[Sinn Fein]

Address by

Sinn Fein Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin


SIPTU Conference
Dublin, 14th November, 1998

May I begin by thanking SIPTU for inviting me to speak to you here today. To my knowledge this is the first initiative of this kind and, therefore, one for which you deserve full credit. In the situation we all find ourselves today, it is crucial that frank and open dialogue takes place across as wide a spectrum as possible. To talk to such a large gathering of trade union activists is something I view as a key priority and one that can help considerably in advancing the search for a lasting peace settlement for a new and agreed Ireland.

I would like to begin by giving you an assessment of where we are at in terms of the peace process and the implementation of the Good Friday before moving onto the economic and social issues facing all of us on this island.

In the political cut and trust of recent weeks and months I think we have nearly forgotten that almost seven months ago the Good Friday Agreement was supported by the overwhelmingly majority of people in referenda north and south. In the elections which followed in the six counties the vast majority voted for pro-agreement parties and thereby once again endorsed the implementation of the changes contained within the Agreement.

In the seven months since that time David Trimble has clearly decided that what he could not achieve in negotiations, he will now attempt to achieve by refusing to implement an agreement which he himself helped negotiate.

Unionism is on a go slow, approaching stop. Their stance puts the entire agreement at risk as they raise preconditions, which are not part of the document. Unionism is engaged in a battle against change. They are effectively on a campaign to renegotiate the Agreement.

Sinn Fein signed up to the Agreement and we want to see it implemented in all its aspects and according to the timescales laid down in the document. The reality, however is, that the provisions on structures and institutions in the agreement are not being implemented. The only institution so far in place is the Assembly itself. The only shadow executive positions in place are the First and Deputy First Ministers designate. The October 31st deadline for the establishment of the full Shadow Executive has expired. The North/South Ministerial Council has not been established. The agreement is already in default at this time.

The sole responsibility for this lies with First Minister Designate, David Trimble who is attempting to quite blatantly rewrite the Agreement on Unionist terms. To insert new preconditions and resurrect the politics of exclusion.

Unfortunately Unionism has received some political cover in this attempt by political commentators including some Nationalist leaders who have attempted to apportion blame equally between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists for the present impasse.

The lesson that all should have learned by now is that by pandering to unionist intransigence only serves to encourage that intransigence. Where Unionists can block progress they will. The two governments and those of us who wish to see progress must take the initiative.

It is for this reason that we met with Tony Blair and asked him to get directly involved once again and to take up the challenge posed by Mr. Trimble's stalling of the process. We have asked him to pro-actively seek to advance the establishment of the Executive, the all Ireland Ministerial Council and the policy and implementation bodies. He has to make clear to the Ulster Unionists that movement must take place according to what was agreed on Good Friday. Nothing less will do.

The institutions envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement - executive, all Ireland Ministerial Council, all-island implementation bodies etc are a new approach to political governance in the North It reflects the experience of different societies in Europe and elsewhere. It also reflects in a very particular way the templates developed by the trade union movement in your crucial role as social partners.

The parallels between what is envisaged for an inclusive coalition government in the north and its programme for government and the negotiated and agreed social partnerships in recent years in this state is worthy of detailed study and consideration. Especially as we contemplate the levels of mutual antagonisms and mistrust. This is meant to be a new beginning, a partnership of politics modelled on the social partnerships. Social partnerships are coalitions on agreed programmes. From a very low basis of trust, governments, public and private sector bodies, especially the Trade Union Movement have agreed to work with each other on an agreed basis. Not everything has been agreed ore resolved fundamental differences remain. No one had to surrender on principles but all were committed to create new contexts in which differences can be addressed differently. Is that not what we are attempting to put in place in the north ? Trust between the partnerships based on integrity and honesty will create a new reality in the north, a new context in which all previously intractable problems will eventually be resolved.

Let me briefly consider the present impasse at Stormont. To renege on, to re-interpret or even worse mis-interpret the Good Friday Agreement will undermine the essential requirement of building trust. How would you react when your partners in the social contracts attempted to renege even before we reached the implementation stage ? The social contract can only work, the Good Friday Agreement can only work on a basis of building trust. Change is the pre-requisite of peace. Peace, trust and equality will flow form encouraging change through discourse and respect for difference.

As political developments have progressed over the past few years, however slowly, it has always been my party's view that economic issues and more particularly the long-term economic development of Ireland should be at the forefront of the talks. With this in mind on my partys behalf I have engaged with CBI, IBEC and the Northern Committee of the ICTU, but it is also important that we establish relationships of common interest with the trade union movement as this is in all of our interests.

