14 January 1999 Edition
Trimble is wrong
David Trimble is becoming increasingly strident in his assertions that Sinn Féin cannot take their seats in an Executive and in the all-Ireland Ministerial Council until the IRA surrender its arms. He claims that the wording of the Agreement supports his position.
But David Trimble has yet to point to the actual text in the Agreement which indicates that this precondition stands in Sinn Féin's way. He speaks about ``cross-referencing'' but only in the vaguest terms. His position is not supported by any participant to the talks - nor by those parties which refused to take part. That is because his position is untenable.
The Agreement does not bar Sinn Féin from taking their seats in the Executive and in the all-Ireland Ministerial Council. The people who made the decisions which gave Sinn Féin that right were the electorate. David Trimble has no right to bar anyone.
The current situation puts responsibility onto the two governments to immediately move towards the formation of an Executive. They must over-ride the Ulster Unionist veto and form the institutions which are so clearly specified in the Agreement.
The Agreement says: Now form the Executive and all-Ireland Council
Last Friday Gerry Adams articulated very exactly how the wording of the Good Friday Agreement supported Sinn Féin's interpretation and how the Unionists were using the decommissioning issue to scupper progress.
Here we carry an edited version of his statement.
The conclusion of these negotiations [before Christmas] has cleared the way for the establishment of the executive and the other institutions. That is why Sinn Féin entered into the recent negotiations.
For us the priority was strategic and political. We wanted to ensure that the legisative timetable required by the two governments was kept to; we wanted to ensure that the UUP did not succeed in achieving its short term aim of limiting the potential of the Strand Two aspects of the Agreement; and we wanted to clear away the ``undergrowth'' and to move towards the actual formation of the executive with unionist, SDLP and Sinn Fein membership.
The position on this is now a matter of implementation, not interpretation, unless the two governments acquiesce to the unionist game plan and abandon the Good Friday Agreement.
Therefore, the next steps in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement are clearly visible. The Executive must be set up and the all-Ireland Ministerial Council established. There can be no further equivocation on this issue. The Good Friday Agreement is very clear on both the timeframe and the chronology for the establishment of these institutions.
Under `Executive Authority' in Strand One, it is stated: ``Executive authority to be discharged on behalf of the Assembly by a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and up to ten Ministers with Departmental responsibilities...
``Following the election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the posts of Ministers will be allocated to parties on the basis of the d'Hondt system by reference to the number of seats each party has in the Assembly.''
David Trimble and Seamus Mallon were elected in June of last year to their positions. Unionist tactical delays have stretched the meaning of the word `following' out of all recognition, both to their discredit and the erosion of confidence in the process.
The same section of the Agreement goes on to state: ``The Ministers will constitute an Executive Committee which will be convened, and presided over, by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The Assembly will meet first for the purpose of organisation, without legislative or executive powers, to resolve its standing orders and working practices and make preparations for the effective functioning of the Assembly, the British-Irish Council and the North/South Ministerial Council and associated implementation bodies. In this transitional period, those members of the Assembly serving as shadow Ministers shall affirm their commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means and their opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose; to work in good faith to bring the new arrangements into being; and to observe the spirit of the Pledge of Office applying to appointed Ministers.''
The Unionists have successfully resisted establishing the shadow bodies and have succeeded in forcing the governments to negotiate the all-Ireland policy and implementation bodies outside the structure outlined in the Agreement.
Paragraph 7 under Strand 2, `The North South Ministerial Council', sets out most clearly the timetable: ``As soon as practically possible after elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, inaugural meetings will take place of the Assembly, the British/Irish Council and the North/South Ministerial Council in their transitional forms. All three institutions will meet regularly and frequently on this basis during the period between the elections to the Assembly and the transfer of powers to the Assembly, in order to establish their modus operandi.''
None of this has happened because of the UUP's obstructive tactics. David Trimble has skilfully exercised a veto which he has used to drive a coach and horses through the letter and spirit of the Agreement.
His use of the decommissioning issue is probably the most obvious example. There is nothing in the Agreement which requires the IRA to decommission before Sinn Féin, or the other parties with the required mandate, can take up the ministerial positions which is the entitlement of their respective electorates.
The decommissioning issue is not a precondition or an obstacle to progress on the establishment of the institutions, nor is it linked with progress on the release of prisoners, the creation of a new policing service, or the British government's commitment to publish an ``overall strategy'' dealing with demilitarisation.
Mr Trimble is using this issue, like the last British government did, to frustrate progress within the peace process and to prvent movement towards an inclusive, democratic peace settlement. Mr Trimble is deliberately seeking to delay the implementation of the Agreement. Indeed, there is an increasing number of republicans and nationalists who are coming round to the view that he is seeking the collapse of the Agreement. They believe that Mr Trimble wants to create a new negotiation process which would produce another and different Agreement, more to the liking of unionists, which excludes Sinn Féin.
Regrettably, the leaderships of all of the unionist parties still see the peace process in terms of victories and defeats. They are frightened by the prospect of fundamental change in the fabric of our daily lives and in the institutions which will govern this island, which is the promise of the peace process.