[Sinn Fein]

Rights, Justice, Equality

The Foundations for the Road to a Just and Lasting Peace Settlement

Address by Gerry Adams M.P., President of Sinn Fein


The American Irish Historical Society

New York, 27 May 1998


I would like to thank the American Irish Historical Society for its kind invitation to give tonights lecture. In particular I would like to express my appreciation to Dr Kevin Cahill and ........It is a great honour and privilege to be here. The American Irish Historical Society has played a major role in keeping alive the record of Ireland's long relationship with the United States.


In July 1963 President John F Kennedy 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''.

He was speaking about efforts to restrict the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But following last weeks momentous decision in Ireland his words echo across 35 years of conflict to those of us trying to leave behind a past of war and division.

Last week the Irish people took an historic step towards freedom, justice and democracy. But there are still many more steps to be taken before we construct a society of which we can all be proud.

The Yes vote in the referendum was a vote for change. It was the people of Ireland for a new beginning. Political leaders, particularly the two governments, now face the challenge of delivering on that change, and turning hope into reality.

Our collective task now must be to build a peace settlement. That will require inclusiveness and partnership.

`The only limit to our realisation of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.'

Those were some of the final words found in the papers of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which capture the spirit of what I have to say to you this evening.

Good Friday is one of the most important days in the religious calendar. For some, it may simply evoke an image of crucifixion. And, of course, there are those who will maintain that is what happened to Irish republicanism on April 10th this year. But for others Good Friday is part of a continuum whose true and ultimate meaning is new life. And there are also those who would say that, a little over a month ago, the cause of a united Irish republic was in fact given new hope and fresh possibility. I am one of those.

In deciding which interpretation of that momentous event is correct, it is necessary to distinguish between certain concepts which were put forward in the Good Friday Document, and the concrete and practical arrangements which are contained in it.

After a general Declaration, it commences with a view of consent and self-determination that no Irish republican could accept. That is because it rests on the gerrymander of `partition' and is thus a violation of the principle of democracy and a denial of the right of the Irish people as a whole to freely resolve our own destiny. We held, and hold, that Ireland is the valid constituency for mapping out the future of the people of the island, and without external interference. However, it is not feasible to proceed in that way immediately, not least because of the attitude of the British government. So, we must see how we can advance the situation without a negation of principle. No other party has been asked to abandon its philosophy and analysis. Nor will we abandon ours and there is nothing in the Document which compels us to do so.

There is no affirmation or action required in it which can be construed as binding one to the Document's flawed definition of self-determination.

In reality, and despite the section concerned, the Document is, in many ways, a testament to the failure of the northern statelet and of partition.

The measures for governance of the north and for human rights, as well as the reviews of policing and justice, are a clear admission that it is not a normal society. And the North-South Ministerial Council is an acknowledgement of the need for all-Ireland structures, which both reflect the national democratic rights of nationalists and provide for a coherent and effective approach to addressing economic and social problems on the island.

In so far as these things are provided for, we should consider how we may move foward on that basis. To begin with, specific commitments in the Document should be acted on without delay by the British government. I refer to incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into the law of Northern Ireland, and legislation for Supplementary Rights in particular to the circumstances of the north.


We need a wholehearted commitment to ensuring political, social, economic and cultural rights. Inequality and social exclusion are the enemies of peace. We need a partnership, based on equality, which will empower and improve the quality of life of citizens by being open, inclusive and democratic.

Equality as between Catholics and Protestants is of course necessary and right. But so too is equality between nationalists and unionists.

Nationalists, on a basis of equality, must be represented at all, including the highest levels of decision taking, implementation and review. And 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 non negotiable.

For most people living here in the United States many of these rights are taken for granted. For us living in a part of our country where such rights are denied it is necessary that we spell them out in great detail. Sinn Fein has done so in our document `For a Future as Equals' which I commend to you. Some of what is involved includes:

Civil Rights:

These include:

The Good Friday document accepts these to be necessary. But as experience in various societies demonstrates these will remain fine words or worthy sentiments and as aspirations unless there is:

In light of the myriad inequalities which exist within society in the north a Department of Equality, to promote and reinforce the equality agenda is an obvious next step.

Justice And Policing:

Rapid progress is needed to establish the Independent Commission on Policing and to put in place a new policing service. The RUC is unacceptable. It is a significant part of the problem. It cannot be part of the solution. Unionist militias can be no part of a settlement.

Similarly the justice system has been abused over the years to facilitate a culture of repression by successive British governments. All repressive laws have to be repealed; the judiciary fundamentally reformed; demilitarisation of British military installations has to begin and conclude quickly; British troops should go; licensed firearms should be recalled, and all political prisoners have to be released.

Plastic bullets which have claimed 17 lives, many of them young children, should be immediately banned.

These killings, and indeed the other 400 killings by state terrorism have to be thoroughly and publicly investigated. The right to the truth demands the setting up of a full independent inquiry into collusion between the British forces and loyalist death squads. As an immediate step the Stalker/Sampson reports suppressed by the Conservative government should be published.

