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21 March 2016

Sinn Fein words show us there may be hope after all

Speaker: Mitchel McLaughlin
Speaker: Mitchel McLaughlin

Among the throwaway lines that depress me is: “I wouldn’t dream of reading that newspaper.”

It’s a way of congratulating yourself on having a closed mind.

Most of us have favourite sources of information — papers, radio and TV stations, blogs and so on — and of course it’s natural to use those one trusts.

But protecting yourself from hearing views that you mightn’t like is reminiscent of those young idiots at universities these days who indulge in ‘No platforming’ and ‘Safe Spaces’ so they never have to hear an opinion that offends them.

In other words, they don’t want to think — a quaint ambition for people lucky enough to be in higher education.

We haven’t much distinguished ourselves on the island of Ireland in terms of our ability to hear the other point of view.

In the Republic, Civil War animosity still lingers between the two main political parties, pro-Treaty Fine Gael and anti-Treaty Fianna Fail.

And I don’t have to spell out here the intellectual and political apartheid that operates among so many people in Northern Ireland.

So I was surprised a couple of months back at the Presbyterian-organised Church in the Public Square conference on 1916 (the Easter Rising and the Somme) to see Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin, the Assembly Speaker, spend the whole morning there.

Then the First Minister, the DUP’s Arlene Foster, made a gesture the following month by attending in Dublin a similar Church of Ireland event.

Mostly, politicians make a public appearance at such events but, unlike Mr McLaughlin and Mrs Foster, don’t stay to listen, yet there is no better way to learn about your neighbour than to listen to his story.

In my early days as a biographer I worked to see history and life from the standpoint of extreme Irish nationalism (Patrick Pearse), revolutionary socialism (James Connolly) and anti-Zionist Judeo-Christianity and communist-fellow-travelling (Victor Gollancz).

But my nationalist upbringing meant I had little understanding of Ulster unionists until I immersed myself in their culture, including spending a lot of time listening to members of the Orange Order.

And even then I realised I still had a long way to go when I remarked to a Presbyterian friend — in a common nationalist phrase — apropos some serious setback to our efforts to make Orangemen act sensibly over Drumcree: “That’s when Aughrim was lost.”

He paused for a moment and said in a baffled tone: “But we won Aughrim!”

Like many people in Northern Ireland, I cringe when I hear republicans like Gerry Adams talk in voices dripping with insincerity about reconciliation and reaching out to unionists.

This is usually accompanied by a hostile act, such as that of appointing an unapologetic ex-IRA convict to a sensitive post.

I managed to laugh when Martina Anderson was made director of unionist engagement, but the laugh was rather hollow.

Last week — admitting he had learned about the role of Irish nationalists in the First World War only in the last few years — Mr McLaughlin made what I believe was a genuine plea to Irish people to learn about their shared history.

If bothering to listen to unfamiliar views has had such an effect on him, we should take him seriously.

It reminds me of the One Small Step campaign launched in 2003 by Trevor Ringland, which has done a lot, in a modest way, to encourage people to make an effort to look at life from the perspective of their neighbour.

Maybe it’s time for Northern Ireland politicians to lead by example and make a genuine effort to learn something new every day about the culture of the opposition.

“I don’t pretend that looking back on history in a respectful, inclusive and non-confrontational way is necessarily easy to achieve”, said Mr McLaughlin.

“However, attempting to understand it in hindsight and listening to the perspectives of others can only benefit our society today.”

If I can quote a senior Sinn Feiner approvingly and even believe he meant what he said, maybe there’s hope for us all.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards