2 March 2000 Edition
Angry but defiant
This week, the British government continued to refuse to restore the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement. Their reimposition of a veto over the political process in the Six Counties at the behest of unionism has destroyed the greatest opportunity in many years for a way forward to a new Ireland.
Republicans have been frustrated and angered by these political developments. But as a Sinn Féin delegate conference last weekend showed, party members, though understandably angry, are also defiant and up for the new challenges to come.
A new phase of republican struggle has now begun. Republicans and nationalists will take to the streets in the weeks and months ahead to mobilise opinion and to organise the political strength and momentum needed to counterbalance the unionist veto.
Sinn Féin, now a rapidly growing party north and south, has set about the task of building its political strength. If the Good Friday Agreement is lost, republicans are more determined than ever to ensure that Irish national interests will be properly represented in any future negotiations.
In the words of Gerry Adams over the weekend: ``We will only get as much freedom as we can take.''
In the time ahead, republican activists across Ireland will work to build a stronger party to take that freedom.
British veto deepens crisis
BY SEAN BRADY
Several hundred Sinn Féin delegates gathered in Dublin last weekend for an internal party conference originally organised in a more positive political atmosphere to discuss how best to build on the political progess which had been made in the Peace Process in recent years.
However, with the political atmosphere in the intervening period changed radically for the worse, discussion last Sunday was dominated by a political process which is in deep crisis. The mood at the conference was angry and defiant.
If progress is to be made, all vetos have to be removed. To achieve that political pressure needs to be applied. It is to this end that Sinn Féin turned its attention this week
An overriding theme at the Sinn Féin gathering was the existence of a British government veto in the current political situation and it was clear that there is now a huge gap between the British government and Sinn Féin. The point was made strongly that it was a British Secretary of State who unilaterally collapsed the institutions which had begun to work so well for all of the people, and it is a British Secrtary of State who is refusing to reinstate those same instititiuons.
In meetings since the suspension, Sinn Féin has told Peter Mandelson in no uncertain terms that the British and unionist veto must go and that he must reinstate the institutions. Nevertheless, he remains unlikely and unwilling to do so.
Meanwhile, in what has been described by Sinn Féin as a ``slap in the face'' for those seeking to resolve the political impasse, virulent anti-Agreement MPs Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster have been appointed to an Ulster Unionist Party committee established to devise party strategy in relation to the Good Friday Agreement. Further indicating the increasingly intransigent approach of the UUP, one of its Assembly members, Desmond Birnie, has proposed the exclusion of Sinn Féin from any future Executive. He claimed that unionists had ``nothing more to give and nowhere else to move''. Unless the IRA bowed to a unionist demand on decommissioning, Birnie said that politicians should ``close and bolt the door''.
In relation to any review of the Agreement or its implementation, Sinn Féin has made clear over the past two weeks that it is not prepared to walk in and out of buildings just for the sake of television cameras. Speaking in the United States on Wednesday, 23 February, Mandelson also ruled out a review.
The political reality which many commentators are obscuring is that the issue of weapons is not an issue between Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party. It is and always was a responsibility for all political parties and an area where all must use their influence.
Sinn Féin has and will continue to fulfill its obligations in relation to the Good Friday Agreement. The party has done its best throughout the entire process and will continue its efforts but it is now making clear that it will not accept that it alone has a singular responsibility for the resolution of the decommissioning issue.
A regressive development in all of this has been the emergence of a lack of consensus among nationalist politicians around decommissioning. A particularly disappointing example has been Seamus Mallon's party politicking over the issue. What kick started and maintained the Peace Process through even its most perilous stages was the existence of a degree of consensus among Irish nationalist representatives around key issues. To diverge from that position now would prove disastrous.
Sinn Féin delegates at the weekend conference, while angry, were not despondent and the conference attendance reflected a party which is growing rapidly North and South and attracting young, energetic people in large numbers. Delegates were defiant in their rejection of the British veto and they recommitted themselves to building the Sinn Féin party across the 32 Counties.
