17 September 1998 Edition
A new arena of struggle
Sinn Féin has begun its participation in the new Six County Assembly. The party has emphasised that it has come to the Assembly positively and constructively and will view this institution and the new Executive as transitional and as arenas of struggle - among many arenas of struggle - in which republican objectives will be pursued.
Attempts are being made to prevent Sinn Féin participation in the Executive. The decomissioning issue has been resurrected as a precondition to Sinn Féín involvement. That cannot be allowed to succeed. Every party which negotiated the Agreement did so with their eyes open and they must now implement it in good faith. It cannot now be rewritten. Moreover, this is not a decommissioning process; it is about conflict resolution. The aim must be to remove the causes of conflict, particularly those which produce inequality and injustice and which deny freedom.
The Assembly must work to bring justice and equality
In Martin McGuinness's speech to the Assembly on its opening day, he stressed its role in conflict resolution. Below, we carry his speech.
I would like to support the comments made earlier by the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) in relation to the events of this summer, and the very great tragedies which occured in Ballymoney and in Omagh, It was a very traumatic summer for all of us.
Of all the Members of the House, the one affected most directly was Mr Gibson [DUP]. We should show him special consideration today. We all have very different political views, but everyone in Ireland who has been involved in this process of conflict resolution over the last four or five years was very hurt and very struck by what happened in Omagh, and aware of the implications that that undoubtedly had for all of us involved in this process.
Mr Nesbitt's comments about the young person from his area who implored him to press on with the implementation of the Agreement was similar to the response of the people of Omagh. I have been in Omagh on a number of occasions, and everyone I met - and they were not all Nationalists or Republicans; there were Unionists also - implored us to do our level best to ensure that the people who were out to destroy the search for peace, justice and equailty in this country would not succeed.
The Agreement is much more than this Assembly: it is about how we end division on this island; it is about the establishment of an Executive Committee; it is about the establishment of a North/South Ministerial Council; it is about the establishment of the implementation bodies; and it is about how we deal with the very important issues of justice and equality on this island
I had my own first-hand experience of how hurt people are. Republicans have acknowledged that we have inflicted hurt; but hurt has also been inflicted on us. We are not just talking about the decommissioning of guns, we are talking about thre decommissioning of all the injustice, inequailty, discrimination and domination of the past.
I was in a building in Omagh on the day of the last funerals. I think it was Mrs Rushe who was being buried. As I left the building, a number of people wanted to shake hands with me, I offered my hand to one young woman who could not bring herself to shake hands with me and she turned away. I accepted that and I left the building. As I walked down the street, I heard a voice behind me calling my name. I turned around and it was the young woman. I went back to her and she said, ``I am sorry for turning away. I am a Unionist and I am hurting'' and she started to cry. I said that we were all hurting but that we were doing our best, and she said, ``I know you are doing your best''.
Last week, the First Minister did not turn away. Considering his background, it was very courageous for him to meet the leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams. In that meeting, they held out hope and expectation for all of those people who have been watching this process over the last four or five years. In fact, in the aftermath of the terrible summer, and following the meeting between Mr Trimble and Mr Adams, there is more support for the peace process now than there has ever been. People are urging us to do the right thing, to talk to one another, to engage in dialogue and to implement the Agreement.
The Agreement is much more than this Assembly: it is about how we end division on this island; it is about the establishment of an Executive Committee; it is about the establishment of a North/South Ministerial Council; it is about the establishment of the implementation bodies; and it is about how we deal with the very important issues of justice and equality on this island.
Sinn Fein represents a community which believes - and I know many people here within the most extreme elements of Unionism find this hard to accept - that since Ireland was partitioned they have been persecuted, dominated and treated unfairly and in this state. That is the reality that Members have to deal with and that has given rise to conflict on this island over the last 70 years or so.
Members must work to bring about the implementation of the Agreement and show, as we build that Agreement in all its different stages, that we can get to grips with all that has been wrong in this state since Ireland was partitioned. I accept absolutely what Mr Hutchinson has said: that a great wrong was also inflicted on the Protestant working class, many of whom were also treated as second-class citizens.
There is a commonality of interest because there are still working-class people in the Shankill Road, in Mid-Ulster, in the Bogside and in West Belfast. The working-class are the strongest supporters of the peace process and these people are telling the Members to cut the nonsense out.
The object of the exercise, as far as Sinn Fein is concerned, is to decommission the injustices and inequalities of the past and to decommission all the British and Irish guns
We know what is in the Good Friday Agreement. it is very clear. Sinn Fein discussed the issue of decommissioning with the British and Irish governments in the run-in to the Agreement and they took a very sensible view as to how the Assembly should deal with this particular issue. The governments recognised, as de Klerk recognised in South Africa, that the issue of decommissioning should not be allowed to hold up the peace process. This is the approach that is catered for in the Agreement document. It does not say anywhere in the Agreement that Sinn Fein cannot enter the Executive Committee unless there is decommissioning.
