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16 October 1997 Edition

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When Gerry met Tony

Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty was part of the delegation which met Tony Blair. He describes the historic meeting.

Outside, the assembled ranks of the world's media, trying to keep warm in the cold shadow of Castle Buildings, were demanding of Richard McAuley, ``Has the meeting started?''; ``Did they shake hands?''; ``Who's in your delegation?'' and so on.

Inside, Tony Blair was running late. Eventually our delegation, which included Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Siobhan O'Hanlon and myself, accompanied by Jim Gibney, made our way down to the administration room where we were to meet the British Prime Minister. We went into the room while Jim waited outside in the corridor, which was by this time crowded with the building's administration staff.

As BBC World Television was telling viewers of the ``historic'' nature of the first handshake between a Sinn Féin leader and a British Prime Minister, Jim Gibney was making his own history by greeting Tony Blair in the corridor and shaking hands. The green ribbon attached to Jim's lapel caught the attention of British officials who suddenly and nervously realised that things were not going quite as planned.

The British delegation included Tony Blair, Marjorie Mowlam, Paul Murphy, Johnathan Stephens and some others. They arrived at 4.08pm for what was scheduled to be the start of a 15 minute meeting. Hands were shaken, no one received a shock, smiles and greetings were exchanged and Gerry welcomed Mr Blair to our country with a céad mile failte.

The atmosphere was very relaxed and cordial. The chairs were arranged in a circle around a small table which had a flower arrangement sitting in the middle of it.

It is not for me to record what Mr Blair said. Suffice to say that he made it clear that he is very conscious of the historic opportunity which now exists.

Each delegation outlined their position and responded to the comments of the other.

Gerry opened Sinn Féin's contribution by acknowledging the speed with which this government has moved. He pointed to Sinn Féin's long record of commitment to the search for peace and said: ``we want you to be the last British Prime Minister with jurisdiction in Ireland''. Gerry remarked: ``From our point of view the biggest cause of conflict is British government involvement in our country. Therefore, the British government has to be the engine for change. I heard you say that you value the Union but for us and many other people the union is of no great value.''

Gerry Adams urged the British Prime Minister to use the enormous goodwill which exists in Ireland and British to build a ``new relationship'' between the peoples of these islands. He also said there was an urgent need for the ``equality agenda to be pursued with vigour. There needs to be movement on the democratic rights issue, especially demilitarisation, and on prisoners. There needs to be constitutional change.''

Gerry told Mr Blair of our desire to reach out to the unionists, but he made clear Sinn Féin's determination not to return to the failures of the past. He expressed the concern that perhaps this generation of British politicians feel that they don't have a responsibility for the issues which created this conflict but they have. For over 30 years a security agenda has been dictating events in the Six Counties. That has to change.

In his remarks Martin McGuinness said the British government needed to recognise that this is a political problem which needs resolved politically. The objective of British Intelligence has been to try and split the IRA and the British need to move beyond the security agenda. Martin referred to the example set by South Africa. He said: ``Last year I listened to Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer in Belfast. Roelf Meyer made a brilliant contribution. He said that for years the South African regime had looked on the problem as one of security. John Major was working to a military agenda.'' This new British government must not.

Martin also spoke about the difficulties in the current process. Specifically, the refusal of some of the participants to even speak to Sinn Féin. Martin told Mr Blair that the only person who can bring them along is him.

Martin raised the issue of Bloody Sunday. Having spoken to relatives he told the British Prime Minister that they are not interested in an apology. ``They want an international public inquiry''.

Gerry Adams informed Mr Blair that he also intended raising the Brian Nelson affair and the role of British intelligence in importing weapons for loyalists to kill Catholics. I spoke for a few moments on the issue of consent setting it in the context of the island of Ireland and repeating our commitment to seeking an agreement.

The meeting ended at 4.35pm with everyone again shaking hands.

Looking back now several days later I'm convinced that this was a real engagement; not a repeat of past meetings with Tory Ministers where they simply went through the motions. Of course, in a situation in which everyone must contemplate fundamental change Mr Blair faces the greatest challenge. If he is prepared to change British policy, which has underpinned the conflict, then a democratic peace settlement is achievable.
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