While the reinstatement of the institutions under the Good Friday Agreement was demanded, a theme which featured again and again was the necessity and the determination to build greater republican political strength. This means that whatever occurs in the immediate future, Sinn Féin will be coming back at its opponents with an even larger mandate and greater negotiating strength to achieve a better political agreement.
On Wednesday, 1 March, London-based media sources were suggesting that the Irish and British governments had agreed a timetable for talks over the coming weeks. But comments by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Leinster House the same day directly contradicted the British government spin.
Responding to a question from Labour Party leader Ruairí Quinn, Ahern said: ``We have a tentative plan to hold a number of meetings over the next fortnight. I would like to be able to tell the deputy that the meetings are of a concrete nature but I cannot. However there is contact. We must try to get some level of support for an initiative before we get involved in a round-table session.''
Sinn Féin spokespersons said that nobody had spoken to the party on the matter. Party leaders met with Peter Mandelson on Monday and there was no evidence in those discussions that Mandelson was about to restore the institutions, yet this is an essential first step that needs to be taken if the current crisis is to be overcome.
Sinn Féin MP Martin McGuinness met Dublin Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen on Wednesday afternoon, and there will be a further meeting later in the week. Sinn Féin says it will maintain a dialogue with other political parties as well as with both governments.
However, the overriding fact, which must not be lost sight of, is that the institutions have been unilaterally collapsed, that the British government and the Ulster Unionist Party are in default of the Agreement, and that both are exercising a veto over the political process. If progress is to be made, all vetos have to be removed. To achieve that political pressure needs to be applied. It is to this end that Sinn Féin turned its attention this week.
Take Ownership of the Peace Process - Gerry Adams
The British government made a huge mistake and miscalculation on 11 February when it endorsed the unionist view that the issue of decommissioning was a precondition on the continuation of the institutions. Whatever reason is put forward to justify the British government's decision, this is the reality. It is also totally contrary to the Good Friday Agreement and is the biggest single mistake made by the British Labour Party since it took power in May 1997.
It is totally contrary to the Good Friday Agreement because the Agreement took the wise course, the conflict resolution course, which saw the resolution of the arms issue as an objective of a process but not as a blockage on progress on all of the other matters.
I am calling on republicans and nationalists to return to the streets in the weeks and months ahead to mobilise, to organise, to build the political strength needed to counterbalance the unionist veto.
However, the ink was barely dry on the Agreement when the British Prime Minister stepped outside of this framework and produced his side letter for the Ulster Unionist Party. From then on, this issue has been treated as an issue of tactical political management.
It ceased to be an objective of a peace process. Instead, from that point it became a precondition dogging the process. This reduced the Good Friday Agreement to something less than the people voted for. It also subverted the electoral mandates of genuinely committed pro-agreement parties. The value of the vote and the implementation process is now subject to unionist terms. From this point, the current vacuum was a crisis waiting to happen.
We will only get as much freedom as we can take. All history teaches us that. All history teaches us that the determined movement of people, organised and relentlessly demanding their rights wears down the old order.
That's the flaw which the British government introduced into the Good Friday Agreement.
That is the virus that has infected the process.
This is what has subverted all of Sinn Féin's efforts to resolve this issue.
All of these efforts were based on our view that the purpose of any peace process must be for opponents or enemies to see each other's point of view and find a compromise, an agreement, an accord which accommodates the difficulties that exist.
On a number of occasions, we went far beyond our obligations under the terms of the Agreement as we tried to resolve this arms issue.
Personally, I have lost count of the number of efforts we made to break through the barriers erected by the unionist leadership.
Last November we acted in good faith during the Mitchell Review negotiations to find a resolution to this weapons issue. Of course, the unionists have never dealt with this issue of arms in anything other than a tactical way. No mention of the 140,000 legal weapons in their hands; infrequent and begrudging mention of loyalist weapons; and a stout defence of the RUC and British Army weapons in the situation.
Should we be surprised by this ostrich-like approach to this issue?
What unionist leader has ever accepted responsibility for the conflict the peace process is trying to end? If you don't accept responsibility for the problem then you don't have any sense of responsibility for finding a solution.
