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23 April 1998 Edition

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Forward in struggle

A vision that guides us

Peadar Whelan casts an eye over the 92nd Ard Fheis

The first business of the 92nd Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was to vote to adjourn at the end of two days and reconvene within a month to discuss the Good Friday Agreement.

The Agreement dominated the gathering. Time was set aside on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for debate on the party's response to it. Over 70 speakers contributed, pointing to the type of decisions which will have to be made at the reconvened Ard Fheis. Gerry Adams's Presidential address focused on it and Martin McGuinness gave a packed, hot and attentive audience a blow-by-blow account of the final days of negotiations and his initial assessment of the resulting document.

And for many the highlight of the Ard Fheis - a speech by Thenjiwe Mtintso, the Deputy Secretary General of the ANC - was a wonderful sharing of experience of the negotiation process in South Africa. Thenjiwe said she experienced a sense of jeja vu - the arguments used by the delegates to the Ard Fheis were exactly the same as those used within the ANC in debates over strategy in the early 1990s.

Sinn Féin Youth was prominent in all debates - they complimented the veterans and the veterans praised them. Generational unity is alive and well.

Maybe it was the heat but by the time I left on Sunday evening after one of the most important party conferences in years I felt like a hot house flower.

The heating engineers in this salubrious building were ensuring that none of the Shinners died of hypothermia.

Mind you some of us could have expired due to the warmth, especially during the Saturday afternoon session when Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness recounted the battle of Stormont and seemed to still those troubled waters that had been swirling around republican ankles since Good Friday.

According to Martin the only thing that was good about it was that he was ``out of Stormont'', and on his way back to Derry - presumably to get stuck into his Easter Eggs.

The heat seemed to be having its effect on the caitheoirleach as Sean McManus in attempting to get the delegates back for the Saturday afternoon session ordered, ``you have one minute to get into the hall''. A far cry from the old republican mantra, ``you've 10 minutes to get out''.

A sign of the times, no doubt.

And poor Pat Rice provoked laughter when he introduced a foreign guest from the UDP (the Potuguese variety).

Alas it wasn't Gary or Davy. As Pat pointed out, our foreign visitor would have more of a suss on democracy that would these men.

This section of the Ard Fheis was remarkable as Pat introduced one representative from overseas after another.

Three governments were represented South Africa, Zimbabwe and Rosie Douglas from the Dominican Republic - a friend of long standing who has probably attended more Ard Fheiseanna than I have.

The Herri Batasuna delegates were well received, a show of solidarity given the latest Spanish repression they suffered. And it warmed my heart to hear the welcoming applause for the representative of the Communist Party of Argentina. Something like 15 foreign representatives - not bad.

There was a buzz about this Ard Fheis that I believe stemmed from the energy that is generated when republican activists rub shoulders with each other. However, I also believe that the buzz had a lot to do with the energy expended in the last years of struggle finally paying off.

We all know that the so-called agreement isn't an agreement, that it only represents the first step. And as Mao Tse-Tung said, the longest journey begins with the first step.

The buzz also came from the fact that despite the dissatisfaction and doubts expressed by some of the delegates about the document all the debate was comradely and well-intentioned. (Although I must mention that during the section of the Clar dealing with motions on the right of a woman to have an abortion some `comrades' described the pro-choice speakers as `baby murderers'. Hardly the most comradely reaction and certainly not in keeping with the general mood of a good Ard Fheis.)

The last word, however, must go to an Iranian friend who asked, ``why are people so worried? You have never doubted you would achieve freedom, you wouldn't be here otherwise. You have a vision, that is what guides you and as sure as the sun rises in the morning you can be sure you will fulfil your vision''.


Preparing for a new phase of struggle

Presidential address by Gerry Adams

While our goals and principles must not change, our strategic objectives, strategies and tactics must be constantly reviewed and rooted in objective reality 
This Ard Fheis takes place against a background of great challenges for republicans across the country. There is great hope and concern sitting alongside each other.

The political landscape of Irish politics is changing and republicans are at the forefront of that change.

On Good Friday, when the talks concluded, I spelt out the Sinn Fein position.

I outlined our view that British policy in Ireland has manifestly failed, that partition has failed, and that the days of unionist rule are gone forever. I made it clear that there can be no going back to the failed policies and structures of the past, to the domination of a one-party unionist state supported by the British government.

When the vote was taken I did not vote and Sinn Féin has yet to make a decision on this document. I had previously made it clear that our negotiating team would report back to the Ard Chomhairle which would assess the document in the context of our peace strategy and that we would approach the development in a positive manner.

It is not enough to read this document on its own, line by line or word by word. Parts of it are ambiguous and contradictory. It needs to be examined in the context of strategy and struggle. And in preparing for the next phase we need also to examine the positions and strategies of our opponents and enemies.

I have always made it clear that while our goals and principles must not change, our strategic objectives, strategies and tactics must be constantly reviewed and rooted in objective reality.

It is crucially important that all of us are totally involved in making the decisions which will prepare this party to fulfil the historic challenges which face us.

In the last 30 years the struggle so far has come through a series of phases from the civil rights days and the mass and popular uprising of the early seventies through periods of intense armed conflict and the prison struggles including the hunger strikes into electoralism and the Sinn Fein peace strategy. That struggle goes on but it could be moving once more into another defined phase because whatever else the Good Friday document does, it has the potential to redefine the relationship between these islands, thus concluding one phase of our struggle and opening up another one.

We have argued that the movement from today's inequality, division and conflict must be transitional. We have argued that progress can be achieved through a rolling process which builds a bridge into the future. In fact, in a document of that name, I presented a case for transitional and other arrangements into a peaceful and democratic Ireland. It is my view that many of these ideas should underpin our strategy in the time ahead.

Such a transitional process could provide a pragmatic route to our ultimate goal but only if the dynamic for such change is stronger than the resistance to it. We need to explore whether this is a possibility.