The hurt and pain of these forgotten victims must be acknowledged. We need a process of reconciliation which is inclusive, bringing together the families of every victim. All of those who have died as a result of this conflict must be remembered. Their deaths should not be forgotten or airbrushed from our consciousness.

It is essential in this new era of possibilities that we all - republican and unionist, loyalist and British - address honestly and openly the hurt we have caused and begin a real healing process. Republicans want no more suffering, no more victims.

Economic Development:

We need an all-Ireland economic strategy. It makes sense - common sense and economic sense - that this be overseen by an all-Ireland economic authority. In conjunction with this a strategy must be developed which pro-actively seeks to reverse decades of discrimination against nationalists and nationalist areas in the north. Western counties of the north, border areas and disadvantaged areas of Belfast all need to see major investment and rapid development.

Irish Language and Culture:

The Irish language community must enjoy parity of esteem with English speakers. The Irish language should be given official status reflected in appropriate legislation, including the right to allow Irish speakers to deal with all levels of government and local government administration in our own language.

The British government should ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and move to bring about a position of equality for Irish and English speakers within the Six Counties. It should also provide funding for Irish language enterprises.

Irish medium education should be available as of right at all levels for those who wish to avail of it. This could be facilitated by the creation of an all-Ireland Education Board with adequate powers and funding to co-ordinate the promotion and provision of Irish-medium education throughout the island.

Funding for Irish cultural and sporting organisations from public bodies should be made available according to appropriate agreed criteria. These would be established following a review of existing arrangements that will involve full nationalist participation.

Furthermore, I think of the undertaking to ensure that the use of symbols and emblems does not offend anybody. The day should be gone for a decision like that of the recent Forum in Belfast to fly only one flag - the union jack. And symbols are not unimportant for either unionists or nationalists, anymore than they are for Americans when they pledge allegiance to their flag. Because, the very meaning of the word symbol is a representation of something broader and bigger. To fly only one of two disputed flags, just as to ban the Irish tricolour (as was the case for most of the northern statelets' existence), means dominance. And that is at an end and must be seen to be.

National Democratic Rights:

But nationalists do not just have civil rights, they possess national democratic rights as well. That is to say, as a willing part of the Irish nation on the island of Ireland, they are entitled to have expression given to their all-Ireland national identity. An historic beginning has been made with the North-South Ministerial Council. Unionists don't like to admit it, but it has altered and diminished the Union. Otherwise why would amendments to the Irish and British constitutions be necessary to give it powers?

Such amendments are only obligatory where there is a cession of sovereignty. Of course, it is not the total cession on the part of the British that we would desire. Yet, it is a start. It means that the Act of Union, which was first modified in 1922 when the Free State was established, has been modified for the second time in this century in 1998. And the point is highlighted by the repeal of the Government of Ireland Act, the partition settlement imposed in 1920. Some have said, referring to the attempted agreement of 1973, that this all amounts to Sunningdale Mark II. However, it doesn't and without going into all the details, the core difference is that no constitutional changes were proposed then. When I hear some wiseacres saying that the Good Friday Document is `Sunningdale for slow learners' I think of the wee unionist woman who said recently that it was in fact a `United Ireland for slow learners'.

But we must be sure that the Council is got up and running, that it has the real powers and functions that have been designated to start with, and that it is not frustrated by unionist obstruction or undermined by British vacillation. Moreover, it needs to be developed and expanded. And that brings me to future British policy. The British say they will not disengage from the north unless a majority there wants them to. However, that is no reason why the British should not state a positive position, on behalf of the British people, on the issue of Irish unity and its desirability.

We believe that the British Labour Party should at least endorse such a policy which, as an opposition, it adopted in 1988 and, indeed, when one of the signatories to it was Marjorie Mowlam. It should also be an objective of the Irish government to encourage such a step and we would hope that the American Administration, if only behind the scenes at first, would urge to that end as well. In the event of British policy being so formulated, the Council offers the opportunity to progress in the right direction and should be underpinned, as suggested in the Document, by a parliamentary tier.

In addition it is obvious that Northern nationalists willingly and consciously share in the sovereignty of the Irish people. This needs to be given recognition and accommodated at this time as part of the forward momentum of a transitional process. Accordingly we have advocated that Irish citizens in the north be entitled to return representatives to the Dáil and to participate as fully as possible in the political life of the nation. We have also proposed that Irish citizens in the north be entitled to vote in presidential elections and relevant referenda.

I welcome the Taoiseach's referral of this matter to the Commission on Constitutional Review and urge that the processing of this be expedited. I would also invite individuals and organisations and other political parties throughout Ireland to actively demonstrate their support for these proposals.

The Irish government have a responsibility to develop the citizenship right of those in the north to its fullest extent.


