12 September 1997
An unprecedented opportunity
By Gerry AdamsA Chairde,
In the opening line from Bobby Sands's diary, on the first day of his hunger strike, he wrote: "I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world."
We have travelled a long and difficult road since the hungerstrikes when Bobby Sands wrote those words. We have the opportunity now to advance into a new era. The bad faith and lack of courage of the last British government which destroyed the first opportunity for peace must not be repeated. The failed constitutional settlement imposed upon us when this century began needs to be replaced. That is the task facing us.
The Ireland of the 21st century will be shaped by what we do from this point. We have before us a unique and unprecedented opportunity to forge a democratic peace accord for all the people of the island. If this opportunity is to be translated into reality, we must all respond to it with courage and imagination.
If the parties at the talks and especially the British government can meet these challenges, Monday will mark the commencement of the transition from conflict and division to peace and democracy.
Building A New Democracy
It is our collective responsibility to make a success of the process in which we are engaged. That means removing the causes of conflict. British policy in Ireland has manifestly failed. Partition has failed. The decades of unionist rule in the North were exclusive and partisan.
Those days are gone forever. There is no going back to the failed policies and structures of the past, to the domination of a one-party unionist state supported by the British government. There can be no return to the abuses and bitterness which marked the Stormont period.
Sinn Fein is absolutely committed to democratic and peaceful methods of resolving problems and we are determined to win an equitable and lasting agreement which can command the allegiance of all the people of this island by accommodating diversity and providing for national reconciliation.
I believe the vast majority of people on this island see this process as an opportunity to put conflict behind us. The unionists should play a full and enthusiastic part in this.
On Tuesday, on behalf of Sinn Fein, I affirmed our commitment to the Mitchell Principles. I was pleased to do so. We will honour this commitment. Despite the unfortunate timing of the interview in this week's An Phoblacht, the most important thing is that the IRA has called, and adhered to, a complete cessation, a fact acknowledged by the British government's military advisers.
They have also acknowledged, indeed they could hardly deny, the breaches by all of the loyalist organisations of their cessations. The unionist parties have similarly breached the Mitchell Principles with their threats and intimidation over Orange marches through nationalist areas.
The British government is not a facilitator in this process. I have already established that it also affirmed the Mitchell Principles, yet its forces continue to fire thousands of plastic bullets, raid homes, build new military fortifications and saturate nationalist areas.
The political storm created by the IRA interview is quite astonishing and offensive when one considers the lack of comment on the loyalist, unionist and British breaches of the Mitchell Principles. It appears that for some IRA words are more offensive than the very real violence of the loyalist death squads, and the British forces.
Sinn Fein's peace strategy goes much further than the Mitchell Principles and as always our party will honour our commitment and we will try to ensure that others do likewise.
Sinn Fein wants to see all parties involved in the talks. We want to see the representatives of unionism in these talks. Their constituency want to see them in there. We appreciate that they have difficulties but surely the best way of resolving these difficulties is through direct dialogue. The unionist leadership should be confident in its own ability and its own position, it should join fully and wholeheartedly in the search for agreement and a lasting peace settlement.
The road ahead will be difficult and dangerous and risky for all of us, but working together I am convinced we can succeed. It is my conviction that we will have a peace settlement. I am convinced that if we are resilient we can overcome all obstacles. We must learn the lessons of the past, not to recriminate, for as William Butler Yeats said: "We need not feel the bitterness of the past to discover its meaning for the present and future."
It is a collective responsibility for all of us in leadership portions to ensure that we never know conflict again.
Sovereignty Is The Key Issue
Sinn Fein enters negotiations as an Irish republican party seeking to promote the broad nationalist objective of an end to British rule in Ireland.
In our view, the issue of sovereignty, the claim of the British government to sovereignty in Ireland, is the key matter which must be addressed in negotiations so that we can achieve, through dialogue among the Irish people, an agreed Ireland. The political and historical evidence shows that political independence, a united Ireland, offers the best guarantee of equality and the most durable basis for peace and stability. An internal Six-County arrangement cannot work. There has to be fundamental constitutional and political change.
The British government should play a crucial and constructive role in persuading unionists to reach a democratic agreement on Irish national reunification with the rest of the people of this island and to encourage, facilitate and enable such agreement.
In our view, the search for this agreement must address three broad areas: constitutional and political demilitarisation; and democratic rights.
There are many issues which fuel the conflict. For example, there needs to be equality of treatment in terms of employment, economic development and the Irish language and culture.
These issues do not require negotiation. They are issues of basic civil and human rights. The British government should act on these issues immediately to build confidence in its approach to the search for lasting peace.
The political climate in which these talks occur could be significantly improved if the British government acted positively and speedily to demilitarise the situation. An end to British army and RUC operations would generate confidence in and greatly assist the peace process.
A key part of the constituency which we in Sinn Fein represent are republican prisoners. Their role as republicans in building the peace process has been vital. Those in jail today are representative of the many thousands who have been interned and imprisoned in the past 25 years. There must be urgent movement on the release of all political prisoners.
Bridging The Gap Of Distrust
I welcome the contribution of Senator Mitchell and his colleagues to the negotiating process. Sinn Fein has long argued for an international dimension to the search for peace in Ireland. The international dimension is one which can play a crucial part in maintaining the momentum and dynamic through the negotiations.
Clearly, there is a huge gap of distrust between nationalists and unionists. It must be bridged. We need to secure an accommodation, based on equality, which rejects the possibility of any individual, or any section of people, regardless of religion, gender, age, disability or politics from being discriminated against. No process which excludes any section of opinion can hope to be successful.
We recognise that the concerns of the unionist population about their position in an Irish national democracy must be addressed and resolved in a concrete way. This process of national reconciliation must secure the political, religious and democratic rights of the Northern unionist population. That is not only the democratic norm but a practical necessity if we are to advance the cause of peace in Ireland.
Building peace is a collective responsibility. In setting out the republican position I also want to stress our willingness to listen to other positions and to see and to uphold the dignity of all sections of our people.
Transforming Irish Society
Sinn Fein is committed to a transformation of Irish society. We know that peace is not simply the absence of violence. Our vision sees beyond the present conflict and beyond the present phase of our history.
Our vision foresees the unity of the people of this island. East with west, north with south, urban with rural, Catholic with Protestant with Dissenter, believer with non-believer.
Our vision is for the redistribution of wealth, for the well-being of the aged, for the advancement of youth, for the liberation of women and for the protection of our children.
Our vision rejects forced emigration and unemployment, the destruction of the environment, cultural oppression, sexism and inequality.
Our vision embraces education. It embraces democracy. It is economic, as well as political. Our vision is for a free Ireland and for a free people. It is for an end to war.
It foresees the relationship between Britain and Ireland resting upon our mutual independence. It is this visions which sustains our efforts to reach agreement and a new accommodation between all our people.
This is a moment in our history which must be seized.
Change is inevitable. Our task in the time ahead is to manage that change and to ensure that it is peaceful and constructive.
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