1 July 1997
Clarity - the cornerstone of a new peace process
By Gerry Adams
In our first joint statement in April 1993 John Hume and I acknowledged that the `most pressing issue facing the people of Ireland and Britain today is the question of a lasting peace and how it can be achieved'.
There was nothing new and startling in this assertion but our initiative was new. It was the first time that leaders of nationalist opinion in the north had come together to seek an end to conflict and a democratic peace settlement between the people of this island. This is the desire of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people.
Sinn Fein has held to our belief that there can be a real peace process in spite of all the difficulties. The recent killing of two RUC officers, the ongoing killing campaign by loyalists against catholics, the bomb attacks on Sinn Fein offices and members, the actions of British Crown Forces, are all potent and tragic reminders of the conflict which has engulfed our people for almost three decades.
A Bridge to Peace
The unprecedented and unfulfilled potential of the peace process kick started by the Irish peace initiative four years ago needs to be advanced. This is the responsibility of political leadership. The rhetoric of peace-making is not enough.
There is no shortage of argument about why our hopes have been frustrated. The peace process in Ireland, no more than any other has its peace makers and peace wreckers. It has its conciliators and it has its firebrands. It also has its bluffers - leaders who pay lip service to the notion of peace making or who take up tactical positions but do nothing about the demands and reality of peace-making. The record of all the players is in full public view.
The bridge from conflict to equality which we sought to build through the peace process rested on two pillars. One pillar required the Irish establishment to do the right thing. Some may see this as naive. It is not. Given the record of the establishment on issues of justice and democracy it is certainly a high risk strategy, dependent upon the mobilisation of public opinion demanding that the establishment and others fulfil their responsibilities. The second pillar needed the delivery of a genuine and meaningful process of inclusive negotiations.
I believe the original blueprint for the bridge is still good but the experiences we have shared since August 1994 show that both pillars urgently need to be reinforced and refurbished to be effective.
Legacy of Distrust
British bad faith during the peace process, John Major's refusal to engage properly and fully with it, his alliance with the unionists, and his use of the decommissioning issue to block all possibilities of progress, have left a legacy of distrust which will be difficult, but not impossible, to overcome.
At the heart of objections by the Unionist leaderships is a refusal to accept change. But change has to come. So the choice is not about change itself but about the depth of these changes and about how they are brought about. Sinn Fein wants fundamental change, deep and far reaching, especially on constitutional, democratic and economic issues. We also want a total demilitarisation of the situation. The safest way to bring in change is through a process of negotiations, through careful but bold management and by agreement between the two governments.
We now have in place two new governments. One in London which is free from a dependency on unionist votes and another in Dublin which can plan its policy within a democratic all-Ireland framework.
I wish Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern well in the historic task which lies before them.
Tackling the Decommissioning Issue
I accept that Mr Blair is not responsible for the legacy of distrust and suspicion among republicans which the last British government created. However, he is responsible for implementing a policy to overcome it.
I welcome the efforts being made by Mr Blair to address the issues which have blocked the peace process.
The attitude of the present British government and its approach to the issues we have raised are an advance on that of John Major's government. These issues are not Sinn Fein preconditions, they are obstacles erected by a British government seeking to prevent the commencement of all-party inclusive talks. They can be resolved only by a British government which has a different strategy. The style of this British government is different. But what of its strategy?
To get a sense of the difficulties which have to be overcome one has to understand the damage caused by the way the last British government used the issue of decommissioning, in collusion with the unionists, as an obstacle to the talks themselves and to prevent talks moving to the core issues.
That is why clarity is so important. The document on decommissioning presented in Westminster represents the position of the two governments at this time. Both have said that the aim of their proposals is to address the decommissioning issue without blocking the negotiations. This is welcome.
But press briefings by British officials and comments by Tony Blair in Westminster, say something very different.
The potential for the decommissioning issue to be raised further up the road to prevent movement in the negotiations is still a grave and justifiable concern. Given the history of how it has been used for this precise purpose, there needs to be a clear understanding of how Mr Blair intends to employ his government's proposals to prevent further blockage.
