28 June 1996
OPTIONS FOR A LASTING PEACE IN IRELAND
What follows is the text of a speech by Sinn Fein Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin to a conference organised by An Agreed Ireland Forum in London
Let me from the outset leave you in no doubt as to where our party is coming from. We are Irish Republicans and as such the very reason for the existence of our party is to set aside the failure of partition and to replace it with a new political settlement worked out amongst the people of Ireland. The unity and independence of Ireland as a sovereign state remains the first aim of Irish Republicans. It is the considered preference of a clear majority of the Irish people, it is a reasonable, legitimate and democratic option, and it is has been denied to us as a people for too long.
Let me also state that Sinn Fein is absolutely committed to democratic and peaceful methods of resolving problems and we are resolutely determined to win an equitable and lasting agreement which can command the allegiance and consent of all of the people of Ireland by accommodating diversity and providing for national reconciliation. Sinn Fein remains hopeful that another IRA cessation will be achieved and that a meaningful negotiation process will be conducted in a peaceful environment and in a peaceful manner. All of this, despite great difficulties, is still within our grasp.
The challenge for all parties and governments involved, is to create the necessary conditions. Clearly, even though it is not popular to say so, these conditions do not exist at present. Equally clearly, they will not be created by punishing communities or excluding whole sectors of the electorate. Creating the peaceful conditions for meaningful negotiations is the immediate task facing the peace-makers, and let no-one kid themselves that the `musical chairs' in the Stormont Castle buildings are a genuine model.
Dr. Ian Paisley and Mr. David Trimble have announced that if the issue of constitutional change in the North of Ireland is placed on the negotiating table, they will withdraw from the Talks process. This despite subscribing to the concept that no item would be precluded nor any outcome predetermined. I wonder if the question has ever been put directly to either Dr. Paisley or David Trimble, as to their reaction and advice to their followers in the event of not achieving their objectives at the negotiating table? Is there not the constant implication or threat of violence in their bluster and rhetoric?
Republicans, quite properly, have acknowledged the hurt for which we have been responsible, I do so again at this conference. The loyalists also have acknowledged the hurt they have caused in this conflict. In order for all of us to move on to a new beginning it is time the mainstream unionist parties acknowledged their responsibilities for the institutionalised violence of injustices in the Northern State which led directly to this phase of conflict. British governments must also accept their responsibility for the hurt they have inflicted on the Irish nation, in particular during the past 27 years. When we can all accept responsibility for our part in the conflict and recognise the hurt of others instead of apportioning blame to others, then we will be better equipped to sit down together to discuss the best way to accommodate each other.
Everyone involved in Irish politics would claim that they are in favour of peace. All parties, including Sinn Fein, accept that the only way to achieve a lasting agreement is through inclusive and intensive negotiations.
With the Entry to Negotiations elections over, the Irish and British Governments still find themselves deadlocked with the mainstream unionist parties over what is being portrayed as a dispute over the details of procedure and agenda. In fact this is simply the latest attempt by the unionists to dictate and dominate every aspect of the proceedings.
Surely all of our energies, but more especially the efforts of both governments, should be directed instead to restoring confidencein the political process to those who have despaired, or indeed to those who, because of the failures of the past months, may have had their views on the efficacy of `armed struggle' reinforced, rather than challenged.
The requirement for a viable Peace Process, is for all-party negotiations to address the social and political conditions that have created and sustained division and conflict for so many generations in the North of Ireland. The question of politically motivated violence is clearly a necessary and legitimate issue, which must be resolved, as with all other matters, to the satisfaction of all sides. That is the essence of `Consent' and political legitimacy. Dialogue and negotiations between all of the parties (and Governments) involved in the conflict are surely the most reasonable and realistic means of resolving these matters.
When one considers the shambles and squabbles at Stormont, it is obvious that the Irish and British governments have failed to revive the Peace Process and may indeed have created additional problems, having imposed elections as the so-called `gateway' to negotiations and then refusing to accept the democratic result of the ballot box. Sinn Fein represents, not the IRA, but 15.5% of the electorate in the North of Ireland. To shut out Sinn Fein elected negotiators, is the equivalent of locking out 100 MPs from the House of Commons. Is this a democratic peace process? How can those who are alienated by electoral politics be convinced to have faith in the democratic process if governments refuse to heed the results?
To convince the IRA to re-instate the cessation will require, not threats of exclusion or blackmail, but a consistent defence by the sponsoring governments of democratic principles and an unqualified respect for electoral mandates. In addition, explicit guarantees should be issued, by both governments that the negotiations, which the IRA are on record as supporting, will be inclusive, meaningful and focused. The statements by John Major and his NIO ministers in recent days, quite blatantly set to one side these elements which are crucial motivating arguments. Instead, the view in much of nationalist opinion in Ireland that the British government have a partisan attitude towards the unionist position has been substantially reinforced.
The resumption of the IRA campaign has obviously created additional difficulties in achieving proper negotiations, but responsibility for the continuing impasse in the peace process can be directly traced back to the stance adopted throughout by John Major and his government colleagues.
