31 October 2002 Edition
Good Friday Agreement is the only show in town
The following is an edited version of the keynote address given by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams at the Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan on Saturday 26 October in response to a speech by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Belfast ten days previously
Today's meeting, "Working together for a New Ireland", is the inaugural conference of Sinn Féin elected representatives throughout this entire island.
This is a very unique gathering. No other political party could meet like this because no other political party is an all-Ireland party.
Nowhere was this more in evidence than the sight of republicans, from all over Ireland, working together to achieve the incredible electoral victories in the recent Westminister and local government elections in the north, and the Leinster House elections in the South.
In many ways Sinn Féin represents the future. Today's conference is about how we use our substantial electoral and political strength to build the New Ireland.
We have never been better placed to make the case for independence, social justice and equality for all.
The fact that it took two referendums for the establishment here to get a Yes vote on the Nice Treaty is proof of that.
Our task in the decade ahead is to provide the leadership needed to challenge the status quo.
Our goal must be to exercise the political will and resolve to ensure that the voices of the neglected and deprived in our society are given their rightful place in decision making in the future.
This is the New Ireland we are struggling for. An Ireland of equals.
The challenge for Mr Blair is to shape his own system, his own agencies, to make this process work, and in so doing to accept that the leaderships of political unionism will not journey along the Good Friday Agreement process if they can avoid that
Rewriting the script
The progress that we have collectively made in recent years has been remarkable.
But all of this is work in progress and it has to be brought to completion across all of these outstanding and unfinished matters.
The alternative - a return to the past - cannot be contemplated.
This party is on the rise. Irish republicanism is growing and increasingly popular as a political philosophy.
And that my friends, all other things to one side, is what has brought us to this crisis in the peace process.
The British and the Irish establishments' version of the peace process had a different script from the one that has been written in recent years.
The rise of Sinn Féin was not part of that script.
In their script, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party were to coalesce to form the so-called centre ground. In essence, British policy is about modernising the Union so that a section of Protestants and Catholics in the north, and these are British government words not mine, could be persuaded to support the Union if it protects their interests.
Sinn Féin was to be perhaps a significant but nonetheless small, incohesive element in an anaemic political system in the north.
But it hasn't turned out like that. The Good Friday Agreement has been correctly seen as an instrument of change, real change in real ways in people's lives.
For that reason nationalists and republicans support it.
For that reason rejectionist unionists oppose it.
For that reason the British government have minimised or diluted or delayed many of the changes it involves.
The Good Friday Agreement, despite their protestations to the contrary, has been so far, too big a challenge for the British government or perhaps more accurately it is a bridge too far for its agencies.
It was never going to be swallowed by rejectionist unionists, by Ian Paisley and others, and apart from the latent sectarianism of their position their opposition has a political basis.
They understand that the Good Friday Agreement is essentially and in part about establishing a level playing field.
They fear the achievement of equality of treatment and the emergence of a new inclusive society in Ireland will also erode the very reason for the existence of the Union and the British jurisdiction in Ireland.
That is why elements of the British system seek to undermine the Agreement.
The British government is a pro-Union government and its strategy, or to be more accurate its tactical day to day management of the process, has exacerbated the crisis within unionism and encouraged the rejectionists.
Allied to all of this, Sinn Féin is now the largest nationalist party in the north.
Sinn Féin was seen by an increasing section of the electorate to be a party that was the engine of the peace process. And the peace process has become a cherished and important process for most sensible people.
Ten years ago it was all very different.
Ten years ago there was no peace process.
Ten years ago this party was a demonised organisation in transition sowing the seeds of our peace strategy to a censored and sceptical media, pioneering delicate and difficult talks in a society which was polarised by the relentless cycle of ongoing violence.
Ten years ago we were told that peace was impossible in Ireland and that Irish unity was a pipe dream.
Ten years is a long time in politics.
We have seen what is possible. We know there have been many ups and downs.
But more importantly than the fate of Sinn Féin we know that across this island life is better for the vast majority of our people.
In saying that I am very conscious of families which have been bereaved. I am very conscious, and our representatives have stood shoulder to shoulder with communities victimised by sectarian violence.
I am very conscious that for some of our people conditions have become worse. But that is the sad, unacceptable but harsh reality of the nature of change. As advances are made those who are against progress become more frenzied in their reactions.
But notwithstanding the plight of long suffering people, let me repeat my assertion that great progress has been made.
Peace is possible - real and lasting and permanent - and a united, independent Ireland is ours if we want it badly enough if we win support for that objective and if we are prepared to work hard to achieve it.
