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4 March 2004 Edition

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Our intention is to succeed - McGuinness

BY FERN LANE

Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness

As he has done in previous years, Sinn Féin's Chief Negotiator, Martin McGuinness, provided delegates to the 2004 Ard Fheis with a detailed account of the current state of the party's negotiations with both the British and Dublin Governments and with the other political parties involved in the present political impasse.

He explained that, in addition to setting out Sinn Féin's approach to the Review of the Good Friday Agreement, he wanted to focus on two periods of negotiations during the past year; the talks which had concluded shortly after the 2003 Ard Fheis and secondly, the events leading up to 21 October last year — the day on which the UUP "at the point of delivery on their side, effectively walked away".

However, the broader political context for the current crisis, which has existed for almost two years, is, he said, the result of two different, but related elements. "One is the refusal or inability of unionist leaders to come to terms with the changes heralded by the Good Friday Agreement; and the other, deeper element of the crisis, is the failure of the British Government to fulfil their obligations and commitments which have flowed from the Agreement."

Further, he continued, "although David Trimble knows the Agreement is good for our society, since April 1998 he has allowed his political compass to be set by Ian Paisley".

Despite numerous obstacles, by the time of last year's Ard Fheis, Sinn Féin had secured commitments from the governments on a range of issues, many of which were brought together in the Joint Declaration which was eventually published at the end of April.

"But let's be absolutely clear about this declaration," Martin McGuinness told delegates. "Although it deals with many of our concerns, it is a bilateral position agreed only by the two governments. It is not a Sinn Féin position. It does not and cannot supplant the Good Friday Agreement. The validity of any aspect of its content only obtains insofar as it is consistent with the Agreement."

But, he continued, although the Joint Declaration contained difficulties, "some of which were then and remain wholly unacceptable to Sinn Féin, we believed nevertheless that it committed to significant progress across a range of issues".

Consequently, the IRA leadership was persuaded to take another initiative to inject momentum into the peace process and on 13 April Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness passed a final copy of a proposed IRA statement to the two governments. This statement contained "several highly significant and positive elements unparalleled in any previous statement by the IRA leadership".

A period of "political scrabble" followed as Tony Blair publicly raised three questions about the proposed statement, questions which were all "publicly and clearly" answered by Gerry Adams. In an attempt to break the stand-off the IRA leadership authorised a third act of putting arms beyond use.

"The UUP responded in the negative," he said. "In doing so they made it clear that their primary concern was the forthcoming election battle with the DUP and conceded that this battle would be fought on the political ground of their opponents within unionism. With unionists rejecting the IRA initiative, both governments reneged on their commitments and we were back to square one - stalemate."

Fast forward to October 2003 and the script was the same. "Protracted negotiations, Sinn Féin secure commitments from both the governments and the unionists, the IRA are persuaded to take yet another initiative, David Trimble reneges, the governments in turn renege and the process is put on hold. Back to square one — stalemate.

Whilst not wanting to rehearse the twists and turns of last October's negotiations, Martin McGuinness said that he wanted to make one thing absolutely clear. "At Hillsborough Castle, on Sunday, 19 October, Sinn Féin and the UUP reached agreement on a sequence of events. That night I asked David Trimble for his word of honour on this agreement and he gave Gerry Adams and I his solemn word. When the two governments were informed that we had reached agreement they also signed on for it.

"This agreed sequence was the product of many weeks of intense discussions involving Sinn Féin, the UUP and the British and Irish governments. Everything you have heard which seeks to explain the breakdown in the sequence as something to do with misunderstanding, ambiguity, confusion, lack of clarity, deception or non-delivery by republicans is absolute rubbish."

There was, he said, "no confusion, no ambiguity and not the remotest possibility of misunderstanding. All elements of the sequence were agreed in advance, including the public statements containing the commitments, which we would all make as part of this agreement.

"Sinn Féin delivered our part of this sequence as agreed. The IRA delivered their part of the agreement as agreed. The IICD presided over a substantial act of putting arms beyond use and reported this. The UUP however, at the point of delivery on their side, effectively walked away. Only they can explain why they did so."

Similarly, the two governments did not publish their joint statement and consequently failed to follow through on a range of commitments which formed part of this agreement.

"So where does this leave us?" he asked. "Are we any further on? Is it time to think anew with respect to our strategy? What have we to show for our efforts? Some might think, not a lot. I take a different view. But these are all legitimate questions.

"Yes, eleven months on, with the political institutions in continuing suspension and no movement on issues of equality, human rights, and demilitarisation, you could be forgiven for concluding that we have made little progress or that we have nothing to show for our efforts of the past year.

"But remember, at the time of our last Ard Fheis the governments were declaring that there would be no further negotiations. Despite their assertions we have, over the past year, managed to hold the two governments to the Good Friday Agreement as the template for change. And, crucially, we have built, and continue to build, our political strength, which is the only guarantee that the process of change will continue."

Turning to the issue of the Review, McGuinness said that, despite the negative context in which it is set, Sinn Féin is bringing a positive attitude to it. The party has submitted a comprehensive agenda for discussion to the governments, covering a range of issues including, inter alia, equality and human rights, collusion, the failure to publish the Cory Report — electoral registration and the transfer of powers on policing and justice.

"While we have adopted a good faith approach to this review we are under no illusions with regard to its prospects," he said. "We are mindful of the inconsistency between the British Government's assertion that the Agreement cannot be renegotiated and their failure to restore the political institutions which are the democratic core of the Agreement."

"There are other issues of concern to us which we intend to raise in next week's discussions," he said. "There is the very big issue of the continuing British Government involvement in loyalist paramilitary activity. And, of course, there is ongoing concern about the DUP involvement in Ulster Resistance."

The current stalemate is a dangerous crisis he said. "But it is not a crisis that began one week ago outside a bar in Belfast. It is not a crisis around the IRA or IRA intentions. The institutions have been suspended now for almost 18 months. This is the fourth suspension. In the same period the IRA has taken a number of initiatives to move the process forward, whereas both governments, and particularly the British Government, have failed repeatedly to deliver on their commitments. In the same period the securocrats have succeeded in stalling the process of change. But that is all they have managed to do. They have not halted this process or reversed it. Nor will we allow them to."

"Sinn Féin is in this process to the end," he said. "Our intention is clear. Our intention is peaceful and democratic. Our intention is to succeed."

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