Sinn Fein has always believed the Trade Union movement has a vital role to play in ensuring that issues of economic equality and justice are on the wider political agenda. The whole peace process would be a worthless exercise if it cannot deliver substantive positive economic change on an all Ireland basis. The starting point for Sinn Fein's economic perspective is that we wish to realise an entirely new social and economic order in Ireland - one which cherishes all our people equally and prizes equality and justice. The economic integration of the two parts of Ireland is absolutely central to achieve this, not just for long-term and stable political development, but also because it has such a strong economic logic, especially in the context of developments taking place within the EU. It is our belief that the continuation of economic division within Ireland will simply continue failure and sustain under-development and frustrate our efforts to maximise economic and social benefits for all on the island.

Despite the record economic growth rates achieved with the so-called `Celtic Tiger economy' of the 26 Counties, much of this wealth creation has yet to touch large sections of Irish society. Indeed both SIPTU and Sinn Fein have made budget submissions dealing with the need to redistribute the benefits of the current strength of the Irish economy and we recognise SIPTU's efforts to ensure that all of the tax elements of the partnership agreement are implemented in the forthcoming budget. We believe that balanced and socially inclusive economic development is an essential aspect of economic success.

Currently, not only are there huge regional imbalances between different regions within Ireland, as highlighted by the debate taking place as to how Ireland should respond to the likely loss of Objective 1 status in the EU, but there are also substantial social and economic inequalities within cities and towns. It has long been Sinn Fein's view that Ireland is overly centralised administratively and that regionalisation with genuine local authority and accountability is required. In the absence of economic equality and justice for the people and communities I represent, there will no confidence in the political process and, consequently, no chance of success. Very similar comments apply to the apparent low priority given by the current Dublin Government to problems of social exclusion in inner city and rural areas in the 26 Counties.

The role of the Trade Union Movement

We acknowledge and welcome the work of many other progressive groups and movements fighting to deliver basic justices for their constituency including the role played by SIPTU and other unions in staking the right of Irish workers to be represented by a trade union. That trade union recognition is still an issue in industrial relations today is a sad indictment of Irish employers and multinational companies operating here. In particular the campaign by SIPTU workers at Ryanair must be applauded.

In terms of wider national political issues we believe that the Trade Union Movement has a vital role to play in building the peace process. As an all Ireland body the ICTU should be leading the public debate on the need for a democratic island economy. It is the workers throughout Ireland who have created its wealth and it is their representatives who should be at the forefront of any campaign which seeks to empower and improve the lot of Irish workers. It is our belief that the ending of partition would be a huge beneficial process both politically and economically for the Irish people.

Sadly it has been the case in the past that though there are many positive voices in the Trade Union Movement at a national level the movement has passed up many opportunities to use its considerable influence to make the case for a united Ireland. We believe that partition has been hugely detrimental to the lot of Irish workers and that workers interests transcend partition. Another arena where trade union representatives can make a positive contribution is through the range of economic and social bodies they are members of, whether it be the social partnership with the Dublin Government, the National Economic and Social Forum, IDA county enterprise boards and Public Sector worker directorships. These are all arenas where the message of the need to create a just and democratic all-Ireland economy can be made.

James Connolly once declared that ``Ireland is a land of contradictions''. In 1911 writing in Forward he said ``If all the socialists in Ireland who waste their time cursing the unprogressiveness of Irish workers, had only sufficient moral courage to declare themselves, they would be astonished at the multitude of their numbers..'' Until they do, we will be compelled to see Irish Tory employers hiding their sweat-shops behind orange flags, and Irish home rule landlords using the green sunburst of Erin to cloak their rack-renting in the festering slums of our Irish towns.'' His message to us today is a simple as it was over 80 years ago - the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland. If the trade union movement wants to act and help build on the peace process it must accept this reality.

In conclusion, may I say that I believe that we share much common ground, especially in the economic sphere. It is certainly true that we all have a responsibility to do what we can together to meet the many economic and social needs we face. Sinn Fein will continue to sit down with the Trade Union movement and others where we feel that a co-ordinated and concerted approach can help to tackle the deep economic and social problems which continue to disfigure too much to Ireland today. The primacy Sinn Fein attaches to economic planning and development is a key to shedding the legacy of partition, division, disadvantage and economic injustice in Ireland.

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