All of which brings us to current difficulties. The process is in very considerable difficulties at this time.
It remains my view that these difficulties can be overcome but this will only be accomplished if we face up to the reality of the current impasse.
So, let's tell the crisis as it is.
Depending on your viewpoint, the crisis has been caused by unionism, or by Irish republicans or by the British government or by the Irish government or by the accumulation of factors involving or allegedly involving all of these elements.
I am not going to engage in the blame game.
I do want to acknowledge in a very clear way that the difficulties within unionism have been severely exasperated by the ongoing focus on alleged IRA activities.
Whatever we think about the unionist willingness to embrace the process of change - the unrelenting concentration on activities which it is claimed involve Irish republicans are grist to the mill of those within political unionism or indeed within the British system in Ireland, who are opposed to change.
Whatever we, or for that matter the IRA, say about these allegations, wall to wall daily coverage in the media - fed by stories planted from within the British system - ensures that the denials are dismissed or doubted by even the more progressive elements.
And of course, on the republican and nationalist side there is equal frustration and annoyance because there is little focus on the ongoing killing campaign by unionist paramilitaries or the actions of the British forces.
All of this is compounded by the recent decision by the British government to suspend once again the political institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement.
A lengthy suspension - a vacuum - will encourage those who want to violently tear down this process.
The main thing at the moment is to get the process back on track as quickly as possible. That involves reinstating the political institutions.
It means the British government revoking the suspension legislation. It is no part of the Agreement.
It says a lot about the state we live in that the institutions were fully functioning for only about 20 months out of a possible 54 months or so. And the all-Ireland Civic Forum has never been put in place. And the Inter-Parliamentary Forum has never met.
The decision to suspend the institutions makes no strategic sense. Its tactical merits are also very limited.
Does anyone believe for one second that if the Sinn Féin leadership had threatened to withdraw our Ministers from the Executive that the British government would have moved to suspend the institutions?
Privately by what successive British Secretary of States have said, and publicly, by what they have done, the British government has made it clear that the survival of David Trimble and the ascendancy of the UUP and unionism are priority objectives.
And where stands the Irish government in all of this? The Good Friday Agreement is an international Treaty between the Irish and British governments. They have a joint and co-equal responsibility for its implementation. The British government has no right to act unilaterally on these matters and it needs to be told this again and again.
In particular Irish citizens, victimised and targeted by sectarian violence, have a right to expect effective political protection from our government in Dublin.
Mr Blair's speech last week, understandably, was portrayed in the media as no more than a call for the IRA to disband. He is bound to understand why that has angered republicans. But it was a serious and detailed speech and I said at the time that it deserved a considered response. And having looked at it carefully I do see some positive elements.
Mr Blair recognised that Catholics had been treated in the north as second class citizens. I agree.
He said that the overwhelming majority of people want the institutions to remain in place. I agree.
He said that the time for transition had come to an end. There was a need for acts of completion. I agree.
He said that the British government thought the Good Friday Agreement should be implemented in one fell swoop, instead of a concession to one side here and a concession to the other there. I agree.
Sinn Féin has long called for the Agreement to be implemented in full. It is high time the British government implemented the Agreement in all its aspects.
In reality this means acts of completion on;
The Political institutions
OTRs (People still 'on the run')
Above all else, it means dealing with these matters as political issues, instead of security problems. It means embarking on a process of irreversible change.
I want to see an end to all of the armed groups on this island. That has to be the aim of every thinking republican. So if you ask me do I envisage a future without the IRA? The answer is obvious. The answer is Yes
I want to make a few specific remarks on the issue of policing.
At Weston Park the British government and the Irish government agreed a take it or leave it package which included a rejection, for example, of the request for a full independent international judicial inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane. Instead, a stalling exercise was put forward and last week, with the cancellation once again of the Steven's Inquiry report, we had another instalment in that effort to dodge the truth of the RUC Special Branch and MI5's involvement in the killings of citizens on behalf of the British state.
Special Branch and MI5 remain at the heart of the new policing service. They are the epicentre of the political police we agreed to remove.
At Weston Park the British, again in their take it or leave it mode, promised amendments to policing legislation to make it more fully reflect Patten. Remember, before Weston Park we were being told that Patten was being fully implemented. Here then was an admission that this was not the case but instead of a commitment to implement Patten fully through amendments we had an assertion that amendments would change legislation to 'more fully reflect Patten'.