Yet, for all that there is expectation, there is also danger. The unionist attitude of recalcitrance and intransigence, of resentment and minimalism may still manifest itself in an obstructive and wrecking mode. The sad history is there of a sort of `Twilight of the Gods' mentality whereby they would prefer to bring down the whole show with them rather than share power and justice with their nationalist fellow citizens. Some unionists would have us all echo words from a poem by Robert Frost:

And nothing to look backward to with pride, And nothing to look forward to with hope.

That must not be allowed to happen. For our part? Our aim is rapproachement and co-operation; but we also demand out rights. We will therefore go forward with reconciliation on the one hand and determination on the other.

And solely on the basis of our mandate and the democratic integrity of our electorate. We will not be denied our just entitlements.

It is frankly worrying that, since the Document was signed, there are already signs that the British government is buckling under unionist pressure to depart from what was concluded at Stormont. This appears to be taking place in regard to what is called decommissioning. All sensible persons wish for a demilitarisation of society in northern Ireland.

We don't want any more shootings or bombings; we don't want sectarian assassinations; we don't want heavily armed police and army on the streets, especially when they harass and brutalise people; and we don't want weapons of war, licensed or otherwise, forever in the hands of citizens.


Maintaining a ceasefire - and an all-round one - is the first necessary condition of this. Next, political progress is vital to build confidence. Then agreed procedures can be utilised to advance demilitarisation - on all fronts. That is the reality, and not only for republicans.

It has to be understood that there are communities which naturally detest war but still fear for their lives an safety. And some of that fear is directed towards the British forces, which have been suspected of colluding with death-squads, such as when Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane, was murdered.

Although Amnesty International has called for that case to be re-opened, the authorities have refused. British intelligence has even been implicated by British journalists in the bombing of the capital of Ireland - Dublin - in 1974. People still have vivid memories of the burning out of nationalist homes at the start of the troubles, while the RUC watched, and therefore feel a need for defence; it is not a question of retaining a capacity to attack.

There is also a psychology of dignity which has to be taken into account.

Some unionists want decommissioning, not to ensure security, but to humiliate through an image of surrender. Or to block progress or attempt, as in the past, to prevent change. And many nationalists can perceive this and, not surprisingly, react accordingly.

The most crucial thing is not some ritual of decommissioning but that the guns remain silent. Ordinary people know that and get angry at times at politicians who use the question as a political football, but who weren't there when the guns were firing and the bombs exploding. As for the question of `is the war over?' I think that republicans are working for that because we believe that a set of conditions is being brought into existence which, if worked by all in good faith, will mean that there will not be a return to violence by any of the armed groups.

The immediate task, therefore, should be not to make a big issue of taking away what some see as an assurance of self-protection, and could easily be replaced anyway, but to convince them that this is no longer required. If that process is inverted, in contravention of the Good Friday Document, we will be back to the days of John Major where the engine of progress stalls with a subsequent danger of crashing. That must not occur and the British government must not be permitted to let it occur.


It should be appreciated that Irish republicans have come a long distance to reach this point. Many difficulties have had to be surmounted. Traditional ways of viewing the conflict have had to be re-evaluated. Treasured positions have had to be modified. We have had to distinguish between principles and tactics, and it was not always easy to do so.

We opposed the Belfast Assembly, but we will sit in it and will demand our place on the Executive deriving from it. We will strive to work with unionists towards constructing a fair society where nobody lords it over anybody else. We want to understand their fears and aspirations. We want to dialogue with them. But as yet, they will not even speak to us. Hurt has been inflicted on everybody and we recognise that. Do they?

Does the British government yet fully comprehend the trauma that Britain has thrust upon Ireland? Only now, are they re-investigating what the forces of their State did in shooting down innocent civil rights marchers in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972. In all sincerity, we have extended the hand of friendship. It remains to be grasped by David Trimble and his associates.

At the end of the day what we are looking for in Ireland is what was established in these United States as a principle over two centuries ago - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Here, in the first fully fledged democracy of the modern world, where republican and representative government preceded the French Revolution and the Great Reform Acts in Britain, I appeal to you to back us in our endeavours to create a land for our children wherein fear is a distant memory, death and suffering a thing of the past, and injustice an inconceivable part of the present. We would not have reached the juncture we are at had it not been for Irish-America and other democratic forces in this land displaying interest, showing solidarity and giving support. We will never forget how the most powerful politician on earth, Bill Clinton, sat up through the night into Good Friday and kept in touch with the peace talks to help them on to an equitable conclusion. We need that concerned interest, cohesive support and steadfast solidarity to continue and to lobby the American Administration, and the British Government and its representatives - at all levels; State, Federal, diplomatic, international business, labour union and professional contacts, and publicity.

The Multi-Party Talks are over, but the Peace Process is not. There is a lot which still has to be done. If the situation which now exists in Ireland is not consolidated and developed, if promises decay into rhetoric, it will not just stagnate, it will deteriorate. And all that is required to prevent this, in summary, are; civil and human rights (which must include national democratic rights), equality of treatment, and plain justice. Permit me to conclude with some words of Abraham Lincoln spoken 133 years ago which yet seem appropriate to this moment in Ireland's history:

``With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.''

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