Visit is expression of our desire to engage with our unionist neighbours

THE engagement in Belfast this week involving the President of Ireland, the Queen of England and the North’s First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness carries with it significant symbolic, political and emotional resonance for the people of Ireland.

Sinn Féin is very mindful that the Irish republican and nationalist experience with the British monarchy and the British state over centuries has been tragic and difficult.

The vexed and unresolved issue of sovereignty is at the heart of the flawed relationship between the island of Ireland and our nearest neighbour.

We are also conscious that there will be some victims of British state violence who may object to and be upset by such a meeting.

However, in the context of conflict resolution and national reconciliation, as well as our republican objectives, Sinn Féin’s Ard Comhairle agreed that Martin McGuinness should accept the invitation to attend the engagement organised by Co-operation Ireland.

As an Irish republican party our core republican beliefs are rooted in the ethos and philosophy of Wolfe Tone and the United Irish Society, who sought the unity of Catholics, Protestants and dissenters.

Sinn Féin is an unashamedly Irish republican party. We are against elites or aristocracies or monarchies or golden circles of any kind. Republicans are also in the business of nation building. We want a new agreed Ireland based on the rights of citizens.

We acknowledge the British Queen’s place in the hearts and minds and sentiments of the unionist community, though as republicans we do not subscribe to the idea of royalty or monarchy. This meeting is therefore a meeting of equals.

Last year, Queen Elizabeth II visited Dublin. Sinn Féin declined to participate. That was exactly the right decision. That visit marked a rapprochement in relations between that state and the British monarchy. That was a good thing. It took 100 years to achieve.

In the course of her visit, the Queen of England made some important gestures and remarks, including an acknowledgement of the pain of all victims, which demonstrated the beginning of a new understanding and acceptance of the realities of past. I welcomed that at the time and said it should be built upon.

This is a different visit — in a different context.

This week’s meeting is a clear expression of our desire to engage with our unionist neighbours and to demonstrate that we are prepared, once again to go beyond rhetoric, as we seek to persuade them that our new Ireland will not be a cold house for unionists or any other section of our people.

Unionists don’t need me to tell them that they have lived on this island for centuries. This is their home. It is where they belong and it is where they will remain.

Our Protestant neighbours also have a proud history of progressive and radical thinking. The founders of Irish republicanism where mainly Protestant. They were for the emancipation of their Catholic neighbours and for equality.

This is a history which should be reclaimed by the people of the Shankill and Sandy Row, by the Protestants of Co Down and Antrim.

Republicans are democrats and the new republic we seek is pluralist. An Ireland of equals in which there is space for all opinions and identities.

Sinn Féin is for a new dispensation in which a citizen can be Irish and unionist. Where one can also claim Britishness and be comfortable on this island.

Our vision of a new Republic is one in which, in Tone’s words, Orange and Green unite in a cordial union.

The Ard Comhairle decision reflects a confident, dynamic, forward-looking Sinn Féin demonstrating our genuine desire to embrace our unionist neighbours.

It reflects the equality and parity of esteem arrangements that are now in place. It will also create new platforms and open up a new phase in our relationships. It will be another important and necessary step on our collective journey.

James Craig, the first unionist Prime Minister of the North recognised this when he said: “In this island we cannot live always separated from one another. We are too small to be apart or for the border to be there for all time. The change will not come in my time but it will come.”

It is clear that legacy issues have to be dealt with and Sinn Féin will continue to engage in that work.

By our actions Irish republicans will be judged, as well as our beliefs. We have to change Irish society now, North and South, to accommodate the unionist population and their cultural identity. The meeting between Martin McGuinness and the Queen of England will assist in that process.

If the peace process has taught us anything, it is that the process cannot remain static. It must continue to expand and we must constantly build on the progress that has been made.

This has required new thinking, generosity, and a determination to create space in which former enemies can find an accommodation in the common good. Friday’s Ard Comhairle decision reaffirms that Irish republicans continue to lead in this respect.

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