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10 February 2000 Edition

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Unionist veto may destroy Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement is under the greatest threat to its existence so far, as unionist attempts to bring it down appear to face no opposition from the British government.

A media and unionist-created demand for forced decommissioning of IRA arms could now destroy the entire political process.

The real threat to the process does not come from Irish republicans. It stems directly from the decision of the British government to act on an Ulster Unionist Party unilateral deadline on the weapons issue. By falling into the unionist trap, the British government risks being in default of the Good Friday Agreement.

Suspending the institutions will not resolve the arms issue. On the contrary it will make the resolution of that issue all the more difficult.

There is no legal or other basis, apart from expediency, for suspension. Sinn Féin has asked the British government what will come after suspension and has yet to receive any clear answer.

Even this week, the Unionists have been seeking to insert even more new preconditions for implementing the Agreement, with some representatives demanding the retention of the RUC's name as a prerequisite for participation in the Executive.

If the British government continues to give in to the unionist veto - and they have continually helped Trimble get off the hook of his own making - it will undermine the principles of equality, inclusivness and justice which are the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement.

The majority of people in Ireland do not want the progress and hope embodied in the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to be pulled down by the British and the unionists. In these most troubling times, Sinn Féin's focus is on saving the Good Friday Agreement and on ensuring the stability of the peace process.


British indulge unionist intransigence

The following is an edited version of the Kevin Coen/Joseph MacManus Memorial Lecture given by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD at the Silver Swan Hotel, Sligo on Sunday 6 February. The Sinn Féin deputy took the opportunity to address the current crisis in the peace process.

Because of a false unionist deadline on decommissioning and a narrow unionist definition of decommissioning, the entire political edifice is to be pulled down. And the folly of it all is that this is the best possible way to guarantee that there will never be decommissioning
This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the death of Volunteer Kevin Coen of Rusheen, Riverstown, County Sligo. Kevin was killed by British forces while on active service with Óglaigh na hÉireann at Cassidy's Cross in County Fermanagh on 20 January 1975. Though their deaths were separated by 17 years, Kevin Coen and Volunteer Joseph MacManus from Sligo town died in similar circumstances in the same cause and both as young men with full lives ahead of them. The loss to their families cannot be expressed in words; we can only offer our continuing sympathy, solidarity and support to them.

The late John Joe McGirl, former Sligo-Leitrim Sinn Féin TD, delivered the graveside oration at the funeral of Volunteer Kevin Coen. His words apply equally to Joseph MacManus when he said:

``He felt strongly that the nationalist people of the Six Counties should not have to fight the war for freedom on their own... Kevin felt that the people of the North should not be left alone... One thing is clear - republicans are sincere that the Irish people should live and work together as Kevin did with his neighbours - but the intruder in Irish affairs must withdraw so that lasting freedom and peace can be brought about in Ireland.''

We could be much closer to the goal of a permanent peace but for unionist opposition to change and the manner in which the essential process of change has been so often mismanaged by the British government
It is one of the sad aspects of our yet unresolved conflict that on occasions such as this, when we pay tribute to fallen republicans, our actions are often misrepresented as somehow a slight on others who died or were injured in the war. The most recent example was the criticism of republicans from unionist quarters for honouring Volunteer Tom Williams.

Such criticism shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what conflict resolution is all about. It is about recognising that no section of our people has a monopoly on grief and suffering, that all active participants in the conflict have inflicted suffering and endured it. As republicans who have suffered many personal losses we empathise with all those who have lost loved ones, be they relatives of IRA Volunteers, British soldiers, RUC members, or civilians. A key part of this peace process is healing for all of those people.

We are Irish republicans. For us the legacy of republicans who died in an effort to liberate our country is profoundly important. We remember them with pride, we commemorate their sacrifice and we celebrate the conviction and the commitment which motivated them. In times of political cynicism with daily revelations of sleaze and corruption among the powerful and the influential in our society it is instructive to contrast all this with the idealism, the discipline and the selflessness of those such as Kevin Coen and Joseph MacManus. We should not mystify them for they were real people whose loss to their families is irreplaceable. But they did more than talk about freedom and they were willing to risk their lives for their political convictions. Self-serving careerism was alien to them as it is alien to everything we as republicans stand for.

