I was talking to a man the other night, after the Colin Parry/Martin McGuinness discussion in St Mary’s University College. The point came up that it’s sixteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, republicans have been following a policy of reconciliation with former adversaries and has this policy borne fruit? Well, that bit was easy: the answer was No. As Martin McGuinness asked his audience the other evening, when did you last hear a unionist politician speak favourably about advancing the peace process? It extended to the point, he said, where he would walk down a Stormont corridor and the great majority of unionist politicians wouldn’t acknowledge his existence or so much as establish eye-contact. The implication was that republicans/nationalists were part of the peace process and its development because they wanted to be, while unionist politicians were in the peace process because they had to be. I concluded from all this that the policy of reconciliation, having proven itself so barren over sixteen years, should be re-examined to see if it made sense.
My companion disagreed and said two striking things. One, that sixteen years may be a long time for us but in historical terms it’s but the blink of an eyelid. Two, that it’s important to distinguish between unionist politicians and the unionist population. He argued that within unionism there is a great silent majority who want to maintain their unionism but feel no sense of identity with the politicians who represent them and in fact feel embarrassed or even ashamed of some of the poses these politicians strike. He argued that there was an openness and a reasonableness about such people and that it was the job of republicanism to indicate the common ground on which they and republicans stood. If republicans maintained an open and reconciling attitude, it was reasonable to suggest that these people would come to compare the inward-looking attitude of their own representatives and would demand a more positive approach in reconciling with their republican/nationalist neighbours.
It’s a tricky one to call. I concede the two main points of the person I was speaking to : that sixteen years is a short time historically. As Zhou Enlai is said to have remarked about the significance of the French revolution: “It’s too early to say”. Maybe sixteen years of back-turning and nay-saying is too short a period on which to judge things. And there is a truth in the notion that many unionists are reasonable people who want to be on good terms with their neighbours and find common ground with them. At the same time, it’s difficult to maintain belief in a tree which has been tended so carefully, pruned and trimmed and fertilised and fed so faithfully, yet shows hardly a hint of blossom or fruit.