Transforming the Legacy I
The Progressive Unionist Party has historically recognised the need for an inclusive society in Northern Ireland and made a significant contribution to the process that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement which at its core attempted to provide for tolerance and equality.
There are no political parties in Northern Ireland qualified to drive a process of reconciliation. All have contributed to a greater or lesser degree to the divisions that we must address. A political party’s view of reconciliation tends to reflect their own ideology and thus reconciliation becomes dependent on acceptance of their political objectives and aspirations.
However reconciliation is defined we believe that it will not work if conceived as an extension of the political process. In that instance reconciliation will become little more than a reinforcement of the two horse political race that currently dominates. It will be about point-scoring and securing and protecting political interest. No, for reconciliation to work it must be a social rather than political process. That is, it must enable all sections of society to have a say and a stake in how the past is interpreted, explained and memorised. Only when we have a process which is comprehensive enough to accommodate all the stories and experiences of conflict can we say that dealing with the past is now possible.
Loyalists have a precedent for engaging with such debates. The loyalist ceasefire statement of 1994 which stressed ‘true and abject remorse’ demonstrated an ability to critically reflect on the past and on responsibility. The PUP also made a submission to the Eames/Bradley Report and gave an informed analysis on the possibility of truth recovery. There is no doubt that, in the past, loyalists have shown a readiness to respond to peace-making initiatives and have displayed a constructive attitude in doing so. The PUP recognises that this means engaging with others and there remains a willingness to continue doing this if the circumstances are genuine and transparent.
We understand the difficulties that the nationalist community faces given that the Union is secure and the prospect of a united Ireland is further away than ever. However, there needs to be a recognition that for the foreseeable future Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and reconciliation needs to be sought in the context of that political reality. We welcome a process that facilitates the nationalist narrative and contributes to a wider understanding of the impact that conflict had on the nationalist community. Nationalists should be afforded the same opportunities to participate in a process of dealing with the past as any community. We ask that this be no different for Loyalism too. No individual, party or group should be favoured over any other if reconciliation is to work; and no reconciliation process can have merit if there is any hint of exclusion or bias.
We should also be vigilant against possible manipulation or deception and recognise that some may try to use a reconciliation process not for the good of society as a whole, but to underscore selfish and short-sighted ends. We will not allow this to happen. At all times reconciliation must be transparent, fair and equitable.
The conditions for entry into such a process must be carefully thought through and all sections of society must be involved in a consultation exercise to establish parameters for participation and responsibility.
For Northern Ireland to deal with its past everyone must be involved. If we are going to move ahead together as a society we all have a responsibility to participate in that process and we must be charitable in how we approach it. We recognise the need for sensitivity in addressing the scale of suffering and pain caused but we must also avoid re-opening old wounds or re-energising embers of revenge and retribution.
Just as there can be no hierarchy of victims there can be no hierarchy of responsibilities either. The suggestion of any hierarchy will turn reconciliation into a political game and this cannot be allowed to happen. The focus must be on the social impact of conflict.
Reconciliation offers a real chance of achieving a shared space where all can contribute to understand the effects of conflict and how violence impacted on Northern Ireland as a whole. We welcome this opportunity providing the conditions are right and the impetus for involvement is honourable.