KEEPING AN EYE ON THE PRIZE
Keynote address by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams MP in the Lecture Hall, Central Hall, Storey's Gate, Westminster SW1 at 7pm on July 10th, 2001
The initial intention of this speech was to set the context, from an Irish republican and Sinn Fein perspective, of the current crisis in the Irish peace process.
I use the term peace process in its widest meaning and I will return to this later.
As to the initial intention behind these remarks, that has been overtaken by the current talks.
That makes this occasion no less important. On the contrary the events of this past few days give my remarks greater import because they are about a crisis in the peace process. And that crisis continues despite the current talks.
Indeed it continues not least because of the way the British government approaches these talks. That approach has been characterised as making all other issues secondary to the issue of IRA arms.
In other words, the issue of IRA weapons has been made a pre-condition for progress on all other issues. This is in direct breach of the Good Friday Agreement. The British government may protest that this is not the case or in so far as it is the case, that this arises from David Trimble's resignation and from the price which Mr Trimble has put on the future stability of the political institutions.
For this reason the bulk of my remarks are on the arms issue, and although I think it is a pity that this has to be so, it is also indicative of where this process is. Why is this so? It is because there is resistance to change in the north of Ireland, not only within unionism but from within the British system also.
This goes back much further than the current crisis. Indeed, it has been an historic factor in every effort to deliver equality, justice, and peace. In this phase it goes back to the private assurances in the side-letter that Tony Blair gave to David Trimble hours after they had endorsed the Good Friday Agreement.
In the Good Friday Agreement all parties reaffirmed `their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations.' They also confirmed `their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums, north and south, of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement'.
This is the agreement on decommissioning which the UUP and Sinn Fein, and the other parties, including the British and Irish governments, negotiated and agreed upon over three years ago. This is an agreement which Sinn Fein is wedded to.
But the unionists sought further commitments from the British government. Hence the letter from Mr. Blair - which is no more than that - a letter from Mr. Blair which is outside the scope or the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
In similar vein, those officials within the British system who have continued to seek the defeat of the IRA, in drafting the enabling legislation which set up the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, ensured that this would have the effect of strangling the work of that body even before it began. In other words, the political imperative and the conflict resolution ethos which underpinned the decommissioning section of the Good Friday Agreement was diluted and made subject to the old unionist and securocrat agenda.
Whether Tony Blair directed or was advised in this matter is immaterial. He was responsible, even if it can be argued by him that this was for good tactical reasons in order to keep the unionists engaged. His government is responsible for permitting a virus to remain at the heart of the agreement.
The fault line in the Agreement and of every crisis in it can be traced to that point. That letter showed a willingness on the part of the British government to pander to unionism and to create the space for Mr. Trimble to commence his effort to hollow out the Agreement. The target has been the range of political, constitutional, institutional, justice, human rights and equality issues contained in the Agreement. This is understandable from Mr Trimble's perspective. His is a unionist perspective. He cannot be blamed for coming at the Agreement from that perspective.
But of course the issue of decommissioning is not only a unionist preoccupation. It was not introduced into the process by unionists.
That responsibility rests with John Major's government whose handling of the process can hardly be held up as a model of good management and good faith. The issue was also introduced after the IRA cessation of August 1994.
It is worth reminding ourselves that there would not have been an IRA cessation if this matter had been made a pre-condition. In other words none of the opportunities which have been opened up in the last 7 years would have been possible.
Defenders of Mr. Major's role will point to the minority status of his government to explain his approach. This government has no such defence.
Progress has been made
For my part, I believe that the issue of arms can be resolved. Indeed enormous progress has been made in the past 6 years, particularly in relation to IRA arms. But, as I have said many times, I do not believe that the issue of arms, all arms held by all armed groups including those held by the state forces, will be resolved within the 6 week artificial deadline imposed by David Trimble's contrived and calculated resignation. Nor will it be resolved on British government or unionist terms, or on the basis of threat, veto or ultimatum. This is not within the gift of the Sinn Fein leadership to deliver.
