21 May 1998 Edition
Sinn Fein launch Yes vote
On Friday 15 May, Sinn Fein launched its Yes campaign for the upcoming referenda on the Good Friday document. Party chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin, underlining the leading role that Sinn Fein has played in transforming the political landscape, called on people to ``recognise the unprecedented opportunity'' ahead.
McLaughlin also spoke of the challenges that faced all of those in political leadership, especially the British government. He noted the ``mighty and immeasurable'' decision taken at last week's reconvened Ard Fheis and pointed out the need to appreciate the ``significance and pain'' it had caused many republicans.
He spelt out the objectives that Sinn Fein would pursue in the weeks and months ahead as a requisite for building a lasting peace. ``Peace needs equality and justice, constitutional change, demilitarisation, a new unarmed police service, the release of all political prisoners, democratic and cultural rights''.
Meanwhile, reacting to Tony Blair's speech made at the Balmoral show last week, which was aimed at winning over wavering unionists, McLaughlin said ``the decisions taken at the Ard Fheis were difficult. They were taken in good faith. We expect good faith in return''.
Gerry Adams said attempts to introduce ``new preconditions on the rights of the Sinn Fein electorate and participation'' were ``totally unacceptable''. He said, ``mechanisms of change need to deliver change. Justice delayed or diluted is justice denied.'' The Sinn Fein President stressed that ``nationalist rights are not concessions for unionism or the British government to give or withhold.''
Meanwhile SF Upper Falls Councillor Chrissie McAuley told a group of young people on Sunday 17 May, that the shared task ahead was to build a future where ``distrust, misunderstanding and suspicion is behind us''. She said, ``the key is change. Change in all its facets - constitutional, political, social, cultural and economic.'' She said, ``clearly, change is coming. This is a watershed moment which should be seized by everyone.''
Keep up the momentum for change
By Seán MacBradaigh
If anyone was carried away by the media-led euphoria when the Stormont talks produced the Good Friday Agreement, they have been sorely disappointed in the weeks since. This is not a settlement and the factors which led to division and conflict remain. Indeed the political division is set to intensify, if the Unionist `No' campaigners are to be believed.
As we go to press, the opinion polls indicate that a large percentage of Unionists will reject the Good Friday document outright but that it will be carried with the help of a solid nationalist Yes vote. This, say its Unionist opponents, will deny it legitimacy - in their eyes only unionist votes count despite their long-standing support for majority rule.
Already unionists have outlined their tactics in the event of an overall Yes vote this Friday. They will seek to persuade the unionist majority who are against the Agreement to vote for anti-Agreement candidates in the Assembly elections on 25 June. If they secure a majority of Unionist seats, they will then seek to overturn those parts of the Agreement with which they disagree.
In particular, the anti-Agreement Unionists will seek to prevent the release of prisoners, will try to block Sinn Féin becoming ministers in the administration and they will make the cross-border bodies unworkable. They have also pledged to resist changes to the RUC and to try to block the implementation of the equality agenda.
In short, these unionist tactics are aimed at freezing the Six Counties in conflict. It is a frantic effort to prevent the clock ticking forward.
For this reason the referendum campaign has been dominated by the debate within Unionism. It has seen Tony Blair paying three high-profile visits to the Six Counties in two weeks and taking part in numerous phone-ins and interviews. And every time his words have been addressed to Unionists.
News and current affairs programmes have been filled with concern about the impact the Agreement will have on the RUC; the effect on victims of the release of ``terrorist'' prisoners; and debates about whether democratically elected Sinn Féin representatives should be allowed to take office.
Nationalist concerns have been lost in the rush to persuade Unionists to vote Yes. But those concerns are very real and the referendum campaign has shown how difficult it may be to ensure that, for instance, the equality agenda will be pursued in the way that nationalists expect.
No effort has gone towards ensuring people that the terms of the Agreement can be transferred from the fine words on paper into daily reality. There are severe reservations on the republican and nationalist side also about constitutional aspects of the agreement, not least of which is the document's reiteration of a unionist veto on constitutional change. But what unites nationalism is a desire for political change and this is precisely the issue which is causing the divisions within unionism.
Unionists have real problems with the prospects of political change, of equality for Irish nationalists and with having to recognise, for the first time, Sinn Féin's right to represent those who vote for it.
Sinn Féin however is confident of its ability to keep up the momentum on all those aspects of the Good Friday document that it fought so hard to secure- equality, demilitarisation, the all-Ireland dimension.
A Yes vote will mark the beginning of a political process, not the end. The Good Friday document will hopefully be an important part of a process towards a peace settlement.
The British government and its forces of occupation are still in Ireland. Sinn Féin made it clear from the outset that this situation would not have changed by this stage in the negotiations process. It is incorrect to say, as some such as Bertie Ahern have done, that the British are no longer in the equation. They are very much in the equation and bear the major responsibility for ensuring a transition towards a peaceful settlement.
What is required is for the British government to work positively with the Irish government to bring about the transition from partition to national democracy and Irish unity in a peaceful and stable way. In the meantime the raft of injustices inflicted upon the nationalist community in the Six Counties must be immediately addressed.
The only guarantee for a successful outcome of all this is the integrity of the republican struggle itself. The British have never, of their own volition, given Irish nationalists anything. Every change, every movement forward has been achieved, usually at great cost, but always through struggle.
Successive Dublin adminstrations over many decades were equally guilty of sitting on their hands and doing very little to tackle the problem of partition the British presence and the various injustices in the Six Counties.
Therefore the republican struggle must intensify North and South to increase the political strength of Sinn Féin. The momentum for change must be maintained. We cannot stand still.