[Sinn Fein]

October 26th 2002



Today's meeting, "Working together for a New Ireland", is the inaugural conference of Sinn Fein elected representatives throughout this entire island.

I want to thank our hosts here in County Monaghan, and commend Marylou McDonald, and Martina Anderson for initiating and organising this event.

This is a very unique gathering. A clear sign of the profile of our party throughout this island and another illustration of our growth. No other political party could meet like this because no other political party is an all-Ireland party.

No where was this more in evidence than the sight of republicans, from all over Ireland, working together to achieve the incredible electoral victories in the recent Westminister and local government elections in the north, and the Leinster House elections in the South I want to commend all of you for the work you do in councils the length and breadth of Ireland, from Kerry to Derry, from Wexford to Ballycastle, and all the places in between. There are a number of our councillors who have served and are serving as Mayors, Deputy Mayors and Chairpersons, and some of you are present here today. Failte romhaith. I'm sure you will permit me a little indulgence if on your behalf I extend a special cead mile failte to Belfast City Mayor, Alex Maskey.

I also want to welcome the new group of Sinn Fein TDs who joined C OC on the benches of Leinster House and I want to commend our MLAs and our MPs. This conference will focus on the development of Sinn Fein's all-Ireland political programme with specific consideration of the role of elected representatives. To represent Sinn Fein is a singular honour and we expect the very highest standards from our representatives. But more important than representing Sinn Fein is the honour of representing Sinn Fein on behalf of our peers, our electorate.

None of us here are carried away by the career aspects of this role. Too many of our colleagues and friends have paid too high a price. Too many of our councillors, in both states in this island, and our election workers and our families, have paid the ultimate price for standing up for us, for everyone here, or for any of the many people who will represent us in the future, to take our elected status or the electorate for granted.

So, we are not about getting elected for the sake of it. We are agents of change. And we are in the business of empowering people and transforming society.

In many ways Sinn Fein represents the future. Today's conference is about how we use our substantial electoral and political strength to build the New Ireland. Out of today's discussions we want and need to sharpen our organisation and politics, refocus our efforts and do our best to resolve all of the issues causing difficulty within the peace process.

We have never been better placed to make the case for independence, social justice and equality for all.

The fact that it took two referendums for the establishment here to get a Yes vote on the Nice Treaty is proof of that. And I want to commend everyone who played an active part in that campaign. It was a remarkable result.

We have very good parliamentarians; innovative challenging councillors, excellent and effective representatives who have given a voice to those whom the political establishment north and south turn their backs on. However, all of this will be in vain if we are not clear and agreed on the political project we have undertaken. We aim to promote and secure the national and democratic rights of all sections of our people.

We want to give voice to those who are tired of the corruption and lies in the 26 Counties, and to discrimination and inequality in the Six Counties. We are about creating a new dynamic in Irish politics, to set a truly inclusive agenda where the needs of all are addressed, through genuinely democratic processes.

Across the island there are over 1 million people who are education poor.

One in four Irish adults have some form of literacy problem. In this state over 54,000 thousand families are on local authority housing waiting lists.

In the six counties it is estimated that 2000 people die prematurely every year because of poverty and that over a quarter of households in the North are enduring poverty and deprivation. Throughout rural Ireland but particularly in the West and North West whole communities and even regions are suffering underdevelopment and neglect.

This is occurring not just in the provision of health and education but also in vital infrastructures like power, transport and the new information and communication technologies that will be the cornerstone of the island economy in the future.

In our cities and towns little has been done to redress, not just the geographical marginalisation of communities, but also the systematic denial of resources and vital services to neighbourhoods most in need.

The boom of the 1990s showed that we have the resources to create a just society across the whole island. The last decade was one where resources were squandered through tax give-aways to the wealthy and privileged, through corruption and through ill planned spending and policies that failed to plan for long term investment and development.

Our task in the decade ahead is to provide the leadership needed to challenge the status quo. Our goal must be to exercise the political will and resolve to ensure that the voices of the neglected and deprived in our society are given their rightful place in decision making in the future.

This is the New Ireland we are struggling for. An Ireland of equals. The progress that we have collectively made in recent years has been remarkable. But all of this is work in progress and it has to be brought to completion across all of these outstanding and unfinished matters. That will mean hard work- a lot of it. It will be a very testing and daunting time.

But the alternative- a return to the past- cannot be contemplated. This party is on the rise. Irish republicanism is growing and increasingly popular as a political philosophy.

And that my friends, all other things to one side, is what has brought us to this crisis in the peace process. 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 if it protects their interests.

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 swallowed 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 and in part about establishing a level playing field.

A level playing field - the implementation of an equality agenda - will make it impossible for triumphalism, exclusion and supremicism to flourish. Then rejectionists know this.

They know that a level playing field will leave much of Irish or Ulster Unionism without any rational basis.

They fear 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 Good Friday Agreement is about a new political dispensation on the island of Ireland and a new relationship between Ireland and Britain. It is also about fundamental constitutional and institutional change. As well as a range of cultural, political, social and economic safeguards for all citizens.

Ulster Unionist leaders know this. So do British unionists, those in the British establishment or the London government.

That is why it is so difficult to get them to implement the changes that constitute the Good Friday Agreement. That much is clear in the muddle of this moment.

