7 September 2006 Edition
Feature interview:Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness
Things have changed forever
In the first of a two-part interview with An Phoblacht Editor SEÁN Mac BRÁDAIGH, Sinn Féin's Chief Negotiator and Mid Ulster MP Martin McGuinness explains the party's attitude to the Hain Assembly, his experience of the Assembly's Preparation for Government Committee, the prospect of government-sponsored 'hothouse' talks next month, and the likelihood of the Good Friday institutions being restored by the November deadline.
In June, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams announced a Sinn Féin review into the party's participation in the Hain Assembly. Last Saturday, Sinn Féin's Ard Chomhairle met in Dublin to deal with a report from the party's negotiations committee in relation to that review, and agreed that Sinn Féin Assembly members would participate in the upcoming session of the Hain Assembly on the same basis as before the summer recess - with the sole purpose of restoring the Good Friday Agreement institutions, and only in work that genuinely contributes to this objective.
Speaking to Martin McGuinness on the back of the Ard Chomhairle meeting, I asked him to explain in greater detail Sinn Féin's position on the Assembly:
"The mood at today's Ard Chomhairle meeting adequately sums up the party's mood in general. There are serious misgivings at the approach of the two governments. The stringing out of the process is something that we think is detrimental to a successful outcome. But following a lengthy discussion, the Ard Chomhairle did agree that Sinn Féin Assembly members participate in the Hain Assembly but with the sole purpose of restoring the Good Friday institutions and so we will therefore engage only in work that genuinely contributes to that objective. We are also calling for an intensification of peace talks to give the best chance for progress in the months ahead, very conscious of the fact that the British Government, in writing, have given us assurance that the 24 November is an immovable deadline."
On Sinn Féin's experience of the Preparation for Government Committee, established by Peter Hain and which has been meeting for months now without progress, McGuinness said: "Our experience has been that from the very beginning we entered that committee with a view to trying to build the opportunities for dialogue and discussion and for negotiation among all of the participants. We entered it in the hope that the DUP would see that as an opportunity to engage meaningfully with all of the other parties, including Sinn Féin, and that they would recognise, against the backdrop of the publicly-declared position of both governments, that all of this would come to an end by 24 November if a deal isn't done. That they would recognise the importance of fulfilling their responsibilities as elected representatives to the people who elected them, particularly against the backdrop of massive rates hikes by British direct rule ministers which are impacting on everybody - loyalist, unionist, nationalist or republican - and the threat of more increases in terms of water charges. The whole issue of how we deal with our health services and education system. We have argued for a long time that we are the people who are best able to take the decisions which will benefit our people, as opposed to direct rule ministers who wouldn't know Comber from Cullybacky.
"In the initial discussion the DUP was represented by Ian Paisley Jnr, Willie McCrea and Morris Morrow. Eventually that spread out and Peter Robinson some weeks ago started to attend the meetings. Some people read positive signals into that. I think in the absence of any real engagement between the DUP and Sinn Féin, all we can do is note that that has happened. Where it leads remains to be seen.
"We have made it absolutely clear that our sole purpose in being there is only to be involved in work which is about ensuring the return of these institutions by 24 November and that we are not going to engage in any sham or charade just to facilitate the DUP's demands for a shadow assembly. Many people are of the view that the DUP think they can burst through the 24 November deadline and string this out until some time in the future. The Sinn Féin position on all of this is contingent with ensuring that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are restored and restored by 24 November. So our engagement in this Assembly will only be on the basis of work which is designed to bring that about."
On speculation that the two governments are planning 'hothouse talks' outside of Ireland for October, McGuinness said he was surprised to see that most of the controversy, from a unionist perspective, had been about the venue when in fact people should be more focused on what happens at the talks than on where they take place:
"As far as Sinn Féin is concerned, we are more interested in the purpose of the talks and whether or not the talks contribute to the speedy restoration of the Good Friday institutions by 24 November. But obviously the media are being briefed about all of this, which would clearly suggest that the governments do have plans to bring the parties together in the immediate aftermath of an IMC Report. They obviously place more faith in the IMC than we in Sinn Féin do. This appears to be clearly suggesting that they are expecting the IMC report to be a positive contribution towards getting the restoration of the institutions. Given our reservations about the IMC I think that most people would understand that we would be very circumspect about all of that."
