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23 September 2004 Edition

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DUP delaying tactics won't wash - Agreement cannot be renegotiated

Sinn Féin negotiators brought the British bugging device discovered in the party's offices in Belfast back to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Leeds Castle

Sinn Féin negotiators brought the British bugging device discovered in the party's offices in Belfast back to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Leeds Castle

An Phoblacht's JOANNE CORCORAN talks to Sinn Féin National Chair MITCHEL McLAUGHLIN about the state of the Peace Process following last week's talks at Leeds Castle in Kent.

An Phoblacht: Can you describe the backdrop to last week's talks — what was our position and what was the position of the other parties and the two governments?

Mitchel McLaughlin: Essentially, it really came down to picking up on work that had been done over the past 18 months, going back to April of last year and then the abortive deal of last October. The issues that republicans were concerned with had been very well documented and our disagreement or our frustration with aspects of the delivery of the Agreement by the two governments was already a matter of record. Our demand was for the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to be brought back. Partial delivery of the Agreement is a recipe for stagnation, and political paralysis is the enemy of peace in Ireland.

Of course, the new element in this situation is the DUP. Were they locked into anti-Agreement mode or were they up for finding an agreement with republicans? And what of the governments? Where they finally going to unequivocally back the Agreement or was it to be more of the same?

For our part, we were very consciously going into the discussions positively and constructively and we stated clearly that we were in business to do business at Leeds Castle.

We also said before we went to Leeds Castle that it was our view that the necessary preparatory work hadn't been done, particularly between Sinn Féin and the British and Irish Governments. We had spent almost two weeks in intense discussions with the governments trying to close on issues like policing in order to clear the way for everyone to focus on the DUP.

Gerry Adams correctly summed up our view of the 60 hours of discussions when he remarked that republicans had answered questions about ourselves, but the two governments hadn't answered questions about what they were going to do about the DUP and the DUP hadn't answered questions about its own intent.

What progress, if any, was made at the talks?

We did make some progress during the negotiations. But I wouldn't want to overstate that. And republicans won't need to be reminded by me that promises or commitments by governments aren't always delivered. So progress yes — more work to be done? Yes.

Do you believe that there will be an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane?

It's not the first time the British Government has committed to holding an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. But as we saw after Weston Park, where the British and Irish Governments established the Cory Commission to delay a decision on this case and three others, there is no guarantee that the British Government will do the decent thing by Pat Finucane's family.

Remember, collusion — the institutionalised administrative practice of killing political opponents, as well as civilians — was cleared at the very top of the British political system. It goes right into Downing Street and previous Prime Ministers, some of them Labour Prime Ministers, had a hand in it.

Pat Finucane's case, and the fact that so many agents of British Intelligence, the FRU and the Special Branch were directly and intimately involved, has the potential to lift the lid on collusion in a way that few other cases can. And for that reason, any inquiry announced by the British would have to be scrutinised closely.

Sinn Féin's position has always been one of supporting the families of injustice, whether in these cases or the Bloody Sunday situation. Gerry Adams made it clear to Mr Blair last Thursday, when we were first told what they planned to do, that our attitude to any inquiry into Pat Finucane's murder would be determined by the attitude of the family. We urged the British to speak to Pat's widow Geraldine and they agreed to do this. Gerry also spoke to Geraldine. We will monitor developments. But be sure that we will vigorously oppose any attempt to cover-up or through procedural or legal devices hide the truth from the family.

What was the DUP's approach to the Leeds Castle Talks?

Firstly, our view going into the talks was that the DUP had not been disabused by the two governments as effectively as they should have been, of the belief that there was going to be any renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement at Leeds Castle. If the two governments had done more in advance, the DUP might have been more forthcoming at Leeds Castle.

The DUP, at this time, represent a majority of unionism. They do not represent the majority of the people of Ireland, who actually voted for the Good Friday Agreement.

Some people are taking comfort from the fact that at least the DUP didn't walk away. But the DUP, as of this morning, are still talking about decoupling the First and Deputy First Minister or affecting the way they are elected - obviously with a view to defeating the possibility of a power-sharing executive and also to be able to say that they didn't vote for a Sinn Féin First or Deputy First Minister. Well that's just not acceptable.

This is meant to be about power sharing and equality. It's meant to bring an end to all the divisiveness. It's meant to be a genuinely inclusive process. We, as republicans, are prepared to vote for unionist ministers on the basis of their mandate. We also believe that voting for political opponents, with whom you are expected to share power and work in partnership, is a good way of indicating good faith.