Given his stated desire to have inclusive talks; the evidence that he may be prepared to embrace a different strategy from his predecessor and the urgency with which he has applied himself to these matters, surely he understands how important this is.
I have also a serious concern that in Mr Blair's Westminster speech, in the two governments proposals and in the Aide Memoire, there are no more than passing references to the rights of nationalists. The equality agenda, which is given some attention in previous British and Irish government documents, is not spelt out.
There is the question of prisoners. The release of political prisoners is acknowledged in every conflict situation the world over as a key consideration in conflict resolution. There are five republican prisoners now entering their 22nd year in prison in England and fourteen being held in solitary confinement in Special Secure Units. There are prisoners in England who have not seen their families for three years because of the punitive visiting restrictions. The release of all political prisoners must be part of an overall settlement. In the meantime prisoners and their families have to be treated with dignity. There must be confidence that all of these matters are not treated aspirationally but with firm intent.
In asking that the British government gives clear expression to the need to build confidence I have been accused of upping the ante. This is not the case. The British government has had decades to tackle equality issues. It has failed - or refused to do so. Why should anyone believe that it will do so now.
It is possible that some of these measures will only be implemented in the course of a real and evolving peace process. But even if this has to be the case there is no reason why commitments to it cannot be clearly and unequivocally stated. The compelling reason for this to be done is that it will help to rebuild the peace process.
British Policy Underpins Conflict
The British state in Ireland - the six county statelet - is the product of British policy. The reality is that it is British policy which has underpined the climate for conflict and which has prevented real change from occurring.
Of course the unionists bear a huge responsibility because they were in charge for a very long time. But the ultimate responsibility and in a very direct way for the last 25 years, rests with the London government. British rule in Ireland has never been democratic but has been sustained by a culture of discrimination. inequality and intolerance.
Some nationalists believed that nationalist rights could still be guaranteed within the six county state. Drumcree 1 and 2, the lengthy siege of Catholics at Harryville, the constant rejection by the unionist leaderships of any progressive proposals for change, the rejection of the opportunity created by the 1994 IRA cessation have reminded most of the truly corrupt nature of the state. The `nationalist nightmare' remains as potent today as ever.
Equality Must be a Fact
Equality cannot be just an aspiration. Republicans want to make it a fact of life for every man, woman and child on this island. In seeking to advance this goal Sinn Fein seeks a strong and effective culture of political and civil rights which guarantees equality for all citizens. We seek equality of opportunity and of treatment for every citizen.
Political and civil rights and equality require more than empty word formulas. New anti-discrimination laws, with effective affirmative action programmes and realistic goals and time-tables have to be introduced.
I have said it often before and I make no apologies for saying it again.
There is a need for:
- Equality of opportunity in employment;
- Equality of treatment for the Irish culture and identity;
- Equality of treatment of elected representatives and voters;
- Proper security provision for all citizens according to need;
- Equality in the provision of education, particularly through the medium of Irish;
- Equality of treatment in economic development.
It is in these areas of our daily lives that the quickest changes can occur. These changes do not require negotiation - they do not need to be discussed within a talks process - they should happen as of right.
There should be no artificial distractions, no arbitrary barriers standing in the way of these rights. They are not minority rights but political and civil rights which every person should freely enjoy.
We have had almost 30 years of reports and committees and legislation and agencies. It is more than 20 years since a Labour government first passed fair employment laws. None of this has brought about real change.
Garvaghy Road Residents have Rights
It is also Britain's responsibility to ensure that equality extends to the residents of isolated nationalist communities confronted and threatened by triumphalist sectarian marches.
Unionists and the loyal institutions have the right to assert their sense of identity and culture. Sinn Fein upholds this right. But they do not have the right to parade through nationalist areas where that presence is offensive. It is an indictment of the unionist leaderships that they will not talk to local communities, that MPs will not talk to constituents. That they do not consider them good enough to talk with.