It is my firm view that at a popular level the process has clicked. But at the level of political activism within the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party it hasn't. On the contrary, at that level there is outright rejection of change and a determination to resist change, whether it is in the area of human rights, justice matters, policing, cultural rights or equality. Is this the unionist vision of the future? Are unionist leaders to use all of their talents, political skills and ingenuity in a futile effort to prevent change? Are they to waste their lives in a negative, begrudging struggle which cannot stop change and which can do nothing more than delay change?
Thinking unionism needs to get its head around this.
Sinn Féin isn't prepared to sit back and allow the democratic rights and entitlements of nationalists living in the North to be filtered through a unionist prism. Equality is equality is equality.
If the task of creating a level playing field is causing so much difficulty within unionism that is in no small way a measure of how unbalanced the situation is or how they perceive it to be.
There is a huge challenge for the unionist section of our people to come to terms with all of that and a huge challenge for Irish republicans to engage with them constructively on an ongoing basis to win more progressive liberal and pluralist elements, more modern elements of unionism, over to this broader view. I am pleased to say that even in these troubled times that dialogue is continuing.
And while we are committed to this dialogue and to listening as well as talking to unionists, I am very very conscious that we can hardly blame David Trimble for behaving as he does when the British government endorses his position. We can hardly blame David Trimble for threatening a British government when, from his point of view, his tactics pay off. So in all of this the London government cannot escape its responsibilities.
Peter Mandelson said that they had to suspend the institutions because Mr Trimble would resign unless they did so. There is now no question of David Trimble resigning. In the USA last week, Mr. Mandelson said that the institutions could be restored as easily as they were suspended. Why then are the institutions not back in place? Could it be that if Peter Mandelson restored the institutions then David Trimble would once again resurrect his resignation letter? Or could it be that the British government supports the unionist terms for decommissioning?
One thing is certain - the way that Peter Mandelson has dealt with the crisis issue has not only prevented an opportunity to get a resolution but it has also made it more difficult to get one in the future.
In November last we persuaded the IRA to enter into discussions with the de Chastelain Commission in return for the unionists going in to the institutions. One outcome of that was that de Chastelain issued a positive report in which he said that ``the Commission believes that this commitment [from the IRA], on the basis described above, holds out the real prospect of an agreement which would enable it to fulfil the substance of its mandate''.
Of course, given the rejection of this position by unionism and the British government, and given their undermining of the de Chastelain Commission, this may never be tested.
So, with hindsight, I now think that our efforts to resolve this issue in the Mitchell Review was a mistake by us because we relied on others to keep to their commitments.
It was a good faith engagement by Sinn Féin but it was turned on its head by new deadlines and another side agreement with the British government to collapse the institutions if republicans didn't jump to David Trimble's demands. In my view, David Trimble did not go into the institutions on the basis which emerged - the Mitchell Review. Instead, he went forward on a different promise and that was on the basis of a commitment from the British government that he would have Peter Mandelson's full support - seeking the suspension of the institutions.
There is no need for me today to deal in detail with what happened on 11 February. That has been spelt out in detail in a series of statements and public engagements and it is clear that our position has been vindicated and our accusation of media management, of manipulation and lies has been borne out by the facts.
Let me make it absolutely clear that this Sinn Féin leadership will support efforts to resolve the arms issue.
We remain wedded to our objective of taking all of the guns out of Irish politics.
However, I do not accept any special responsibility on our party to do this above and beyond the responsibilities of every other party in this process. This is only possible response to the rejection and misrepresentation of our efforts, and to a UUP leadership which was never serious about a resolution, other than on its own terms which amounts, despite protestations to the contrary, to nothing more or less than a surrender by the IRA.
And if a British government, with all of its military firepower and muscle, could not get an IRA surrender in 30 years of war, then unionist leaders or British ministers cannot expect a Sinn Féin leadership to do it for them.
So where is the peace process to from here. Is everything to be thrown away? This is a question that all the parties to the Good Friday Agreement and especially the British government must ponder on. This could possibly be the most defining point in this process thus far.
There is a vacuum.
There is the possibility that all of the good work of recent years could be frittered away. This has to be prevented.
The priority at this critical point in the peace process must be to get the institutions back in place as soon as possible. This is the sole responsibility of the British government and Peter Mandelson should do it now.
