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6 September 2007 Edition

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Iraq : Helsinki agreement provides hope for the future

McGuinness in Iraqi peace negotiations

Six County Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator, Martin McGuinness was a leading facilitator for several days of discussions between leading representatives of Iraqi political parties and others linked to a range of groups close to the conflict, it emerged this week.
The discussions chaired by Martin McGuinness and former South African government minister Roelf Meyer, took place in a secret location in Finland last week. A condition of the discussions was that there would be no representatives of those involved in the current military occupation of Iraq. The participants included representatives of Shia and Sunni groups.
Participants committed themselves to work towards a robust framework for a lasting settlement. Those present agreed to a set of recommendations to start negotiations to reach national reconciliation. These recommendations are contained in what is being called the Helsinki Agreement. The principles of inclusivity, power sharing and a commitment to removing the use of violence as a means of resolving political differences were among the most urgent concerns agreed.
Brought together by the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts – Boston, with the assistance of the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), which is headed by the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, Iraqi delegates were aided by senior representatives of the peace processes in Ireland and South Africa to explore the current situation in Iraq. The talks also seek an end to international and regional interference in Iraq’s affairs.
Last Monday Confirming that Martin McGuinness had taken part in the talks the previous weekend, a Sinn Féin spokesperson said that the party had consistently sought to assist other peace processes in recent years with its experience of conflict resolution in Ireland.
“It is welcome that progress has been made over the past number of days and the participants have agreed to a series of principles for moving forward peacefully in Iraq”, the spokesperson said.
As well as Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin’s Leo Green, DUP Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson, Billy Hutchinson of the PUP and former Stormont Assembly Speaker, John Alderdice were also involved in the discussions.
South African participants also included the ANC leader Mac Maharaj.
Speaking to An Phoblacht on Wednesday, Martin McGuinness said: “I was contacted quite a number of weeks ago by Cyril Ramaphosa, who was Nelson Mandela’s Chief Negotiator during the South African negotiations and Cyril indicated to me that there was a prospect that key people from Ireland and South Africa would be invited to meet with a large group of Iraqi politicians and other influential people, where the experiences of South Africa and Ireland could be laid before people.”
McGuinness said that when they had satisfied themselves with the seriousness and important nature of the delegation that they decided to contribute to the deliberations.
“The South Africans and ourselves agreed that we would use the opportunity to outline our experiences for the benefit of the participants on the basis that we weren’t prescribing to anyone how the conflict in Iraq be resolved, but that if there was any benefit to be taken from our experiences then that was something that we would be very pleased to pass on.”
McGuinness confirmed to An Phoblacht that he had jointly chaired all of the discussions in Finland with Roelf Meyer of South Africa. He said the role of the moderators of the event was to try to achieve agreement on certain fundamental principles, which the participants could take with them and agree upon, and to use it as a template for forward movement.
“It was very gratifying that by the end of the event the participants had committed themselves to work towards a robust movement for a lasting settlement and agree a set of recommendations to start negotiations to reach national reconciliation. These recommendations are contained in what is now known as the Helsinki Agreement.”
McGuinness said the Iraqi delegation was made up of political representatives of Sunnis and Shias and that it was quite clear that all of them were “quite amazed at the political breakthrough in Ireland just a few short months ago”. He said that they were focussed on learning from the Irish situation and that he and DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson and others had made several presentations to the participants.
“I stressed the importance of leadership. That positive leadership is an absolutely vital ingredient in the development of any peace process and that if there was an acceptance that there needed to be a peace process then people needed to move with all haste to bring that about as quickly as possible.
“Obviously the situation in Iraq is dire at the moment but what binds these people together is that they all consider themselves Iraqis and they all now accept that there needs to be an inclusive process of negotiations; that this should include all of the political forces in Iraq; it should also include the insurgents and the militia; and they all accept that it is vital that they move forward in a united way to try to conclude an agreement as quickly as possible.
“They are seeking to bring about a unified Iraqi army, a unified police force, a unified political system where everyone can share. And obviously all of this against a backdrop of considerable fear in the country – fear on the Shia side of any attempt by a resurrected Ba’athist party to effectively take over the country again and of course the fear on the Sunni side that they will not be treated with equality and will be discriminated against and not included.
“We had very wide-ranging discussions around all of these issues and lo and behold at the end of our work we did achieve agreement on 12 principles which are available to everyone, now known as the Helsinki Agreement.
“From the very beginning it was made clear to us that the participants didn’t trust governments of any description but that they had considerable trust in representatives from South Africa and from Ireland coming to talk to them. That shows the level of suspicion and concern that there is about outside interference in their country.
McGuinness said that he was satisfied that he was dealing with people of considerable influence in the conflict in Iraq.
Asked whether the talks gave him hope for the future of the situation in Iraq McGuinness said:
“Absolutely. The experience was tremendous and one in which it is quite clear that our involvement along with the South African representatives made a considerable impact on the Iraqi representatives. And I think at the end, that they made it clear that they wanted the process to continue, so I believe it will.”

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