30 January 2003 Edition
Sinn Féin focus on full and faithful implementation of agreement
An interview with Sinn Féin National Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin
An Phoblacht: Newspapers, both here and in Britain, were awash with talk of breakthrough concessions from the IRA last week. Everybody was energised by the stories. Is there any substance to them?
M McL: They don't make sense. It's not where things are at - which shows that there are other agendas at work. The whole focus for Sinn Féin is on the full and faithful implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There are so many aspects of the Agreement that have yet to be implemented. Tony Blair admitted in his speech, when he came to Belfast, that the British government hadn't fulfilled its commitments under the terms of the Agreement. These include demilitarisation, policing, the human rights agenda, the Criminal Justice review etc. All of those things, are where the focus is at. It is not a single-issue agenda as being portrayed in the media
An Phoblacht: Tony Blair's speech in Belfast was widely interpreted as an uncompromising demand for IRA disbandment. Do you concur with that assessment?
M McL: On scrutiny of his speech you will find that he never articulated such a demand. He talked about acts of completion, and time for inch by inch negotiation of the issues addressed by the Agreement to end. Sinn Féin agrees with this sentiment. But as Tony Blair's admission of his government's failure to implement its responsibilities under the Agreement demonstrates, this applies as much to himself as to anybody else. Sinn Féin also wants to see acts of completion on demilitarisation, policing, criminal justice, human rights and all of the other areas that the British government has responsibility for. Sinn Féin is prepared to get into negotiations around how all of that can be completed.
An Phoblacht: How do you assess the media coverage of the present crisis?
M McL: The inordinate focus on the IRA is unhealthy for the process. It allows those that do not wish to see the Agreement implemented to abdicate responsibility to find a mechanism to deal with all of the arms in Irish politics. But you have to deal with all of the arms. The fact is that the RUC or the PSNI is still the main armed body; unionist paramilitary weapons are still very active on a daily basis; then there are the approximately 150,000 'legal' weapons mostly in the hands of the unionist community and, of course, there is the whole question of demilitarisation, which is about British arms. All of that has to be dealt with and it's only in the context of making politics work, functioning political institutions and all-Ireland bodies that will provide the opportunity for politicians to deal with all of this. We can not allow what should be an OBJECTIVE of the process to become a PRECONDITION to making the process work. It is by demonstrating that politics works that we will create the conditions that will convince all of the armed groups to disarm.
An Phoblacht: What do you attribute the latest crisis in the process to?
M McL: The latest crisis had been widely predicted for months as a result of the UUP's desire to get out of coalition with Sinn Féin ahead of an election. In the end, however, it came about because of the PSNI raid on Sinn Féin's Stormont offices. This all fitted in nicely with the agenda set out by the Ulster Unionists to engineer a situation that would cause the collapse of the institutions in circumstances that would be blamed on republicans. Elements in the PSNI were only too willing to play a part in engineering this situation.
The UUP had outlined their gradual withdrawal strategy on 21 September. It would have been phased until 18 January, when they would have totally withdrawn.
So regardless of what happened at Stormont or any other allegations against republicans the UUP would have collapsed the Institutions by 18 January anyway. They used the situation - a contrived a situation - around the raids to fast-forward the programme of collapse that they had already outlined.
That does give me cause for concern. It calls into doubt David Trimble's commitment to peaceful and democratic means. If he is committed to peaceful and democratic means it makes no political sense to attack the political institutions that come out of the Good Friday Agreement or to collapse the only forum in which we all collectively can relate to each other.
An Phoblacht: Who was responsible for the Stormont raid?
M McL: Well it makes you wonder. Was it the British government or was it, as some believe, a cabal within the PSNI? We've always believed that the people who control the RUC are the Special Branch, and MI5 control Special Branch. So who controls MI5? Are there elements of the British government directly in there? Time will tell in relation to all of that. At this point the political damage has been done.
An Phoblacht: Do you believe that the Assembly elections will proceed as expected on 1 May?
M McL: There's a degree of concern that the British government might try to avoid having the elections, which I believe would be a big mistake. It would be a mistake not to face the democratic process within the given timescale just because the British government and some of the parties are fearful of the outcome. Sinn Féin wants to see those elections. The British government needs to understand the desire of the people for change. Would the British government postpone an election beyond its due date because they thought the Tories were going to make a comeback? It wouldn't be considered. Likewise, if we're due elections, which we are, then let's have elections.