The SDLP acquiesced to that position. That is far less than Patten and the Good Friday Agreement commitments on policing.
The broad nationalist consensus had already been broken on this issue by the Irish government's position. But unlike the SDLP, the Irish government does not have to defend its position to citizens most affected by the absence of the type of policing that is required.
I think that those who acquiesced to the British position made a mistake.
I understand why they did so and why the SDLP in particular defends its position so ferociously.
It is now attempting to claim the Weston Park proposals as a result of its good negotiation even though these amendments fall short of what is required. And in fact, SDLP sensitivity on this issue has been quoted to me by officials from both governments as the reason why movement cannot go as far as is required under the Good Friday Agreement.
We are arguing for the Good Friday Agreement vision of policing to become a reality. And that means the British government moving beyond its Weston Park position.
It also means that the Irish government and the SDLP need to assert this as a matter of the unfinished work of the Good Friday Agreement.
An acceptable policing service is crucial for all sections of our people in the north and is in the better interests of all of the people of this island. If power can be transferred on a range of key issues, there is no reason why policing and justice cannot be devolved on the same basis.
So, consequently I can conceive of a world in which it would be appropriate for Sinn Féin to join the Policing Board and participate fully in the policing arrrangements on a democratic basis. That has to be when there is a proper beginning to policing, as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement and as recommended by Patten.
Unionist blocking tactics
Nationalists and republicans also need to be convinced, as in my view do a lot of unionists, that the toleration by British agencies of unionist paramilitaries has ended.
I note in particular that the British Prime Minister says he will take steps to stop the unionists wrecking the Executive and north-south institutions again in future. How will the British government do that? How can we be sure that the unionists will not wreck the institutions again on the basis of some transitional demand? After all, it wasn't the unionists who suspended the institutions!
Mr Blair's speech explicitly acknowledged that the Good Friday Agreement has not been implemented. Let us be clear about that.
Have the two governments got a plan to implement the outstanding aspects?
I certainly have had no sight of it.
But we are patient. We are also very conscious that this is a process.
Mr Blair says that at the core of the Agreement was this deal: in return for equality and justice - in politics, policing, in acceptance of nationalist identity - all parties were to commit exclusively to peace.
He then goes on to say that republicans then made the continued existence of the IRA a leverage in negotiations. He says that this is at the heart of the present crisis.
All the while he says we were coming to a crunch point. Would republicanism really take the final step of committing exclusively, Sinn Féin and the IRA, to the peaceful path?
I can understand the sense of Mr Blair's perception about all of this but I'm sure, if he paused to reconsider, he will see the flaw in this version of events.
IRA is serious about peace
As one of the republicans involved in all of the negotiations with the British government I can state categorically that we never made the IRA an issue. In fact, the Agreement came some years after the IRA cessations and I believe that the maintenance of those cessations and various initiatives by the IRA demonstrates that organisations commitment to this process.
It also, and let us not undervalue this, created the space for all of the opportunities that have been developed since.
Our view is and was that the IRA cessations effectively moved the Army out of the picture and allowed the rest of us to begin an entirely new process.
Our strategy, and Mr Blair knows this is about bringing an end to physical force republicanism, by creating an alternative way to achieve democratic and republican objectives.
Far from using the IRA as leverage during negotiations we sought to have the Good Friday Agreement implemented, not only because that is our obligation, not only because that is the right thing, but also because that fitted into a strategy of creating an alternative to war and a means of sustaining and anchoring the peace process.
It wasn't we who promoted the issue of arms decommissioning as a precondition on an Agreement but it was us and others who moved so that the IRA came to do the unthinkable. To not only work with the IICD but also to put arms beyond use under its auspices at a time when unionist paramilitaries were on a killing spree, when Orange marches were being forced into Catholic neighbourhoods and when the British Army was remilitarising.
It wasn't we who came up with another demand once progress on the arms issue was being made.
I do not pretend to speak for the Army on these matters but I do believe that they are serious about their support for a genuine peace process.
They have said so. I believe them.
I speak for this party and we are completely committed to peaceful and democratic means.
We are about making peace - about working with others to make this a reality for everyone. There is no other way forward.
As an Irish republican, as a citizen of Ireland, I want to see an end to British rule in this country yesterday.
I want to see every British soldier out of this country by five o'clock this evening. But I am realistic enough to know that this is unlikely, for today anyway. But it will happen. And I and this party will continue to work towards these objectives until they are a reality.
I know it will be achieved through a process - not by way of ultimatiums from me or any other Irish person.