But the object of the exercise, as far as Sinn Fein is concerned, is to decommission the injustices and inequalities of the past and to decommission all the British and Irish guns.
[Martin McGuinness was interrupted by UUP Assembly member Esmond Birnie, who asked: ``Would the Member not agree that South Africa now has the highest statistical murder rate in the world? Does that not demonstrate that leaving substantial stockpiles of weaponry in a divided society is a recipe for disaster?]
Yes, I do accept that there are very great problems and difficulties in South Africa. I have not said that both situations are exactly the same. There is a lot of crime in South Africa, there is a lot of guns and there is a lot of criminality - there is no question or doubt about that. But de Klerk, who was acknowledged along with Nelson Mandela as [being] one of the main architects of the peace process in South Africa, said that if he had insisted on decommissioning of weapons by the African National Congress, they would not have had the peace process. This process has now provided South Africa with the launching pad for dealing with political issues, social issues, economic issues and issues of criminality.
I think the Ulster Unionist Party is dealing with this issue in a very sensible way. Some parties do not want to face the process of conflict resolution; they do not want to face the reality that the best way to take British and Irish guns out of Irish politics is to remove all the causes of injustice which exist. This is what peace processes are all about.
The question then becomes whether or not the Assembly people believe Sinn Fein is genuine. The Democratic Unionist Party will never accept Sinn Fein as being for real - I wish they would. I want to be friends with them. And I think that some people within Ulster Unionism who are dealing with this particular issue are dealing with it in a very sensible way.
We must press on with the implementation of the Agreement. We have been informed that there is going to be a North/South Ministerial Council meeting before the end of this month, or possibly at the beginning of October. The big question for us has to be who is going to represent this Assembly on that Council. If this Assembly is going to be represented by Mr David Trimble and Mr Seamus Mallon, then it will not be properly represented. The Agreement states, under the heading ``Executive Authority'', that this is to be discharged on behalf of the Assembly by a First Minister and up to ten Ministers with Departmental responsibilities. That is what we have to implement; we have to show people that we are going to deal with all of the different aspects of life on this island that directly affect them.
A struggle in any language
Assembly member Mary Nellis casts an Irish eye over the first day of the new Assembly
The first business of the day in the Assembly was described by the media as historic, dull and boring.
It was indeed an historic day as the Good Friday Assembly got down to the business of fundamentally changing the nature of politics in Ireland. Parliamentary democracy, self determination, whatever the way forward, Monday 14 September will reflect the day when Republican Nationalists redeemed their rights and ownership to a building whose ethos, from when the first stone was laid, was to exclude them.
And indeed inclusion rather than exclusion was the first order of the day when Alex Maskey informed the initial Presiding Officer that forthwith Sinn Féin members would address him in Irish as Cathaoirleach.
This was challenged by those on the Unionist benches where the grunts and groans of its members seemed to indicate their difficulty with the English language. Language became the first issue of business. The unionists, obviously searching for an identity, have come up with Ulster Scots as an alternative to English and members were given an extensive list of Ulster Scots Parliamentary phrases. ``Pree a haet fur wittens'', which translated means, on a point of information. My uncle, who was an Irish-speaking Ulster Scot, having emigrated from Donegal to Scotland, returned with a healthy Ulster Scots dialect.
Francie Molloy welcomed the setting up of the Shadow Commission to deal with equality of employment for both communities and particularly the issue of fair employment in the staffing of the Civil Service. The unionists, or as they now describe themselves, The Claucht Pairties, commented that the Union Flag was not flying on the building. Gerry Adams pointed out that many citizens would put no value on the Union Flag.
The issue of language surfaced again when the rule ascribing designation was raised. The fragmentation of Unionism was widened in the announcement by the Trimble dissidents Agnew, Douglas and Watson that they wished to form another unionist party, the United Unionist Assembly Party, a party which Gerry Adams pointed out cannot speak for itself and has appointed Peter Robinson to be its Ulster Scots voice.
The unionists are now demanding that this party should have representation on the Executive, which would in effect add up to four Unionist blocks. They have not learned that the Good Friday agreement makes no accommodation for gerrymandering and that Sinn Féin will not be giving up any of its places on the Committee to facilitate it.
The Women's Coalition, amid a chorus of grunts and cow calls from the DUP and UK Unionists, announced they were protecting the Good Friday Agreement. McCartney described the Women's Coalition as a ``curious phenomenon'' but the only curiosity in the building, apart from Craig's statue, was the Gulpins - Ulster Scots for bad mannered people on the DUP benches.
It is clear that the Unionist strategy is to stall the setting up of the Executive and the various departments. Gerry Adams pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement is very clear about all these matters, including the timetable. He quoted from his speech of two years previously when he said that Paisley and Trimble can with the rest of us do a much better service of running the economy, looking after the Health Service, the elderly, the young and the rural. The people of this island have the right and ability to govern themselves.
John Taylor thought the day's debate was reasoned and level-headed, although his idea of cross border bodies was to give greater priority to sports, ``Balls across the Border''.