The unionists need to be big enough and generous enough to be able to say, well we supported the election of Sinn Féin or SDLP Ministers.

They need to be told firmly by both governments and every one of the pro-Agreement parties, 'forget about that way, the rejectionist way. We're not going to reverse all the democratic legitimacy, the endorsement that the Good Friday Agreement has got. It is the only common ground'.

So while the DUP have a mandate, and we respect that, they don't have the right to exercise a political veto over the aspirations of people who take a different view.

The second issue they're focused on is the executive authority of Ministers. On that issue again, we've made it very clear that whatever about how other societies might approach this question of accountability, the Agreement has designed a very significant and competent raft of accountability measures.

The truth, however, is that this is not about accountability. It's about unionists wanting to erode the power-sharing and equality aspects of the Agreement and construct for themselves a means by which they can exercise a veto over the work of nationalist Ministers.

Existing Ministerial Executive Authority is there to ensure that no party can exercise, especially given the history of the North, a supremacist or a majoritarian or a sectarian veto over ministers. Remember, Peter Robinson boasted that Martin McGuinness wouldn't be able to buy a newspaper without the approval of unionists. This is not acceptable.

And if anyone tries to tell you that it can't happen — look at the north's councils. Where unionists are in a clear majority and exercise absolute power, they do so exclusively in their own interests. Lisburn Council is the perfect example of this unionist ethos, which still seeks to discriminate against Catholics. Sinn Féin and SDLP Councillors are ruthlessly excluded from any responsibility.

My message, therefore, to the DUP on this issue is simple. There will be no return to unionist domination, to unionist majority rule or to second-class citizenship. The DUP need to understand that Sinn Féin is not for giving up on the fundamental protections within the Agreement to protect citizens from this type of behaviour.

A third option the DUP were exploring was the question of the all-Ireland bodies, an absolutely critical aspect of the Agreement for nationalists, republicans in particular. These provide the all-Ireland dimension.

The DUP were proposing to reduce the number of all-Ireland bodies, whereas the Agreement had not only anticipated a minimum requirement in terms of all-Ireland bodies, but also the very real possibility of extending them further.

The final point was this issue of a moratorium on the border poll. Again, we said "a 30-year moratorium, forget about it", even though in addressing this issue, it would imply that the DUP have accepted, as I think many unionists have, that a united Ireland is inevitable. They're just trying to find a procedural device to delay it.

If you take Ian Paisley out of the equation, will the DUP negotiate?

I don't know. I suspect that the DUP is conflicted on this issue. I think Paisley's comments at Leeds Castle were in contrast to his comments in the lead up to the talks. His comments coming out of the talks acknowledged that progress had been made, that we were closer to an Agreement than ever, but he also said the day before that if a deal was made he would have to bring it back to his Party executive, which made it clear that they had not gone to Leeds Castle to close on a deal.

The DUP also brought along a very large delegation, and some of it represented the most fundamental anti-Agreement elements in politics on this island. But does that mean that there were no realists among them? I think it would be doing a disservice to the DUP to say that. I think some of the DUP delegates had a very pragmatic and perhaps progressive attitude to dealing with the issues. The political landscape has changed irreversibly and some of them know this.

Has the DUP said anything since the talks that lends hope to future negotiations?

No, at least not so far. I think they will be sensitive to the fact that, generally speaking, they are being perceived as not having stepped up to the plate.

Republicans would be prepared to look at all of that and say, well this is the first time they've ever negotiated, with anybody, which is an achievement in itself. But being in the leadership of unionism means they have to provide leadership. They must also be conscious of the fact that failing that leadership test might mean they suffer the same fate as the Ulster Unionist Party. Voters might leave them.

There's an interpretation of the unionist vote that people switched to the DUP because they had rejected the Good Friday Agreement, but I think people also switched to them because they thought the DUP has a more cohesive unionist voice, albeit from the extreme right of unionism.

But the other side of that is that they are in leadership and must learn to address people's needs, so on that basis, perhaps the DUP are on something of a time-limit.

Much of last week's media coverage concerned the IRA and what it is or isn't planning on doing. What can you tell us about that?

Well, the IRA weren't at the talks and nobody spoke for them. The IRA may give us their view of all of this in due course. Until that happens, the point of reference is their previous statements, which have been reflected in this paper, and it might be useful for people to refresh their memories by looking at those statements. But beyond the recorded position of the IRA, there has been nothing, to my knowledge, since.

