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Gaels become Planters

Last week in the grounds of Stormont the GAA marked 125 years as an organization by planting ash trees in the parkland. On that occasion, in the midst of the wind and the rain, Mark Durkan MP and leader of the SDLP quipped that: “The Gaels have become Planters!” It was of course a joke, but I have since reflected on it and that that the corollary would be: “The Planters have become Gaels!” And of course isn’t hat what the Assembly should be all about, the transformation of rigid political identities and the fusion of Planter and Gael into a new political unity that retains the good in both and abandons the bad in both. In other words we become politically reconciled through the building of consensus politics within the Assembly.

I have often met with school groups in the Assembly and in my single transferable talk I emphasise that the central core objective of the Good Friday agreement is built, is to bring about the reconciliation of people in Northern Ireland, in Ireland as a whole and between Ireland and Britain. The Assembly is deliberately designed to forge a real and working partnership between nationalist and unionist, Protestant and Catholic. Through this close and working partnership we can ultimately achieve the conditions in which a real and lasting reconciliation can in fact take place in the North. If the Assembly and the other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement were not based on this basic principle of partnership and the ultimate goal of reconciliation then there would be no real purpose of the Agreement. It is the generation of division and conflict that the agreement is designed to address and heal.

But the people are entitled to ask where in the partnership at the moment in the Assembly and the Executive? Is the present Executive not characterized by discontent and division? Is the Assembly not a forum for recrimination and dispute rather than a forum for reconciliation? It is hard at times to defend what goes on in the Assembly and it is hard at times to see the positive side of things but there are very positive things being done particularly in the Assembly itself and the committees of the Assembly. Unfortunately there are those in the Assembly, on both sides, that do not view the Agreement as a conflict resolution process but as a conflict substitution process. For them, although the violence has ended, the conflict continues by other means. If people think in that way there can be little progress made towards reconciliation because it is effectively saying that there can be no solution until we defeat the ‘other side’. To view politics from that point of view is to repeat the big mistake of the past, which was, that we can settle our political divisions through force, whether that be state force of anti-state force. Ultimately victory of one community over the other has been tried and proven not to work, so wy try to continue the same policy now? It is up to politicians like myself to remind those in power in the Assembly that the goal of reconciliation should be our primary concern and the means of achieving that is through partnership between the two traditions. Although the Assembly may not achieve much progress towards the reconciliation that the Agreement aspire to reach, by its very existence and its inclusion of both political extremes and its continuance and survival to the year 2011 it could pave the way towards a new and more conciliatory politics in the next Assembly. That of course depends on those who are elected to the next Assembly, truly embracing the value of the Good Friday Agreement, which are partnership and reconciliation. To achieve that it is up to the people in both communities to elect those who are committed to these important values.

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