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29 July 1999 Edition

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Blair must break unionist veto

Sinn Féin has said that its Ard Chomhairle last weekend held a thorough discussion on the current state of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. A lot of deep anger was expressed at the lack of political progress and at events in the Six-County Assembly two weeks ago. That anger and dismay has been reflected by Irish people at home and abroad.

In the current political context, where the unionist veto has again been imposed against the wishes of the Irish people and a British government which has acquiesced in that veto, Irish republicans are deeply sceptical about the review planned for September.

The credibility of Tony Blair's handling of the entire process has been called into question. Of particular concern are Blair's repitition that he would move to exclude Sinn Féin from political institutions if the IRA did not disarm - something which he cannot do under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement; the legislation which he introduced at Westminster, which is also outside the terms of the Agreement; and the subsequent amendments.

Blair's offending legislation still sits in the British Houses of Parliament and continues to cause severe difficulties for the process, but the institutional element of the Agreement is in default.

A genuine review of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is welcome, but in no way can such a review become a cover for renegotiation of the Agreement itself.

Republicans have no confidence whatsoever that the Ulster Unionist Party is in any way interested in sharing power with republicans or nationalists. Republicans can have no confidence that the Unionist political leadership will deal in good faith and the record of broken deadlines and commitments reneged upon reinforce this view.

Ultimate political responsibility, however, lies with the British government. They cannot continue to underwrite unionist inertia and intransigence. The real problem and uncertainty now is with British government policy in Ireland. Is Tony Blair ready and willing to consign the unionist veto to the past or will his government follow the failed example of their predecessors and bow to the Orange card?

Mowlam to stay

It has emerged as we go to press that, contrary to rumours, Mo Mowlam is to stay on as Secretary of State in the Six Counties. Downing Street has confirmed that the sole change in the British cabinet will be at the Welsh Office.


Sinn Féin underlines political crisis

By Seán Brady

Reaction to last week's IRA statement varied, with the Ulster Unionist Party predictably portraying it as ``menacing'' and a ``thinly-veiled threat''. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern refused to comment, except to say that the Dublin government was ``neither encouraged nor discouraged about what we heard overnight''.

On Thursday, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness said the failure to implement the Good Friday Agreement had ``cheated'' people of 14 months of progress. ``It doesn't take a genius to work out that it is going to be nigh impossible to bring about decommissioning by May 2000. I think many people could be forgiven for thinking there is no likelihood whatsoever of there being an executive, not this year or next,'' he added.

Also on Thursday, Sinn Féin representatives met British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London. Speaking in Downing Street ,Martin McGuinness said: ``Unless the unionists and the British government play their part within this process, in my opinion there is no prospect whatsoever of the armed groups decommissioning... before next May... The unionists and the British government have to recognise there is no singular responsibility on Sinn Féin to deal with the issue of decommissioning.''

McGuinness said he had told Trimble and Blair in recent weeks that ``ultimately they will have more influence over the IRA than Gerry Adams and I ever will. That's a very clear message. The responsibility to deal with this issue is a collective responsibility - it includes David Trimble, it includes Tony Blair, it also includes Sinn Féin.

``We are prepared to play our part. But the task we have been set, in the context of no political change... is, in my opinion, an impossible one. So it's everybody's shoulder to the wheel, not just Sinn Féin's.''

On Friday, Sinn Féin held a bilateral meeting with representatives of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). Speaking afterwards, Sinn Féin North Belfast Assembly Member Gerry Kelly said: ``Our meeting with the PUP this morning was constructive and worthwhile. The meeting took place at our request and is one of a series to inform all of the other parties as to our assessment of the state of the peace process.

``We discussed a range of issues affecting the peace process and the proposed review of those aspects of the Good Friday Agreement which are in default. ie. the establishment of the Executive, the all-Ireland Ministerial Council, British/Irish Council and the Implementation Bodies.

``We stressed the importance of all the pro-Agreement parties taking their responsibility to implement the Agreement as negotiated seriously. We voiced our concern that the Ulster Unionists are being allowed to stall the whole process on the basis of guns that are silent.

``And although the main burden of responsibility for that lies with David Trimble, ultimately the buck stops with Tony Blair. The British government has moved away from the Good Friday Agreement and backwards in the direction of exclusion. It has conceded to the unionist politics of veto, which clearly breaches the letter and spirit of the Agreement.''