Whilst accepting responsibility for our actions and mistakes, Sinn Fein has remained clearly focused on creating the political conditions in which a realistic negotiation process can be brought forward.
Others must do likewise. The British government has so far failed to act with the authority expected of a sovereign Government. Their refusal for so long to convene All-Party Talks, the political weakness of the Prime Minister, the inertia of his government and the obvious reliance on the Unionist bloc vote, were without doubt, in my opinion, the most significant factors in convincing the IRA leadership to call off, after 18 months, their complete cessation of military activity. These issues remain at the heart of the difficulties in restoring the cessation and must be addressed in a realistic manner.
For the remaining months of this term of Parliament, the opposition parties at Westminster will increase their efforts to topple the Government, and they may well succeed, despite the deals being done with the Unionists. But, in the event of a Labour victory at the next general elections, what are the prospects of a Labour government pursuing a more practical and flexible course? Labour has been at pains to emphasise that no party in the North of Ireland should be waiting for a Labour administration to embark upon a radical departure from John Majors policies on the peace process!
In present circumstances, the bi-partisan policy of Labour has ensured that Ireland is the only issue on which John Major and Tony Blair have had identical positions. This might be understandable or at least defensible, if the policy was working, but it is a little harder to justify when it manifestly is not.
We have had an IRA cessation, created out of the most adverse circumstances by the leaders of nationalist political leaderships in Ireland. The British government is indicted before world opinion for having frittered away a unique opportunity for a settlement founded on inclusive dialogue. If Labour is perverse enough to follow the Tories up what is clearly a political blind alley, the chances of resuscitating the peace process are frankly remote. John Major is not without options. He is unfortunately, without the imagination to realise this reality, and consequently it becomes more and more obvious that he and his government are the fatal weak link, in the chain of political forces that will make a viable Peace Process.
However, there is an alternative to stasis. If the Tories do not have the courage to name an election date, what if Tony Blair were to ``think the unthinkable'' and negotiate a date for the General Election with John Major? Would Labour put an over-riding priority on Peace in Ireland, even if it meant setting aside the outside possibility of forcing an early election. The Tories with the unionist votes (so far, not even required) could probably hang on as long as they need to, despite Labours best efforts anyway. Such an extension of bi-partisanship would be unprecedented but would it be impossible? Would it be unreasonable? Would it be against Labour's interests? Clearly not, if the political courage exists, especially not, when we think of the immediate benefits.
1. The Tory back-benchers and the Unionists `leverage' on the British government will be removed as a result
2. Tory `rebels' will be neutralised on Europe and on the Irish Peace Process
3. A strength and authority will be bestowed on the British Government at a crucial moment in Irish/British affairs
4. The Unionists and their Tory allies will be prevented from sabotaging any possibility of a renewed IRA cessation, by imposing ever escalating preconditions to dialogue.
5. The Irish, British and US governments would be enabled to develop much more overt strategies to revive and sustain the Peace Process in the many difficulties that lie ahead.
Such a radical departure in British politics will inject an enormous confidence booster to all who are striving to re-build the peace process. And of course, such a Peace initiative from the Labour leader will serve the interests of any incoming Labour administration.
The co-operation between the Government and the Opposition parties ensured the safe and swift passage of the ``Entry to Negotiations'' legislation. This was achieved despite the stalling tactics of the Unionists and their supporters in the Tory party. Why not extend the existing bi-partisan policy, if it can create a dynamic in Westminster on the peace process?
Until all sides recognise and accept, that they cannot dictate either the present or the future on their own exclusive terms, nothing is going to change for the better in the North of Ireland. The future of Ireland belongs to the people of Ireland - it is not something to be bartered or bordered, prescribed or `consented' to, in any formula that ignores the wishes or aspirations of any section of our people. Consent will be founded on Consensus, not majoriatarianism.
Sinn Fein is convinced that peace is attainable, and in a relatively short time, if all sides work creatively towards it. We are saying, openly and realistically, that we can have a real and lasting peace. It is an achievable goal, not a fond aspiration. It could be in place within a matter of months if all of us take our mutual responsibilities seriously. Not one party to this conflict is free of spite and rancour. Not one party can honestly say that they are innocent. None of us has clean hands and none of us are singularly at fault. That is a fact of history.
Republicans today, are ready for peace. We will discuss every option, explore every issue, with every other participant to the conflict. If we all want peace, we are all going to have to make these commitments to others as well as ourselves, to our communities and to our children's future. None of us can afford to squander what may be the last opportunity for this generation to reach a democratic compromise in Ireland.
The best option for a lasting peace in Ireland is for every party and both governments to collaborate, to co-operate together to create the persuasive arguments for a restoration of the IRA cessation and the beginning of real and meaningful All-Party negotiations. Now is the time for the posturing on all sides to stop. No more ultimatums. No more coercion, when persuasive arguments would deliver. It is time for all sides to be pragmatic and generous. It is time to talk. It is time for peace.
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