Well, this is nice! Writing for The Impartial Reporter – the publication I used to rush to every Thursday, in the days before digital connectivity, to see what was going on in Fermanagh.

When I was a young woman, writing for The Impartial Reporter is not something I could have foreseen, but then, a lot of my life so far hasn’t been foreseen!

Fermanagh is a special place. Those of us fortunate enough to have been born here know that.

For those outside the county, it’s seen variously as very laid back, in “the sticks”, or for those east of the Bann, very far away!

But for those of us in the know – West is definitely best.

One of the things I used to say when I was ensconced in Stormont at the end of a long day was that I was going to Fermanagh for sanity, and it often felt that Fermanagh was a safe, sane place when things were going mad elsewhere.

Why is that? We have often prided ourselves, despite our troubled history, of all rubbing along together.

We like to think that we have good relations with our neighbours, whatever their outlook, but is that a romanticised view of what we would like to be true?

The response to my becoming a columnist has, I think it’s fair to say, been mixed!

Hardly surprising in our divided country, you may say, but I’m still – after all these years – taken aback by those who hold a different view to me expressing the idea that I, and those like me, shouldn’t be allowed a voice because it’s not one they want to hear or agree with.

Well, here is the news – we do exist, and we live in Fermanagh, and by the way that’s not an opinion, that’s a fact.

Free speech in a democracy, and I think we still live in one, is fundamental to the working of that democracy.

I have met many people who I’ve disagreed with and debated with over the years, but I’ve never denied they had the right to say what they had to say, no matter how objectionable I found it.

It is worrying that some of those who advocate for a United Ireland think that as a Border Unionist, I am just mistaken, and some day I will realise that I have been wrong all these years, and have a conversion like Paul on the road to Damascus!

That isn’t going to happen, so is it not better to try and live with our Unionist neighbours and learn and understand their point of view, instead of dismissing their beliefs, culture and identity, and pretending they don’t exist – or, worse, that they have no right to exist?

When I was First Minister, my office was responsible for building ‘Good Relations and a United Community’ – who could argue with that?

But what do we mean by ‘good relations’, and what do we mean by ‘reconciliation’?

Some young people from a Unionist background have told me that if you get involved in cross-community work, it means not adding to your knowledge about other identities, but rather, leaving your own identity behind. That is not going to achieve reconciliation.

It's like the reaction to me becoming a columnist. I was branded “divisive” and not impartial, and some other choice descriptors which don’t bear repeating!

I had to gently explain to one critic that The Impartial Reporter being impartial meant hearing all views, and not just those they agree with.

One of the reasons I sit on the Board of Co-Operation Ireland – an all-island peace building organisation – is to seek genuine reconciliation, particularly for young people who come from very different and often difficult backgrounds.

Genuine engagement is about listening and learning, not changing your identity, but appreciating someone else’s.

The worst type of reconciliation programme is one where everyone leaves their own identity and becomes bland vanilla – that has been the problem with so many of the programmes I have seen throughout the years.

“Whatever you say, say nothing” is sometimes the mantra for those of us in the minority community in Fermanagh.

Don’t lift your head and say who you are and what you believe in, or you will be damned to high heaven.

Meanwhile, those in the Nationalist and Republican community can speak openly about their culture and beliefs.

It reminds me of when I was a young solicitor in Enniskillen Magistrates Court, when every Monday, the chat in the solicitor’s room before court was about the GAA game in Clones or Brewster Park the day before.

I just went about my business, but I often thought, if it was a group of Unionists talking about the band parade on Saturday night, would it have been tolerated?

If genuine reconciliation is to take place, people must feel comfortable and be able to speak and say who they are.

I had no issue with those solicitors talking about the GAA before court – that was who they were – but why can’t Nationalists accept that those of us from my background also have to be free to speak and feel comfortable in doing so?

I think the mantra for Border Unionists should be, “Whatever you say, say something”. That’s a much more positive way forward, and a real bridge to a better understanding of each other.