On whether he thought it was more probable or possible that the political institutions of the Agreement would be restored by the 24 November deadline, McGuinness said:
"I think it's no more than a possibility. But even if it's only a remote possibility, we in Sinn Féin believe that we have a duty and a responsibility to the people who elect us and who support us all over the island of Ireland, given that the overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland voted for the Good Friday Agreement, to ensure that we bend all of our efforts to making what may be possible a reality. And so we're going to sweat blood, bust a gut, in the time ahead to ensure that we see the Agreement implemented. I know that many republicans are now debating the merits of 'Plan A' and 'Plan B', and I hate those terms, but I say to republicans everywhere that the best plan for the people of Ireland, for Sinn Féin, is to support the full and faithful implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. As far as I am concerned there is only one plan; it's Plan A and it's the Good Friday Agreement. It's the Democratic Unionist Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, signing up to power-sharing and signing up to taking their places on an All-Ireland Ministerial Council, two administrations which are the foundation stones of the Agreement and which we as Irish republicans can lead over time to the reunification of our country.
Now, given that Ian Paisley has not given any indication whatsoever that he's prepared to take the decision to enter the institutions by 24 November, we can only conclude that it's more a possibility than a probability but we have to work at making the possibility a reality and that's what we are trying to do."
Asked whether he thought the British Government would stick by their publicly-held position of bringing down the Assembly if the 24 November deadline was not met, McGuinness said that if both governments failed to keep their word about implementing all other aspects of the Agreement in the event of a failure by the DUP to sign up for the institutions by 24 November, they would be "shamed before the world", as the DUP would effectively claim a huge victory over the two governments.
"They would claim that they had destroyed the Good Friday Agreement. Under no circumstances could we in Sinn Féin live with a situation whereby the political leadership of the DUP were able to proclaim the Good Friday Agreement dead. It is not in the interests of both governments to allow the DUP that victory."
On how the current obstacles to success could be overcome and, in the event of a failure to re-establish the institutions by the November deadline, how he envisaged the wider process moving forward, McGuinness said that he approached the whole situation in a very philosophical way.
"In spite of all the problems, difficulties, angst and concerns about the situation, one thing is absolutely clear - things in the North of Ireland have changed and they have changed forever. The republican/nationalist community are very confident, assertive - in a non-hostile way. In relation to the political changes that have taken place, there is tremendous confidence. Many people put that down to the type of leadership that's being given by Sinn Féin and the work of Sinn Féin elected representatives in the North in terms of the councils, the Assembly, MPs and also the increasing support for Sinn Féin in the South. People have a real sense that Sinn Féin is a party on the move, that Sinn Féin strikes a chord with everything that they believe in in terms of freedom and unity and a more fair, just and equal society. The fact that there is a huge focus now on whether or not the DUP are going to do the business clearly shows that republicans and nationalists, whatever the concerns about the ability of unionists to block progress, are of a view that if the unionists are not prepared to do the business before 24 November, there is then a mighty responsibility on both governments to take this process forward in a very decisive way.
"So people are intrigued by comments coming from both governments that in the aftermath of any failure by the DUP to do the business, they are going to bring forward new partnership arrangements. Now, given the arguments that have been made, I actually believe that the governments have no other choice but to press on with the full implementation of all other aspects of the Good Friday Agreement that the unionists have no control over. To do anything less is to give a victory to rejectionist unionism over the will of the people of Ireland who voted for this Agreement in overwhelming numbers in 1998.
"It was a leading unionist insider who said to me, prior to the summer, that this really only gets serious in September. Well, this is September. We've been serious in the summer. We were serious in the spring. We are even more serious now about ensuring that the Good Friday Agreement is implemented and implemented before 24 November. Any failure to implement that Agreement by the two governments by 24 November I think will be seen in a very, very dim light, not just by republicans but by the overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland who expect both governments to grab this process by the scruff of the neck and to press it on.
"We await with interest the decisions of the two governments vis-à-vis the new partnership arrangements and how they intend to take this forward. But anything other than the full and faithful implementation of the Good Friday Agreement would be a defeat for the whole process and a huge defeat for both the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister."
NEXT WEEK: Martin McGuinness on the legacy of the 1981 Hunger Strike, the prospect of republicans holding ministerial responsibility for policing North and South, the intentions of unionist paramilitaries, sharing experiences of conflict resolution with other countries, Sinn Féin and the 26 County general election and more.
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.