10 March 2005 Edition
Status quo, stalemate not an option
BY ROBBIE SMYTHThere were some recurring themes during the debate on the Peace Process. The spiteful vindictive bitterness of Michael McDowell, the 11th hour withdrawal and subsequent backtracking of the DUP from the negotiations last December, the failure of the British and Irish Governments to uphold and implement the Good Friday Agreement were the topics touched on often from the podium. However, the most stressed, most mentioned points were around the resolve, the principled stands taken by the IRA, whose cessation was, according to Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin, the "only aspect of the Peace Process that remains".
There was he said, "no dialogue, no process, no engagement, but the re-emergence of a security agenda in response to the electoral advance of Sinn Féin". McLauglin opened the debate, speaking to the Ard Chomhairle motions on the clar. He was followed by Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald, Alex Maskey, Conor Murphy, Bernice Swift from South Armagh, Sorcha Nic Cormaic from Dublin, Leitrim Councillor Martin Kenny and Jim Clinton from Belfast who spoke movingly of the murder of his wife by loyalists in 1994.
Dublin Councillor Daithi Doolan, who highlighted the litany of McDowell's ministerial failures also spoke, as did Billy Leonard from Coleraine, Michelle Gildernew, Barry McColgan and Tyrone's Barry McElduff. Sometimes at ard fheiseanna, the really interesting debates happen over coffees or lunch, but as Mitchel McLaughlin unwrapped his analysis of where the political landscape was right now, it was clear that there was little difference between his views and those of the delegates and visitors.
MORE DETERMINED SINN FEIN
Mitchel told a packed hall that, "when these elections are over they will have to come back to face a re-energised and more determined Sinn Féin. We will put our trust in the electorate and I believe that they will see through the opportunism, the short-sightedness and cynicism of the establishment parties. The electorate have long known that the status quo is not an option, that stalemate is not an option. Both are wholly unacceptable." In terms of Sinn Féin's role, Mitchel said: "Sinn Féin is ready to face up to our responsibility to help resolve the present difficulties. Our priority and primary responsibility is to rebuild this process and deliver the real peace that the people are entitled to." In terms of resolving the crisis in the Peace Process, McLaughlin said that it "requires stretching ourselves even more". Sinn Féin would have to challenge "partitionist Ireland, conservative Ireland, post-nationalist Ireland", all of whom are "on an offensive against Sinn Fein because we challenge the inadequacy of their politics".
McLauglin also pointed out that the two governments have joined in the "offensive against republican Ireland". But at some point they would "have to set about the task of rebuilding the peace process and that can only be done through a process of dialogue and engagement". "There is no other way", McLauglin said.
BRITISH GOVERNMENT THE PROTAGONISTS
Mary Lou McDonald directed her contribution to the role being played by the British government in the stalled process. She attacked the game playing and political grandstanding, criticising British Secretary of State Paul Murphy's declaration during the week that it was too early to begin a truth process. McDonald said that the "British Government have no right to tell the people of Ireland how to develop our peace process". The British, McDonald said, were "active protagonists in the conflict in Ireland, especially their active role in collusion". Referring to the talks breakdown, McDonald said: "The December deal held out the possibility of putting of all IRA weapons beyond use in a matter of weeks. This was a brave and historic offer — one that must be matched by others".
Conor Murphy highlighted the seven years since the Good Friday Agreement that it has taken to have TG4 broadcasts in the Six Counties. At such a slow rate of implementation, how long would it take for "demilitarisation, for action on policing, justice and equality?" he asked. Murphy attacked the apologies from Bertie Ahern to Ian Paisley and told the delegates to rapturous applause from the hall that "we will not be criminalised".
Bernice Swift from South Armagh addressed the hall on the need for a truth recovery process. "The British Government must acknowledge its responsibility for sustaining and perpetuating conflict," she said. However, it seemed they were more interested in "denial, concealment and cover-up".
Swift said that any truth process must be "independent, international and have no hierarchy of victims".
The British Government's scuttling of the negotiations and the Irish Government "weighing in behind Ian Paisley that well known peace maker" was the theme of Sorcha Nic Cormaic's address. She said that Ahern had "put narrow party interests before peace".
The role played by Fianna Fáil was also stressed by Leitrim councillor Martin Kenny. "Our electoral success is not due to Fianna Fail," he said. Sinn Féin had "given a voice to the voiceless". Kenny also talked about the all-Ireland dimension to the process. He said: "Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are allegiant to the 26-County state. The southern establishment are threatened by the 32-County Ireland."
What little whispering there had been in the hall ceased when Jim Clinton from Belfast recounted the collusion that lead to the death of his wife, Theresa, "a devoted and loving mother", who had been shot 23 times.
Clinton spoke of how the RUC deliberately ruined identification parades, how British agents had supplied information and weapons to the killers. He concluded by saying: "The Irish Government have forgotten Theresa Clinton, I am urging you not to forget."
"Our opponents think they have us on the ropes," said Dublin Councillor Daithi Doolan. "Nothing could be more further from the truth."
Michael McDowell, the "headline seeking minister for smoke and mirrors", was the subject of much of Doolan's address. He told McDowell to "Get back to your own job that our taxes pay you to do".
"Our vision of Ireland is everything the current government opposes," he said.
WE KNOW THE CHALLENGES
Coleraine Councillor Billy Leonard told delegates that "Sinn Féin can still see through to the point where others will have to engage, not disengage". He said that there will have to be an end to "the politics of cops and robbers and the politics of association.
"We know the challenges of conflict resolution, others have to face up to them too."
Michelle Gildernew asked the hall, "Are we forever to be subject to a border?
"We won't let anyone deny our right to argue for a united Ireland. The new Ireland will be judged by how we treat our minorities," she said, adding that Sinn Fein is "determined to unite our country and its people".
Unionist outreach was the subject of Alex Maskey's address. He said that "dialogue, accommodation and reconciliation are the way forward. We all have to develop the capacity to listen, as the moral high ground can be a very crowded place."
Barry McColgan highlighted the fact that the 5 May election dates was the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, who had "shown to the world that the republican struggle was a noble and just cause". In 2005 "the British and our political opponents are seeking to criminalise republicans again... We would not be criminalised in 1981 and we will not be criminalised again."
Finally, it fell to Barry McElduff to round off the debate with applause and laughter, when he mischievously posed a question to the Fianna Fáil leader when excoriating the 26-County establishment for their partitionist mentality and short memories. McElduff said: "Bertie, was your Da in the 'Ra?"