As Paisley Junior said at the end of a long and tiring day, things are not good for the Union, and so say all of us.
No illusions about new institutions
BY SEAN BRADY
The past week has witnessed the new Six County Assembly in session and the experience has, for many commentators in the media at least, been a major anti-climax.
Sinn Féin raised the issue of the use of the Irish language and equal status is being sought for those who wish to contribute through Irish. They also called for the national flag to be flown.
Arms decommissioning was again used by unionist politicians in an attempt to set preconditions on Sinn Féin involvement in the Executive, with Gerry Adams responding forcefully that Sinn Féin, as much as any other party, cannot deliver IRA decommissioning. He added that the party would fulfil its commitments in relation to this, as with every other issue.
Sinn Fein is not a purely parliamentary party and republicans have no intention of being cornered in the cul-de-sac of parliamentarianism. The lessons of Irish history and our own contemporary experience of political stuggle have made us all too aware of the folly of such a singular course of action
Further evidence of the continuing fragmentation of unionism came with the emergence in the Assembly of a new unionist party. The United Unionist Assembly Party consists of three Ulster Unionist members who resigned last week after they had faced disciplinary measures for breaking party rules by contesting the Assembly elections as Independents.
Unlike those who were frustrated by the banality of the Assembly this week, republicans never had any illusions about its place in the wider scheme of things. Sinn Féin's strategy is to pursue the Good Friday document to its outer limits. This involves relentelss pursuit of short and medium term objectives such as the establishment of all-Ireland structures, the abolition of the RUC and delivery of the equality agenda. The Assembly is a forum where these issues will be thrashed out and through which attention will be drawn to them.
The entirely reasonable nature of nationalist political demands for justice and equality can only be further higlighted through the Assembly debates and coverage of them. Conversely the spotlight should also be thrown on the naked sectarianism and blind obduracy of those reactionary unionist politicians who will attempt to limit the scope and application of the Good Friday Agreement and who will use their numbers in the assembly as a block to political progress.
The Six County Assembly and the Executive should not be seen as the `be all' or `end all' for Sinn Féin in the days that lie ahead. All of these institutions are entered into by Sinn Féin on the basis of further pursuing republican objectives. The core objective of republicans remains a united, independent and sovereign Ireland.
Sinn Féin cannot afford to be distracted from its task of building a 32-County political struggle. Nor will it.
The Six County Assembly, just like Leinster House, is merely another vehicle through which Sinn Féin intends to represent the interests of Irish republicanism. The uneven development of Sinn Féin in the two states in Ireland may have obscured the reality that the 26 Counties is as important an arena of struggle for republicans as the occupied North. This is something which Sinn Féin is determined to overcome. Sinn Féin must seek to increase its party political strength North and South and to increase its level of representation at all levels of government in both states.
The Six County Assembly is for republicans but another front in the struggle for Irish unity, a struggle which has many other avenues for the pursuit of our objectives. Sinn Féin is not a purely parliamentary party and republicans have no intention of being cornered in the cul-de-sac of parliamentarianism. The lessons of Irish history and our own contemporary experience of political stuggle have made us all too aware of the folly of such a singular course of action. Sinn Féin has always been and remains a campaigning party. It has been through campaigns that its greatest successes have been recorded over the years and campaigns around the pressing issues will be essential in the coming months.
Nothing can be taken for granted in the days ahead. None of the gains that have been made would have been made without struggle. The danger of complacency setting in among those who have political responsibility must be guarded against. The great strides which have been made towards building a lasting peace by providing a path to justice in Ireland must now be consolidated and built upon.
Apart from continung with the task of building Sinn Féin's strength throughout the 32 Counties, republicans must not cease in deepening our contacts with other political forces and constantly working to strengthen the Irish nationalist consensus. Republicans must ensure that Dublin does not now take its eye off the ball in relation to the North. We need to seek a continued and increased focus by the Dublin government, and indeed all of the Leisnter House parties in the day-to-day affairs of the Six Counties in the time that lies ahead. Sinn Féin will continue to push the case for representation in the Oireachtas for residents of the Six Counties. This is an important issue for Northern nationalists and would be a concrete expression in the post Good Friday era of the promises made to nationalists of the North by the Dublin government.
There is a significant element within the SDLP whose inclination would be to view the Good Friday document and the institutions which have arisen from it as a political settlement. They are vulnerable to the traps of parliamentarianism and cannot be allowed to evade the need to pursue continued political progress towards justice and a national democracy.
An analogy which has been used to explain the dynamics of the Peace Process is that of the slow cyclist. If the forward momentum ceases, we run the danger of going backwards or falling over. This must now be re-emphasised.
The struggle for peace with justice has entered a new phase. It is still a significant way to the achievement of republican goals. What is needed now are those qualities which have seen us through the worst and the best of the past 30 years - dedication, patience, loyalty, courage, flexibility, integrity and above all our clear vision and total commitment to a free and united Ireland.