In my view, it's now over to the governments and the DUP. They have to demonstrate that there is progress; that there is a real process of sustainable change and that the fundamentals of the Agreement remain fundamental.

Our view as a party is that all of this speculation about the IRA is a distraction. There's all sorts of spin and there's all sort of hype, and some of the newspapers are being briefed by the governments and some aren't being briefed by anybody, but they're all experts on what the IRA is thinking or is going to do. But the only group who knows that is the IRA itself.

So without anticipating, or even speculating what they will do I'm sure, like many others, the IRA leadership is monitoring this situation closely.

What we set out at Leeds Castle as Sinn Féin was our analysis and our views on how conditions could be created for the type of political environment where politics replaces conflict and the guns are taken permanently out of Irish politics. Now, unlike some of the other parties, we took the broadest view of that. So from the outset of this process we have addressed not just IRA weapons, but also unionist paramilitaries, the issue of legally licensed weapons and of course the state forces, both armed police and the British Army.

So in that kind of comprehensive way we look at taking the gun out of Irish politics as an achievable objective. It won't happen all in one day, but we have always believed that the political conditions can be created in which it will be possible to see an end to all armed groups.

What would you say to those critics who claim the IRA should have made more moves last October, when David Trimble was the main unionist leader?

Well, let's revisit last October to get the answer to that question. I mean, the IRA talked in terms of irreversible progress, they talked about the process and their responsibility as they saw it to facilitate and help it. Now, the IRA acted last October, they took an initiative of enormous significance. General De Chastelain testified to that.

So, to those who ask why didn't the IRA do something in October, the fact of the matter is, the IRA did do something very important last October, so the real question is, "what did the others do?" It was David Trimble who walked away. Had he kept his word we would now all be in a very different place and the UUP would not be running second to the DUP. But that was David Trimble's decision then. The UUP have to deal with that. We have to deal with the current reality.

Many news outlets focused on the IRA, but several also questioned the DUP's role in the negotiations. Do you think, overall, the media gave an accurate reflection of last week's talks?

I think the focus on the IRA was inevitable, not least because the media can see that the two governments, the two unionist parties and the SDLP have that as part of their mantra, and that is their common ground. But in some ways, the media were reading the situation in a way that was in advance of the two governments. They knew that significant initiatives had been carried out by republicans, that there had been a demonstrable commitment to the Good Friday Agreement by Sinn Féin and that that was being carried through to Leeds Castle. So the real question for them was whether the DUP was on a wrecking agenda or where they moving from an anti-Agreement position to becoming a party that would embrace power-sharing and the Good Friday Agreement. That remains the real question.

The two governments have now stated that they have done all they can and that it's now up to the parties. Is this fair, particularly on Tony Blair's part?

Well as far as we're concerned, Tony Blair is not walking away from anything until we're satisfied that he has fulfilled all his obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. Obviously, our ultimate view is to achieve a British Government withdrawal from Ireland, but we want to do it in a way that allows for a peaceful transition, for national and inclusive democracy to emerge.

Threats and big sticks and petulance isn't going to make this process work. Neither is bad faith, and this process and our history is full of broken British Government promises. So I have to say, I listen to Tony Blair talking about walking away with a certain amount of scepticism. He hasn't delivered on his commitments in terms of the Peace Process and he can't walk away from that. But if he's talking about walking away from Ireland, then we'd like to talk to him about how we can accelerate those arrangements.

Talks resumed this week at Stormont Castle. What will they deal with and do you think they will be successful?

The talks are important. Talking is important. We are attempting to conclude the work commenced before Leeds Castle and persuade the DUP to come into the real world — the world of negotiation — and to move away from its wreckers' agenda. That won't be easy — not least for the DUP.

So, the coming days will see discussions on the institutions, how they work or don't and what can be done to improve them, if anything, without giving the DUP a veto. We will be talking about policing and the transfer of power on policing and what all of that means and when.

Will we be successful? Ultimately yes. I am confident that the DUP will talk to Sinn Féin and will do a deal — eventually. Whether it can be done this time or not I don't know, but Sinn Féin is working hard to make it happen. But whatever happens, it is important that republicans understand the need to be patient, the need to be all the time thinking strategically, but also the importance of keeping up the pressure on the governments and the DUP.

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