[Sinn Fein]

21 April 1998

Address by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD


Leinster House debate on the Good Friday Document

On this historic occassion I congratulate all who worked long and hard in the multi-party talks which ended on Good Friday 1998. The appreciation of the nation is due to those who made every effort in search of the best result possible at this time.

The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, by their direct intervention in the final days of the talks - in the Taoiseach's case at a time of great personal loss and bereavement - ensured that the negotiations did not collapse. They provided a focus that led to movement in key areas of disagreement.

A phase of the peace process has now ended and we have the outcome of the multi-party talks before us. The peace process is not over. A mountain has been climbed but many mountains have yet to be scaled before we reach a final just settlement of the long conflict between successive British governments and the people of Ireland.

Before speaking about the Good Friday document I want to state that the government's decision to hold the referendum on the Amsterdam Treaty on the same day as the referendum on Articles 2,3 and 29 is most regrettable. Those of us who opposed such a move pointed out that it would deliberately confuse two totally separate issues. Already this prediction has been borne out with both government and opposition spokespersons today and yesterday trying to relate the two major and completely unrelated questions which the electorate are being asked. This is dishonest and clearly an attempt is being made to piggy-back approval of the Amsterdam Treaty on the expected high turnout on the 19th amendment referendum.

Sinn Fein does not regard the Good Friday document as a settlement. But we do believe that the new political scenario which it creates can provide a basis for advancement. Our party is currently engaged in a thorough process of consultation, discussion and debate, involving all our democratic structures. Our negotiators were mandated to return to the party with the final document and to let the membership of Sinn Fein decide our course of action. Whatever course we take will be determined by our commitment to lasting peace based on the unity and independence of Ireland and our judgement of how best to proceed towards that aim.

Republicans are examining this document carefully, taking into account both the positive and negative aspects of it. We are assessing the new political situation, and what it means for the relationship between Britain and Ireland and among the Irish people. The people who will be voting in the referenda on both sides of the border need to make that thorough assessment also.

We must guard against euphoria and overblown claims about the signifigance of the text of this document. Very important decisions have to be made about the future of this country by all of us in the weeks and months ahead. Sober judgements need to be made and the electorate needs to be provided with comprehensive information on all the implications of their votes in these referendums.

One thing is certain. There can never be a return to the days of unionist one-party rule, backed by the British government. There can never be a return to the days when the people of Ireland and Britain, but most particularly the people of the Six Counties, were caught up in a cycle of repression and resistance and when, on the British side, those with a military agenda, the securocrats, determined British government policy. Nor can there be a return to the days in this State when the national question was merely the subject of rhetoric and counter-rhetoric, when the censorship of republican opinion was in force and when arms of the State were used to repress republicans in the legitimate expression of their political beliefs.

It is not enough, though, to guarantee that there will be no return to the injustice of the past. Such guarantees are worthless, and this document is not worth the paper it is written on, if we do not see immediate, substantial and radical change. The nationalist community in the Six Counties have resisted injustice for decades. This experience and their initiation of the peace process of the past four years, has given to the nationalist community in the Six Counties great confidence in their ability to achieve equality and freedom.

Their expectations are high. The expectations of all true democrats in Ireland are high. The disbandment of the RUC and the emergence of a new policing service, the release of all political prisoners, the demilitarisation of the Six Counties and the withdrawal of the British Army, the ending of sectarian discrimination in employment, the repeal of repressive legislation, full and equal status for the Irish language - these are now awaited and demanded. Let there be no illusions about it. These injustices make up the very fabric of the statelet under which the nationalist people have had to live and if they are not brought to an end quickly then new political structures will fail as surely as all the failed arrangements of the past. The one definite item in the document relating to civil liberties in this state is the reference to a review of the Offences Against the State Act. This odious legislation has been used for nearly 60 years to persecute those whom successive governments have regarded as political dissidents. It has violated - and continues to violate - the civil rights of thousands of citizens. It has to go.

The Bill before us asks the people of the 26 Counties to approve profound changes to Articles Two and Three and also specific changes to Article 29 of the Constitution, all in the context of the Good Friday document.

There is real and justified concern throughout nationalist Ireland about the implications of these changes both in the context of this document and for the future.

For many years some in this House have campaigned for the dilution of Articles Two and Three even without any peace process and without the remotest prospect of an agreement.

Sinn Fein has consistently opposed the removal of the definition of the national territory or the incorporation of the unionist veto in the Constitution.

We sought maximum change in British constitutional legislation and a strengthening of the Irish constitutional imperative to unity.

The proposed incorporation of consent into Article Three presents a major difficulty. Consent here, once again, is unarguably the unionist veto in disguise.

However the Government of Ireland Act has been repealed and it can be argued that the overall effect of the document is to weaken the Union. Partition remains but the all-Ireland strctures have the potential to build a new reality.

These are judgements which we in Sinn Fein are currently making. The decision which we take will be that which we judge to be in the best interests of all those whom we represent, and of the unfinished struggle for Irish unity and sovereignty.

For some this document may represent the culmination of the peace process. Most will recognise however that this is but another step on a very long road. Sinn Fein has been central to this process from the beginning. We initiaited it with others and created a situation where it was possible in August 1994 for the Irish Republican Army to declare a complete cessation of military operations.

The best opportunity for lasting peace in a generation had been created but after initial high hopes it was frittered away by the British government. Despite all the odds we succeeded in reconstructing the peace process and, after huge resistance from the leaders of unionism, commenced multi-party negotiations. I commend the initiative of the IRA which allowed the peace process to evolve and then to revive after many severe setbacks. The men and women of the IRA had the vision and the courage to persevere and credit is due to them as much as to any of the participants in the peace process.

Sinn Fein has always made it absolutely plain, despite the many misrepresentations of our position, that when we speak of British disengagement from Ireland we refer to the British administration and not to the unionist section of our people. We want to see the beginning of a new relationship between the minority of unionists on this island and the nationalist majority. This new situation has the potential to create such a relationship which needs to be based on equality and mutual respect.

The Good Friday document opens a new phase in the peace process, a phase in which the same enormous efforts which went into the negotiations will be needed to ensure that the momentum for justice and peace is not only maintained but increased.

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