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9 December 2004 Edition

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Unprecedented opportunity to move forward

On Monday night, Sinn Féin leaders met in Belfast. At that meeting, Gerry Adams expressed his belief that Sinn Féin could say yes to the political package put forward by the two governments. The following day, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness met with the leadership of the IRA and briefed them on the negotiations and on Sinn Féin's position.

Tuesday began with Sinn Féin endorsing the two governments' proposals but within hours, the prospect of a historic political deal appeared less certain because of the bizarre behaviour of the DUP leader. Apparently intent on causing as much difficulty for republicans as possible, Ian Paisley had elevated a proposal of photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning to a make or break issue, while at the same time linking it to a process of public humiliation.

On Tuesday evening, the hall was packed with journalists and photographers long before Gerry Adams, joined by party negotiators Martin McGuinness MP, Gerry Kelly MLA, Caitríona Ruane MLA, Councillor Joe Reilly, Michelle Gildernew MP and Mitchel McLaughlin MLA, arrived at Conway Mill on the eve of what had been billed as a breakthrough statement to be delivered by the British Prime Minister and Irish Taoiseach the following afternoon.

Confirming that Sinn Féin had received a proposed outline for the comprehensive agreement from the two governments, Adams said that he believed that his party could say yes to the political package. He said:

"On Wednesday 17 November, Sinn Féin received a proposed outline for comprehensive agreement from the two governments. This included draft statements dealing with issues which are the responsibility of the governments, the DUP, Sinn Féin, the IICD and the IRA. The bulk of these dealt with outstanding aspects of the Good Friday Agreement as well as the DUP position on IRA arms. I will deal with that matter in a minute.

I believe that Sinn Féin can say yes to the political package, as now presented.

I have conveyed this in writing to the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister.

I am satisfied that we have defended the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement, including its power-sharing, all-Ireland and equality provisions, that we have resolved issues of concern and succeeded in strengthening key provisions.

The Good Friday Agreement requirement that parties commit to power sharing has been protected in the new arrangements for the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers as has the joint and equal nature of the positions of the First and Deputy First Ministers.

In addition to successfully defending the Good Friday Agreement, we have made significant progress across a range of other important issues.

There has been a singular focus, particularly by the DUP, on silent IRA arms. Resolving this issue of arms is a matter for the IICD and the armed groups. Sinn Féin has used whatever influence we have to see guns taken out of Irish politics. Martin McGuinness and I have been to the IRA. I am not prepared to go into the detail of these discussions. That organisation will take its own council and make its position clear in its own time.

I do expect that, in the context of a comprehensive agreement, it will deal with issues that are its responsibility.

I also assume that the first people to be informed of this will be its own membership. I'm not going to speculate on the detail of the IRA position.

However, I can tell you that I do not believe that the IRA will allow itself to be humiliated.

If the IRA does take initiatives in support of a comprehensive agreement, this will be hugely painful for Irish republicans and nationalists. None of us is in any doubt about that. So I am appealing to republicans to be thoughtful and measured in responding to any future developments as they have been through decades of struggle. I am appealing directly to all those who support Irish Unity and independence to remain united and to support the efforts of Sinn Féin in these testing times.

I recognise that some unionists do have genuine concerns about verification of arms being put beyond use, but Ian Paisley has to recognise also that the IRA will not submit to a process of humiliation. I do not expect Ian Paisley, or the DUP or the unionist paramilitaries to submit to such a process of humiliation.

In my view, the two governments know the significance of what is available from republicans. This is not a time for them to pander to unrealisable DUP demands.

There is now, in the view of the Sinn Féin leadership, the opportunity to deal with genuine concerns about the IRA to the satisfaction of all reasonable people.

In contrast, the public position of the DUP leadership on the issue of power sharing with Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party, up to this point, remains a huge difficulty. The DUP leader, Ian Paisley, refuses to meet with us, or to accept our democratic mandate or to share government power with us. This is a difficulty which only he can resolve.

For republicans and nationalists the prospect of sharing power with the DUP is not particularly attractive. But Sinn Féin is committed to that because we recognise the DUP's electoral mandate. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin have much to do to make this process a success. But the prize of a just and lasting peace demands that of all responsible political leaders.

There is also a huge responsibility on the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, who currently has jurisdiction over this part of our island, to move forward on the delivery of the modest rights and entitlements set out, almost 7 years ago, in the Good Friday Agreement.

We now have an unprecedented opportunity to move forward on the basis of partnership, equality and justice. I urge the DUP to join us in this historic endeavour."

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