Working together for a New Ireland

The British government and the unionists in Northern Ireland were compelled to sign the Good Friday Agreement owing to the strength of the national liberation struggle of the majority of the Irish people. However, it has been their endeavour ever since the agreement was signed to frustrate its implementation. As a result the Good Friday Agreement has stumbled from one crisis to another. The British government has yet again suspended the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland for the fourth time in as many years. This suspension has been accompanied by a crescendo of propaganda on the part of the British government, the media and the entire British establishment to the effect that the crisis in the Good Friday Agreement has been brought about by the intransigence of the nationalist movement and its lack of commitment to ‘democratic’ methods. The truth is just the opposite. The British government and unionism wish to deprive the nationalist community at the negotiating table of what they were unable to deprive them in the field of battle. We reproduce below an abridged version of a speech made by Gerry Adams at Sinn Fein’s Elected Representatives Conference in Monaghan on 27 October 2002.

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The British and the Irish establishment’s version of the peace process had a different script from the one that has been written in recent years. The rise of Sinn Fein was not part of that script. In their script the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party were to coalesce to form the so-called centre ground. In essence British policy is about modernising the union so that a section of Protestants and Catholics in the north, and these are British government words not mine, could be persuaded to support the union. Sinn Fein was to be perhaps a significant but nonetheless small, incohesive element in an anaemic political system in the north.

But it hasn’t turned out like that. The Good Friday Agreement has been correctly seen as an instrument of change, real change in real ways in peoples lives. For that reason nationalists and republicans support it. For that reason rejectionist unionists oppose it. For that reason the British government have minimised or diluted or delayed many of the changes it involves.

The Good Friday Agreement, despite their protestations to the contrary, has been so far, too big a challenge for the British government or perhaps more accurately it is a bridge too far for its agencies. It was never going to be accepted by rejectionist unionists, by Ian Paisley and others, and apart from the latent sectarianism of their position their opposition has a political basis. They understand that the Good Friday Agreement is essentially … about establishing a level playing field [which] … will make it impossible for triumphalism, exclusion and supremacism to flourish. The rejectionists know this… They fear that the achievement of equality of treatment, and the emergence of a new inclusive society in Ireland, will also erode the very reason for the existence of the union and the British jurisdiction in Ireland. That is why elements of the British system seek to undermine the Agreement. …

The British government is a pro-union government and its strategy, or to be more accurate its tactical day to day management of the process, has exacerbated the crisis within unionism and encouraged the rejectionists. …

Allied to all of this Sinn Fein is now the largest nationalist party in the north. Far from being outshone by others, our Ministers in the Executive were efficient, modernising, reforming Ministers. Our Assembly team was effective, not only in the chamber but also across all the committees, and in their constituencies.

…Sinn Fein is seen by an increasing section of the electorate to be a party which was the engine of the peace process. And the peace process has become a cherished and important process for most sensible people.

Ten years ago it was all very different. Ten years ago there was no peace process. Ten years ago this party was a demonised organisation in transition sowing the seeds of our peace strategy to a censored and sceptical media, pioneering delicate and difficult talks in a society which was polarised by the relentless cycle of ongoing injustice and violence. Ten years ago we were told that peace was impossible in Ireland and that Irish unity was a pipe dream.

Ten years is a long time in politics. … I am very conscious that for some of our people conditions have become worse. But that is the sad, unacceptable but harsh reality of the nature of change. As advances are made those who are against progress become more frenzied in their reactions.

But notwithstanding the plight of long suffering people … great progress has been made. That progress cannot be squandered. There may be set backs along the road but there can no be giving up. Peace is possible … and a united, independent Ireland is ours if we want it badly enough, if we win support for that objective and if we are prepared to work hard to achieve it.

All of which brings us to current difficulties, and let’s be frank about it the process is in very considerable difficulties at this time. It remains my view and my conviction that these difficulties can be overcome but this will only be accomplished if all sides face up to the reality of the current impasse. So, let’s tell the crisis as it is.

… [T]he difficulties within unionism have been severely exacerbated by the ongoing focus on alleged IRA activities … [T]he unrelenting concentration on activities which it is claimed involve Irish republicans is grist to the mill of those within political unionism, or indeed within the British system in Ireland, who are opposed to change. It is also destabilising those who countenance change. Whatever we, or for that matter the IRA, say about these allegations, wall to wall daily coverage in the media – fed by stories planted from within the British system – ensures that our denials are dismissed or doubted by even the more progressive elements. And of course, on the republican and nationalist side there is anger, frustration and annoyance because there is little focus on the ongoing killing campaign by unionist paramilitaries or the actions of the British forces.

All of this is compounded by the recent decision by the British government to suspend once again the political institutions that were set up under the Good Friday Agreement. It’s little wonder that many people are despondent about the vista which is opening up.

Have they cause for concern? Yes. A lengthy suspension – a vacuum will encourage those who want to violently tear down this process.