  Sinn Fein will subscribe to what we view as positive in the Agreement, to those aspects which contribute to moving us towards our overall objectives, and it is you, the activists, who with the leadership, shall decide on that.
Some of our critics will say: `You cant do that! You have to buy into it, all or nothing!' But they are wrong.

We can do and we will do whatever we are mandated to do.

We will not be caged in, psyched out, intimidated, cajoled, patronised or bought off. We have our eye on the prize. The prize of freedom. 

The background to the Agreement was the IRA cessation of August 1994. The republican objective was to genuinely explore the possibilities of a just settlement. The IRA initiative was abused by those politicians resisting change and by securocrats who cannot accept the fact that the IRA is intact, strong and undefeatable. Nor could they contemplate a resurgent nationalist community asserting its rights, because the existence of the northern state was founded, first, on the denial of the right of the Irish people to independence and, second, on the denial of fundamental civil, national and democratic rights to Irish nationalists in the North. Their obstructionist approach led to the breakdown of the first IRA cessation.

It should not be necessary to stress that these people are still in positions of power in the British establishment and still working to a unionist and militarist agenda.

There is no big secret about republican strategy, just as there is no big secret about British government and unionist strategy. They want to maintain the union and we will always want to end it in order to push for our objective - Irish reunification and independence.

The talks process has not settled centuries of British interference in Ireland. Major issues remain unresolved. As Irish republicans we believe that Britain's involvement in our country has been disastrous for us and for them also. We were bequeathed conflict and death, we were bequeathed division. Britain has never had any right to be in Ireland. Britain will never have any right to be in Ireland. But the British government can play a positive role before leaving by trying to redress some of its wrongs and by helping to create the conditions for a peaceful transition to a just settlement.

We knew from the outset that other parties had already subscribed to a unionist veto described euphemistically as `consent'. We disagree with that position. The reason we cannot subscribe to a unionist veto is quite simple. That veto led to partition and to great suffering by nationalists under Stormont. It was a great historical wrong which allowed a national minority to veto progress by the Irish nation. That veto, and the pandering to that veto, has fed unionist intransigence to this day. It did so at the talks. It continues to feed intransigence and to delay a just settlement. Significantly, that veto has also been the pretext for continued British involvement in Ireland.

Republicans seek agreement between the people of this island as a way of resolving this conflict. That means winning unionists, or at least a sufficient number of unionists, over to the goal of a United Ireland. Is that possible? Have we confidence in our republican analysis, in our arguments and in our vision of the future? Of course, how quickly we can do that depends on nationalism and republicanism building on the limited political consensus which has marked recent events.

But consent has to be a two way street. We have not heard much about the principle of nationalist consent.

I shall not prejudge the outcome of the crucial debate that is ahead of Sinn Féin but I say this. United we can do whatever we like. We can continue to confound our critics. We will be imaginative and courageous, open and honest, and will never lose sight of our objective of a United Ireland. And we will continue to make advances.

Much has been said about the Agreement. It has been interpreted this way and that. It is up to us collectively to decide how we approach it. On the one hand it upholds the unionist veto over the constitutional position of the north, and, on the other hand it reduces the British territorial claim to that one hinge while it compels unionists to accept key and fundamental changes involving all-Ireland dimensions to everyday life.

So while the Agreement is not a settlement, it is a basis for advancement. It heralds a change in the status quo. And it could become a transitional stage towards reunification but only if all those who express an interest in that objective, especially the powerful and influential, move beyond rhetoric to build a real dynamic for national democratic change.

So Sinn Fein will subscribe to what we view as positive in the Agreement, to those aspects which contribute to moving us towards our overall objectives, and it is you, the activists, who with the leadership, shall decide on that.

Some of our critics will say: `You can't do that! You have to buy into it, all or nothing!' But they are wrong.

We can do and we will do whatever we are mandated to do.

We will not be caged in, psyched out, intimidated, cajoled, patronised or bought off. We have our eye on the prize. The prize of freedom.

As everyone knows there was a two week period of intensive multi-party negotiations which started on Monday 30 March.

Our concerns as we approached this intensive period were that the two governments had yet to agree on many of the substantive issues and David Trimble had, and has yet to bring himself to recognise the legitimacy of our mandate. We raised all of these concerns in our engagements with the two governments and with President Clinton and his officials in the White House. In the absence of agreement between the governments we feared that the British government would go down to the wire on some issues and that the Irish government would be forced to negotiate up which is always more difficult than negotiating down. We were also concerned that the officials at the British end, mostly the same ones who handled this issue during John Major's term, would, once again, take up a unionist line. In both cases our fears were justified.

In the first day or so it became obvious that Senator Mitchell, who played a thoroughly commendable role, had no paper to deliver. I went to see Bertie Ahern in Dublin. After a very thorough meeting I left assured that he was focused on all the issues and that his engagements with the British Prime Minister which were due to start later that week would concentrate on the substantive issues.

Meanwhile back at the Talks venue, the Unionists were still blocking progress. We warned that they would increase this hard-balling and that its aim was to prevent the tabling of any paper which was not to their satisfaction. Mr Trimble had a series of meetings with Mr Blair and that week passed without a paper being tabled at the talks.

On Sunday, a Sinn Féin delegation met with the Irish government. Bertie Ahern's mother took seriously ill that day and despite this he saw ourselves and other parties. In fact he left our meeting to go to the hospital and regrettably Julia Ahern died in the early hours of the following morning. My own mother died suddenly in 1992. She was rushed to the hospital with a stroke. I did not visit her for fear of jeopardising others. I have yet to recover from her death. Colette's mother died 3 years ago. She has yet to recover. So we know how Bertie feels. He had to conduct business as usual. I would like to extend condolences of this Ard Fheis to the Ahern family.

At midnight on Monday the paper was eventually tabled. Our talks team were ready and waiting and I want to take this opportunity to commend all of them. We had at least a score of people working non stop during this period. They included our front team of negotiators, the back-up people who drafted and provided the arguments, the publicity people, the secretariat which monopolised three word-processors and at least 5 lap-tops and the security people who were on constant call. We also had the active support of a number of lawyers and senior counsel. They all deserve our heartiest congratulations.

