[Sinn Fein]

29th March 2003

Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2003

Address by Sinn Fein Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin MLA, speaking on the state of the peace process

It is almost nine years since the IRA called its first cessation and five years since the Agreement. Major progress has been made in many areas and we continue to apply our energies where necessary to move the whole process forward. 

Negotiations are continuing with both the British and Irish governments across all of the areas of concern. Discussions are also continuing with all of the other parties in an attempt to have the institutions reinstated. 

It is sometimes hard to remain optimistic considering the daily diet of negativity coming from some politicians and certain sections of the media. It is important, however, that we do not allow the OENo camp to sap our confidence by dwelling too much on their agenda. We have our own agenda. 

Instead we must develop policies and strategies that will be accepted by the people and endorsed at the ballot box. That is how we will gain the political strength that we require to build an Ireland of Equals. While being ever mindful of the intentions and tactics of those wishing to wreck the Agreement we must redouble our efforts to work with all of those who are committed to implementing it in full.

In the weeks preceding the recent Hillsborough negotiations and since, progress has been made on the issues of policing, human rights, equality, demilitarisation, Irish language, and criminal justice. We also made progress on OTR s. But I must caution we have been here before - with promises that the British government would move on certain issues only to have them renege on those commitments. Therefore until we actually can see delivery it is no time for self-congratulations. We must not relax or relent.

It has not been a one-way street of course. Demands were also made on republicans. The weapons issue was once more used as the excuse for lack of movement on the outstanding areas of the Agreement. Sinn Fein recognises that unionists and nationalists- have concerns about the continued existence of armed groups. Unionists of course show particular anxiety about the continued existence of the IRA. But we have made it clear that we will not accept the imposition of sanctions or pre-conditions that are outside the terms of the Agreement, or are designed to deny the rights of the people thaty Sinn Fein represent. 

The Agreement is clear that political parties have to use their influence to bring about the total decommissioning by all paramilitary groups, in the context of the full implementation of the agreement. 

We have consistently pointed out that the way to influence those groups still holding weapons is to demonstrate that democratic politics can work. We hope to finally convince the British government and the unionist political leadership of the same thing. Removing the gun from Irish politics is an achievable objective of the Peace process. But ALL parties, not just Sinn Fein, must use their influence to ensure that happens. How can other parties use their influence? Well for a start by advocating the Agreement and by insisting that the Agreement be fully and faithfully implemented. By showing the benefits of politics at work to convince those who are not yet convinced that it is the only way forward, and that it is in their best interests also.

Those politicians most vocal on the issue of IRA weapons are virtually silent on the issue of British weapons, on demilitarisation and particularly on the weapons used regularly by unionist paramilitaries. They will continue to use every device available to undermine the Agreement because they are against change. The British government must confront that mindset and be seen to confront it. Only when the British Government stops pandering to unionist demands, will unionists agree to negotiate on level terms with others.

While republicans must listen to unionism, on this and other issues, we also need to remind them that others also have rights. Unionism has to resolve its own internal problems. And while we must be patient it does not mean that we have to wait until rejectionist unionism realises that there is no returning to supremacist one party rule.

It is up to progressive unionists who signed up for the agreement, who gave their assent and support to the establishment of a new political dispensation to set an example. I can assure them that if they work in good faith with us, republicans will not be found wanting. This process is moving forward. It would be better if we were all to move forward together. But those that do not want change need to realise that it will happen with or without their input. The only way to confront fear is to manage it. To those unionists that fear change I say rather than fight against the change that is happening be a part of it, help manage it.

It is clear that with the advances that has made and continues to be made in the negotiations that we are edging ever closer to the point when the final debate will overtake events and create a momentum of its own. 

That will be a debate on the shape of the agreed united Ireland that we all live in. We are now in the final lap, so long as we move on with determination and keep our nerve then the finishing line is within sight. 

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