24 November 2005 Edition
Advancing the case for Irish unity
Sinn Féin is hosting an important conference this weekend on issues related to the all-Ireland agenda. Here, Mitchel McLaughlin outlines his view of how the party's all-Ireland approach is impacting on the wider political stage.
An Phoblacht: Why is the conference happening at this time?
Mitchel McLaughlin: Well the background to this is the increasing support for Sinn Féin and its policies, and the arguments Sinn Féin has been making. The establishment parties are beginning to respond to that agenda, which I think is a good thing. I welcome that. It's important that Sinn Féin continues to give leadership, and this conference, which deals with the concept of unity, will ask the question of why isn't there a Green Paper from the Irish Government on Irish unity.
A debate has started on a United Ireland and Sinn Féin should be seeking to influence that, even if at times we have to deal with provocative comments from our political opponents. They are on our territory now, which is a good thing.
The All-Ireland Ministerial Council has not been in operation for three years since the suspension of the political institutions. Has progress on the all-Ireland agenda significantly stalled in that time?
I think there has obviously been an impact and we should redouble our efforts to end the impasse. I think, again, republicans have given the lead. In particular, and I think it should be acknowledged, the IRA leadership has shown the way forward by addressing those issues that were directed at republicanism, particularly the army.
It is my view that we would still have had to deal with fear and trepidation from the establishment parties in 26 Counties especially in the run-up to elections. We may have overcome some difficulties if the institutions had been functioning and there would have been more scope for all-Ireland activity. But we still would have had to deal with more conservative attitudes and influences, particularly those in Leinster House.
In the absence of these mechanisms to pursue the all-Ireland agenda at a government level, have republicans and Sinn Féin activists been able to pursue the agenda in other ways or by other means?
It is of particular significance that so many people, even the likes of Fine Gael, are going back and claiming to be republicans. Everyone is claiming that particular description. That wouldn't have happened had republicans not found other ways of addressing the argument. Take for example the way we put forward a cogent argument for the Irish Government to produce a Green Paper on Irish unity. We asked the question, 'well what is the problem with this, what is wrong with putting together a programme of peaceful persuasion on this issue of a united Ireland. What difficulty could any Irish Government have with this approach?'
I think we have forced the Government parties and opposition parties to discuss constitutional change and how that could be brought about. It doesn't mean that these people have suddenly, genuinely rediscovered the national ideal, it does mean that they are responding to the fact that more and more people are voting for Sinn Féin, that we reflect the Irish public's opinion.
Has Sinn Féin's pursuance of an all-Ireland approach to politics forced other elements to adopt a more all-Ireland approach? For example, Dublin Government Ministers seem to be making a point of travelling North on a regular basis these days to deliver speeches and so on?
I think all of that is in no way an accident. I think all of that reflects the effective work that has been done by Sinn Féin.
We shouldn't rest on our laurels; these people would retreat from that agenda at the very first opportunity. But for now, the fact is that all across the political spectrum, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, the PDs, are all trying to draw attention to what they claim to be their republican credentials. So let's put them to the test, let's keep up the pressure and develop the arguments to the point where these people have to stop the speeches and start delivering action, where they have to implement programmes and develop government policies. Sinn Féin has to remain on guard, remain alert, but also remain confident that more and more, our message is being heard by the ordinary people of Ireland.
In relation to Peter Hain's recent comments on an all-Ireland economy, do you see any significance in the fact that he made such comments at this time?
I do see significance in those comments, but I would have preferred if he made those comments here. There's no doubt the unionists heard what he said loud and clear, but what we need to see is some conviction in these arguments and then policies on the ground.
If the British Secretary of State is saying that the Six-County economy is unsustainable, then let him follow through on the logic of that. Let's start to look in a very-proactive way at alternatives and at how we can manage the transition from two economies to one all-Ireland economy.
The Taoiseach recently proposed representation in the Oireachtas for MPs in the Six Counties. Although it received a frosty reception from predictable quarters, it remains a key demand from Sinn Féin. Is that proposal still on the table and how do you see it being progressed now?
I think, not for the first time, there are those in the British and Irish Governments who are playing partisan politics with an issue that goes to the core of nationalist rights and was recognised as such in the negotiations for the Good Friday Agreement. So, playing fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government have been ducking the responsibilities they agreed to in those discussions. Since 1998 we have been talking about — with Bertie Ahern who has been continuously in Government — how to implement those rights.
We welcomed the proposal to extend speaking rights to northern representatives, including representatives from the unionist tradition. What we are concerned about is that it would be tokenistic, that it would be a bad faith response to the commitment that's been entered into by the Irish Government. If that turned out to be the case, then that is the type of negative leadership that can influence directly the attitude of, for example, the DUP, who believe that they can undermine and destroy the Good Friday Agreement. They will certainly seize on any bad faith from Dublin as proof of this.
In practical terms what can Sinn Féin activists and cumainn throughout the country do to progress the all-Ireland agenda?
In practical terms we should be marketing our ideas and our arguments at every level. I know that not every area has a Sinn Féin representative for example, so we should be attempting to strengthen the electoral muscle that the party has. But on each and every occasion, and there are many opportunities, republicans should be advancing the argument for Irish unity. We should be pointing to the necessary change that has to happen by highlighting the fact that Ireland, a small country as it is, is inflicted with social and economic disparities, some of the worst in the developed countries in the world. For such a small island, it is not beyond our collective genius to develop the concept of an Ireland of equals. I think that that argument is bringing more and more support to the party.