Last Saturday, 31 July, Sinn Féin's Ard Chomhairle met in Dublin. Kerry County Councillor and Ard Chomhairle member Martin Ferris emerged from the meeting to tell journalists that deliberations would continue and that the main business of the meeting was the current state of the peace process.

He said: ``No one should underestimate the extent of the crisis that we are in now. Sixteen months after the Good Friday Agreement we still have no Executive, no all-Ireland Ministerial Council, no demilitarisation paper from the British government, no human rights or equality agenda.

``In our view this is because the British government has allowed the unionists to obstruct the implementation of the Agreement at every stage. Many republicans and nationalists now believe that the Unionist Party leadership do not want to share power.

``The planned review in September has to be seen in this context. Sinn Féin will judge the review on whether or not we believe it can make a difference. We have not yet concluded our deliberations on this matter. But I have to say that there are many who are sceptical and see this as an exericise in providing unionists with another opportunity to try and renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement.

On Monday, Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly said that claims by Dermot Nesbitt of the UUP that his party is not opposed to an inclusive Executive involving Sinn Féin were a distortion of the truth. ``When people look behind the words of Dermot Nesbitt and examine the actions of the UUP, it becoms clear that they have opposed the formation of an inclusive Executive and sought the collapse of the institutions agreed under the Good Friday Agreement.''


The State of the Union

By Breandan O Muirthile

If the current deep crisis in the peace process, precipitated by the actions of the Ulster Unionists, is to be resolved, this can only be on the basis of a durable accommodation between unionism and nationalism, as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement. Recent events raise serious doubts as to whether unionism is genuinely interested in such an accommodation. So what is the current state of unionism?
If the unionist leadership and the British government continue to allow the agenda to be set by a minority within unionism who are unwilling to accept that the days of unfettered unionist domination are gone forever, then the prospects are not good

It remains a highly significant and hopeful development that in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement a clear majority of Unionists voted for the an Agreement based upon an acceptance that an internal settlement, confined to the Six Counties, was not workable and which reflected this through the creation of cross-border institutions with significant powers and a dynamic for their further development. The Agreement was also rooted in de facto power-sharing within the Six Counties and the creation of a partnership of mutual esteem between nationalism and unionism. In so voting, a clear majority of unionists indicated their willingness to make a fundamental break with unionism's past of sectarian supremacy within a loyalist laager. Their votes indicated a willingness to turn away from a `Protestant State for a Protestant People' and to reach accommodation with the rest of the people of this island.

However, since the stewardship of the unionist community's contribution to the peace process has been returned to the politicians, we have seen a reversion to the traditional unionist obstructionism and intransigence, culminating in empty chairs at Stormont. So which is the true face of unionism?

There clearly remains a majority of the unionist community which accepts the need for progressive change in order to break the cycle of conflict. The recent Irish Times opinion poll showing 60% support within the unionist community for the Good Friday Agreement confirms the positive impression gained by republicans in their private and fruitful contacts with members of that community through its churches, businesses and community organisations.

The political leadership of unionism, however, has not expressed this grassroots support for the peace process. Instead, David Trimble has consistently allowed the agenda to be set by the minority of rejectionists within his party. At a time when the Sinn Féin leadership has been consistently prepared to `stretch the republican constituency' in order to `go the extra mile for peace, Trimble has failed to show the political courage the moment requires. In the process, those unionists who want this process to work have been left without effective political leadership, a vacuum that was well demonstrated by the UUP's empty chairs at Stormont.

The most reactionary elements within unionism have been allowed to hold this process hostage as a result of Trimble's vacillation. Regrettably, the British government last week also sought to pander to the rejectionists by stepping outside the Agreement with a flurry of last minute concessions. What did Blair get for his efforts? A kick in the teeth from people who from day one have been opposed to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and simply want to focus on making undeliverable demands of Sinn Féin on decommissioning as a tactical means of subverting the entire process.

The real losers in this situation are the progressive elements within the unionist community. Republicans remain as committed as ever to trying to make this process work. Whether this can be achieved depends very much on the outcome of the struggle for the political ownership of a unionism that is more divided than it has ever been. If Trimble can show the political courage that the moment requires, then progress is possible. If the unionist leadership and the British government continue to allow the agenda to be set by a minority within unionism who are unwilling to accept that the days of unfettered unionist domination are gone forever, then the prospects are not good.


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