4 November 2004 Edition
Where do we go from here?
Following the Leeds Castle talks, the media were in a frenzy on the back of government briefings that a deal was imminent and it was just a matter of putting the finishing touches to the detail. We were expected to believe that the DUP had accepted the core principles and fundamentals of the Agreement and that the hold-up was down to finding mechanisms to make the workings of the institutions more accountable and transparent.
I wish it had been so simple but of course we have come to realise over the years of non-stop negotiations not to take at face value anything emanating from unnamed sources within either government. The only factual information to come out of Leeds Castle was that republicans were up for a deal.
As comments by Gregory Campbell and other DUP spokespersons will verify, the fact of the matter is that the DUP has not moved one iota from its anti-Agreement stance. It is as intent as ever on wrecking the Agreement and the longer the two governments indulge its intransigence, the more the DUP will believe it is succeeding in its attempts to, if not wreck the Agreement, then at least frustrate its implementation.
It is time, therefore, for the two governments to lay it on the line to the DUP and any other anti-Agreement elements that exist — the majority both in a Six-County and an all-Ireland context voted for the Agreement as presently constituted and in its entirety. There will be no tampering with the core principles and fundamentals of the people's Agreement.
The Agreement institutionalises power sharing between the two traditions in the North based on the political strength of the parties until such time as a majority decides on constitutional change. Neither government can force any party to enter into a power-sharing Executive against its will. But neither should any one party by its refusal to participate be allowed to hold the whole political process to ransom. Therefore, if the DUP is unwilling to enter into an Executive as prescribed in the Agreement, this should not mean that the rest of the Agreement is put into suspended animation.
The two governments, as custodians and guarantors of equal status of the Agreement, which is an International Treaty, have a responsibility to implement all aspects of that Agreement that are not dependent on the willing participation of all parties. The present situation of unilateral British Direct Rule is unacceptable and is a violation of the Agreement.
The Agreement, as I have already stated, institutionalised power sharing between the representatives of the parties that had achieved a sufficient electoral mandate. If, therefore, the locally elected representatives are unable to reach accommodation on how best to exercise power, then it falls to the two governments, as equal signatories to the Agreement lodged with the United Nations, to enter into a power sharing arrangement until the parties can resolve their differences.
The British Government must not be allowed to act unilaterally in the absence of agreement. Unilateral British Direct Rule is unacceptable to Irish republicans and nationalists and negates the guarantees in the Agreement of parity of esteem and equality.
I welcome An Taoiseach's comments in Rome this week, where he spelled out the two governments' commitment to the Agreement and their "co-partnership" of the process. The fact that An Taoiseach also ruled out the possibility of the DUP being allowed to draw talks out until after the next Westminster election is also a welcome development.
I believe now that the Irish Government has asserted itself more robustly and publicly, it will send a powerful message to the anti-Agreement forces that they will not be allowed to set the pace of progress. It will also give a welcome boost to confidence in the Irish Government's stewardship of the rights of Irish citizens here in the North.
While I commend the Irish Governments' assertion of its 'co-partnership' position under the Agreement, we in Sinn Féin will continue to represent our constituency with vigour and determination.
Dermot Ahern's logical and commonsense remarks a few weeks ago resulted in a media and political backlash from predictable quarters. Establishment politicians have been queuing up ever since to assert that they will not enter a coalition government with Sinn Féin unless and until certain preconditions are met (echoes of anti-Agreement unionism). They have been encouraged to adopt this stance by the usual unrepresentative but vociferous anti-republican, pro-unionist elements in the 26-County media.
What these anti-republican commentators fail to realise is that, despite their best efforts, it is accepted by growing numbers both throughout Ireland and abroad that Sinn Féin has been the catalyst for the transformation of the political landscape in the North over the past decade.
Secondly, the party is now the undisputed and strongest political voice of northern nationalism.
And thirdly, it has been brought increasingly into focus, especially during the local and EU elections in June, that Sinn Féin represents the real alternative to the centre-right politics that has governed the 26-County state in the past.
This growth will continue through local government and Westminster elections here in the North next May and in future elections in the 26 Counties. Establishment parties can no longer ignore the continued growth in Sinn Féin electoral strength. And that is what will instill political reality in the machinations of the party strategists as they jockey for power in Leinster House and Stormont.
Parties of every shade of political opinion work with Sinn Féin and share local power with our representatives on councils across the 32 Counties of this island every day. That same simple political logic must replace the political posturing that we see at the moment and which is having such a detrimental effect on the whole political process.
Politicians in the 26 Counties should refrain from comments that leave them hostage to fortune and in the process frustrate efforts to resolve the conflict. Remember, it's the electorate that decides the configuration of the Dáil and the Northern Executive and if Sinn Féin is given sufficient support to influence the make-up of government, it will be Sinn Féin that will decide if we will be part of a Cabinet or Executive, not the other parties.