At the time of Joseph MacManus's death the Irish peace process was at its tentative beginning. None of us at the time could have envisaged the dramatic political developments which would take place throughout the 1990s. But we did know that we in Sinn Féin were sincere about achieving lasting peace and ensuring that no more young men or women like Kevin or Joseph would lose their lives. We knew also that censorship, marginalisation and demonisation of our party and our electorate must be smashed if progress towards peace was to be achieved. Not the least of the achievements of the republican peace strategy was that we did indeed succeed in breaking censorship and marginalisation and we put the republican arguments for real peace at the top of the political agenda.

The culmination of that phase of the peace process was the declaration on 31 August 1994 of a unilateral cessation of military operations by the Irish Republican Army. It is now nearly five years since the first IRA ceasefire was declared. To listen to some politicians and political commentators this past week you could be forgiven for thinking that there was no IRA ceasefire at all. There is a wilful disregard by Unionism and by many pro-unionist elements in this State of the magnitude of the IRA's 1994 decision, their maintenance of the ceasefire and their commitment to peace which was restated once again on Tuesday of this week, 1 February and again yesterday evening, Saturday 5 February.

The IRA cessation was and remains the biggest single contribution to the peace process. The IRA cessation beginning in August 1994 was in reality the beginning of the process of what is now called decommissioning. Because if decommissioning means anything it means taking the gun out of the Irish political equation. IRA guns were taken out of use, out of commission. This was done unilaterally and with no reciprocal guarantees from the British government or its armed forces. The IRA guns are still silent.

We, Sinn Féin, having helped to persuade the IRA to take the risk for peace, threw ourselves into the task of achieving peace and progress through political dialogue. We made politics work. We built alliances and faced our political opponents with the reality that only through negotiated political change could we resolve this long and painful conflict.

We also made very difficult compromises. These too have been deliberately ignored by some in this current crisis. We changed our party Constitution and entered a Six-County Assembly, even though we had always opposed such a body. We did not oppose changes to Articles Two and Three of the 1937 Constitution, again despite long opposition to dilution of these Articles.

For me and for many of you, I expect, that was a very painful decision. We were prepared to work new structures even though the Six Counties remain for the time being under British government jurisdiction.

At every step the work of those, including Sinn Féin, who were seeking real peace and real progress, was met with unionist intransigence and a British government which too often has pandered to that unionist intransigence.

A huge effort is being made to place the blame for the current crisis, and the onus for resolving it, on Sinn Féin alone. This is wrong. Sinn Fein has played a vital and central role in moving us all towards a permanent peace.

It is equally clear that we could be much closer to that goal but for unionist opposition to change and the manner in which the essential process of change has been so often mismanaged by the British government.

The granting of a veto to unionism has always been an impediment to peace. It was granted again this week by British Secretary of State Peter Mandelson in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement and the Mitchell Review.

Armed with his post-dated letter of resignation, David Trimble has brought the process to a crisis around the false deadline of 31 January, now extended to the end of next week. The British government has facilitated this by preparing to suspend the institutions and effectively set aside the Agreement, all in order to save David Trimble from the political consequences of pulling the plug himself.

To justify this it is suggested that republicans are in default and that everything but IRA decommissioning is on course and on schedule. This is also wrong. Since Good Friday 1998, we have seen a succession of missed deadlines and broken agreements.

On 1 July 1998, David Trimble was elected First Minister and Seamus Mallon Deputy First Minister. On 20 July in the House of Commons David Trimble made his intentions clear when he said he would seek to have Sinn Féin excluded from office in the Executive. The summer passed with no Executive formed.

The All-Ireland Bodies were due to be established through the Shadow Ministerial Council by 31 October 1998. Because of unionist refusal to enter an Executive this deadline was missed. Expectations that this would be done before David Trimble and John Hume accepted their Nobel Peace Prizes on 10 December were also dashed.

On 13 January 1999 a new deadline was set by the British government for 10 March 1999. Once again this deadline was allowed to pass. Five days later Rosemary Nelson was murdered.

A new deadline of the week beginning 29 March was set to ensure that the institutions were established before the first anniversary of the Agreement on 10 April. Once more the deadline passed.

Yet another deadline - an absolute deadline the British government told us - was set for 30 June and it too passed.

On 12 July the British government, in another effort to mollify unionists, published legislation which went beyond the Agreement and created further conditions on the establishment of the Executive. That was not enough for David Trimble and on 15 July he refused to nominate ministers to the new Executive, leading to the resignation of his Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon. Here was a classic case of British government pandering to unionism and rather than respond positively David Trimble used every opportunity to obstruct progress and meaningful change.

On 24 July against this difficult backdrop the Sinn Féin negotiating team reported to the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle on the preliminary discussions with Senator Mitchell and the British government in respect of the review.

