By Catherine Seeley
First appeared on CatSeeley.WordPress, Friday 13 February 2015
See below the text of my speech to the “Choices for 2015 and Beyond” Event hosted in Westminster this week…
My name is Catherine Seeley and I am the Sinn Féin Westminster candidate for Upper Bann – a constituency that, since its creation in 1983, has never returned a Nationalist or Republican candidate.
This does not mean progress cannot be made, of course.
Irish politics North and South is undergoing the biggest shake-up since partition.
In May 2011 at the Assembly elections, my party colleague John O’Dowd MLA (now Minister of Education) became the first ever nationalist to top the poll in the constituency. In June of this year, I was elected the first ever republican Deputy Mayor of Craigavon Borough Council – a council in the Upper Bann constituency that, despite all our recent peace agreements, has remained a cold house for nationalists and republicans during its entire 40 plus year existence.
Just a few days later another of my party Colleagues, Pól Ó Gribín, was elected as the first ever Sinn Fein vice-chair of Banbridge District Council.
I believe all of this shows that the peace process can make a very real difference in ensuring fair, democratic representation right across the North and in spite of attempts by some to oppose Sinn Féin’s access to democratically entitled positions.
This time last year I was the victim of a sectarian campaign which forced me out of my teaching job in a school in Belfast. A minority group – The Protestant Coalition – did not want a Catholic teaching in what they deemed a Protestant school. They ignored the views of pupils and parents and progressed their campaign until I was left with no choice but to leave – 3 months before the boys I taught sat their GCSE and A-Level exams.
I will never forget the courage of the pupils of the Boy’s Model School who stood up for me as their teacher and against the sectarian bigots. Their bravery again shows me that a difference can and is being made in our society and this is in no small part thanks to the peace process.
More recently I stood in an election to the Seanad or Senate, the upper house in the Irish parliament in Dublin. I was proud to be a woman, a republican and someone from the Six Counties contesting that election – I am as much an Irish citizen as those other citizens from the South who ran against me. Yet to me it was no surprise that as a Northerner and as the Sinn Féin candidate, I suffered a media blackout.
Some of these things demonstrate the distance we have come, but also the distance we still have to travel to achieve a new Ireland, an Ireland based on inclusivity, equality and mutual respect.
Our Peace Process is quite rightly admired across the world, but it’s progress is one of constant need, care, attention and leadership.
This need of attention and leadership was glaringly obvious to us as we moved into the recent Stormont House negotiations.
Not only did Sinn Féin go to the table but when Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny upped and left – we stayed at the table, undeterred, continuing to engage in our search for a solution and, in my view, it was that very resilience that eventually forced the co-signatories of the Good Friday Agreement (the British and Irish Governments) back to the table.
The success and stability of the peace process is paramount. It and the political process are bigger than the British and Irish governments or any narrow party political agenda. If properly implemented, the Stormont House Agreement, as Conor has outlined, has huge potential to open a new phase of the peace process – a phase based on reconciliation.
So our work is far from complete.
A peace process has many stages, each new stage as important as the last and our most immediate challenge is developing and sustaining a reconciliation process which addresses the trans-generational division and hurt created by conflict.
Republicans, Unionists and Irish and British citizens share a deep collective pain. That realisation is key. We are all scarred and, to quote Queen Elizabeth , “with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things we would wish had been done differently or not at all” – that very realisation must be the driving force behind this new phase of our peace process.
And just as Republicans, Unionists, Irish and British citizens alike share pain, we also share the responsibility of driving forward this process of reconciliation; because although the conditions of conflict have been addressed, the legacy of division, hurt and fear has the potential to be passed on to future generations. Our children should have the opportunity to grow up in a better society than we did – and we all have a responsibility to ensure that.
That is why I stand here tonight doing as many of my party colleagues have tirelessly done – calling for dialogue to be opened on how all hurts caused can be equally acknowledged, salved, and if possible healed.
Our ambition is to achieve reconciliation in our time and the beginning of an era in which we all as Republican, Unionist, Irish and British citizens can become friends with one another: a time when our children learn to play and grow up together.
Party chair, Declan Kearney characterises the process of national reconciliation in Ireland as involving “uncomfortable conversations”.
Uncomfortable conversations within republicanism led to the IRA ceasefire, to Sinn Féin signing up to the Good Friday Agreement, taking their seats in the Assembly, accepting policing.
Uncomfortable conversations led to Martin McGuinness meeting the Queen and it was a series of uncomfortable conversations that returned me as the first ever Republican Deputy Mayor of Craigavon.
And we republicans continue to reach out and so, here tonight, I am repeating our sincere invite to talk – to those who do not see the world as we do, and who are fearful or suspicious of what we are about. We say clearly to them that there is nothing to fear and everything to gain from these conversations. They are the right thing to do. That is fundamentally what reconciliation must be about, doing the right thing; even when faced with impasse and opposition.
But these conversations cannot be limited to the island of Ireland, the British state needs to reflect and discuss how to address its responsibilities for the adversity and conflict it perpetuated in Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland.
And we do not need to reinvent the wheel to achieve this.
The Good Friday Agreement has already enshrined the principles of equality, parity of esteem, mutual respect and political coexistence. It provides a framework within which to find important common ground, if the political will exists to do so.
However, these possibilities will only ever be realised through the implementation of all elements of the Good Friday Agreement.
We need to continue the unfinished journey of our peace process, so that future generations are liberated to explore new possibilities, rather than burdened with legacies for which they carry no responsibility.
Maya Angelou put it well;
“History despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”