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22 February 2007 Edition

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Interview: Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness

Caitriona Ruane, Martin McGuinness and Seán McGinn canvassing in Attical, South Down

Caitriona Ruane, Martin McGuinness and Seán McGinn canvassing in Attical, South Down

A defining point has been reached

With 14 days to go to the Six County Assembly elections, Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator MARTIN McGUINNESS talks to An Phoblacht Editor SEÁN MAC BRÁDAIGH about likely gains for the party, the prospect for subsequent restoration of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, and the effect of the party’s recent decisions on the issue of policing.

 

It is often said that for Sinn Féin, this or that election is the most important yet. But there is a sense that the Assembly election of 7 March marks a crucial juncture for the future course of Irish politics. This time, McGuinness believes it reflects the political reality, describing it as

“a massive election” because we have now reached a “defining point” of the process: “A point where the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party have to state whether or not they are going to join with the rest of us in the power-sharing and all-Ireland institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. And they have to do that essentially by the date of 26 March.”

McGuinness says that there is a real sense in the community in the North, and throughout the island, that we have now reached “make your mind up” time for the political leadership of unionism in terms of where they stand on these important issues.

In relation to the prospect for formation of an inclusive and fully functioning Executive after the election, he says: “I have been listening carefully to the interviews that Ian Paisley has been doing, and I get a very clear sense that we are dealing with someone who recognises that he has a big decision to make in the course of the coming period. I think he recognises that the penalty for not doing the business on 26 March will be the abolition of the Assembly sometime shortly after that date, and an announcement by the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister of the new partnership arrangements which obviously have to compensate for the refusal of unionism to share power.

“Essentially this means the unfreezing of the implementation bodies that were frozen at the time the institutions were collapsed by the British Government and David Trimble, with the assistance of elements within policing in the North - the old guard of the RUC.

“If the DUP are not prepared to do the business, then I think the governments will have no choice whatsoever but to move on and to leave the door open for the DUP to join at a later stage. I hope that it won’t come to that.

“The preferred option of the Sinn Féin leadership is the implementation of Plan A. We passionately want the Good Friday Agreement institutions up and running because we think that’s good for unionism, good for nationalism, republicanism - to have unionist leaders who are prepared to play their part in the government. Not just in terms of power sharing in the North, but taking up their responsibilities under the All-Ireland Ministerial Council - where Ian Paisley will sit with the Taoiseach, other Irish Government ministers and ourselves, developing new ways forward in a very clear all-Ireland agenda.

“Obviously, in the course of this campaign, we are awaiting a clear message from the DUP that they are prepared to shape up to do the business. People are fed up to the back teeth of the decisions of direct rule ministers - whether it be decisions that are detrimental to our health services, our education system, the whole issue of PPS 14 and the detrimental effect that that has on rural communities, and the imposition of water charges which is increasingly a big, big issue. As far as we are concerned in Sinn Féin, in government we are going to deal with that issue with the same focus and determination that we apply to the restoration of the institutions.

“So this is going to be a top priority for Sinn Féin, because we believe that these punitive measures that are being introduced by the British are detrimental not just to our own constituents but also to those who vote for unionist politicians.

“What is increasingly coming across on the doorstep is that people want their politicians holding the levers of power, taking these big decisions, and I think the policing debate and the way Sinn Féin came through all of that is having a very profound impact on the unionist community. Increasingly now, Ian Paisley is as much under pressure from his own community as he is from the prospect of the governments moving on without him if he is not prepared to do the deal by 26 March.”

The outcome of the recent Sinn Féin Extraordinary Ard Fheis on the issue of policing was a massive endorsement of the party leadership’s position. It was a decision not without some difficulties and soul searching for many republican activists. McGuinness believes that one of the most powerful exercises that republicans have been involved in in recent years was the ‘town hall’ type meetings that were held in the run-up to the Extraordinary Ard Fheis.

“That essentially saw our community engaged in a very critical debate in terms of the issue of policing, obviously against the backdrop of the important changes that the Sinn Féin negotiators had been able to bring about.”

These negotiations were necessitated principally as a result of the decision of former Six County Direct Ruler Peter Mandelson to emasculate the Patten recommendations in legislation before the British House of Commons.

“We’ve been involved in an ongoing battle since then to overturn the damage done by Mandelson and we succeeded in doing that. We have now put all of that to the people and overwhelmingly, the vast majority within our community support the direction Sinn Féin is going, because they know that that will bring fundamental change to the issue of policing and make policing much more accountable in the North.

“Also, people have bought into the argument that powers must be transferred from British securocrats in England to local politicians here in the North. I think that there is now overwhelming support for our position, because our people don’t want to live in a jungle and they have effectively empowered the Sinn Féin leadership to be in a position to advise people within the community where there are rapists, drug pushers, people who abuse old people - that these people have to be dealt with by a criminal justice system which meets the needs of the local community.