Our work for a resolution continued through the autumn and the Mitchell Review concluded with agreement that:

(a) The institutions be established

(b) The decomissioning issue be dealt with by General de Chastelain and the IICD.


The Executive was finally established on 29 November 1999, almost 20 months after the Good Friday Agreement.

The ink was not dry on the Mitchell Review before David Trimble ran to the Ulster Unionist Council and created a new pre-condition and a new deadline. With a dramatic flourish, he produced his now notorious resignation letter. Like a device with a long fuse, this letter has been allowed to threaten the life of the fledging Executive and All-Ireland institutions since their inception. By suspending the Executive the British government will fulfill the threat.

Because of a false unionist deadline on decommissioning and a narrow unionist definition of decommissioning, the entire political edifice is to be pulled down. And the folly of it all is that this is the best possible way to guarantee that there will never be decommissioning.

We in Sinn Féin have repeatedly stretched the republican constituency during this peace process in order to reach accommodation with our political opponents. But there comes a time when the question must be asked: ``Are we expected to stretch republicanism to breaking point and is this the aim of our opponents?''

The pressure on republicans must be seen in the context of the lack of progress on key measures which the British government is obliged to undertake in the Good Friday Agreement.

The Agreement commits the British government to publish and implement an overall strategy for demilitarisation. Apart from a pre-Christmas statement by Peter Mandelson nothing has been published and on the ground the British Army is still concentrated in huge numbers. In areas like South Armagh, British Army activities have greatly increased. Despite a saturation presence and daily harassment amounting to armed provocation, the republican people of South Armagh remain committed to the peace process. The guns on the streets of the Six Counties which are in commission and which are being pointed at citizens, are those in the hands of the British Army and the RUC.

The Patten report on policing is a set of positive recommendations and nothing more; we have a statement of intent from the British government but no legislation and there is a long way to go before an acceptable police service is established. In the meantime the RUC remains as unacceptable as ever. Evidence of collusion between them and loyalist paramilitaries continues to emerge, most recently in the Rosemary Nelson case and in the revelations about the murder of Pat Finucane. Sectarian loyalist attacks have continued, including several murders since the Good Friday Agreement.

This is the context in which republicans are being portrayed as the wreckers of the peace process.

If the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement are collapsed this week it will be because Unionism was not prepared to allow the fundamental changes needed to ensure equality, justice and lasting peace. And because once again unionist intransigence is being indulged by the British government.

Sinn Féin negotiators are working night and day to resolve this crisis. But it can only be resolved on the basis of equality and parity of esteem for the electoral mandates of all participants. Sinn Féin ministers are in the Executive by right and not as a concession from Unionists. The rights of our voters must be respected. And the rights of all who voted for the Agreement, including people throughout the 26 Counties, must be respected also.

I have had to dwell at length on the perilous state of the peace process but I think it is equally important that I address briefly here the development of our party in the 26 Counties. The strength of Sinn Féin in County Sligo is a measure of our success.

Sinn Féin is the only real alternative to the tired, careerist and conservative politics of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The corrupt elements in these parties have poisoned the politics of this country and made many people cynical about the political process. Such cynicism is always difficult to overcome but in place of it we in Sinn Féin can offer the commitment and dedication of our political activists and the sound, sensible and radical policies of our party.

Real democracy at local and national level is our goal and it is one shared by a broad mass of people to whom we appeal.

Twisted ethics threaten process


Consider this. The last line of the 1997 Firearms Act, which was brought into force by the newly-elected Labour government in Britain in response to the killings at Dunblane, states that ``This law does not apply to Northern Ireland''.

It is the case that only some 9,000 of the total of around 155,000 legally held guns are for `personal protection' and those, like the rest, are overwhelmingly in the hands of the unionist population
According to the Northern Ireland Office, this was because of the ``special circumstances'' of the ``province''. The then Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, apparently spent a year or so ``looking into ways of applying the firearms law to Northern Ireland'', but the aforementioned ``special circumstances'' proved too difficult to overcome, one of the most difficult being the ``need for members of the RUC to carry personal protection weapons''. What the NIO overlooked, however, is that of the 87,000 licences for 139,885 weapons currently in issue, not one single licence is for a member of the RUC, for the simple reason that police officers in the Six Counties do not need a licence to own or carry a weapon, any weapon, even when off duty.

