Adams address to British Labour Party Conference
29 September 1998
A new course for the future
In 1995 I had the great honour to be invited by the ANC to South Africa to meet their national leadership. I met President Mandela, a person I had come to greatly admire for his tenacity, courage and great wisdom. For Irish republicans he, like Bobby Sands, has come to symbolise the heart and soul of the struggle for democracy and equality and freedom. A struggle which is both national in character and international.
As someone who spent 27 years in prison and experienced personally the brutal injustice of apartheid many of us would understand if he felt bitter and angry. But Mandela was and is bigger than that. Two weeks after his release he told a mass crowd in Durban: `The past is a rich resource on which we can draw in order to make decisions for the future, but it does not dictate our choices. We should look back at the past and select what is good and leave behind what is bad'.
We too need to take from our past what is good and leave behind what is bad. The relationship between Ireland and Britain has been a tragic one based on domination of one by the other. It has caused much pain and grief and anger. It is built on centuries of injustice and inequality and repression, and resistance to those. It is a history of failure. It has led to division and hatred and great wrongs.
We want to right that. We want to work in partnership with this British Labour government, the people in this room and in this Labour party, to overcome the fears, the suspicions, the legacy of our past. Our task is to chart a new course for the future; for the new millenium.
That means removing the causes of conflict. It means fulfilling the ideals and dreams, the expectations and hopes, that have been encouraged by the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. It means bridging the distrust which exists. It means ensuring that our children never have to go through what we in this, and in previous generations, have experienced. It means being prepared to reach out and grasp each others hand in friendship as we must grasp the opportunity for a lasting peace which now exists.
Since Labour won the general election there have been enormous changes - popular changes - just look at the reception Mo Mowlam received here today and at the trade union conference two weeks ago.
But these changes have only scratched the surface of what is necessary. As Irish republicans our goal is clear. We want an end to the union. An end to partition. And a new relationship between the people of Ireland, and between our two islands based on mutual respect and tolerance and democracy.
Immediately, we want equality and justice for every citizen, irrespective of race, creed, gender, political views or disability. This will not be easy. We face extraordinary challenges. This is an unparalleled period of transition in our collective history.
The Good Friday Agreement
The starting point for Sinn Fein is the Good Friday Agreement. It took many years of hard work on our part and that of others, like John Hume and Albert Reynolds, to create the conditions for the peace process. There were many difficulties along the way but eventually one year ago Sinn Fein, the two governments and all of those parties which wanted to negotiate a new future met in Belfast for the start of 8 months of negotiations.
That process of negotiations was enormously difficult. Made more so by the refusal of the unionists to talk directly to republicans or to hold bilateral meetings with us. But eventually on April 10th we succeeded in constructing an Agreement which subsequently won the overwhelming support of the people of Ireland through referendum, and then again in the north, in the Assembly election.
Are there still problems? Of course! there are many! But in seeking to overcome them there is a principle involved, and this cannot be dodged or its importance underestimated, and that is the need for everyone involved to keep their word. All political leaders need to keep the commitments they made. Trust can only be created by keeping promises not renegotiating them. The Good Friday Agreement was not a draft. It is the real thing and it is the basis for the building if this phase of the peace process.
Sinn Fein recognises that there are problems within unionism. In my opinion it is the unwillingness of sections of unionism to embrace change which is at the core of their difficulties. They may deny this but I believe that no matter about the rhetoric they may use the resolve of the DUP and the UKUP, and of elements within Mr Trimble's party, is still to wreck the Good Friday Agreement.
The current impasse in the peace process and the UUPs refusal to implement the Good Friday Agreement is not about the guns or the decommissioning issue.
It is about the unionists refusal to fully embrace the kind of changes which are required if a genuine peace settlement is to be built. The divisions within unionism thus far are tactical. It is between those who won't countenance a new dispensation based upon equality and those who are prepared to do a deal, but only on their terms.
That is what is underpinning the UUPs current position. Mr Trimble has skilfully utilised the difficulties within unionism to point up decommissioning as a make or break issue for his leadership even though this involves a complete revision by him of the Good Friday Agreement. He knows that Sinn Fein have an automatic right to ministerial positions and in my view he is reconciled to that.
But unionism historically has worked on the basis that it is in charge and it finds it difficult to embrace change and the notion of equality among all citizens. For many unionists their sense of being more equal than the rest of us is what makes them what they are.
Mr Trimble leads the more enlightened sections of unionism but even they find it difficult to give up their veto, even though it has been reduced to a mere shadow of its former self.
I have already made it clear that I can and that I will do business with Mr Trimble. that remains my position and my intention. The real question is whether Mr Trimble will do business with me, or anyone else for that matter. None of us can do this entirely on our own terms.
That my be hard for unionists to accept but it is the reality. Mr Trimble cannot say that he wants `a pluralist Parliament for a pluralist people.....' except for the republicans. That is the politics of the past - the old script.
The New Script
The Good Friday Agreement is the first chapter - it is Act 1 of the new script. It must be implemented in full and within the clear time-table and chronology which it sets out in respect of establishing the Executive, the departmental structures, a fully functional all-Ireland Ministerial Council and the Civic Forum.
Unionists of all hues want the Assembly. But they cannot cherry pick or rerun the Good Friday Agreement or the referendums. Under the Agreement there can be no Assembly without these interdependent and interlocking institutions. In other words there needs to be no further delay in forming the Executive and the other structures. This must be done within the timeframe set out by the Agreement.
To raise decommissioning now as a pre-condition is a clear breach of the Agreement. All parties are obliged to fulfil their commitments in all respects. Sinn Fein will fulfil its commitments. The two governments and the First Minister designate David Trimble must fulfil theirs.
