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10 July 2003 Edition

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McGuinness warns British on elections

BY FERN LANE


Martin McGuinness told the British government this week that if its refusal to hold elections in the Six Counties continues beyond the first anniversary of the suspension of the Assembly in October, the Good Friday Agreement will be in "dire straits".

Speaking at a press conference in the House of Commons on Tuesday, during a two-day round of meetings in London, he added that "there is a huge responsibility on everyone here in England and in Westminster to make it clear to the prime minister that these elections need to take place as a matter of urgency".

The cancellation of the elections is creating a dangerous political vacuum, he continued, which could be filled by "those who are ill-disposed to the peace process - and I am not just talking about unionist rejectionists. I am also talking about microscopic groups on the republican side, who are as vehemently opposed to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement as many of the unionist rejectionists."

The Sinn Féin leadership, he said, is committed to finding an accommodation in the coming weeks. "But it is vital that the key player in this process, Tony Blair, recognises the need to hold these elections as a matter of urgency so that politics can be seen to work and so that the political leaders on the pro-Agreement side, rather than being undermined by the present situation, will be supported in their efforts to restore confidence in the process."

On the question of the IRA, Martin McGuinness said he accepted that "within the unionist psyche there is a problem with the fact that there is an organisation called the IRA". But it was also the case, he added that "within the unionist psyche there is problem with the fact that there is an organisation called Sinn Féin which has huge electoral support.

"Just look at the statement by Ian Paisley that Sinn Féin should be disbanded. Even though that is outlandish, the fact of the matter is that many unionists see the increase in support for Sinn Féin as fundamentally changing the nature of the northern state.

"I have come to the conclusion that there are many within the political leadership of unionism who now fear republican votes more than they fear republican guns. Many republicans have said to me that they believe that Unionist leaders fear peace. Many have come to the conclusion that it really doesn't matter what the Sinn Féin leadership says and it doesn't matter what the IRA does, people within the UUP leadership and the DUP are not prepared to embrace change."

He said people should not fall into the unionist trap of believing "that the fact that the IRA exists is the biggest problem within this equation. I think the biggest problem is that unionists have found it hard to come to terms with the type of change that the Good Friday envisaged; they have found it hard to come to terms with power sharing. We know this because we are told by key people close to unionism that at least one third of unionists don't want a Catholic about the place - not of the Sinn Féin variety, not of the SDLP variety."

He called on David Trimble and pro-Agreement Unionists to wholeheartedly embrace the Good Friday Agreement and sell it to their constituency. In doing so, he said, he believed they will have the opportunity to achieve "the best possible result" in any election, and in the process may well out-manoeuvre the opposition forces within unionism.

"It is not unreasonable to expect David Trimble - who has gotten to know Gerry Adams very well - to give leadership and tell the unionist community what I believe he knows in his heart and soul; that Gerry Adams is a man of peace, that Gerry Adams wants the peace process to succeed, and that he, David Trimble, as leader of the UUP, is prepared to work in partnership with Gerry Adams and the other pro-Agreement parties to ensure the success of the peace process," he said.

On Monday, after visiting the Bloody Sunday tribunal and the South African High Commission, Martin McGuinness addressed a public meeting at the University of London. He commented on the 'reception committee' of around a dozen members of the National Front, including the convicted loyalist gunrunner Lyndsey Robb, who had mounted a protest outside the building. They were, he said, similar in outlook to the people in Ballymoney who had attacked his car on 24 June.

"They tried their damnedest to break the windows but they didn't succeed," he recalled. "They did about £3,500 worth of damage and somebody asked me a couple of days later, 'were you frightened?' And I said 'not as frightened as they were'.

"So I wasn't frightened coming in here either. Certainly not as frightened as the National Front. I think the National Front are losers and I think that the Paisleyites in the North of Ireland who oppose change and who oppose democracy are also losers."

But despite the parlous state of the peace process at present, Martin McGuinness said he continued to be optimistic about the future.

"We are moving forward with confidence," he said. "That is why those people attacked my car in Ballymoney. Because they know that. Because they fear the great strength of our case. They can't handle our demands for a new beginning to policing, for an end to the British Army in our countryside. They can't handle all the changes that the peace process has brought and will bring."

The challenge for Tony Blair now, he continued, is to work towards achieving one of the crucial parts of the Good Friday Agreement; the delivery of the unionist leadership.

"I don't say that we don't have a responsibility to help in that project," he said. "We clearly do, and over the last number of years we have assisted as best we can. Unfortunately, initiative after initiative has been thrown back in our faces.

"But that is not to say that we should not be continually involved in trying to challenge ourselves to see what more can be done. But at this juncture of the process the responsibility to face down unionist rejectionism really lies with the leadership of the UUP and the British prime minister. And in that Tony Blair has a lot of work to do."

Sections of unionism, he said, "work on the basis that if you give a Catholic or a nationalist or a republican equality it will bring an end to the Union as they know it. Of course, they are absolutely right. That is why the equality debate is so vitally important, and that is why we in Sinn Féin make no apology for pursuing it."
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