`We have a long road ahead'
Opinion Piece by Gerry Adams
29 June, 1998
The best known Irish-American of his generation, John F Kennedy, once remarked: ``Let us take that first step, let us, if we can, step back from the shadows of war and seek out the way of peace. And if that journey is a thousand miles, or even more, let history record that we, in this land, at this time, took the first step''.
The last few years have seen us take many first steps but few have been more important than that which was taken on Thursday. But even it was just another transitory step. We still have a long way to go to achieve a democratic peace settlement.
The Assembly election was a good election for Sinn Fein. We achieved a record result, winning more seats and taking more votes than ever before. We are the largest party in Belfast.
None of this would have been possible of course without the hard work of the Sinn Fein candidates, activists and supporters, and those tens of thousands of voters who demonstrated a confidence in this party by voting for our candidates. I thank you all.
Eighty per cent of those who voted in the Assembly election voted for those parties which backed the Good Friday agreement. They voted for change. Our collective task now must be to build on the progress which has been made.
A Basis for Progress
The Hume/Adams talks, the Irish peace initiative, the peace process, the Downing Street Declaration, the Good Friday agreement, are all testament to the failure of the northern state and of partition.
The measures for governance of the north and for human rights are a clear admission that it is not a normal society. And the all-Ireland Ministerial Council is an acknowledgment of the need for all-Ireland structures.
Clearly, therefore, the Good Friday agreement has not removed conflict, its causes or its consequences. But it has given us a basis from which to build. Unfortunately there are those within unionism still frightened by the prospect of change who are determined to either wreck the agreement or to minimise the change which it promises.
Within the British establishment there remains a strong ideological commitment to unionism and this has already been evident in recent events.
The effort by the British government to insulate the UUP leadership from their anti-agreement critics during the referendum campaign was understandable. But there is a difference between working for a yes vote and pandering to unionism. Ongoing concessions to the unionist agenda of no change are not acceptable.
The selection of the Policing Commission, the handling of the prisoners bill, the refusal to move on demilitarisation, the decision to push an Orange march through a nationalist part of west Belfast on Saturday - all of these have caused a cumulative damage to the process. The efforts to unpack the agreement and to delay its implementation must be halted. Most immediately the handling of the Garvaghy Road situation will be scrutinised in this context.
Implementation must be speedy For nationalists these issues are a real test of the British government's commitment to deliver real change.
All of the institutions agreed have to be established speedily. This means that the shadow executive, and the all-Ireland Ministerial Council will come into being in the transitional period.
The other elements of the Good Friday agreement need also to be advanced without further delay. The Policing Commission must deliver a new beginning to policing. The RUC cannot fulfil such a role. All of the political prisoners should be speedily released. And a comprehensive programme of demilitarisation should begin without further delay.
There must be equality We need a wholehearted commitment to ensuring political, social, economic and cultural rights.
Nationalists, on a basis of equality, must be represented in all institutions and at the highest levels of decision taking. There must be equality everywhere. In the political institutions. In the judiciary. In the civil service. In public bodies. In a new policing service.
Equality of treatment, and full human rights protection must be guaranteed. These are rights, not privileges. They are not negotiable.
The British government has a heavy responsibility at this time to ensure that the agreement, which was achieved with such difficulty and which is so finely balanced, is not overturned or undermined by concessions to unionism. The responsibility to deliver on all these commitments falls back on the British and Irish governments.
``Grasp his neighbour's hand as friend''
The guarantee that this will not happen lies with David Trimble. In his pre-election speech on June 22nd Mr Trimble declared: ``In all of this, tolerance has to be the key, agreeing to disagree when necessary.''
We are prepared to discuss with the UUP leader now, in the Assembly and in the executive how to further our shared vision of a new situation in which, as the poet John Hewitt wrote: ``Each may grasp his neighbour's hand as friend.'' Is Mr Trimble now willing to talk to Sinn Fein? He knows that this is inevitable. He is also in a very strong position. The wobbles within unionism should not be exaggerated, especially by Mr Trimble as part of the tactical game which he has been playing.
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