3 February 2000 Edition
Efforts continue to avert disaster
Sinn Féin has been working flat-out this week in an effort to save the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, which have been pushed to the brink of collapse by unionist threats.
Using the pretext that the IRA has not surrendered weapons, the Ulster Unionist Party is attempting to manoeuvre the British government into suspending the political process which has flowed from the Good Friday Agreement, with the threat that if this does not happen, unionists will walk away and collapse the entire process.
The de Chastelain report, which was the subject of talks between Peter Mandelson and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen on Tuesday, has not yet been been made public as An Phoblacht goes to press.
A Sinn Féin delegation led by Party President Gerry Adams MP and including Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness MP, Caoimhghín O Caoláin TD, Councillor Joe Reilly and Assembly member Mary Nelis met Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at government buildings in Dublin on Wednesday, 2 February.
Emerging from the talks, Gerry Adams said Sinn Féin had been anxious to assure that the insitutions established under the Good Friday Agreement would not be collapsed or suspended. The Taoiseach and Sinn Féin were in agreement that such a development would be a ``disaster''. Gerry Adams said that there would be further discussions with Ahern on Thursday morning, 3 February.
Adams declared that Sinn Féin was doing everything in its power to avert a calamity but that its task was being made increasingly difficult by the actions and attitudes of unionist leaders. Decommissioning, he said, was a collective responsibility and he was wedded to the objective of taking the gun out of Irish politics. He emphasised: ``What can save this process is politics'' and stressed his belief that the current crisis can be sorted out.
On Tuesday, Adams welcomed as ``significant'' a statement from the IRA which said that the organisation posed no threat to the peace process and that it is committed to the search for a permanent peace. The Sinn Féin President said: ``These reports are further evidence of the IRA's ongoing positive contribution to the peace process. It is clear that the IRA has engaged positively with the IICD.''
IRA no threat to peace process
In a statement issued to journalists on Tuesday night, a spokesperson for the IRA said:
``The IRA were persuaded to enter into discussions with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to help move the situation out of the political vacuum in which it had been stuck for the previous 18 months.
``We did so in good faith and constructively. Our representative met with the IICD on three occassions and as late as last night we were in contact with the IICD.
``Our representative stressed that we are totally committed to the peace process, that the IRA wants a permanent peace, that the declaration and maintenance of the cessation, which is now entering its fifth year, is evidence of that, that the IRA's guns are silent and that there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA.''
Unionists bring process to the brink
BY SEAN BRADY
For the past two weeks, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has successfully mounted pressure on the political process in the run-up to a report by General John de Chastelain, Chairperson of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), which was due to be given to the Irish and British governments on Monday, 31 January.
I remain committed to decommissioning as an essential part of the peace process and I will continue to work to try and bring this about. But I have to say that the achievement of this objective has been set back by the way it is being used as a poltical football by unionists at this time.
On Thursday, 27 January, Sinn Féin President and West Belfast MP Gerry Adams said it would be a mistake if the Six-County Executive collapsed and the First Minister and other UUP members resigned over the decommissioning issue. ``I understand why unionists and others want decommissioning now. I can see it from the unionist point of view.
``But non-republicans need to see this issue from the IRA's point of view. It is not easy to get the IRA, or indeed any of the armed groups, to do this speedily. This is the reality. So there is a need for unionism to be patient and for people to have faith.'' Adams insisted that he had never misled anyone into thinking Sinn Féin alone could deliver decommissioning. The UUP's decision to set its own arbitrary deadline for decommissioning, he said, had made any progress on the matter even more difficult.
``There should be no doubt of how badly the February deadline damaged our efforts,'' said Adams. ``It is a fundamental mistake in strategy to try and force decommissioning by seeking to marginalise a political party and its electorate.
``I remain committed to decommissioning as an essential part of the peace process and I will continue to work to try and bring this about. But I have to say that the achievement of this objective has been set back by the way it is being used as a political football by unionists at this time.''
Reacting to speculation that the British government would suspend the Executive and re-introduce direct rule, Adams said it would only create a dangerous political vacuum, encouraging anti-Agreement unionists, placing the entire peace process in jeopardy and making decommissioning even more difficult.
And responding to further speculation that the British government was considering another review of the Good Friday Agreement, Adams said the only basis for this would be if there had been a default, which there had not been.
In another attempt to turn up the heat and as a first step towards withdrawal from the Excecutive, the Ulster Unionist Party tabled a motion for discussion by the Assembly for Tuesday 1 February, the day after the expected publication of the de Chastelain report.
As the political tension and unionist threats to the process increased over the weekend, Gerry Adams, speaking in Newry on Sunday, warned unionists that decommissioning would never be achieved if the UUP walked away from the Good Friday Agreement: ``It is clear that if this process collapses, it is clear that if the unionists walk out of the process, it is clear that if the British government is spooked into suspending the process on a unionist threat to walk out, that decommissioning is never going to happen.''
Adams also said it was likely that the IRA would withdraw all co-operation with the weapons decommissioning body if unionists forced the collapse of the Executive:''One can speculate that if the institutions are brought down, or put into shadow form, that the IRA will withdraw from the commission.''
Adams also said that the political vacuum which would be created in a scenario of collapsed institutions would leave everyone hostage. ``And remember the huge amount of military forces on the ground in places like South Armagh and other parts of the North, remember the unionist-loyalist factions are still engaged in terror campaigns.''
Adams said the decommissioning issue had been allowed to be blown out of all proportion by those opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. ``I would appeal to unionists not to hardball or go down to the wire on this issue, but to work with us and others to resolve all the issues,'' Adams said. He added that the IRA had silenced its guns and wanted the process to work.
The De Chastelain report was finally delivered to the governments in the early hours of Tuesday morning. It was not available in time for the debate planned by unionists in the Assembly, however David Trimble held a press conference seeking a suspension of the institutions. He said he expected the institutions of the Agreement including the Executive and All-Ireland Council to be suspended shortly, claiming that the basis on which unionists had agreed to go into the Eecutive had now been ``falsified'' and further asserting that January 31st was the outer limit for decommissioning agreed during the Mitchell Review. However Gerry Adams reacted by denying that Sinn Féin had in any way defaulted on any issue. Holding up a copty of the Good Friday Agreement, Gerry Adams said: ``That's what people voted for north and south of this island. You show me in this where our party has defaulted. You show me in this where there is a unilateral decision by one party that decomissioning had to be done on their terms by yesterday.''
The reality at the heart of the current political crisis is that it is not decommissioning which is the problem but the unionist approach to the Good Friday Agreement. Having effectively broken through every political deadline and succesfully held up the implementation of the Agreement for 18 months, David Trimble and his party are now threatening to collapse the entire process because they cannot change the rules on decomissioning.
Either David Trimble himself was never serious about his engagement with the Good Friday Agreement and concurs with John Taylor's strategy of seeking a return to direct rule while pocketing the end of Articles Two and Three and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, or else he is prepared to bring the whole show down at the behest of Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley. Either way, the Ulster Unionists have this week brought the process to the brink.