AP front 1 - 2022

15 July 1999 Edition

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Blair's blunder

It appears as if Tony Blair's efforts to pander to unionism by excluding Sinn Féin will founder on the rock of unionist intransigence.

On Wednesday evening, David Trimble threw Tony Blair's concessions back into his face proving that the policy of continually caving in to unionist pressure does not work and will never move the political process forward.

The Ulster Unionist leadership has attempted to accomplish in the past few days what it failed to achieve during the negotiations of Good Friday 1998 and in the most recent Stormont discussions. The amendments put into the legislation by British Prime Minister Tony Blair undermine the Good Friday Agreement. The legislation itself is a sop to unionism and clear evidence that the Orange card is once again being played with considerable success.

On the basis of ever-more strident unionist demands, Tony Blair headed down the path of exclusion. But even Blair's best efforts at appeasement may once again not to be enough for the insatiable no men of unionism.

The election of the new Labour government in Britain saw the beginnings of a change in British government policy in Ireland. What we witnessed this week was a return to Conservative policies, as Tony Blair went back to something which had already been proven not to work.

Mo Mowlam has pledged that d'Hondt will be triggered today, but the prospect of a working Executive and the other institutions contained in the Good Friday Agreement remain as far away as ever. By capitulating to sectional interests, Tony Blair has weakened his standing as British prime minister by jumping to the unionist drum and has undermined his credibility with all parties to the peace process.


Agreement compromised

The legislation also means that the Irish government will be asked to push through changes to its Constitution, even though the basis for the referendum which allowed for this is being changed by the British government
The British government legislation published on Monday of this week and opposed by Sinn Féin has turned the Good Friday Agreement on its head. The entirely unneccesary legislation drafted by Tony Blair and which, as we go to press, he is seeking to amend in the House of Lords to include further preconditions, panders to those unionists intent on blocking political progress and encourages a return to the failed politics of exclusion. Republicans and nationalists will vigorously resist this latest move to deny their political rights.

In the event of Sinn Féin's expulsion, the Six-County Executive would be dominated by the unionists parties. This would overturn the basis on which the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated - as a cross-community and inclusive power sharing arrangement.

Tony Blair's statements last week that he could ``ensure Sinn Féin aren't in the Executive, if they default'' is at odds with the Good Friday Agreement and is not part of the joint statement- the Way Forward, published by the two governments on 2 July.

The impression given by Blair that if his or General de Chastelain's version of how decommissioning can be accomplished does not succeed, Sinn féin can be expelled is wrong. There can be no question of Sinn Féin being expelled while the party keeps to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

The role of the Decommissioning Commission is to `facilitate the voluntary decommissioning of firearms'. Under the Agreement, its remit is to monitor, review and verify progress on decommissioning. The new legislation would significantly change its remit to allow it to lay down ultimatums.

Decommissioning can only be a voluntary act by those who have arms. This is acknowledged in the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and was accepted by the two governments in June 1997 and by the International Commission on 2 July.

The legislative change proposed in this week's House of Commons Bill therefore, is a fundamental change to the Agreement. It formalises unionist demands for institutions to be established on a conditional and an exclusive basis. Such legislation compromises the Good Friday Agreement. This policy change by the British government will give unionists a convenient cover for a return to the agenda of political exclusion of republicans.

The legislation also means that the Irish government will be asked to push through changes to its Constitution, even though the basis for the referendum which allowed for this is being changed by the British government.

David Trimble has been in breach of the Good Friday Agreement for over a year. The British government is also in breach of it, particularly around the issue of demilitarisation. It has refused so far to publish an `overall strategy' on demilitarisation as promised in the Good Friday Agreement and by British ministers since then.

The legislation also means that the Irish government will be asked to push through changes to its Constitution, even though the basis for the referendum which allowed for this is being changed by the British government
Sinn Féin took an initiative in the course of the most recent round of negotiations on which the party had carefully worked for some time. This was clearly within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. It involved a declaration by the Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams which was much more advanced than anything the party had previously said on the issue. It contained a genuine and advanced belief of how the decommissioning issue could be resolved. It was twice rejected by unionists. In the wake of the Sinn Féin initiative and at the conclusion of the negotiations, the governments issued a joint statement and asked the parties to consult on this.

Sinn Féin has stated that the removal of all guns from Irish politics remains one of its aims but it will not accept any block whatsoever on the right of all sections of Irish people to enjoy their full rights and entitlements.

Under the Good Friday Agreement all participants have a responsibility to deal with the decommissioning issue. This includes the two governments.

Sinn Féin has consistently made it clear that it does not represent any other organisation. It is not the IRA and cannot and will not enter into any commitments on behalf of the IRA.

It is only through the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and all the parties and the two governments discharging their collective responsibility in regard to its terms, that the issue of arms under the aegis of the de Chastelain Commission, acting within the terms of the Agreement, can be satisfactorily settled.

One of the most significant developments of the past 30 years was the IRA cessation of August 1994. The risk for peace taken by the IRA created what has been widely recognised as the best opportunity for peace in Ireland this century.

The UUP leader at the time, James Molyneaux, described it as the most destabilising event since partition. Unionists, or at least their leaders, appeared to prefer the certainties of war and conflict than the challenges of making peace.

The second IRA cessation, which has entered its third year, holds firm. The August `94 and July 97 initiatives by the IRA opened the door to the political progress we have witnessed and to the potential of the Good Friday Agreement. The hope for a better future has been largely kept alive during the past 14 months of unionist prevarication, stalling, bomb attacks and killings, by the maintenance of the IRA cessation.

The IRA initiative was based in its own words on a desire to `enhance the democratic peace process and underline our definitive committment to its success'.

The IRA decision to call a `complete cessation of military operations was built on the work of Sinn Féin, John Hume, Albert Reynolds and Irish America developed an inclusively based political initiative. For the first time the combined efforts of these diverses groups and individuals held out the prospect of fundamental change through an evolving peace process.

The first IRA cessation lasted for 18 months and then collapsed because continuing unionist intransigence was being underpinned by a British Tory strategy which devalued the process, obstructed inclusive negotiations and blocked progress.

A new British Labour government and the continuing efforts of Sinn Féin and others created the climate whereby a second IRA cessation was called. That cessation was built on the foundation stones of inclusion and the removal of preconditions and the honouring of committments by the British government.

The choice this week for the Ulster Unionists and for the British government is clear. It is a choice between continuing the unionist veto or moving to implement of the Good Friday Agreement.


An Phoblacht
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