Should we give up hope in the process? No. The main thing at the moment is to get the process back on track as quickly as possible. That involves reinstating the political institutions. It means the British government revoking the suspension legislation. It is no part of the Agreement. And the electorate, or for that matter the political parties, can have little confidence or commitment to political institutions if they can be suspended at the whim of a British government acting on behalf of unionism.

It may be that a British government does not understand the enormity of that decision. It is worth reflecting that the institutions, which emerged, were the first to which republicans and nationalists could stake ownership since the partition of this island.

Unionism was much more circumspect. The DUP refused to fully engage and the UUP was conditional and tactical in its approach. So, it was that the institutions weren’t even put in place until 16 months after the agreed date for their establishment. Since then, the institutions have been suspended four times. It says a lot about the state we live in that the institutions were fully functioning for only about 20 months out of a possible 54 months or so. And the all-Ireland Civic Forum has never been put in place. And the Inter-Parliamentary Forum has never met.

The decision to suspend the institutions makes no strategic sense whatsoever. Its tactical merits are also very limited. Does anyone believe for one second that if the Sinn Fein leadership had threatened to withdraw our Ministers from the Executive that the British government would have moved to suspend the institutions? Privately, by what successive British Secretaries of State have said, and publicly, by what they have done, the British government has made it clear that the survival of David Trimble and the ascendancy of the UUP within unionism are priority objectives. For people of good will toward the overall process, and that includes Sinn Fein, this would be a fair enough strategic approach; provided that the dynamic was not being drained out of the process; provided Mr. Trimble was fighting his corner and promoting the Agreement; provided the changes for which the British government has direct responsibility were proceeding regardless, but as we know that is not the case.

And where stands the Irish government in all of this? The Good Friday Agreement is an international Treaty between the Irish and British governments. They have a joint and co-equal responsibility for its implementation. The British government has no right to act unilaterally on these matters and it needs to be told this again and again. In particular Irish citizens, victimised and targeted by sectarian violence, have a right to expect effective political protection from our government in Dublin.

Mr. Blair’s speech last week, understandably, was portrayed in the media as no more than a call for the IRA to disband. He is bound to understand why that has angered republicans. But it was a serious and detailed speech and I said at the time that it deserved a considered response. And having looked at it carefully I do see some positive elements:

Mr. Blair recognised that Catholics had been treated in the north as second class citizens. I agree.

He said that the overwhelming majority of people want the institutions to remain in place. I agree on that also.

He said that the time for transition had come to an end. There was a need for acts of completion. Again I agree.

He said that the British government thought the Good Friday Agreement should be implemented in one fell swoop, instead of a concession to one side here and a concession to the other there. I agree on that as well. Sinn Fein has long called for the Agreement to be implemented in full. It is high time the British government implemented the Agreement in all its aspects.

Above all else it means dealing with these matters as political issues, instead of security problems. It means embarking on a process of irreversible change.

I want to make a few specific remarks on the issue of policing.

At Weston Park the British government and the Irish government agreed a take it or leave it package which included a rejection, for example, of the request for a full independent international judicial inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane. Instead a stalling exercise was put forward. And last week, with the postponement once again of the Steven’s Inquiry report, we had another instalment in that effort to dodge the truth of the RUC Special Branch and MI5’s involvement in the killings of citizens on behalf of the British state.

The Special Branch and MI5 remain at the heart of the new policing service. They are the epicentre of the political police we agreed to remove. At Weston Park the British, again in their take it or leave it mode, promised amendments to policing legislation to make it more fully reflect Patten. (Remember before Weston Park we were being told that Patten was being fully implemented. Here then was an admission that this was not the case.) But instead of a commitment to implement Patten fully, we had an assertion that legislative amendments would be introduced to ‘more fully reflect Patten.’ The SDLP acquiesced to that position. That is for less than Patten and the Good Friday Agreement commitments on policing. The broad nationalist consensus had already been broken on this issue by the Irish government’s position. But unlike the SDLP the Irish government does not have to defend their position to citizens most affected by the absence of the type of policing which is required.

I think that those who acquiesced to the British position made a mistake. …

We are arguing for the Good Friday Agreement vision of policing to become a reality. And that means the British government moving beyond its Weston Park position. It also means that the Irish government and the SDLP need to assert this as a matter of the unfinished work of the Good Friday Agreement. An acceptable policing service is crucial for all sections of our people in the north. It is also in the better interests of all of the people of this island. And if power can be transferred on a range of key issues, there is no reason why policing and justice cannot be devolved on the same basis. So, consequently I can conceive of a world in which it would be appropriate for Sinn Fein to join the Policing Board and participate fully in the policing arrangements on a democratic basis. That has to be when there is a proper beginning to policing, as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement and as recommended by Patten.