To wilfully deny Sinn Féin's mandate and bring down the Assembly by disgraceful parliamentary machination may in some perverted way be legal, but it is not moral
It is the case that only some 9,000 of the total of around 155,000 legally held guns are for `personal protection' and those, like the rest, are overwhelmingly in the hands of the unionist population. David Trimble fought ferociously with the Labour government for the right of his friends to retain their weapons, and as a consequence was assured by Tony Blair that the Act would not be applied to the Six Counties, now or at any time.

But this habit of taking refuge under the protective arm of British law - most of it unjust and much of it in contravention of human rights standards - is where the UUP will finally begin to come unstuck. Having comprehensively lost the legal arguments on IRA decommissioning, the British government, the UUP and the media have now had to resort to the imaginary ``moral'' case for the IRA to unilaterally lay down its own arms, at the behest of Mr Trimble and outside the scope of the Good Friday Agreement.

Perhaps it is too much to hope for that the issue of legally-held weapons, and the unionist obsession with holding on to them, would be addressed by either the British government or its obedient media as part of the vast acreage of print devoted to decommissioning over the last fortnight. ``Betrayal'' said Peter Mandelson to republicans last week because they refused to dance to David Trimble's tune. ``Betrayal'' shouted the headlines and increasingly pompous editorials.

Those attempting to argue that Sinn Féin have adhered precisely to the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement were silenced, censored and marginalised as the goal posts moved, again. In the face of an artificially created crisis, the terms of the debate were changed; the matter stopped being a legal one and became an entirely spurious `moral' one. Suddenly, those for whom historically the letter of the law was paramount - because the law was contrived to facilitate their corruption, and who used the law as a weapon of war - suddenly sought to brush away the law and offer their own highly subjective and legally unsustainable interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement.

A few days later, in a lecture at Liverpool University, Tony Blair with no doubt unintentional irony, urged the republican movement to abandon their supposed obsession with ``old symbolism'' and in the same breath, paradoxically, demanded a ``symbolic'' gesture from the IRA on arms. A symbolic surrender; a little carefully-scripted play which would say to the world that all though the past 30 years republicans were criminals, and that unionists and the British state were blameless, righteous - and moral.

``For you'' the BBC's Dennis Murray gently inquired of David Trimble, head inclined sympathetically, ``decommissioning is a supremely moral issue, isn't it?'' David, one-time member of the neo-fascist Vanguard, enthusiastic participant in one of the most corrupt and discredited political administrations in Europe, defender of a police force with the worst human rights record in western Europe, agreed that indeed it is, basking in the portrayal of both he and his party as the standard-bearers of this newly-discovered political morality.

But if, for a moment, we indulge the British/Unionist/media troika and agree to join this dubious debate on morality, then how can it be moral that political representation for the people of the Six Counties has, legally, become a gift which Trimble and Mandelson can bestow and then remove at will. The legislation which has been passed this week permits the Secretary of State to rule by decree - he can suspend the Assembly now, tomorrow, next week or whenever he wants to, at any time in the future. Those with a vote count for nothing.

Further, how is it that unionists have been allowed to define the moral parameters of this debate? After all, it was the immorality of British Unionist rule, which included most of the present Unionist leadership, that brought us to armed struggle and the horrors which flowed from it. This alone should exclude them from the moral high ground. And it is their political immorality which is behind their determination to disenfranchise those who voted for genuinely democratic new institutions. The British state, in its unionist guise, has a long and ignominious history of denying the nationalist community its electoral rights whilst issuing pious sermons on the values of democracy, and it is coming perilously close to repeating the mistakes of the past. Morally, it should not be the case that Sinn Féin is in the Assembly under the sufferance of David Trimble and his cohorts and at the legislative whim of the Secretary of State, but the British government have ensured that it is. Morally, it should be that Sinn Féin is there by absolute right of its electoral mandate, but the British government have ensured that it is not. To wilfully deny this mandate and bring down the Assembly by disgraceful parliamentary machination may in some perverted way be legal, but it is not moral.

``Crisis can be averted'' - IRA

The IRA issued the following statement to RTE News on Saturday, 5 February, its second public contribution to reiterate its position with regard to the peace process inside a week.

``The British Secretary of state has accused the IRA of betrayal over the issue of decommissioning. Similar allegations have been made by others. The British Secretary of State has now used this in threatening to collapse the political institutions. We totally reject these allegations.

``The IRA has never entered into any agreement, undertaking or understanding at any time with any one on any aspect of decommissioning. We have not broken our commitment or betrayed anyone. It was the IRA who took the first step to remove the gun from Irish politics by silencing our weapons. By so doing we created the space for the development of the peace process and for politics to work. Those who have once again made the political process conditional on the decommissioning of silent IRA arms are responsible for creating the current difficulties and keeping the political process in a state of perpetual crisis.