Next Saturday the catholic community in Portadown will be besieged by Orangemen and placed under curfew by the RUC. The response and approach of the British government to this critical issue will be monitored very closely, both here in Ireland and internationally. Mr Blair's government must not behave as the Major government did. To do so would send a strong signal that one British government is much like another. It would say to nationalists that unionists rule whether it is on the streets or at the negotiation table.
In the politics of domination, cultural and religious differences become weapons of subordination and division. In the context of genuine equality and a shared search of finding ways and means of living together cultural and religious difference become simply part of our diversity as a people. The British government has a responsibility to create a level playing pitch.
What is required is a new situation in which justice takes precedence over expediency. What is required is a shift away from the negative power of the unionist veto towards the positive power of consent; of seeking consent through dialogue and negotiation.
The Union is Central
The role of the new Irish government is critical. It has the responsibility to advance the aim of Irish unity and independence, and the achievement of civil and democratic rights and equality. It must demonstrate the political will to move forward and ensure any obstacles to progress in negotiations are removed. This requires a strategy.
British governments unashamedly promote British national interests. Irish governments must do likewise. Ireland is no longer the junior partner in Anglo-Irish relationships. Times have changed.
In Tony Blair's two major speeches on Ireland, he defends British interests. That's fair enough. That is what he was elected to do.
His view of the outcome of negotiations - a UK based internal arrangement, with a passing reference to cross border agreements and an Anglo/Irish Agreement mark 2 - is certainly not Sinn Fein's.
I'm quite confident that it is also at odds with the views of other parties and the Irish government particularly if he is retreating from the commitments in the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework document.
Of all the constitutional matters for negotiations, the union is the central one. Tony Blair has outlined his governments negotiation stance as the continuation of the union with Britain. If negotiations are to be real and meaningful then there must be a parallel position on the side of nationalist Ireland.
Sinn Fein will enter any negotiations as an Irish republican party seeking national self-determination for the Irish people. Partition is wrong. It is a failure of the past which must be put right. British policy is divisive and detrimental to the interests of all the Irish people. It is our view that an independent United Ireland achieved by agreement offers the best and most durable basis for peace and stability. An internal six county arrangement cannot work. There has to be fundamental constitutional and political change. The status quo is unacceptable and unworkable. The six county statelet cannot self-determine its future.
If self-determination is to be more than another empty formula of words it is the people of Ireland who will have to work out what agreed goals are possible and attainable. Ultimately there must be a basis for consensus in such matters if there is to be a durable settlement.
The Imperative of Peace
These are testing and difficult times. Sinn Fein is taking a positive and constructive approach to all that Mr Blair, and his officials have said or written. We want a peace process. We have invested enormous time and energy in achieving a credible talks process. Clarity on the key issues, but especially decommissioning, is absolutely essential. Clarity is the cornerstone on which a new peace process can be built.
It was Senator Mitchell who advised, ``If the focus remains on the past, the past will become the future and that is something that no one can desire''.
Slamming doors to dialogue, marginalising and abusing people, reinforcing prejudice and mindsets, these and much more led to a bloody cycle of conflict.
The imperative now must be to rebuild the peace process and break this cycle. That requires a fresh approach, new language and new thinking. It requires the British government to recognise Sinn Fein's democratic mandate which was strengthened in the last three elections in Ireland. The double standards at work within the Stormont talks is a constant source of grievance.
There can be no solution without equality and justice. There can be no solution without mutual respect and understanding of each others position. And there can be no solution through exclusion.
Sinn Fein wants to and we will play our full part in making peace. We want to achieve a democratic settlement which will remove forever the threat or use of force by any side.
Progress is dependent upon the creation of a meaningful and inclusive process of negotiation. We share a common responsibility to make that happen. It will require frank and genuine dialogue and good faith. More than anything else at this time it needs the British government to move speedily to spell out how decommissioning will not block negotiations and what confidence building measures will be introduced quickly.
The new British government knows precisely what is required and knows just as precisely our position on the issues of concern. Let London face up its responsibilities. Sinn Fein has never dodged our responsibilities. Let each of us put behind us the failures of the past, the lack of confidence, the distrust. We can do business, if political will exists on all sides. A lasting peace in Ireland is the prize.