Similarly, the IRA is never going to disband in response to ultimatiums from the British government, or David Trimble.
A future without the IRA?
But I do believe the logic of the peace process, puts all of us in a different place.
I want to see an end to all of the armed groups on this island. That has to be the aim of every thinking republican.
So if you ask me do I envisage a future without the IRA? The answer is obvious.
The answer is Yes.
And who can influence the IRA most?
The British government - the unionists - the Irish government and us as well of course.
All of us have to make politics work.
While I believe that the majority of unionists want to embrace change it is clear that their political leaders do not want the Agreement to be implemented.
It appears that the demands of unionism are insatiable. They are also not deliverable.
Not unless the two governments tear up the Good Friday Agreement.
Not unless nationalists and republicans in the north decide to accept less than our very basic entitlements.
But part of the problem for those of us who have to manage this process is that Irish republicanism is seen by the British establishment and its system, quite correctly, as being against its long term interests. This is because it interprets these interests in a very narrow and short sighted way.
It sees unionism as an ally, even with all its imperfections.
I want to see every British soldier out of this country by five o'clock this evening. But I am realistic enough to know that this is unlikely, for today anyway. But it will happen
The challenge for Blair
So the challenge for Mr Blair in all of this is quite profound. He has made a singular and exceptional contribution to this process.
He understands as well as I do that it is a process and that all of us need to apply ourselves and see beyond the difficulties of the moment.
Mr Blair should see Britain's strategic interest being best served by the democratic resolution of the longstanding quarrel between the people of these two islands.
His task in the short term has to be to continue the process of peacemaking.
The Good Friday Agreement remains the only show in town.
This party doesn't need to be told that. But the unionists do. So too does the British system.
This is not a perfect process. By its very nature it has involved compromise. It needs collectivity.
Many may argue that it is indeed an imperfect peace. But let's be realistic about this, it is a lot better than what is happening in other parts of the world at this time and it's a lot better than what was happening in this country over a long time.
The challenge for Mr Blair is to shape his own system, his own agencies, to make this process work, and in so doing to accept that the leaderships of political unionism will not journey along the Good Friday Agreement process if they can avoid that.
But like people everywhere they will respond to the conditions in which they live and I retain a confidence that if unionism is liberated, like the rest of us, from the conditions of the past, they will rise to the challenge.
There can be no escape from the reality that the conditions in which we will all have to live are those contained in the Good Friday Agreement.
Until the unionists know that for a certainty they will resist that Agreement.
This is a hugely traumatic process for unionism. In their hearts they know that the game is up. It isn't over. But it is up. And whether the majority of unionists ever had any real advantage from the old agenda depends on how you define the word advantage.
There are undoubtedly going to be more talks in the time ahead.
By Mr Blair's own admission, his government, thus far, has not implemented what it is obliged to implement.
In the last few years, on a number of occasions, when it faced the hard choice of offending unionism it backed down. It knows this.
It is the government with the largest majority in the history of the British Labour Party. How on earth can it expect us to persuade others of its good intentions if it fails to do what Mr Blair has said is the right thing?
So any further talks must be about implementing the Good Friday Agreement, not renegotiating it.
So I agree with Mr Blair that we should aim for a just peace. That the same standards should apply to all.
Like him I accept that trust is always in short supply in politics and in our situation even more so.
Like him I don't exaggerate this issue. I know that we have to build decent working relations, make the Agreement work and build trust on that basis.
This party is determined and committed to do our best to rebuild the political process and to keep the peace process intact.
No one ever said that this was going to be easy but it is the single most important thing that any of us can do at this time in our history.
Building the new Ireland
Elected reps from across the nation gather in Monaghan
Sinn Féin's "Working Together for a New Ireland" conference was an historic occasion. The conference brought Sinn Féin's elected representatives from all over Ireland together, perhaps for the first time ever, to discuss their way forward to promote the All-Ireland agenda of equality and justice.
Addressing over 200 people, including TDs, representatives on the Cross-Border bodies, local councillors, town commissioners and Assembly members, Gerry Adams pointed out: "No other party in the country could do this - Sinn Féin alone could bring our elected representatives together from across the whole island. I commend you all. It was only 20 years ago that Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin left the bank. We have come a long distance since then."
He went on, "We are a campaigning party, and you are the agents of change. You are perceived as the leaders in your communities. At present we are punching well below our weight."
"We need to make the All-Ireland Agenda a part of every activity. We need, all the time, to 'think national, while we act local'. All the time we need to consider how we can use our electoral strength to build a new Ireland. For this task we were never better placed." The conference was an important initial step towards this goal.
