Unionists seek clarification on Sinn Fein Easter message

Image caption Basil McCrea says unionists need more information on what Sinn Fein means

BBC Northern Ireland Political Reporter Stephen Walker is standing in for Mark Devenport

Traditionally Sinn Féin dominates the political headlines at Easter.

It is a moment to mark the events of 1916, discuss how life has changed across the island of Ireland and it is an opportunity for senior republicans to map out where they think politics needs to go.

For those tasked with drafting the Sinn Féin Easter message, it has become a tried and tested formula in speech writing.

They are often polemical and historical and with an eye on the news bulletins, each address is naturally sprinkled with soundbites.

At this time of the year the political news agenda is quiet with Stormont, the Dail and the House of Commons in recess so Sinn Féin politicians find it easier to make headlines.

This year, the party sent out advance notices of major speeches being given by party president Gerry Adams, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Donegal TD Pearse Doherty and national chairperson Declan Kearney.

There is a common theme to each address and although the words are slightly different the sentiments are the same.

Essentially each Sinn Féin platform speaker was saying that if republicans want a united Ireland they must win the argument politically and that means convincing sceptical unionists by engaging with them in a thoughtful constructive manner.

Declan Kearney expanded on this thesis by calling for greater dialogue and engagement with the wider unionist community.

He acknowledged the practical difficulties and said that "presents a huge challenge for us".

"Unionists continue to harbour suspicions about republicans".

Addressing the past 40 years he said: "Unionists have been hurt by the war and so too have republicans.

"We need to keep moving the peace process into new phases ".

It was a theme picked up at an event in north Belfast by the Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly who said his party wanted a united Ireland that "unionists feel welcome in".

So has this fresh overture to unionists worked?

Well, first accounts would suggest that the cynicism and the questions that existed before Easter still remain.

'Hand of friendship'

The Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson took to the BBC Radio Ulster airwaves and said he would judge republicans by their actions rather than by their words.

The DUP MP told the Stephen Nolan show that when it came to investigating the past, republicans were not cooperating in the way they should.

He claimed that as an example Sinn Féin and the IRA could do more to assist the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin which is investigating Garda collusion with the IRA.

He said if republicans were serious "they must step up to the mark".

Building trust and understanding your political rival's intentions naturally takes time and it is clear other unionists are wary about Sinn Fein's motives.

Jim Allister, the TUV MLA, is unconvinced by what he heard at the weekend.

He said: "It is clear that when Sinn Fein talks about 'reconciliation' they mean nothing less than their age old bloodstained ambition of the unification of Ireland, something already democratically rejected by the greater number of people in Northern Ireland."

Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea says the "jury is still out" on whether Sinn Fein's hand of friendship is genuine.

He had previously taken up an offer from the party to speak at one of their conferences.

Whilst he said he was received well at that event he said once it had happened there "wasn't much engagement afterwards".

He thinks the various Sinn Féin Easter messages were also aimed at another audience.

He told me Sinn Féin is "most worried about the dissidents" and said the Easter statements were aimed at the "wider republican community to keep them onside".

Basil McCrea says unionists need more information on exactly what Sinn Féin mean.

The UUP MLA wants "clarification" - now where have we heard that word before?

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