21 October 1999 Edition
An Open Letter to Republicans
The following is the text of a letter sent to An Phoblacht by the Women's Coalition and which addresses the current political situation. We appreciate the opportunity to allow readers the opportunity to read first hand the analysis of this section of our society.
The Chinese have a curse: ``May you live in interesting times''. The parallel in Northern Ireland appears to be ``May you live in changing times''. Nevertheless, the negotiation and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement marks the high point of change - the transformation of our political context. If the 1916 Rising epitomised change - `change utterly', then 1998/99 can mark the end of majoritarianism, exclusion and the denial of political aspirations and national identities. The effective implementation of the Agreement has the potential to allow the development of a society that can promote acceptance of difference and reconciliation over the manipulation of division and fears.
The Women's Coalition accepts that this transformation will require the imagination to formulate new strategies of struggle and the courage to both question old certainties and to develop new ways of working in order to secure positive political progress. However, the Coalition also believes that given their stated aspirations, Republicans should be at the forefront of the process of transformation.
Stating the obvious
The Women's Coalition is based on the understanding that Northern Ireland is a sharply divided society, and that much of the violence experienced has been a direct consequence of these divisions and the fears that have shadowed them. The Coalition accepts that an inclusive approach is essential if these divisions are ever to be overcome. For this reason the Coalition representatives:
Met with Sinn Fein representatives when they were excluded from the Peace Talks;
Argued against the later exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Talks;
Actively put the case for the early release of politically motivated prisoners; and
Campaigned for a comprehensive package of support for all victims/survivors of the Troubles irrespective of political background or affiliation.
Within this context, the Coalition also called for the IRA to clearly state its support for the Good Friday Agreement - including the provisions relating to decommissioning under the auspices of General de Chastelain.
The Coalition accepts that Unionists have won much out of the peace process - the irony is that they seem unable to comprehend just how much they have secured. But equally, Republicanism can be justifiably proud of its advocates. Not only has the republican aspiration, and the initial cross-border institutions of governance, been recognised ñ but so too has the essential dynamic for political change based on a clear human rights and equality agenda. Government by parties according to their mandate is the accepted approach, and the reform of the RUC is under way. While some may lament that this is all too little too late, the reality remains that there is no turning back. The key is the effective implementation of the Agreement.
The courage to change
What is not impeding the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is the continuing cold-war style stand-off with Unionists over guns for governance. It certainly can be argued that the deadline for decommissioning set out in the Good Friday Agreement has not been reached. However, equally it must be realised that Republicans can address the implementation of the Agreement from a position of strength. Not only is there a clear sense - felt to be self-evident by Unionists - that the tide of history is flowing in the direction of change, but Republicans have to hand the potential for new strategies for struggle at both political and community level. What is now required is the courage and foresight to voluntarily set to one side the old approaches and to leave no further excuses for those who seek to delay the implementation of the Agreement.
In the most pessimistic scenario, it is the case (whether we like it or not) that no-one can prevent any section of the community whose rights to identity and national aspiration have been forcibly denied, from asserting those rights by whatever means. Even if republicans felt the use of violence to be morally justifiable, it is clear that currently its use would be counterproductive rather than effective. On the basis of these criteria, violence - from whatever source - cannot be justified in the context of the opportunities offered by the Good Friday settlement. Indeed, the demands and orthodoxy of the gun are restrictive rather than liberating; while a defensive reliance on holding onto military hardware will only serve to frustrate the potential for political transformation.
Voluntary decommissioning of weapons and explosives by republicans (or putting weapons beyond use) is not surrender. Voluntary decommissioning should be a calculated political tactic to ensure the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in order to release its potential. Voluntary decommissioning is an imaginative step that can be taken by men and women who have confidence in both their aspirations and their politics. It is not a negotiating ploy, it is the trigger for political transformation.
NI Women's Coalition
50 University St.