The two governments must also co-operate to operate all outstanding aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. The reality is that we are still awaiting delivery of the Equality Agenda, Justice Matters, Human Rights, Cultural Rights, a new Policing Service and Demilitarisation.
But if the British government continues to behave in an illegal way, if it continue to maintain its unilateral suspension of the institutions then the Irish government has to move to protect its position. This should see the Irish government introducing legislation in Leinster House to amend the British-Irish Agreement Act 1999, and the related British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Act in order to remedy the defective legal basis of the southern leg of the all-Ireland institutions.
I feel very strongly that what Peter Mandelson did on 11 February was to give British support for the closure of one phase of this process. Of course, it may not be if Mr. Mandelson moves to restore the institutions. However, I see no sign of that.
And of course, the decision by a British Secretary of State to unilaterally tear down the institutions and set aside the Good Friday Agreement exposes the absence of real democratic rights and real self-determination.
Remember how we were told by leading partitionists and others that the Good Friday Agreement, endorsed in referendum north and south, is the exercise of self-determination by the Irish people.
Sinn Féin took a more measured and accurate view. We said it wasn't. It was clear now who was right given the actions of a British politician two weeks ago?
Self-determination for the people of this island has yet to be achieved. And this party and others of similar mind must set our sights on achieving that objective.
So, we have to move forward on the basis that a new phase is now opening up and how it is managed will be critical to the success of all our hopes.
Sinn Féin has been and will remain in contact with the British government
Sinn Féin has been and will remain in contact with the Irish government.
Sinn Féin has been and will remain in contact with all of the pro-Agreement parties and others.
We have to be about creating the space in which people can take ownership of the peace process.
On Friday, I appealed to people to again take to the streets in support of peace. I repeat that appeal today.
At different times in recent years there have been widespread public manifestations of support for the peace process and for the Good Friday Agreement. People throughout this island, as well as voting for the Good Friday Agreement, marched, lobbied, wrote letters, put up posters, held forums, placed ads in the newspapers and generally used their imagination to support the process for change.
I am appealing today for a renewed commitment from all these people.
I am appealing to all of those who voted Yes in the referendum to stand up for their democratic rights and entitlements.
I am appealing to civic society, to the churches, to ordinary people the length and breadth of this island to take the initiative and to win back the potential for change that is required to underpin the search for a lasting peace.
I am calling especially on republicans and nationalists to return to the streets in the weeks and months ahead to mobilise, to organise, to build the political strength needed to counterbalance the unionist veto.
We must also take a hard look at the job of building Sinn Féin's political strength.
It is worth recalling that it was the comparative weakness of the nationalist position against the strength of unionism that ensured unionist success in pulling down the institutions.
We should also recall that during the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement that if Sinn Féin had been a stronger player the progressive elements of that Agreement would have been much stronger.
If the Good Friday Agreement is lost because the British government caved in to unionist demands, one thing is certain. At some point in the future a new agreement will be negotiated. We have to ensure that Sinn Féin is there in a better position to negotiate a better agreement than the one which is there now in tatters.
So we have to be about building our political strength.
It means reorganising; it means updating our analysis; preparing policy positions, based on our republicanism, that are relevant and practical and effective; it means preparing for political challenges; it means recruiting; it means reaching out into those parts of this island which have not heard the real republican message.
It means identifying our weaknesses and removing them and targeting our strengths and building upon them.
There are no magic solutions - no easy options.
Our historic task is to transform Irish society.
During this conference you need to examine your role and the leadership's role in achieving this. Delegates here need to be liberated enough to have a frank, critical and constructive discussion on all these matters.
An awful lot of people are depending on us to get things right. In my view the future depends on getting things right. That demands great resilience, tenacity, commitment and hard work from us.
There is nothing in this world greater than freedom.
But freedom does not come easily. Those with power or the symbols and perceptions of power will not relinquish that power easily.
We will only get as much freedom as we can take. All history teaches us that. All history teaches us that the determined movement of people, organised and relentlessly demanding their rights wears down the old order.
That is what we have to do.