I want to pay tribute to our friends from abroad. We regularly pay tribute to our friends in the USA and to President Clinton. The international dimension of this struggle has been an expanding one. On Thursday, I received a call from the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and we had a brief discussion about the situation here. We also received a wide range of greetings from throughout the world and if I may single out one person who has been a stalwart ally I want to pay tribute to President Nelson Mandela.

Of course none of the recent developments or the potential of the current situation would be possible if the IRA had not shown the great courage in taking the initiative for peace in August 1994.

In 1998 we are at a high point where Sinn Fein and republicanism is a pivotal and growing force in Irish politics. We need to be confident about our own strength. We need to build our struggle right across this island. Our task must be to articulate and develop the core republican positions in a way which is reasonable and attractive to the broad mass of the Irish people. This cannot be a northern struggle with the south tagged on. It has to be a truly national struggle. That is your responsibility.

Unionist nervousness should not blind us to the enormity of our task and to what has to be done in the time ahead. I told you last year and I want to tell you again, `we must make every effort to ensure that northern Protestants and unionists are not forced to occupy that political space we wish to escape from'.

Today, more than ever, we need to hear the many voices of unionism.

I am aware that the political circumstances that have unfolded over this past seven days have left a deep sense of uncertainty among many unionists. I appreciate the intensity of their feelings and recognise how much they matter to those who feel the hurt and pain.

We who carry so much pain must not allow our hurt to make us insensitive to the hurt and pain of the unionists. We must make it clear that we have no wish to dominate them in the way we were dominated in the past. I also appreciate that for many republicans this journey of reconciliation with the unionists is difficult, but surely the depth of our republican vision is its capacity to lift us above our more negative feelings. Our vision compels us to build a bridge into the hearts and minds of those who we once described as our enemy.

Looking into Unionism today I see confusion and fear. Many in that community believe that ahead of them lies a rushing political humiliation. Many believe they are being moved into a position of second class citizenship where they will be robbed of their identity. They fear they are being forced into a political space which was previously occupied by nationalists and republicans.

  We cannot and we will not recognise as legitimate the six county statelet. And we can and we will continue to reject partition and British rule. That is our credo. We cannot stand still. The struggle must be developed. We need to keep making advances, creating a new political culture. A culture of change 
I understand the difficulties facing David Trimble. I feel that he has compounded some of his difficulties by refusing so far to embrace with generosity the breadth of change which is needed. Change must be managed. That is difficult for everyone, for you, for me, for Mr Trimble. The anchor of change has to be dialogue. In his heart of hearts Mr Trimble knows that. He also knows that the real significance of last week's events for unionism was that the Ulster Unionist Party was moved further than it wanted to go. But if Unionists are to play a positive role in the shared responsibility which must shape a shared future for everyone on this island, unionism will have to move even further into modern times.

David Trimble says that in his opinion the union is much safer under the Agreement than it was before. But he knows the truth is that the union has been severely weakened. That is the reality.

So while I am conscious of Mr Trimble's difficulties and ready to engage directly with him I must also remind him that the challenge for him is to join in managing and planning the future along with the rest of us.

It is my view that this will happen. But only when there is no alternative. In the course of all of this we made the case that the main responsibiity was with the British government. If Mr Trimble would not negotiate then Mr Blair had to. That is why the role of the British Prime Minister is so crucial. Up to this point British policy in support of the Union, as well as the unionist veto, have been at the root of the conflict here. That is why the focus of all democratic opinion must be on securing changes in British policy and removing the veto.

Yesterday, I spoke to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. 10 Downing Street also phoned 44 Parnell Square [SF Head Office] and I spoke to the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who I will be meeting again on 27 April. I took the opportunity to impress upon him once again that the British responsibility in Ireland is to right wrongs. I also conveyed to him complaints that I have received of British military and RUC harassment in Belfast, South Armagh and Tyrone. Indeed over the Easter period a number of our negotiating team were victims once again of this harassment. In my view Mr Blair understands that he must bring changes urgently on the ground and in these areas which have suffered most from the blight of British militarism and the British presence.

One of the big challenges facing us in the time ahead is how we deal with the new structures which are being proposed. This must be part of our evaluation. Irish republicans have an emotional and an understandable political as well as a constitutional block to participation in a Stormont parliament. If that abstentionist policy underpins our contest in the Assembly elections then the seats in the cross border bodies, which have the power to make and implement policy on an all Ireland basis, and which would rightly belong to our electorate, could be allocated to other parties. We need to ask ourselves if this serves our struggle. If it does, fair enough. It if does not then we have a duty to look at alternatives based upon a coherent republican strategy.

We cannot and we will not recognise as legitimate the six county statelet. And we can and we will continue to reject partition and British rule. That is our credo.

We cannot stand still. The struggle must be developed. We need to keep making advances, creating a new political culture. A culture of change. To bring an end to the status quo. Nationalists and republicans living in the north are not some ethnic minority living in a foreign state. We are Irish people living in our own country. Our rights are not concessions that is the gift of unionism of the British government to give or withhold.

Northern nationalists willingly and consciously share in the sovereignty of the Irish people. This needs to be given recognition and accommodated as part of the forward momentum of a transitional process. Accordingly we have advocated that Irish citizens in the north be entitled to return representative


Negotiating an agenda for change

In a keynote address, Martin McGuinness gave a detailed account of Sinn Féin's engagement in the talks and outlined his initial opinion of the Agreement

Sinn Fein's peace strategy is the dynamic which led to the Irish peace initiative and led to the total cessation of military operations by Oglaigh na hEireann in August 1994. It is the dynamic which transformed the political focus of all the players and opened up future possibilities.

The Downing Street Declaration and the Joint Framework Documents were formulated as a counter offensive to this; to buy time and to constrain and delimit the possibilities which had been opened up.