There is a collective responsibility on all parties to the Agreement to resolve this issue and I have told the governments and other parties this, not just at this time but ever since this process began.
Some accuse Sinn Fein of being opposed to the decommissioning of arms and of not doing enough to achieve this. This is untrue.
We in Sinn Fein have done our best and much progress has been made on the issue of IRA arms while loyalist and British state forces continue to use their weapons.
This year alone loyalists have carried out over 100 bomb attacks on catholic homes, businesses and churches, shot dead two Catholics in recent days and loyalists erected a blockade to prevent Catholic primary school children from going to school in North Belfast. Today there is more sad news. Last night Geraldine Ewing, an elderly Catholic woman died after she and here family were the victims of a sectarian eviction. Overnight there were more bomb attacks on Catholic homes.
Also, at this sensitive time, the RUC in North Belfast have fired at nationalists with a new and more deadly plastic bullet.
In stark contrast to the continued use of loyalist and British weapons IRA guns are silent and the IRA cessations are now into their 7th year. The IRA has acknowledged that the issue of arms has to be dealt with as part of a conflict resolution process, and last year the IRA leadership set out a context in which it would put its weapons verifiably beyond use. In addition it took the unprecedented initiative of agreeing with the two governments the appointment of two International Inspectors and allowing them to examine its arms dumps to verify that their weapons have not been used. And finally, the IRA is engaged in ongoing discussions with the IICD.
These are not small, unimportant events. No one who lived through the 70s, or 80s, or most of the 90s, or who has even as a cursory understanding of republican history and theology would ever have considered any of these things possible. These are huge developments, which, in the proper context, point the way to a future free of IRA weapons.
The Sinn Fein leadership helped to create the conditions that made this possible. We did so because of our commitment to a lasting and just peace settlement on this island. The UUP response to this progress has been to ignore Sinn Fein's democratic mandate, the mandate of the other parties, the referendum, the Good Friday Agreement itself and their responsibilities and obligations. The British government have not done much better.
Many republicans are angry at a Unionist leadership that ridicules, belittles and undermines this progress, while at the same time doing absolutely nothing to end the daily bomb and guns attacks by loyalists on catholic families. They are angry at a British government which underpins the UUP position, in breach of the Agreement, and which has remilitarised nationalist and republican heartlands. Unionists and the British government may have a different view but republicans see it as I have described here.
Back to the Agreement
If the issue of arms is to be dealt with effectively the unionists and the British need to get real. They need to work constructively and in good faith with us and all of the other participants. They need to return to the Good Friday Agreement. If they genuinely want to take guns out of Irish politics they need to understand that the arms issue can only be resolved as part of a genuine conflict resolution process. This means it has to be dealt with as an objective of the peace process and not as a precondition to the political process.
Moreover the democratic rights and entitlements of nationalists and republicans cannot be conditional.
These rights are universal rights. They effect all citizens.
In the Good Friday Agreement these matters, that is policing, demilitarisation, human rights, the justice system and the equality agenda, are stand alone issues. These are issues to be resolved in their own right. They cannot be withheld or granted or subjected to a bartering process.
Sinn FÈin accepts our responsibilities on the arms issue. All the other parties have exactly the same responsibility. Republicans need to understand unionist concerns. But Unionists also need to understand republican's concerns. Unionists need to consider what they have done to instill confidence within physical force republicanism that they are serious about building a just and equitable dispensation. That the injustice, inequality and discrimination which were inflicted on the nationalist community are a thing of the past.
British government responsibility
The British government has to accept its responsibility for militarising the political struggle. Not only has it a huge military infrastructure but there is also a massive ongoing intelligence gathering and surveillance strategy in place. Many republican areas are still dominated by the paraphernalia of a British war machine. The British government needs to consider what it has done to instill confidence that it is serious about advancing the GFA.
The British intelligence services have been heavily involved in conspiracies to kill citizens.
Despite all of our efforts and the efforts of others to bring these matters to the attention of those in power they appear to be oblivious even yet to how offensive nationalist and republicans feel to the presence of British troops in our country.
