Reconciling the Past – Looking to the Future

Conor Murphy’s speech from the final plenary of the conference

The title of today´s conference includes the phrase “A new phase of the peace process” and I think that that is very apt when we come to discuss the issues Michelle has outlined.

We have a political process, with all its ups and downs, and disagreements and frustration – and of course its many successes – but we also have a wider process, a peace process, as we try to move our whole society from the past through the present and towards a better future for all.

Since 1998 profound and far-reaching changes have taken place in Ireland, and in relationships between the British government and the people of Ireland nationalist and unionist.

New political institutions are in place in Ireland. These institutions are based on the principles of power sharing, equality and respect for cultural diversity.

For the first time in over eight centuries of troubled history the people of these islands, British and Irish, and their representatives have placed dialogue and not coercion at the centre of their relationships.

These changes mean that no more people from either Britain or Ireland need risk the lives of other people or their own lives over political differences.

The Irish peace process is rightly held up as an example of a successful model. Myself and other peace negotiators from Ireland have travelled to conflict torn regions all over the world, to outline the story of the Irish peace process. My party has contributed to embryonic political settlements and peace processes in recent times in the Basque country, Philippines, Columbia and Burma.

And while we can, and perhaps should, be proud of our work beyond our own shores, we should not forget that we have much more to do at home to secure and build the peace.

We still have many challenges, including the need for everyone around our Executive table to fully buy into the concept of power-sharing and partnership government.

And a key issue which has the potential to continue to trip us is the past, how we speak about it, how we present it, and how we address it.

And the role which dealing with it has in reconciliation.

Truth recovery and acknowledgment are critical to dealing with the past. They can breathe life into the quest for reconciliation.

Building a harmonious society demands that these difficult issues are dealt with. A process within which to comprehensively deal with the past is a means to that end.  That self-evidently will not be gained in one fell swoop.

But we can make progress now with a view to addressing the legacy issues over time.  This means recognizing the limits at this point. I do not believe we will achieve a consensus on a narrative of the conflict.  We can however reach agreement on the reality that there is no single narrative but there are several.  I do not believe we will find a consensus on equivalence between the physical protagonists in the conflict.  Indeed we do not need to.  What we do need to find is a consensus on ensuring that this is not erected as a barrier to progress.

Any lasting beneficial address of these issues needs to encompass the reality that there can be no hierarchy of victims. Protagonists on one side need to be addressed and dealt with on an equal basis with protagonists on the other. This need not mean conferring political legitimacy on one side and withholding it from another. It does mean accepting that whatever the pros and cons of that argument that human beings have died and are mourned by those who miss them, and that our common humanity should acknowledge that. It means that all victims regardless of the agency of their victimhood are addressed and dealt with equally.

A benchmark of where any or all of these things might go is of course the view of those who have lost loved ones or who continue to suffer.  Even the most casual observer will have detected a whole series of different opinions on what should happen.  Some families want the truth about what happened to their loved ones and nothing more.  But there is no legal framework within which this can happen. Others want recourse to the courts. Both opinions are entirely valid and those who hold them are entirely within their rights to pursue either or both courses.

The British authorities to this point have taken every measure possible to avoid charges being brought against members of their forces.  The few who slipped through the net of legal protections such as Public Interest Immunity Certificates invariably served only short times in prison before returning to duty and sometimes with a promotion. Perhaps they will address this in the course of the all-party talks taking place chaired by Dr. Richard Haass. Sinn Féin will certainly recommend to Dr Haass that he talk to the British authorities about these matters.  And the Irish Government should of course press the case for truth about the Dublin/Monaghan bombings.

So where then are the possibilities for progress.  In my opinion they exist in a number of areas. Measures which could be addressed and dealt with now which could help create conditions to make progress possible.  But all require partnership and dialogue.  I believe that a consensus, a part of a building process on legacy issues, can be found provided there exists the political will to do so in the areas of: acknowledgement, truth recovery, services for victims and survivors and remembrance.

Dealing with the past will help and guide us in our building of the future. And building for the future will enable us to deal with the past.

We have an ability to develop strategies on reconciliation, mutual respect, tolerance and measures to eradicate sectarianism.  We need to activate it. I am glad to say that our Executive recently outlined it´s strategy on “Together – Building a United Community”, looking to deal pro-actively with issues such as the proliferation of peace walls, mostly in Belfast, and segregation in housing, education, and the need for young people to mix with and become familiar with those in the ´other´ community.

The thinking which brought us all to the negotiating table must be maintained and must drive us forward. That is, there can be no winners. And that means there must be no losers. If we move forward on this premise then we are duty bound to acknowledge and respect our differences and to compromise. There is no other way.

Relying on old certainties will only produce old results. We need new approaches, new relationships and new results.

Within Ireland it means building new relationships and meeting challenges in a positive way with at all times an eye on building the peace and promoting reconciliation. With Britain it means building an understanding of our historical difficulties without letting them become an obstacle to good relations in the future.

Creating a new society at ease with itself is the challenge facing us now. I believe in the unity of the people of the island of Ireland. There is a democratic and peaceful way to achieve that or to reject that. It is for the people to decide.


Dialogue, building trust, making political compromises are the seeds to achieving this new beginning.

Compromise is not a dirty word. I am proud of the compromises which republicans have made in the pursuit of building peace.

But republicans cannot build progress on our own. We need unionist partners. We need civic partners. We need to agree a direction of travel for our society and stick to that road map despite the attacks from the rejectionists be they unionist or so called dissident republican.

At times people get frustrated, myself included, at some of the political log jams which crop up from time to time in our process. And at times people can focus on the negativity which flows from these and miss the reality that the job of government continues – ministers are taking decisions everyday, the All-Ireland and East West political architecture continues – everyday that this happens is another brick being laid on the path to a new future.

So, to finish, we need to find a way of dealing with the past, and we need to put plans in place that ensures that the marching season doesn’t become a by word for street violence every summer.

All of that is doable.

Let that spirit of hope and optimism be what guides us through the next period. Let it be the principle which underpins our political engagement going forward. Let that be the road map to a future built upon genuine reconciliation and progress.