In parallel, the wreckers went to work; the securocrats and the political recidivists who would contenance no change; for whom the new situation simply meant the pursuit of war objectives by other means. And while they were successful in pulling the new situation apart they failed to extinguish the hope that had been inspired in popular opinion on this island and in Britain.

This was the situation inherited by the new Labour government of Tony Blair. The detail of all of this is well known too and includes a second cessation in July last year by the IRA; which rose again to the challenge of seeking a resolution to the conflict.

Sinn Fein has pursued all of this in the context of our republican analysis and a solid strategy to meet all of the difficulties head on.

We have not been naive in any of this. We were fully aware of the many flaws inbuilt into the talks process. Not least of these was the permanent government of securorats and civil servants who have ruled the north for a quarter of a century; a bureaucracy which sought to impose a classical pacification programme when what is required is a conflict resolution process. Nor were we naive about the possible outcomes to the talks process itself. These were ring-fenced in their outer parameters by the positions of the two governments as set out in the Joint Framework Document. And, of course, as was evident to all observers of the unfolding situation, we were fully aware that the blocking tactics of the unionist leaders would have to be thwarted. These included preventing a talks process from getting off the ground at all. In this, they were ably abetted by John Major. Preventing Sinn Fein from participating when talks eventually began and trying to drive us out once this had failed. It was a purely tactical approach to the situation.

  The two governments pulled the Strand 2 paper and Senator Mitchell was forced to postpone the issuing of his synthesis paper. It later emerged that the Strand 2 paper had been leaked to the Unionists and they pressurised the British government to pullback 
In all of this a united Ireland was not on the British agenda. Everyone knew that, especially republican activists. But it is and was on our agenda. Our remit was to negotiate an agenda for change - political and constitutional and in the matters which affect people most in their everyday lives, equality, rights, justice and demilitarisation. Our agenda for change in this limited but important short-term were outlined in our Bridge into the Future document in March and our Future as Equals document submitted to the talks.

A united Ireland was not attainable in this phase not just because of Unionist opposition but because of all the participants only Sinn Fein was advocating and promoting that objective. To the extent that our political strength permitted us to promote all of our positions we did so.

A stronger electoral mandate would conceivably have affected the outcome of the talks in any number of ways. We need to learn the lesson of that. We need to build on our electoral mandate to shape the many negotiations which challenge us in the future.

It will be impossible, and it would take too long, to give you the detail of every single engagement we were involved in. This report deals only with a general sweep of our discussions but I should tell you as well as meeting with the governments and the Independent Chairs, Sinn Fein talked to and listened to the smaller parties. I may unintentionally have missed out a meeting here and there.

During a five hour engagement with senior Irish government officials on March 25 Sinn Fein made detailed proposals across the entire range of issues. These proposals formed the basis of Sinn Fein's negotiations throughout an extensive engagement.

  In the early hours of Friday morning the UUP conceded almost the entire nationalist position on an assembly. Sufficient consensus provided a counter to the unionist veto and crucially, the unionists did not get the procedural device around decommissioning with which they had sought to disenfranchise the Sinn Fein electorate. While most of the final paper had now taken shape the issues of prisoners and policing was still a major concern. 
The period from the 30 March was the start of an intensive round of meetings that went on and on for 10 days and 10 nights.

Monday 30 and Tuesday 31 March

We met Senator Mitchell, the Irish government and the SDLP. We sought to positively influence the document that Senator Mitchell was preparing by lobbying the Irish government and trying to secure common positions with the SDLP.

Wednesday 1 April

Gerry Adams met Bertie Ahern ahead of his (Bertie Ahern's) meeting in London with Tony Blair. The Taoiseach was fully briefed on the Sinn Fein position and what, in our view nationalists needed to achieve in this phase of negotiations. This was an opportunity for us to influence their positions positively or at least to ensure that the Irish government was in no doubt about our position on these issues.

At Stormont intensive negotiations began in earnest. We gave Senator Mitchell an informal paper covering all relevant issues and including, for the first time, in writing, and without prejudice to our opposition to an assembly in the north, a detailed position on the safeguards required if such a body came into existence.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP were the only parties advocating a sufficient consensus position. The unionists were vehemently opposed to this.

The Irish government was given the same list of points and they endorsed the sufficient consensus position. The same position was also given to the SDLP.

Sinn Fein was now fully engaged across the entire range of issues being negotiated premised on our opposition to an assembly.

Thursday 2 April.

The Strand 2 engagement between Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern on the Wednesday evening had been inconclusive. The Irish government was insisting that the all-Ireland Council have meaningful powers, effective implementation bodies and be legislatively based in Westminster and Leinster House.

We began to get a clearer sense of positions agreed between the Irish and British governments on issues of equality and demilitarisation including policing, rights, justice and the Irish language. We continued to push hard for improved positions on this range of issues. We also pressed on the constitutional issues, arguing against specified changes in the Irish constitution and stressing the need for the maximum change in British constitutional legislation. We made concrete proposals for northern representation in political institutions in the south.

Lobbied by us, the Irish government suggested giving Seanad seats to northern parties, the setting up of a special committee from the north on the Seanad and to positively consider giving people from the north votes in Presidential elections and referenda. We told them that this was not an adequate degree of representation but welcomed the fact that they were giving consideration to this concept. We also pressed the British government to include a clause in their constitutional legislation which makes clear that all previous and existing constitutional legislation which we wanted named would be superseded by the new legislation resulting from these talks. We were told that the British presence will be left solely dependent on the wishes of the people in the six counties. We adopt a wait and see approach to this.

  At every stage of the process we fought for changes to the British constitutional legislation and any suggestion by David Trimble that the union with Britain was not up for negotiation, indeed, not even for discussion, is mere fantasy 
Friday 3 April

Negotiations continued in tandem in London and Stormont. There were indications that Strand 2 was near agreement in London. At Castle Buildings we continued to push the Irish government and the British on the equality agenda, the Irish language and on the demilitarisation and policing issues in advance of agreed papers being submitted by them to Senator Mitchell.