In recent years Sinn Fein has stretched ourselves and our constituency to the limit. We have gone much further than any other party to the Good Friday Agreement in our efforts to resolve the issue of arms. We have tried to help David Trimble. But what has David Trimble done to help in this endeavour? He continues to veto the work of the Minister of Education and the Minister of Health so that they cannot fulfill all of their responsibilities as Ministers.
He has prevented the all Ireland institutions, and ironically the British-Irish Council from functioning as they should. He has breached his own pledge of office and he has fractured the political architecture of the Agreement. He has persisted in these actions despite a court judgement that he is behaving unlawfully. But more importantly than this he has signalled to republicans and nationalists that he is not committed to the Good Friday Agreement except on his terms. He has also deepened the crisis within unionism by his failure to endorse all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and by failing to give positive leadership on a consistent basis.
Mr Trimble has protested that it is not his responsibility to influence republicans on the arms issue and he has dismissed the suggestion that he and Mr Blair have a pivotal role to play.
This is a huge mistake. Republicans and nationalists want to be convinced that unionism is facing up to its responsibilities. They want to believe that a British government is about righting wrongs and ushering in a new dispensation based upon equality.
Even if we accept Mr Trimble's argument that he has no role to play in relation to republican weapons are people not entitled to ask what has unionism done to secure the silence of loyalist weapons?
Loyalist and British weapons
What initiatives or influence or discussions or efforts has been undertaken to stop the nightly bomb attacks against Catholics, or the gun attacks that have killed Catholics? Political discrimination and sanctions against Sinn Fein are one end of a spectrum which at the other end sees Catholics killed and Catholic homes singled out in attacks which are largely unreported here in Britain.
At a time when the concentration by unionists and the British government is on silent IRA weapons who has responsibility to deal with the issue of loyalist arms in deadly use on a daily basis? Who has a responsibility to deal with British arms? Are they also not part of the Good Friday Agreement? Or do they represent the acceptable face of terrorism, the acceptable guns in our society?
If this phase of the process is to succeed then the two governments and all the parties need to return to the Good Friday Agreement. It contains the template for dealing with these issues and many other matters that need to be resolved as part of this conflict resolution process. Sinn FÈin has developed a viable approach to resolving the weapons issue. It is an approach based on the Good Friday Agreement.
The Good Friday Agreement is about creating a new political dispensation based on equality and parity of esteem. This cannot be achieved by turning an objective of a peace process, the removal of weapons, into a precondition of the political process. The British government cannot square this approach with their stated objective to implement the Good Friday Agreement.
Ending Conflict - Permanently
I appreciate the difficulties which some unionists have about the current process. I appreciate the problem they have with the continued existence of the IRA itself, even though it is no threat to the process, and even though its guns are silent. But there is no easy way to sort out these issues and for my part I want to reiterate my total commitment to playing a leadership role in bringing a permanent end to political conflict on our island, including physical force republicanism. I say this conscious of the dangers, risks, and history of such departures.
I have no illusions about any of this and I know my commitment is shared by the Sinn Fein leadership. From within the broad republican constituency we are working for the day when all the armed groups, including the IRA cease to be.
Sinn Fein is about building political support for the republican position and we make no apologies for so doing. This is an entirely legitimate democratic and peaceful enterprise and it should be underpinned not undermined or subverted. We are totally committed to building the peace process but the IRA are not sheep and they will not be herded or cajoled or pressurised. Nor should they be.
The length of the IRA cessation and its various initiatives to sustain the current process show that it too is genuinely interested in building the peace process. So also does its discipline in the face of British and loyalist provocation. All of this provides hope for the future. This should be built upon not destroyed.
British government obligations
So what of the British government's obligations? Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the British government is committed to delivering on a range of key issues. These include:
- A new beginning to Policing, through the creation of an accountable and representative policing service which is fully accountable for its actions and free from partisan political control.
- A fair and impartial system of justice
- Effective structures to safeguard human rights
- Equality in all aspects of society - economic, social, cultural and political.