A Partnership with Labour
The role of this British Labour government will be particularly critical. A lasting peace in Ireland will only be established if Tony Blair and his government are committed to that objective and to building it on a solid foundation of justice and freedom.
Mr Blair's generation of political leaders may feel little responsibility for the historic and contemporary state of affairs in Ireland. But if we are to build a partnership for peace which ushers in a new era for the people of Ireland and Britain then this British government must face up to that responsibility with absolute honesty.
British governments uphold and defend or promote British policy in British national interests. British policy towards Ireland at this time is to uphold the union. It is to uphold the partition of Ireland. There is no such thing as a neutral British government. It is not a referee. But to uphold the union that means using repression, denying civil and human rights, and defending inequality and injustice.
If there is to be change there needs to be new thinking within Labour. Just as in recent years Irish republicans have had to look hard at our politics, reflect on our mistakes and seek new ways of advancing our goal of Irish unity, the British Labour government must also look beyond current policy and encourage new thinking leading to a change in that policy.
The aim of democratic Irish opinion, democratic opinion in Britain and intrenationally, must be to seek a change in British policy from one of upholding the union to one of ending the union. The working out of this policy change and the transfer of sovereignty should be done in co-operation with and consultation with the Irish government and the parties in Ireland. This is the main challenge facing Mr Blair and the rest of us. It is about doing the right thing by Ireland and the people of our island.
Equality cannot be an illusion
The future of the union is not the only issue which we must deal with. There is a need for the equality agenda to move beyond aspirational rhetoric into a programmatic approach which seeks to right the wrongs which are part and parcel of the political, social and cultural life in the north of Ireland.
The equality agenda lies at the heart of this peace process and of the peace settlement which we have yet to secure. Equality cannot be an illusion. It must be a fact. And we must ensure that equality underpins the decision making process and the delivery of services.
Equality means civil and political rights for unionists as well as nationalists.
Of course, Mr Blair will come up against resistance to change and resistance to the equality agenda. For those leading comfortable lives there is a perceived choice between something which they believe threatens their livelihood and the status quo which does not.
I see this as a false choice. If properly handled the equality agenda will help bind people together and will produce benefits for everyone. Irish republicans do not want to replace one form of injustice with another.
What is required here is change. Change in the short term. Change which is sustainable. What is required are the goals and timetables for that change.
What is required is an end to discrimination and the provision of equality of opportunity.
Protecting Human Rights
Change is also required in the field of justice. This means an end to repressive legislation. It means a new, unarmed, democratically accountable policing service. But it must also involve investigating the almost 400 killings involving British forces which are described as `disputed'. Inquiries into these, information about them, and criminal charges against those involved, have all been subject to a process of cover-up and legal protection which has sought to shield the state and its military wings from the legal consequences of their actions.
Since the creation of the northern statelet there has been collusion between those `official' forces tasked with protecting it and a variety of loyalist organisations who killed, butchered and terrorised nationalists.
This collusion has become particularly sophisticated during this period of conflict as British intelligence as put the counter-gang strategies of past colonial wars into effect.
There is an enormous amount of information and evidence available to this British government on this issue. Probably the best known is the case of Brian Nelson, a self-confessed and acknowledged British agent who plotted the deaths of Catholics, including that of civil rights lawyer Pat Finucane.
In addition Nelson was involved in a combined effort by the UVF, UDA and Ulster Resistance, with the knowledge of British Military intelligence, to import arms illegally into Ireland. Little wonder the British Attorney General - at the time Sir Patrick Mayhew - authorised a `deal' during Nelson's trial which saw murder charges dropped and Nelson given a minimum sentence.
Collusion, which saw hundreds of catholics killed by loyalists and the role of British intelligence and elements of the RUC, UDR/RIR and British Army provide information for loyalist death squads must be thoroughly examined. Those responsible for this must be made publicly accountable for their actions. An independent, internationally based judicial inquiry, with wide ranging powers of investigation, is essential.
This British government, through its Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, has taken on to itself the mantle of international protector of human rights. It should remember that those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. In this case its moral indignation at human rights abuses in Kosovo or Bosnia or Burma or elsewhere in the world, however correct, would take on a greater and more believable import if it tackled human rights abuses closer to home.
A Journey of Hope
Britain created the problem in Ireland. For British policy has sustained the conflict and divisions. This British government therefore has the major responsibility and role in initiating a strategy which will bring a democratic resolution and a lasting peace.
This must involve the British government joining the ranks of the persuaders in seeking to secure agreement between all sections of our people.
To achieve that we need a contract for peace between the parties in the Assembly, the people of Ireland and the two governments. We need a partnership which requires the active participation of all sections of our people; which seeks to consolidate the peace process; which plans the process of transition; and which manages the transformation of Irish society.
To secure this transformation we must seek and win a society of peace - a society in which people live together in mutual respect and work together in mutual regard for each other - a society in which peace is not a mere interlude between wars, but an incentive to the creative and collective energies of all of the people who live on this island.
In truth, this peace process is a journey, a journey of hope and discovery. A journey in which we must make real the promise of democracy; in which we must rise above the darkness of what has gone before. For Oscar Wilde democracy meant simply; `the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people'. That cannot be for us. The future is not what we inherit but what we create.
W. B. Yeats wrote:
`I have spread my dreams under your feet,
tread softly, tread softly
because you tread on my dreams'
The dreams are the dreams of the men and women and children represented by Irish nationalists and republicans and unionists, and by this British Labour party. It is time to set aside our prejudices, to acknowledge the difficulties which exist and to lift our heads above the barricades of fear and suspicion which have been part of our history for too long. It is time to fulfil those dreams.
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