Group leader in Leinster House Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin; Conor Murphy, group leader in the Assembly and Martin Ferris, with a powerful speech, opened the conference. "I am confident," Martin said, "that I, alongside of other representatives, will sit in an all-Ireland parliament in an Ireland of equality and democracy.
"Our task is about the real power of people over the institutions that govern their lives. Power is not the gift of the political establishment. We are not there to replace the political establishment, but to achieve change." Or, as Caoihhghín said earlier, quoting Dublin Councillor Larry O'Toole: "We're about building a real alternative, not an alternative establishment."
Engaging in 32-county wide discussion
The conference was primarily an engagement of Sinn Féin political representatives to discuss together how to make the All-Ireland agenda part of all Sinn Féin activity and central to the action plans of the elected representatives. For many, it was the first time they had met other reps all across the country and had shared discussions together. They talked in small workshops, workshops that had a geographical spread, from Belfast to Clonakilty, town commissioners to Assembly members, TDs to councillors.
The discussions ranged widely over the issues, but focused particularly on the role of elected representatives in implementing the Good Friday Agreement and making the All-Ireland agenda an integral part of republican activity.
After Gerry Adams' keynote address, Bairbre de Brún led off a session chaired by Dublin Councillor Nicky Kehoe. "There are a wide range of equality issues to be implemented," she said, "and rights are not to be bartered with - the two governments understand this very well.
"People need to understand, they need to know what has not been implemented. The discussion needs to start, and it needs to widen. This is the work of our elected representatives. Establishment politicians do things on the ground to get elected. With us, it's the other way round; we get elected to get things done."
"We need women elected"
Bairbre was followed by Sean Crowe, Pauline Tully, and briefly, Adams again, who said in one of his interjections that all know so well: "The Equality Agenda applies everywhere, and most especially to the case of women. In the next local government elections we need women elected. It means women being in winnable seats. This means men moving to one side."
His point was taken up by Mary Nelis, who said, repeating a reference to Declan Kearney's article in An Phoblacht - The Road Map to the Republic, that "the Good Friday Agreement is the process through which to deliver a united Ireland. Let's implement the Agreement. Don't leave it to the Brits. They'll never do it."
Martina Anderson, who works in Stormont, led off the afternoon session, which was chaired by Mary Lou MacDonald, the party's political oversight coordinator, based in Leinster House. The session was about making the all-Ireland Agenda an integral part of all Sinn Féin activity, and she put it clearly to all the reps - that "unless you integrate the All Ireland agenda into your local activity as elected representatives, you will not be fulfilling your brief".
She was followed by two members of Sinn Féin's advisory team in Leinster House, Mícheál MacDonncha and Robbie Smyth, who both developed ideas and plans through which elected reps could advance this strategy.
Discussing the change that must come
After workshops, participants came back to a plenary session where Pat Doherty and Sean MacManus, Francie Molloy and Aengus Ó Snodaigh all spoke as well as many more elected representatives from the floor. "How times have changed," commented one participant. "All the reps were busting to get in with their contribution."
"How do we progress the all-Ireland Agenda - which is now a realisable ideal?" Aengus asked. "We need to take the discussion forward. We need to ask republicans: What about a 32-county police force? What do we want for a judicial system, for an education system, for an all-Ireland health system? We need to be asking these questions and to discuss together the sort of united Ireland people want to see."
As Sligo's Sean MacManus said, the conference was "a first, bringing all our political reps together, from North and South. It is the work that we began today that will make us into the catalyst for the change - change which must come for a united Ireland based on equality."
Sinn Féin briefing at Westminster
Mitchel McLaughlin and Dodie McGuinness are pictured last Wednesday, 23 October, at the House of Commons, where they briefed a packed meeting of Irish community activists, MPs, human rights campaigners and trade unionists on the latest crisis to beset the peace process.
In a hectic schedule, McLaughlin also had meetings with a group of first-time Labour MPs and another with a group of Lib Dems and Tories, which Sylvia Hermon turned up at. Some of the exchanges at the latter meeting were described as "frank", but thos epresent left under no illusions about the Sinn Feein view of the current crisis.
The Sinn Féin national chair also held briefings with the editorial boards of some of the major newspapers, including the Observer, the London Times and the Financial Times.
That morning, Mcaughlin hosted a press conference at the Foreign Press Association at which he reiterated Sinn Féin's demand that the institutions be re-established.
Pat Doherty MP is currently in London for a further series of editorial board meetings.