- The demilitarisation of our society.
They have not delivered on these issues. They have not created the level playing field the Good Friday Agreement was designed to provide. Instead there has been delay and dilution.
On policing the British government engaged in chicanery and duplicity. It emasculated its own Patten report and even up to this point it is resisting the challenge to create a genuinely new beginning to policing to which all of us can assent. Someone needs to spell out why this is so. Why is anyone afraid of a policing service which would have the support of unionists and republicans and nationalists and loyalists.
There is no fair system of justice. The old discredited conveyor belt system based on repressive laws and no jury courts remains in place.
The Human Rights Commission lacks legislative authority and powers, is underfunded and under resourced and lacks representativeness.
The equality agenda is subjected to continuous dilution instead of being driven forward sensitively but in a determined way.
And the British Army generals and the securocrats tell the government that they are opposed to demilitarisation and proud republican heartlands, overwhelmingly in support of the GFA continue to suffer British military occupation.
So it is time for real leadership and decisive action from the British government.
Sinn Fein - We will do our best
I do not understate or underestimate Sinn Fein's obligations or responsibilities. For our part we will do everything we can to make this process survive and prosper. We will do our best. Mr. Blair and Mr. Trimble must do likewise.
This process has brought unionism once again to the crossroads. Are their leaders capable of working with their nationalist and republican neighbours on the basis of equality? Are they capable of carving out partnership politics to underpin a process towards peace and justice for all sections of the people of our island?
I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of unionists want the Good Friday Agreement to work but they are not being given consistent leadership at this time.
This crisis also has brought the British government and Mr. Blair to a defining moment.
Sinn Fein has a vision for the future. This goes beyond this current, troubled and protracted phase of Anglo-Irish relationships. It goes beyond present difficulties. It is far-sighted and strategic. Our democratic view is based upon the confident knowledge that the people of the island of Ireland, including the unionists, are entitled to govern ourselves and can do so better than anyone else.
Our vision is inclusive. We are totally committed to establishing an entirely new, democratic and harmonious future with our unionist neighbours. I know we have still a lot to learn about the unionists viewpoint, about their concerns, fears and aspirations. One of the failures thus far of this process is that a process of intelligent and pro active listening by all sides is not as advanced as it needs to be if we are to appreciate each others needs and difficulties. This has to be corrected and the good work which has been done in this regard, including at Weston Park, needs to be built upon.
When this British government came to power it inherited an opportunity to shape a peaceful future relationship between our two islands. It is fair to say that Mr. Blair responded positively to the challenge. Some republicans say that he could have done little else. I say different. And I commend Mr. Blair for doing so.
He now has to decide on his vision for the future. Is it to be one of continuous crisis management? Is the nature of the relationship between our two islands to be a repeat of the sad and troubled history of the past? Are the politics of exclusion, sectarianism, and bigotry which underpin rejectionist unionism to become the mark of Mr Blair's governance of a part of my country? Or will this newly elected government use its huge and unprecedented mandate to usher in change based upon equality and justice for all the people of the north of Ireland?
Implementing British policy
I do not expect Mr Blair, tonight, to declare his support for Irish unity and independence. It would be better if he did and I have said this to him many times. I will continue to say this to him, but this evening I am calling on him to fulfil his obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. In other words I ask him to implement the policy of his government.
This means facing up to rejectionists and sceptics and cynics within his own system, as well as within rejectionist unionism.
It means facing up to the reality that the only threat to the process comes from loyalist guns.
It means having a sense of how far we have all come.
It means understanding and valuing the progress which has been made.
It means building on this. It means learning from the mistakes of the past and being wedded to a vision for the future.
It means keeping an eye on the prize.
In conclusion I would like to reiterate Sinn Fein's commitment to the peace process and to the Good Friday Agreement. Despite the current difficulties it remains my conviction that this process will succeed. It will fail only if people like us give up. We have no intention of doing so. No one said that this process was going to be easy. That is something I am sure everyone can agree about.
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