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.

But regardless of the difficulties or for that matter the muddle, one thing has to be clear and that is all citizens have the right to equality of treatment.

British government strategy has offered more modest objectives but even this has failed to satisfy the rejectionists within political unionism or British government agencies.

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. And as we have seen the growth of Sinn Fein hasn't been contained to the six counties.

Sinn Fein was 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 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.

We have seen what is possible. We know there have been many ups and downs.

But more importantly than the fate of Sinn Fein we know that across this island life is better for the vast majority of our people.

In saying that I am very conscious of families which have been bereaved. I am very conscious, and our representatives have stood shoulder to shoulder with communities victimised by sectarian violence.

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 let me repeat my assertion that 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 - real and lasting and permanent - 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 we face up to the reality of the current impasse.

So, let?s tell the crisis as it is.

Depending on your viewpoint the crisis has been caused by unionism, or by Irish republicans or by the British government or by the Irish government or by the accumulation of factors involving or allegedly involving all of these elements.

I am not going to engage in the blame game at today's conference.

I do want to acknowledge in a very clear way that the difficulties within unionism have been severely exasperated by the ongoing focus on alleged IRA activities.

Whatever we think about the unionist willingness to embrace the process of change- and I will come to this later- the unrelenting concentration on activities which it is claimed involve Irish republicans are grist to the mill of those within political unionism or indeed within the British system in Ireland, who are opposed to change and 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 the denials are dismissed or doubted by even the more progressive elements.

And of course, on the republican and nationalist side there is equal 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 than 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 wnt 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 established and 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 give their allegiance since the partition of this island.

Unionism was much more circumspect. The DUP refused to fully engage and the UUP was split on the issue and quite conditional and tactical in its approach.

So it was that the institutions weren't even put in place until16 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 Secretary of State's 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 and 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.

Instead for instance, we had John Reid's declaration that the very prospect of agreed change was having the effect of producing a 'cold house for unionists'.

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.

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

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.

In reality this means acts of completion on;

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 cancellation 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. That 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 through amendments we had an assertion that amendments would change legislation 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 effected by the absence of the type of policing which is required.

I think that those who acquiesced to the British position made a mistake. I understand why they did so and why the SDLP in particular defends its position so ferociously.

It is now attempting to claim the Weston Park proposals as a result of its good negotiation even though these amendments fall short of what is required. And in fact SDLP sensitivity on this issue has been quoted to me by officials from both governments as the reason why movement cannot go as far as is required under the Good Friday Agreement.

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 arrrangements 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!

Mr. Blair's speech explicitly acknowledged that the Good Friday Agreement has not been implemented. Let us be clear about that. Have the two governments got a plan to implement the outstanding aspects? I certainly have had no sight of it. But we are patient. As James Connolly once said patience has to be one of the essential virtues for revolutionaries, all the more so I suppose when the revolution is by democratic and peaceful means. We are also very conscious that this is a process.

Mr. Blair says that at the core of the Agreement was this deal: in return for equality and justice - in politics, policing, in acceptance of nationalist identity - all parties were to commit exclusively to peace.

He then goes on to say that republicans then made the continued existence of the IRA a leverage in negotiations. He says that this is at the heart of the present crisis.

All the while he says we were coming to a crunch point. Would republicanism really take the final step of committing exclusively, Sinn Fein and the IRA, to the peaceful path?

I can understand the sense of Mr. Blair's perception about all of this but I'm sure, if he paused to reconsider, he will see the flaw in this version of events.

As one fo 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 organisations commitment to this process.

It also, and let us not undervalue this, 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 we 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 we who came up with another demand once progress on the arms issue was being made.

I do not pretend to speak for the Army 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 ultimatiums from me or any other Irish person.

Similarly the IRA is never going to disband in response to ultimatiums 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.

But part of the problem for those of us who have to manage this process is that Irish republicanism is seen by the British establishment and its system, quite correctly, as being against its long term interests. This is because it interprets these interests in a very narrow and short sighted way.

It sees unionism as an ally, even with all its imperfections.

So the challenge for Mr. Blair in all of this is quite profound. He has made a singular and exceptional contribution to this process.

He understands as well as I do that it is a process and that all of us needto apply ourselves and see beyond the difficulties of the moment.

Mr. Blair I believe should see Britain's strategic interest being best served by the democratic resolution of the long standing quarrel betwene the people of these two islands.

His task in the short term has to be to continue the process of peacemaking.

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. It need collectivity.

Many may argue that it is indeed an imperfect peace. 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 shape his own system, his own agencies, 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 and I 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 they know that the game is up.

It isn't over. But it is up. And whether the majority of unionists ever had any real advantage from the old agenda depends on how you define the word advantage.

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 be about implementing the Good Friday Agreement not renegotiating it.

So I agree with Mr. Blair that we should aim for a just peace. That the same standards should apply to all.

Like him I accept that trust is always in short supply in politics and in our situation even more so.

Like him I don't exaggerate this issue. I know that we have to build decent working relations, make the Agreement work and build trust on that basis.

This party is determined and committed to do our best to rebuild the political process and to keep the peace process intact.

No one ever said that this was going to be easy but it is the single most important thing that any of us can do at this time in our history.

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