We suggested a trilateral meeting with the Irish government, the SDLP and Sinn Fein. This was arranged for Friday evening and lasted for over an hour. The Sinn Fein delegation outlined the key requirements for nationalists. The meeting had the effect of ensuring that all three parties knew each other's positions and were clear that there was no room to move towards the unionists on the key issues.

Although Strand 1 was not agreed, Senator Mitchell indicated that he would issue the synthesis paper with options to cover the areas which were still not agreed.

On Friday evening, despite pressure from Senator Mitchell to produce an agreed paper, the two governments pulled the Strand 2 paper and Senator Mitchell was forced to postpone the issuing of his synthesis paper. It later emerged that the Strand 2 paper had been leaked to the Unionists and they pressurised the British government to pull back.

Saturday 4 and Sunday 5 April

We were given a briefing on the state of play between the two governments and our team outlined our view on this. This work continued through Saturday and into Sunday afternoon. By this stage we had a fairly accurate read on what would emerge in relation to: constitutional issues; Strand 2 and 3; equality and rights; policing; and prisoners.

At 6pm on Sunday a Sinn Fein delegation met with the Irish government in Dublin. We were given a briefing on the current state of play between the two governments.

During the course of all these deliberations our negotiating team was in constant session continuously reviewing and updating our position.

  The union has undoubtedly been weakened as a result of the inclusion of a clause limiting the life of the union to the will of a majority in the Northern state. It is a bit like a partner in a relationship saying that the relationship is over, but that s/he is willing to wait until the children have grown up. There is now no absolute commitment, no raft of parliamentary acts to back up an absolute claim, but only an agreement to stay until the majority decides otherwise. This is a long way from being as British as Finchley. 
Monday 6 April

We did a major review of all the issues under negotiation. On the basis of this we decided to do a series of focused engagements with the two governments urging them to improve their position on a number of matters including the Irish language, prisoners, policing and the equality agenda. The Irish government took many of our points on board.

A briefing with British officials on their approach to prisoners precipitated a crisis. The British position on prisoners was totally unacceptable. They suggested that most prisoners would be released within three years but that some would be left inside for a considerable time after that. We rejected this outright. A series of meetings with the Irish government and with Mo Mowlam followed, specifically focused on this issue. We indicated that this issue was so central that if it was not dealt with it could result in Sinn Fein leaving the talks. Gerry Adams made two phone calls to Tony Blair on this issue and emphasised its importance to republicans. All this called into question key elements in the paper which Senator Mitchell was preparing to release.

It also emerged that the unionists were blocking the release of the paper because of their discomfort with Strand 2, their refusal to agree Strand 1 and a range of other issues. On Strand 2 the unionists were opposed to the establishment by legislation in Westminster and Leinster House of the North/South Council and its Implementation Bodies and they also wanted it to begin to function after, rather than simultaneously with, a northern assembly.

Eventually, at 12.30am on Tuesday the paper, with key areas still not agreed, was issued to the parties.

Tuesday 7 April.

We prepared a comprehensive response to the Mitchell paper. It took over 24 hours but it was the most detailed response submitted containing 76 amendments. The principle purpose of this was to act as a bulwark against Unionist attempts to negotiate the paper down.

Tuesday was dominated by unionist unease with the paper and their public rejection of it. There was increased speculation that Tony Blair was to travel to Belfast. Our engagements with the British continued, but our main focus remained on the Irish government and included a number of phonecalls from Gerry Adams to Bertie Ahern. We continued to push for better positions on the prisoners, on policing, on justice, the equality agenda, on a wider remit for the North/South Council and its implementation bodies and for effective safeguards in an assembly.

Tony Blair arrived in the evening and met David Trimble at Hillsborough.

Unionist unease with the Mitchell paper and the direction of the talks was undisguised and continued into Wednesday 8 April.

Wednesday 8 April

In the morning Gerry Adams and myself met Bertie Ahern and then Tony Blair. Gerry Adams talked to the White House officials twice. There were a number of separate meeting with Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair. All of these engagements emphasised that we wanted to be part of an agreement but pointed out that we could not be on the basis of the positions on offer: on constitutional issues, policing, prisoners, and the equality agenda including the Irish language. We emphasised that these were critical areas for us; touchstone issues, as we described them.

John Hume informed us that the SDLP's meetings with the UUP had made no progress.

Our comprehensive response to the Mitchell paper was submitted to Senator Mitchell and to the Irish government.

The main focus remained on the unionists' rejection of the Strand 2 position and their failure to move in the Strand 1 areas. We stayed in close contact with the SDLP and the Irish government in the face of the unionist hard-balling.

In the early evening Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern met Trimble. This produced no clear movement and in the early hours of Thursday morning the UUP and the Irish government met to discuss Strand 2. The meeting was reported to be acrimonious.

Thursday 9 April

Gerry Adams met the Taoiseach and was briefed on the UUP meeting. Bertie Ahern instructed the Irish government negotiators to raise all the issues contained in our response to the Mitchell paper with the British government and to take these issues as far as possible.

After another review by our team we focused on trying to push the paper forward once again to counter the unionists' attempts to dilute it and unpick the substantive issues. After a series of meetings with the Irish government the Strand 2 position eventually settled down somewhere between the position the UUP had demanded and the position we had put. We were satisfied that we neutralised most of the concessions made to the UUP.

Meanwhile the Strand 1 element was still unresolved. The UUP had not yet moved at all on this and we were concerned that under this pressure and the agreement of the North/South arrangements that the SDLP would feel under pressure to move towards the UUP position. However, we had already put our position on safeguards in an assembly into the public domain.

We continued to work on the other issues, pushing the Brits and the Irish government on prisoners, the Irish language, rights and equality, policing and other demilitarisation issues. Two phone calls between Gerry Adams and President Clinton underlined our need for movement on these issues.

