

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