Last week the Finucane family buried their mother Kathleen. She died without the closure on the murder of her son, human rights lawyer Pat Finucane that had been promised by the British and Irish governments at Weston Park in 2001.
That commitment was reneged on by the British government. It is not their only broken commitment. 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement there is no Bill of Rights for the north; there is no Acht na Gaeilge; and there is no north-south consultative forum. There is opposition to change from within elements of the British system – from those don’t like the peace process and the fact that they failed to defeat Irish republicanism. The growing strength of Sinn Féin across the island is their worst nightmare.
There is also opposition to change from within political unionism. The northern state was built on discrimination, sectarianism and segregation in order to maintain unionist domination. For nationalists the north was an apartheid state. But it has also been bad for unionists locking them into a political cul-de-sac in which working class loyalist communities face huge problems of poverty, disadvantage and criminality.
Recently in parts of Belfast we have seen the most naked sectarian elements of unionism stirred up for short term political purpose. There has been months of organised sectarian violence on the streets of Belfast as the Orange Card has been played again.The Orange Order in alliance with the UVF and the PUP has been deliberately stoking up tensions. The DUP and UUP leaderships have allowed these organisations to set a violent sectarian agenda. And unionist leaders have failed to stand up to this at the time when decisive positive leadership may have made a real difference.
In stark contrast when so-called dissidents killed PSNI officers and British soldiers Martin McGuinness stood shoulder to shoulder with Peter Robinson and the Chief Constable to condemn those actions in assertive, clear and robust language. There was no equivocation by Martin. No delay. He showed leadership.
That’s what is missing from within political unionism. Positive leadership to build the political process; to take a stand against illegal marches, sectarianism and violence, and the provocative actions of the Orange Order in Belfast.
I retain the hope that such a leadership will develop. In this spirit I very much welcomed Peter Robinson’s remarks last Thursday night at a Co-Operation Ireland dinner, organised to acknowledge the efforts of the GAA to forge better community relations.
Peter Robinson expressed the need for respect. I agree with him completely. The GAA has indeed played a very significant role in encouraging better community relations. One thing that most sportspeople have for their rivals is respect. Politicians could learn a lot from that ethos.Notwithstanding the expertise and standing of Richard Haass and Megan O Sullivan they would be the first to acknowledge that the only people who can resolve these issues are the people who live in the communities affected and their leaders.
The first question to be asked therefore is: what is acceptable behaviour?
Is it acceptable that places of worship are targeted? That there are regular incitements to hatred?Is it acceptable that the union flag is used in an offensive way? I would certainly wholeheartedly condemn the use of the Irish national flag if it is used in any disrespectful or offensive way.
Is it acceptable that young people are actively encouraged to hate their neighbours on the basis of their religion?
Is it acceptable that there should be a tolerance of gangs engaged in criminality because they masquerade as either loyalist or republican?
I believe it is not. I believe that it is contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of people. I also believe it is unlawful. Citizens of Dublin or London or New York would not have to endure that which is foisted on the citizens of Belfast and other places, and defended or tolerated by some political leaders.Sinn Féin holds out the hand of friendship to unionists, including the Orange, and former unionist paramilitaries. We do so on the basis of equality and partnership.
Solutions are needed to resolve these difficult issues of symbols, marches and the past. But this will only be done if leaders lead.