``The IRA believes that this crisis can be averted and the issue of arms can be resolved. This will not be on British or unionist terms nor will it be advanced by British legislative threats. We recognise the issue of arms needs to be dealt with in an acceptable way and this is a necessary objective of a genuine peace process - for that reason we are engaged with the IICD [decommissioning body]. We have supported and will continue to support efforts to secure the resolution of the arms issue. The peace process is under no threat from the IRA.''


British bowing to unionist threats


The suspension Sword of Damocles hangs over the Good Friday Agreement this week. The Ulster Unionist Party has brought the process to the brink of collapse and sadly it now appears, despite many meetings between the various participants thoughout this past week, that the British government is about to acquiesce to a unionist veto with the apparently imminent passing of a bill to suspend the institutions under the Agreement.

For two years, unionism has been consistently trying to rewrite and renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement. The British and Irish governments have a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen
That unionists have been allowed to turn the issue of decommissioning into an entirely one-sided process now threatening everything that has been built up is an indictment of elements of the media and of other participants in the political process.

The Irish peace process has been, in essence, an inclusive process which has sought to address the causes of conflict, not through apportioning all the blame to one side of the conflict but by recognising that the conflict involved several sides; not through seeking the military defeat or surrender of either of the participants but by removing political violence of any kind through addressing its causes and providing a peaceful political alternative.

It is important to emphasise that Sinn Féin is not in any way in default of the Good Friday Agreement. Mandelson knows this and that there is no basis for the British government to suspend the institutions
That process (and the thinking which underpins the peace process) is now being turned on its head through a self-serving unionist desire to rewrite not only the terms of the Good Friday Agreement but the history of the past 30 years of conflict as well. What David Trimble seeks is not a genuine resolution of the arms issue but the public indictment of three decades of republican struggle. Unionists wish to achieve in a time of peace something that the British state could not achieve during 30 years of war. The IRA has made it clear on several occasions, most recently on Saturday, 5 February, that what it will not do is jump to unionist and British dictats on the issue of decommissioning. This issue will not be resolved on British or unionist terms.

On Thursday, 3 February, Britain's Secretary of State in the North, Peter Mandelson, was manoeuvered by unionist threats into announcing that he would publish a bill on Friday enabling him to suspend the institutions under the Good Friday Agreement and to reinstate direct rule within a week. He also accused the IRA of betrayal. Gerry Adams reacted by saying that Mandelson's statement had created great difficulties for the Sinn Féin leadership in discussions with the IRA and that they were a slap in the face to the Sinn Féin leadership, when it was trying to save the institutions.

It is important to emphasise that Sinn Féin is not in any way in default of the Good Friday Agreement. Peter Mandelson knows this and he knows that there is no basis for the British government to suspend the institutions. If they do go ahead with such a course of action they will be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Féin is currently looking at the possibility of a legal challenge in such an event.

On Monday, SDLP leader John Hume added to the political difficulties when he called on the IRA to dispose of an amount of Semtex explosives to ease the logjam. In this most difficult of times, his remarks were disappointing and very unhelpful, adding to the efforts of unionist politicians to present the decommissioning issue in one-sided terms. However, from the position of the Ulster Unionist Party, it is clear they are not interested in gestures, so what John Hume suggests, even if the IRA contemplated it, might not resolve the problem but in fact make it worse.

With each statement issued by the Ulster Unionist Party, including comments this week, their overall gameplan has become clearer. John Taylor has said that the best option for unionism is to opt for a better form of direct rule by pocketing the removal of Articles Two and Three and the end of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

For two years, unionism has been consistently trying to rewrite and renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement. The British and Irish governments have a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen. If the British continue to acquiesce in the unionist veto it will undermine the principles of equality, inclusiveness and justice that are the bedrock of the Good Friday Agreement.

There is a real political argument which can deal with the decommissioning issue. It is the consensus which existed around the issue throughout the peace process, an effort to decommission all of the guns in Irish politics. The guns of the RUC, the British army, the loyalist organisations and republicans are all part of this equation. Decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process and has been recognised as such by republicans. Sinn Féin is trying to find a resolution to the issue, a resolution that will meet the needs of competing demands. But due to the strategy of unionists and the latest actions of the British government in putting the wheels in motion for suspending the institutions, time is fast running out.


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