In the early hours of the morning the UUP conceded almost the entire nationalist position on an assembly. Sufficient consensus provided a counter to the unionist veto and crucially, the unionists did not get the procedural device around decommissioning with which they had sought to disenfranchise the Sinn Fein electorate. While most of the final paper had now taken shape the issues of prisoners and policing was still a major concern.

We took a firm line on this. A series of meetings took place throughout the night involving Sinn Fein (mainly Gerry and myself) with Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and Mo Mowlam. There may have been up to a dozen engagements. At least three of these were joint meetings between Gerry Adams, myself, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern.

Finally, in the early hours of the morning, the British government agreed to give a firm commitment in the agreement that all prisoners will be released within a defined period of two years and that this may happen sooner. We also negotiated separately with the Irish government on the question of prisoners in their jurisdiction, on constitutional matters and the rights of citizens in the north to be represented in Irish political institutions in the south.

By this stage the pressure from Senator Mitchell on the two governments was intense. The document was now almost agreed between the two governments but we continued to negotiate beyond this. We asked for assurance that our issues of concern would be dealt with. We got a commitment from Tony Blair to meet Sinn Fein post-Easter and that meeting will take place next Monday 27 April.

Friday 10 April

In a second phone call to President Clinton at 9.45am we asked for his continued interest and support for movement on the entire range of issues.

At 12 noon the document was circulated to the parties with the intention of calling a plenary. We prepared a response to this paper and told Senator Mitchell we wanted to put our concerns on the record in the plenary. We submitted 20 points of concern.

When they received the paper, the UUP went into crisis. They were eventually moved into the Plenary which was held at 5.30pm on Friday afternoon and David Trimble voted in support of the document. We had made our position clear to the Independent Chairs and the two governments that we would bring this document back to the Sinn Fein party for discussion.

Initial overview of the Agreement

I know that many people have read this document and that we will be debating this today and over the coming weeks. So I want to give only an initial overview of the key aspects of it.

  Do we have a level playing field as a result of this phase of negotiations? We clearly do not. What we do have, however, is a very visible playing field, with the equality issue up in lights, the clear prospect of change if we have the strength and commitment to hold people to positions outlined and no hiding place for supremacists and those who wish to maintain a failed status quo.
``That is not to say that this document is acceptable as a settlement even in these areas - it clearly does not go as far as most nationalists and republicans would wish. But it is the basis for advancement.

Our position from the outset was that we sought fundamental political and constitutional change. That meant the maximum change to British constitutional legislation and no changes to the Irish constitutional position which would dilute the definition of the nation, the rights of Irish citizens or the imperative to re-unite the country. We knew from the parameters of the talks laid down by the two governments that Irish unity would not come out of this phase of the negotiations, but we set ourselves the task of weakening the British link while defending the right of Irish men and women and it is in this context that we must honestly measure the gains and losses.

At every stage of the process we fought for changes to the British constitutional legislation and any suggestion by David Trimble that the union with Britain was not up for negotiation, indeed, not even for discussion, is mere fantasy. I heard him say that the Union wasn't even mentioned, yet he knows that our delegation raised this in Plenary sessions. Mr Trimble's refusal to negotiate with Sinn Féin did prevent the development of a truly inclusive negotiation, but it did not stop Sinn Féin from negotiating. Indeed it placed the British Prime Minister in the position, as we predicted, of negotiating on behalf of the unionists and this is exactly what happened last week.

We fought for and got the repeal of the Government of Ireland Act which underpinned the union, and insisted that other relevant legislation, including the Act of Union and the NI Constitution Act of 1973 must also be altered, repealed or rendered inoperable by any new Act. While because of the stated concerns of the British Government for unionist sensitivities, we did not get this clear declaration, the Agreement states that the new Act ``shall have effect notwithstanding any previous enactment''.

The union has undoubtedly been weakened as a result of the inclusion of a clause limiting the life of the union to the will of a majority in the Northern state. It is a bit like a partner in a relationship saying that the relationship is over, but that s/he is willing to wait until the children have grown up. There is now no absolute commitment, no raft of parliamentary acts to back up an absolute claim, but only an agreement to stay until the majority decides otherwise. This is a long way from being as British as Finchley.

The downside of this is, of course, the proposed inclusion of the ``consent clause'' into the Irish constitution, and the definition of the nation in terms of its people rather than of its territory. However, on a more positive note, and I want to draw your attention to this, there is, through the amendment to Article 29, constitutional expression for the establishment of North/South bodies which have an all-island remit.

We should not judge this agreement through the filter of unionism or the exaggerated claims of others. Rather we must subject it to our republican analysis.

While the Union has been weakened, partition remains. But it, too, can be weakened by the dynamic operation of all-Ireland structures, which is one part of the agreement which unionists fought tooth and nail to prevent and about which they have paradoxically had least to say in the past week.

Contrary to mischievous claims by some of the talks participants, Sinn Féin, as we have made clear, negotiated on all the Strands and on all of the issues.

Before Christmas, we were given clearance by the ard chomhairle to state our opposition to an Assembly but to discuss this and to try to negotiate for the maximum safeguards should this institution become a reality.

Our intention was to remove the unionist veto from all institutions.

With this in mind, we raised these issues in Plenary sessions with the other parties and in more detailed written positions to the two governments and the independent chairs.

As a result of this, the room for unionist abuse has been significantly narrowed. Safeguards have been built in and the unionists will not be able to veto the North/South bodies.

Republicans approached this process on the basis of conflict resolution. The difficult task we set ourselves was to work with former foes to build a bridge out of conflict, to end the failures of the past and to right the many wrongs in the society we all share. It was clear from the outset that this outlook was not shared by other parties there, but some of the smaller parties were quite innovative in their approach to human rights issues.

However, the talks quickly became just one more battleground, with unionists seeking to prevent change on an entire range of basic rights which should not even be a matter for negotiation, with Sinn Féin seeking maximum change and some parties interested only in setting up new institutions with little interest in the wider issues that affect people's everyday lives.