Nationalists and republicans also need to be convinced, as do in my view a lot of unionists, that the toleration by British agencies of unionist paramilitaries has ended.

I note in particular that the British Prime Minister says he will take steps to stop the unionists wrecking the Executive and north-south institutions again in future. How will the British government do that? How can we be sure that the unionists will not wreck the institutions again on the basis of some transitional demand? After all it wasn’t the unionists who suspended the institutions! …

As one of the republicans involved in all of the negotiations with the British government I can state categorically that we never made the IRA an issue. In fact the Agreement came some years after the IRA cessations and I believe that the maintenance of those cessations and various initiatives by the IRA demonstrates that organisation’s commitment to this process. It also … created the space for all of the opportunities that have been developed since. Our view is and was that the IRA cessations effectively moved the Army out of the picture and allowed the rest of us to begin an entirely new process. Our strategy, and Mr. Blair knows this, is about bringing an end to physical force republicanism, by creating an alternative way to achieve democratic and republican objectives. Far from using the IRA as leverage during negotiations we sought to have the Good Friday Agreement implemented, not only because that is our obligation, not only because that is the right thing, but also because that fitted into a strategy of creating an alternative to war and a means of sustaining and anchoring the peace process.

It wasn’t us who promoted the issue of arms decommissioning as a precondition on an Agreement but it was us, and others, who moved so that the IRA came to do the unthinkable. To not only work with the IICD but also to put arms beyond use under its auspices at a time when unionist paramilitaries were on a killing spree, when orange marches were being forced into Catholic neighbourhoods and when the British Army was remilitarising. It wasn’t us who came up with another demand once progress on the arms issue was being made.

I do not pretend to speak for the IRA on these matters but I do believe that they are serious about their support for a genuine peace process. They have said so. I believe them.

I speak for this party and we are completely committed to peaceful and democratic means. We are about making peace. About working with others to make this a reality for everyone. There is no other way forward.

As an Irish republican, as a citizen of Ireland, I want to see an end to British rule in this country yesterday. I want to see every British soldier out of this country by five o’clock this evening. But I am realistic enough to know that this is unlikely, for today anyway. But it will happen. And I will continue to work, and this party will continue to work, towards these objectives until they are a reality. Because I know it will be achieved through a process. Not by way of ultimatums from me or any other Irish person.

Similarly the IRA is never going to disband in response to ultimatums from the British government, or David Trimble.

But I do believe the logic of the peace process, puts all of us in a different place. I want to see an end to all of the armed groups on this island. That has to be the aim of every thinking republican. So if you ask me do I envisage a future without the IRA? The answer is obvious. The answer is Yes. And who can influence the IRA most? The British government – the unionists – the Irish government and us as well of course. All of us have to make politics work. All of us have to strive to bring closure to all of these issues in ways which are realistic and achievable. All of us have to make peace, to build justice.

While I believe that the majority of unionists want to embrace change it is clear that their political leaders do not want the Good Friday Agreement to be implemented. Dr. Paisley has always been clear about this. So too is the Ulster Unionist Party’s current position. It appears that the demands of unionism are insatiable. They are also not deliverable. Not unless the two governments tear up the Good Friday Agreement. Not unless nationalists and republicans in the north decide to accept less than our very basic entitlements. …

The Good Friday Agreement remains the only show in town. This party doesn’t need to be told that. But the unionists do. So to does the British system. This is not a perfect process. By its very nature it has involved compromise. ….. But let’s be realistic about this, it is a lot better than what is happening in other parts of the world at this time, and it’s a lot better than what was happening in this country over a long time.

So the challenge for Mr. Blair is … to make this process work, and in so doing to accept that the leaderships of political unionism will not journey along the Good Friday Agreement process if they can avoid that. But like people everywhere they will respond to the conditions in which they live. I therefore retain a confidence that if unionism is liberated, like the rest of us, from the conditions of the past, they will rise to the challenge. There can be no escape from the reality that the conditions in which we will all have to live are those contained in the Good Friday Agreement. Until the unionists know that for a certainty they will resist that Agreement. This is a hugely traumatic process for unionism. In their hearts many of them know that the game is up. It isn’t over. But it is up. …

For our part let me reassert once more that never again will any of us accept that anyone on this island can be treated except on the basis of equality. The days of second class citizens are over. Let me make it clear also that Irish republicans will never ever treat unionists the way the British government and the old unionist regime treated us.

There are undoubtedly going to be more talks in the time ahead. By Mr. Blair’s own admission his government, thus far, has not implemented what it is obliged to implement. In the last few years, on a number of times, when it faced the hard choice of offending unionism it backed down. It knows this. It is the government with the largest majority in the history of the British Labour Party. How on earth can it expect us to persuade others of its good intentions if it fails to do what Mr. Blair has said is the right thing?

So any further talks must not be about renegotiating the Good Friday Agreement. They must be about implementing it…

(Reproduced from RM Distribution, with thanks).