“Even in the course of the period from the Ard Fheis, we have had a number of incidents where elderly people have been attacked and degraded and their homes robbed. We have been very upfront about advising people in the community that they should co-operate with the police to ensure that those who abuse elderly people are effectively removed from society, and I think there is a widespread welcome in the community for the speed with which the Sinn Féin leadership has followed up on the Ard Fheis.

“These are immediate issues that need to be dealt with. I think the vast majority of people accept that we can’t wait to deal with these issues until we get a united Ireland. These are issues which are affecting people now, in their daily lives, and we have a responsibility to give courageous leadership and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

“I think people appreciate that. Travelling around, it is clear that the Sinn Féin canvass teams are getting a very encouraging response from people on the doorsteps, who are paying tribute to the decision taken at the Ard Fheis and to the way in which the Sinn Féin leadership have now effectively, as far as they are concerned, answered all the questions.

“Increasingly, people are saying that the big question now that has to be answered, has to be answered by Ian Paisley and if not by him then by the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach vis-à-vis moving on with the new partnership arrangements, if he is not prepared to do the business.

 

 

“Obviously, there are still people within republicanism who are working with the difficulty that the decision on policing has created. This was always an issue that we had to deal with. We respect those people who hold a different view from us. We think it’s very important that we continue to remain friendly with those people and that, as best we can, we continue the debate and dialogue in the sure knowledge that eventually, the vast bulk of people will come to recognise how sensible the decision we took at the Ard Fheis clearly was - not just in the interest of the local community, who are under attack from anti-social elements, but will see it clearly in the interests of our drive towards our primary political objective of Irish unity.”

In the last Assembly elections, Sinn Féin increased its first preference vote by 6% and won 24 seats. McGuinness is never presumptuous about the outcome of elections but he does think that the party can have considerable confidence that it will consolidate its position and make further gains.

“Those gains can come in any number of constituencies. There is a very strong belief now that we can take a seat in Lagan Valley where we have never won a seat before, with Paul Butler, and of course in South Antrim with Mitchel McLaughlin, similarly where we have never won a seat. These would be enormous gains. Also, in quite a number of other constituencies, we believe that there is a very real prospect that further seats could be won.

“We are in good shape facing into this election and I think that our political opponents will be aware that, as in previous elections, there will be more and more people who vote for example for the SDLP, who have already indicated on the doorstep that they are going to support Sinn Féin in this election.

“It’s always hard to quantify what is going to happen in a PR election, because some of the last seats will come down to just a matter of a few votes and I think it remains to be seen, but certainly we’re confident that we can do very, very well and build on the gains that we’ve already made.

“Also, here in the North, we’re very, very conscious of the effect that all of that can have on the election in the South in May or June. I think all of us are very, very conscious that we don’t fight these elections in isolation. It’s all part of an integrated strategy. We are an all-Ireland party. We have a responsibility to work hard in elections to achieve the best results possible, knowing full well that a good result in the election in the North will have a very positive impact for our colleagues in the South, who are working feverishly to ensure that they get the expected increase in results which are awaiting us as we move forward decisively - not just within the peace process but within a wide range of issues which affect people in their daily lives.”

With a number of candidates describing themselves as ‘independent republicans’ standing in strong Sinn Féin constituencies in this election, and Ruairí  Ó Brádaigh’s Republican Sinn Féin also putting up candidates, does McGuinness think it could cause confusion among the republican electorate or that Sinn Féin’s objectives of maximising its representation could be adversely affected?

“I welcome the participation by anyone in elections and I also will defend to the bitter end the right of anyone to disagree with this Sinn Féin leadership. But we have a duty and a responsibility to continue to give the type of leadership that we have been giving over many years.

“Consistently, in election after election, people have voted for our strategy and we have no fears whatsoever that people will desert us for others. I think one of the disadvantages that others have is that the candidates standing for Sinn Féin have a high recognition factor within communities. People know the personalities, whereas some of the other individuals going forward at the moment, their profile would be minimal to say the least.

“It is a PR election so, I think that if there is confusion, then to some degree that will be resolved  by people giving their preferences to the Sinn Féin candidates.”

Asked about how realistic was his declaration at the recent Extraordinary Ard Fheis that Sinn Féin may yet become the largest party in the North, and what the likely effect would be for politics on the island as a whole, McGuinness says:

“When I made those remarks, I said that I expected that to happen within the next 10 years. I do believe that people recognise that the increasing political and electoral strength of Sinn Féin is inevitably going to bring us to that point. That would have a very profound impact on the political situation.

“If we outpoll the DUP in a future election we would be entitled to the position of First Minister. Psychologically, that would be a massive step forward in the effort to achieve our primary political objective of a united Ireland. But I think that all of this is in the future. We are building towards that at the moment and this election is another step in that direction.

“I think that clearly Sinn Féin is continuing to march forward and continuing to make important gains. We will be patient. We will continue to work and we will move forward on the basis that this is an achievable objective at some stage in the future. That’s what democracy is about.

“Those people who criticise us for saying that we could be the largest political party are clearly smarting at the prospect and giving the impression that, for them, being the largest political party isn’t really that important, when in fact we know that nothing could be further from the truth.”

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.

Buy An Phoblacht magazine here

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