And so it continued down to the last half hour, with Sinn Féin to the fore in fighting for prisoner releases, a new police service, the transformation of the judicial system and the whole equality and rights agenda, including employment equality, the Irish language, and the issue of symbols and emblems.

We negotiated with both governments for the release of all political prisoners. We are determined to secure the release of every single political prisoner as soon as possible.

We also supported the Women's Coalition proposal for a top-up of ten extra seats in an Assembly We did this not because it was of any benefit to us, but in recognition of the positive role they had played and in an effort to promote the rights of smaller parties in any new institutions.

Do we have a level playing field as a result of this phase of negotiations? We clearly do not. What we do have, however, is a very visible playing field, with the equality issue up in lights, the clear prospect of change if we have the strength and commitment to hold people to positions outlined and no hiding place for supremacists and those who wish to maintain a failed status quo.

That is not to say that this document is acceptable as a settlement even in these areas - it clearly does not go as far as most nationalists and republicans would wish. But it is the basis for advancement. It provides a clear standard against which British Government actions in the coming months can be measured and is a significant challenge to unionists who argued within the talks that there was no discrimination but only disadvantage. The days of unionist domination are gone forever.

Republicans are justifiably sceptical about some elements of this document. It remains to be seen if the logic of a joint committee for the new Human Rights Commissions North and South will be allowed to reach its full potential. Will equality be placed at the heart of decision-making by creating a Department of Equality in any new Assembly? Will the Irish-speaking community be encouraged and facilitated in every facet of life from public bodies, the media, education and the courts? Will the `sensitivity' called for with regard to symbols and emblems be put into practice not only in all public buildings but with regard to the coat-trailing Orange marches of the summer months? And most importantly, will the fundamental review of policing bring the end of a force which has acted as the armed wing of unionism since the inception of the Northern state?

We intend to see that all of this happens.

There can be no justice while there is no acceptable police service. The RUC have to go.

All of you should be alert to the spins and distortions being presented in the media, most particularly by the unionists ahead of the Unionist Council meeting today. We have had too much experience of it to be influenced by it now. And we know, none of you will be taken in by David Trimble grasping at straws on decommissioning or policing or prisoners.

What is abundantly clear and was demonstrated during that momentous week is that it was Sinn Féin who dragged this document into this visible playing field.

But it must be said that in the dying hours of the negotiations we spent much of our energy putting back into the document those aspects with the potential for change which the unionists tried to remove or neuter and trying to ensure that those measures which are in the document are backed up by commitments to implementation beyond bland statements which mean all things to all people.

I want to commend our negotiating team. Many of them would be unknown to you though they are party members of long standing. I wish you all could have seen them in action. I really think they left everybody else standing and left both governments and all the other parties in no doubt of the calibre, commitment and indomitable spirit of the party they represent. One official told me they were literally in awe of them.

No matter what follows from this point one thing is certain. We have put the republican analysis right into the heart of Irish politics like never before. And the Irish political landscape is changed by it. Never again can the question of partition be relegated to the sidelines of Irish political life. We have forced it to the top of the political agenda and will ensure it remains there.

Thank you for your support and confidence during these difficult and dangerous last few years. We could not have gone on without you. You are the leaders of those who lead this struggle. Our struggle will continue until freedom. We are fortunate to be led by one of the greatest republican leaders we have ever seen in the history of Irish republicanism on this island.

Let us continue to move forward and make a reality a United Ireland in our lifetimes.


Debating the future

Laura Friel and Fern Lane captured a flavour of the debate on the Good Friday document

At first it seemed incongruous, Irish Republicans gathered in a hall lined with mock heroic pillars and a patterned frieze so favoured by the Emperors of Ancient Rome.

It was only the second time Sinn Fein had met in Dublin's RDS, replacing the familiar decor of the Mansion House for more prestigious trappings copied from a past imperialist power. In the hall the last remnants of that particular ancient yoke had been diminished to a few reproduction artefacts. Irish Republicans can probably live with that. And perhaps that is what we were here to debate. Is it possible to occupy a space formally claimed by an enemy and make that space your own?

Because of the number of delegates wishing to contribute to the open debate on the Good Friday Agreement which began on Saturday, additional time was provided on Sunday afternoon so that as many people as possible who wished to could have their say before a decision on whether to support the Agreement is reached at the reconvened Ard Fheis.

By 2pm on Saturday the seating was filled to capacity and the aisles packed four and five deep. A video link to an annex serviced a further overspill. Following addresses from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the debate began. Over 30 people spoke.

On Sunday a queue of 50 delegates gathered. After eventually reaching the podium where he was requested by the Chair Gerry O hEara to be as brief as possible, Matt Carthy of Sinn Fein Youth joked ; ``It's like going to the carnival; I'm after queuing for an hour to get one minute on the ride.''

The recurring theme of the contributions was that, whatever reservations delegates may have had about the Agreement itself, they were absolutely united in their support for the current leadership and the efforts to which they had gone to secure the best deal possible. Many of the delegates told the conference that the current leadership was not only the best for a generation, but probably the most able this century.

Below we give a flavour of the debate.


``Let's face it,'' said John Murtagh from Dublin, referring to the talks document, ``it's pretty bad''. The agreement did not challenge the unionist veto, reaffirmed British occupation and threatened the Irish constitution, he said. ``It does not hold out much hope for those seeking to tackle the root causes of conflict in our country''.

Belfast Councillor Bobby Lavery called for open minds. ``When we consider this document we need... to be willing to change our minds in the course of that discussion.''

Another delegate dubbed the document `The Late Late Agreement', like the Gay Byrne's show, ``according to Mo Mowlam, it has something for everyone''. Defending Articles 2&3, the delegate quoted Parnell, ``no man has the right to fix the boundaries to the march of a nation.''

Arthur Morgan from Louth told the Ard Fheis he wouldn't give ``tuppence for the entire `37 Constitution, never mind two Articles of it.''

