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23 March 2005 Edition

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Time to put Process back at top of agenda

BY MARTIN MCGUINNESS

SINCE Ian Paisley walked away from an unprecedented package of initiatives in December, the two governments, rather than alienate the DUP, devised a strategy of vilification and demonisation of the Sinn Féin leadership and by extension — our electorate.

The governments were joined in this exercise very enthusiastically by all of our political opponents. I know that it is very easy to say that if everybody except Sinn Féin is saying the same thing, then everybody else must be right. But that is not always the case. If you analyse the reasons behind this strategy it will become clear what their motivation is.

Firstly, the two governments got the most progressive offer yet from republicans in December. The IRA leadership offered to put its weapons beyond use in a matter of weeks, go into a new mode and do nothing that would endanger the Agreement. The only thing that the IRA refused to do was to don sackcloth and ashes for the gratification of Ian Paisley.

Why would the two governments walk away from such an unprecedented offer? Why would they not do the reasonable thing and put pressure on the DUP to accept what was on offer and what unionist politicians for decades have been telling us they wanted? The resolution of the issue of IRA arms!

There is only one logical reason. They both knew that Ian Paisley had no intention of doing a deal until after the Westminster elections, as to do so might allow the UUP to mount a fightback in the election campaign. But they also knew that they had to keep Paisley on board if they are to reconstruct the process following the election. Hence the retention of the DUP demand for photographs in the governments' final document.

It was known by both governments that this demand was unacceptable to Sinn Féin. Leaving it in would keep the DUP sweet, while at the same time they could go on the offensive against republicans in the hope that they could stem the flow of support towards Sinn Féin in the run in to the elections.

If their strategy worked they would have succeeded in keeping the DUP on board until after the elections, when they could deal with what they hoped would be a weakened Sinn Féin. This strategy was grasped and supported wholeheartedly by Sinn Féin's political opponents, all of whom see Sinn Féin as the real threat to their political fortunes and to the status quo.

The decline of the SDLP and the continuing growth of Sinn Féin throughout Ireland represent an unacceptable challenge to our political opponents, some of whose republicanism stops at the border. They have a common purpose in stopping Sinn Féin, but as the result in the Meath by-election last week, when Joe Reilly increased our party vote by 3% shows, it isn't working. It isn't working because Irish voters in growing numbers recognise that voting for Sinn Féin is the only way that they can effect change in this country, North and South.

The governments and the establishment parties also recognise this fact. That is why they fear the growth of Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin works on the ground with the people and for the people. We are not career politicians who do what we do for personal gain. Sinn Féin will continue to deliver for the people and our electoral mandate will continue to grow. So if the two governments and the other political parties think that they are coming back to anything other than a stronger and more determined Sinn Féin after this election, they would need to think again.

It is time, therefore, to get back to the important business of rebuilding the Peace Process. I am not attempting to minimise the difficulties that we face, in particular getting a conclusion to the Robert McCartney murder where justice is clearly seen to be done, but we must put the Peace Process back at the top of the political agenda.

To do that, everybody involved will have to accept that the IRA is only one of many issues that have to be resolved. Sticking heads in the sand and pretending otherwise will only prolong the search for a resolution.

A daily diet of unfounded accusations against Sinn Féin by our political opponents does not contribute to creating a successful Peace Process.

The Taoiseach, Tony Blair and all of the political leaders know Sinn Féin's position on criminality and paramilitarism. Anyone in Sinn Féin found to be involved in any criminality will be expelled from our party and that includes anyone who shelters or protects the killers of Robert McCartney in any way.

Sinn Féin has done more than any other party to address the issue of armed groups and we will continue the work to remove all armed groups from the political equation. But the governments and the other parties must play their part in creating the conditions in which that will happen. At the moment there is no dialogue, no political institutions and no Good Friday Agreement and that is not the recipe for success.

The first step must be re-engagement by the governments and all of the parties in dialogue. And so, the meeting last week in Washington between the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, is a positive development and by mutual agreement there will be a further meeting between us after Easter. Sinn Féin is totally and absolutely committed to bringing the Peace Process to a successful conclusion and this includes creating the conditions where the IRA and all of the armed groups cease to exist. But it also means dealing with the issues of policing, demilitarisation, human rights and equality and all of the all-Ireland aspects of the Agreement.

Sinn Féin is prepared to enter into meaningful dialogue today, tomorrow, at any time. We are prepared to face up to all of the difficult issues and to make this process work. Others need to do the same.

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