9 December 2004 Edition
Inside the talks
In these negotiations, Sinn Féin was working for a comprehensive deal which would see the power sharing institutions re-established and the Good Friday Agreement implemented. In the proposals published by the two governments on Wednesday, it was clear that not only were the fundamentals of the Agreement protected, but substantial advances were made in a number of key areas. These include demilitarisation, northern representation, the peace dividend, lifting of the beef ban, repair of the electoral register and additional powers for the Human Rights Commission.
Dublin Government supports Northern Representation
Last weekend, the Dublin Government confirmed that they intended to proceed with their commitment to deliver on Northern representation in the Oireachtas. They said this would include access for MPs and Seanad representation and that the first such meeting would take place in January.
"Sinn Féin has been campaigning for Northern representation in the Dáil and Seanad as a matter of right for many years," said Sinn Féin TD Arthur Mogan. "We always argued that if provisions are made for unionist MPs to attend and speak at Westminster then similar measures should be put in place for nationalist and republican representatives in the Daíl.
"Sinn Féin has presented detailed proposals on this issue to both the Oireachtas committee tasked to deal with this matter and in various negotiations with the Irish government including the latest one."
Peace Dividend secured
Earlier this week the British government confirmed in writing to Sinn Féin that they will deliver a peace dividend as part of any deal. This was re-iterated in today's proposals from the two governments
Sinn Féin National Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin said that the British Government must take responsibility for investing sufficient resources to underpin the work of any new Executive to address the decades of underfunding and to address the legacy of British policy here by tackling poverty.
"There has been serious under-investment by successive British Governments, creating huge infrastructural deficits in water, sewage and transport and severe crises within health and education," he said.
"We are a society emerging from conflict and are dealing with partition and the resultant distortion of economic development on the island as a whole.
"The British Government must take responsibility for creating these problems and invest sufficient resources with no strings attached. Neither PPP/PFI nor Reform and Reinvestment Initiatives (RRI) are substitutes. They will only result in further tax and rates burdens. An immediate resource should be a shift from military/security spending to economic and social development.
"The British Government have agreed that a significant peace dividend is required. I obviously welcome that. But the content and terms suggested to us by Paul Murphy fall very short of what is required.
"Sinn Féin has also raised the issue of a Peace Dividend with the Irish Government. Such a commitment should be used to underpin and advance the Human Rights and Equality agendas and the work of the all-Ireland institutions and the issues facing the border counties."
British give in to Sinn Féin demands to repair electoral register
The disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of people from the electoral register and the ongoing shredding of the register has been condemned by democrats in Ireland and abroad. The current electoral legislation was introduced in particular at the behest of the SDLP and the unionists
Under pressure from Sinn Féin the British Government has now accepted that the current arrangements are fundamentally flawed, undemocratic and need to be changed.
British Minister John Spellar announced his intention to reinstate the Electoral Register and he has committed the British Government to the abolition of the annual canvass. Sinn Féin National Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin said:
" This was a key issue which Sinn Féin has been raising publicly for some time and directly within the current negotiations. This is the context in which the British Government has now moved to address the very obvious problem with the current electoral legislation.
" The British Government's comitment to reinstate the electoral register carry forward will in the short term help alleviate some of the problems and is of course welcome. This measure needs to be put in place in advance of the planned May elections. But we have consistently said that the primary legislation itself needs to be amended and the parliamentary time for this to happen needs to be found as a matter of urgency. "
Accelerated programme of demilitarisation required
Over the last week, Sinn Féin held two key meetings with the British Government on the issue of demililarisation. The key issue under discussion will be demilitarisation and the need for an immediate accelerated programme to accomplish this. The British Prime Minister was accompanied by the PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde.
British failure to move on this issue was highlighted when it was revealed that there were more British soldiers in the north of Ireland than in Iraq.
Speaking from London on Monday evening, Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy said the party has consistently argued that there is a need for an immediate and accelerated programme of demilitarisation. "This is a vital part of the peace process and part of the unfinished work of the Good Friday Agreement.
"It is time for the British Government to move speedily to deal with this matter. It is a critical issue for nationalist Ireland.
"Previously, Mr Blair has told us that the responsibility for demilitarisation rests with the Chief Constable. Sinn Féin met with the British in order to press the case for an end to the military occupation in republican heartlands and to test his commitment to bring this about. There was no discussion on policing issues at these meetings."
Brits agree to give Human Rights Commission increased powers
The Human Rights Comission has come in for sustained criticism from nationalists over the course of its existence. In the course of negotiations with Sinn Féin, the British Government acceded to demands for additional powers and resources for the Commission.
The United Nations Committee on Torture this week will scrutinise the British Government's treaty obligations and in many instances, its failure to comply with human rights and equality issues in the North of Ireland.
Welcoming the development, Sinn Féin Equality, Human Rights and Women's spokesperson, South Down MLA Caitríona Ruane, said:
"It is unacceptable, six years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, that the Human Rights Commission has again had to make representation to the United Nations about the British Government's obstruction of its work by its refusal to provide the Commission with the appropriate powers," said Ruane.
"Issues such as state collusion, the continuing use of non-jury courts, plastic bullets and repressive legislation should have been relegated to the dustbin as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. Yet the British Government is eroding individual and collective rights by maintaining them.
"Sinn Féin raised these and issues such as the need for accountable and representative policing and criminal justice systems with the United Nations during its last hearing and only last week we met with the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner to voice our concerns across similar matters.
"Sinn Féin has consistently called on the British Government to provide the Human Rights Commission with the proper range of powers it requires to fulfil its remit to protect and promote human rights in an effective way. This failure has plagued the Commission since its inception. The danger is that any incoming Commission will inherit many of the same problems.
"One of the issues being tabled at the UN is the situation of women prisoners held at Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre, which the Commission cannot access because it does not have this specific power. How can a Human Rights Commission protect human rights in such circumstances when access is blocked by the Prison Service and it has no power in its own right to overturn such decisions? Without these basic powers, any incoming Human Rights Commission will be undermined before it begins."