Derry Councillor Mary Nelis entertained the audience with an account of her driving skills. Mary is learning to drive, ``The British are learning that it is no longer advantageous to stay in Ireland,'' she said. The document was packaged to be acceptable to unionists, she said, but the British mindset was for disengagement. In a graphic description of driving around a roundabout but not knowing which exit to take, Nelis said ``the British have decided to leave but they don't know by what road so they're going about it in a roundabout sort of way.''

Sean Crowe from Dublin said the document was like a coddle (a Dublin stew), all sorts of ingredients had been thrown in and there had clearly been too many chefs. Urging delegates to consider the `bigger picture', Crowe said like any coddle, ``take what you like and leave the rest at the side of your plate.''

James McBarron from Cork urged the party not to ``become associated with a deal that is bound to fail.'' He said the Agreement would not end the sectarian state nor would it end British rule.

Paddy Byrne from Clare said, ``For me it's pretty simple - we have reached a momentum that is unstoppable.''

A Tyrone delegate, Tom McNulty, talked about standing at the graveside of his friend Volunteer Paddy Carty, ``I want to walk away from his grave without feeling I've let him down.''

``Remember,'' said Glen MacBradaigh from Dublin, ``for unionists this is as good as it gets, for nationalists it's just a start.''

Pat McNamee from South Armagh concluded, ``whatever is necessary for republicans to do to advance our struggle, that is what we will do.''

Colleen Gildernew from Sinn Féin Youth said that SFY members would judge any accommodation largely on whether crown force harassment policy was overhauled or not.

One delegate commented that the Agreement meant that Unionists will never again be able to ``dominate the political landscape or the nationalist population'', adding that the proposal for a Council of the Isles was inserted by the British as a ``fig leaf for David Trimble''.

Ard Chomhairle member Joe Reilly from Meath told delegates that negotiators were well aware of the inherent contradictions within the Agreement. But he urged people to step back a little and consider the bigger picture. ``This is a new phase of the struggle,'' he said, arguing that the party should take its place in any new assembly. ``If we are not there, with our confidence, our strength and our experience, then the struggle will take a step backwards. We are going to challenge the Unionists, the British and Irish Governments and the RUC in that assembly''.

Ard Comhairle member Martina McIlkenny said it was not a republican document. ``Going into Stormont would be one step forward and two steps back,'' she said. She felt that if the cross-border bodies had been stronger, she might have looked at it differently.

Martin Meehan, the Six County Chair of Saoirse, acknowledged the apprehension republicans must feel about the Agreement and proposed assembly, but urged people to ``think not with your hearts, but with your heads'' when considering whether or not to support it. In speaking about the release of prisoners and the proposal that releases take up to two years he told the conference that ``two years is far too long'', given that more than two years of the negotiations had already elapsed without any releases.

He also raised that favourite topic of Unionists - decommissioning; ``I say to David Trimble; first decommission in your heart the sectarianism, the bigotry and injustice of this state''.

Meehan paid tribute to the sacrifices of volunteers made over the years of struggle during which the IRA remained resolute and undefeated;. ``No-one should diminish the supreme sacrifice of the volunteers of Oglaigh na hÉireann. But if there is any possibility of preventing one more young man or woman losing their life in the cause of Irish freedom, we have a duty to explore that possibility''.

Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty urged an open-minded approach to the document and using it to advance Republican objectives - that although there were manifest dangers within it, there were also significant gains. These gains, he said, had been achieved solely through the efforts of the Sinn Fein negotiators as the SDLP ``bottled out'', except on Strand 1. ``We need to be sophisticated enough, clever enough and even devious enough to take whatever decisions we decide to take,'' he said. ``Let's not be fearful. We have the ability to smash British rule in our country.''

Glenn MacBradaigh from Dublin told the conference to bear in mind that, ``For unionists this is as good as it gets, for nationalists it's just a start.''

Councillor John Kelly from Magherafelt also acknowledged members' fears, but asked delegates to ``think to yourself, `was I a Republican before I read this document, was I a Republican yesterday, or last week or how ever many years ago' and remember that you are still a Republican now.''

He said our children and our children's children will look back and see this as a defining moment in the history of the Irish Republican Movement. Former Fermanagh/South Tyrone MP Owen Carron told the conference ``I believe that Sinn Fein should take its place in the Assembly because no-one else, including the SDLP, will fight for nationalist rights if we are not there to fight for them''.

Veteran Joe Cahill was the last speaker in the debate and received rousing applause. ``Don't be afraid of change,'' he said. ``Whatever changes may come in the future, I guarantee they will not cause us any problems''.

He said that without the presence of the party's negotiators at the talks, ``the agreement, flawed as it is, would have been shit''. He also referred to an earlier delegate's comments that his presence, more so than almost any other of the negotiating team, must have ``stuck in the craw'' of those people in Stormont who had tried to have him executed as a young man and he went on to praise the strength and commitment of Sinn Fein's youth movement, saying ``In you rests the future of this movement and I know that the future is safe in your hands''.


So, is it possible to occupy an unfamiliar space and make it our own? If last week's gathering can offer any small insight into that particular question it is simply this. It wasn't the flags, backdrop slogans nor even the tricolour flower arrangements that transformed the RDS, it was the confidence, commitment and comradeship of the protagonists who left the vibrancy of their vision indelibly stamped upon the proceedings.


The South Africa lesson

Be vigilant, debate, and stay united

In a fascinating speech Thenjiwe Mtintso, Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress, shared the ANC's experience of negotiations

 I come from MK ranks. I was a commander in MK and I can't change that - and they keep telling me that I have to get over it - but we talk about liberated zones. You liberate one zone and it is yours and from that zone you advance. You prepare your forces to advance and at some stage you retreat but you have safe zones to retreat to. Negotiation is about one liberated territority that we could surge forward from.
So we have liberated one particular area and the fact that they allowed us into the country, they allowed our prisoners out, they legalised the ANC, they talked to us - that was a liberated territory.

As a cadre of the ANC I would like to share with the cadreship of Sinn Fein our experience in South Africa. I have been one of those few cadres of the ANC who has been fortunate to be on both sides


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