Building political strength
Determined mood at internal conference
``If Tony Blair wants to see people jumping through hoops then he should go to a circus,'' Louth councillor Arthur Morgan told Sinn Féin delegates gathered in Dublin last Sunday to discuss the latest crisis in the peace process.
His remark was greeted with laughter and applause but if the mood of the conference was good humoured, it was also determined. Republicans have had enough of British interference and its unionist veto.
As Martin McGuinness put it when he addressed the 300 or so delegates: ``We're in the middle of a fight and we are well able for it''.
McGuinness pointed out to the delegates that it was Sinn Fein that was driving the political agenda but stressed the need for activists to be out there ``working to build our political strength''.
``Have we the will, the ability, the organisation, the creativity and commitment to do the work that needs to be done?, he asked.
And answering his own question, the Sinn Fein negotiator made it clear that the party has the necessary commitment and creativity to achieve its goal, ``the end of British rule in Ireland''.
The conference, held last Sunday 29 March in the Terence Larkin Hall in Dublin City University, heard from delegates throughout the country.
Some comrades raised points about the present political landscape while others addressed what they saw as organisational problems that the party faced throughout the country.
Speaking on behalf of An Phoblacht, Peadar Whelan pointed out that in recent years the party had failed to use the paper to its capacity. He pointed out that the prelude to the present crisis was a ``concerted media campaign, orchestrated by the British government, that blamed republicans.
``We need to be using our own paper to counteract this type of campaign, but despite the growth in the party, paper sales have not increased.''
Matt Carthy of Ógra Shinn Féin warned, as did Eoin O'Broin, a former head of the party's youth organisation, that unless the party gave more time and effort into developing Ógra then the party could be in trouble in the future.
Having said that, delegates from across the country were quick, and rightly so, to highlight the party's successes through its grass roots organising.
Dessie Ellis said that the previous Wednesday, even with the Irish soccer team in action ``we were able to get 300 people to a public meeting in Finglas''.
Martin Meehan praised the work of the South Antrim election team who ensured that Sinn Féin's Pauline Davey-Kennedy was elected to Antrim council in face of a huge anti-republican onslaught. ``We more than doubled our vote, beat the SDLP into third place and attracted enough second preferences to overtake the unionists to win the seat,'' said Meehan.
Belfast delegate Mary McMillan said it was important for nationalists to express their anger at the suspension of the institutions. ``Millions of people, north and south of the border, voted yes in support of the Good Friday Agreement and the British government allowed 500 members of the Ulster Unionist Council to bring it down.''
As Gerry Adams said in his speech: ``Remember how we were told that the Good Friday Agreement, endorsed in referenda north and south, was the exercise of self-determination by the Irish people.
``We said it wasn't. It is clear now who was right given the actions of a British politician two weeks ago.
``Self determination for the people of this island has yet to be achieved and this party must set its sights on achieving that objective.''
Weakness in Dublin's position exposed
``Everyone understands and accepts that participation in government can only be on the basis of a democratic mandate. Whether people like it or not, it is not compatible beyond a short transitional period to have that democratic mandate with armed backing.''
Whose words? David Trimble? Tony Blair? Guess again. The above statement was made by Bertie Ahern in the Dáil on 16 February. It shows a glaring weakness in the Dublin government position on the current crisis in the peace process. While they did oppose the suspension of the institutions by the British government, Bertie Ahern's description of Sinn Féin as a party with ``armed backing'' plays directly into the hands of the unionists and the British government and backs their false interpretation of the decommissioning section in the Good Friday Agreement.
Speaking in the Dáil on 22 February, Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin rejected the Taoiseach's statement. He said: ``I enjoy no backing other than the popular support of the people of Cavan and Monaghan and this is the basis for the participation of all my party colleagues, North and South.''
Ahern acknowledged Sinn Féin's mandate but said that he ``cannot convince people that they are safe in the Executive or institutions because there is a link to people who are armed and that is part of the problem''.
Speaking to An Phoblacht following the exchange, the Sinn Féin TD said: ``The Taoiseach's own spurious statement in the Dáil last week about our mandate having `armed backing' is hardly designed to convince unionists to share power and his comments show an inconsistency and a weakness in the government's position.''