An Phoblacht: How do you see Sinn Féin progressing in the future?
M McL: There is a dynamic within Sinn Féin. We are now the biggest party representing the nationally minded people of the Six-Counties. I think that trend will continue. That dynamic is behind Sinn Féin throughout all of Ireland, not just the North, and it is throwing up challenges to all of the other parties. So much so that we now have regular talk of mergers between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil, the Irish Labour Party opening up membership to residents of the North and even Fine Gael attempting to claim that it is a republican party. These moves are all reaction to the growing attraction of Sinn Féin as the party of choice for more and more people.
We have been pursuing our politics for a long time. We are an all-Ireland party. We are the only party in Ireland that is organised throughout the country. Quite clearly, we are a republican labour party. We're very proud of that and we want to bring about the re-unification of Ireland. The other parties now see the attraction of that and as the Sinn Féin electorate continues to grow they will continue to react by donning the republican mantle. And that's a good thing if it hastens the dawn of the new, united Ireland.
An Phoblacht: What do you see as the next major issue to exercise the political process in Ireland?
M McL: The last major debate will be about what shape the new united Ireland will take. The re-unification of Ireland is now the big picture. It is going to happen and although parties will come at it from different perspectives as to how it will come about or how long it will take I believe that there is a general acceptance that it will happen. Even from unionists. The parties will react - some of them in a positive way, some of them in a half-hearted way - unionists will come at it quite negatively, but they are all coming at it. That's exactly what happened at the emergence of the peace process. Nobody could ignore the realpolitik of the peace process emerging, just as they will not now be able to ignore the realpolitik of the reunification of Ireland emerging.
It's a bold forecast and one that will no doubt arouse some scepticism but as I say - the same scepticism was around at the time of the Hume-Adams talks that led a decade later to the Good Friday Agreement. Time will tell how far the analogy extends.
Political will required to find way forward
Martin McGuinness was this week on a three-day trip to the United States. During his visit he spoke at several engagements organised by Friends of Sinn Féin. He delivered a keynote address on Equality in Education at the College of St Rose in Albany New York on Tuesday. On Wednesday travelled to Washington, where he briefed members of Congress on the current difficulties in the peace process and met with Ambassador Richard Haas in the State Department.
Speaking from the College of St Rose in Albany, Martin McGuinness said that political will is required to find a way out of the current political impasse and called for urgent movement from the British government to restore the political institutions it suspended in October.
"Thoe institutions need to be put back in place urgently," he said. "We are currently engaged in negotiations in an attempt to achieve this and I have no doubt that, if there is the political will to work together, we can find a way forward.
"There can be no renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, The Agreement must be implemented in full. We must see an end to political policing. Our society must be demilitarised, on all sides. There must be an end to discrimination, inequality and sectarianism. Human rights must become a reality for all our people. There is a particular onus on the British government to deliver on these obligations.
"Despite the recurring difficulties, substantial progress has been made. Only a very short time ago a vicious circle of injustice, inequality and conflict afflicted us in the north of Ireland. In a relatively short period of time the political landscape has been transformed and we have provided the hope, if not yet the certainty, that the failures and injustices of the past can be addressed effectively so that they will never be repeated."
Ferris spells out crisis at Westminster
BY FERN LANE
Sinn Féin's Martin Ferris was at Westminster on Wednesday 21 January to address a meeting of the Labour Party Irish Society on the crisis in the peace process.
He told the meeting, hosted by Labour MP John McDonnell, that the current round of talks between the parties are possibly the "most important negotiations since 1921". The North Kerry TD urged all those political activists in Britain concerned about the stagnation in the process to use whatever influence they could muster with their own MPs and with the British government to help get it back on track.
There was, he said, a real danger that, despite the hard work of Sinn Féin and the historic gestures made by the IRA, the Good Friday Agreement itself could collapse if there were not determined efforts on the part of everyone to ensure that that does not happen.
One significant cause of the current crisis, he explained, is that the unionist leadership, having signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, then consistently failed to "proactively work to convince the unionist community of the benefits of the Agreement" and constantly pandered to the demands of rejectionist unionists, both within the UUP and the DUP.
This failure of leadership - aided by the indulgence of the British government - has led to four suspensions of the institutions since the signing of the Agreement, each one in turn weakening it. It was this continuous instability and the willingness of the British government to follow the unionist agenda, he said, which has led to the present crisis.