Join Sinn Féin’s grassroots online community of activists and supporters who are dedicated to the reunification of Ireland and to building a new republic founded on the principles of justice and equality for all.

Imaginative Approach is Vital - 19 January 1998


When myself and John Hume kick-started this peace process in April 1993 in our first joint statement we acknowledged then that the "most pressing issue facing the people of Ireland and Britain today is the question of lasting peace and how it can be achieved".

The goals which we set ourselves at that time, and which are the basis of the peace process, were daunting and ambitious.

We need to remove the causes of conflict, to overcome inequality and injustice, to put behind us the failures of the past, and to build a lasting peace based on freedom and democracy and justice. These are the criteria for a lasting settlement. These are the criteria against which we must judge the propositions made by the two governments.

The status quo is not an option. There must be a transformation; an imaginative leap forward. The outcome of the negotiations must create a bridge out of the conditions for conflict, not a u-turn back into them.

The Unionist Veto

The peace process should be the means through which we collectively negotiate a democratic settlement. But to succeed it needs political will, a good faith engagement and a level playing pitch for all of the participants.

The Ulster Unionist party has adopted a purely tactical approach to the talks. By refusing to constructively engage it has successfully prevented negotiation of the substantive issues up to this point. They have diluted the potential for fundamental change outside the process also by bullying the two governments. Historically the unionist veto has been based on threats. The killing of nationalists has been exploited to give the unionist leadership critical leverage in its dealings with London and Dublin. In this period violence and the threat of violence have been used to these ends since Drumcree '96.

Before Christmas in a series of engagements with the two governments and in subsequent statements and interviews, I warned that the unionists were playing the 'orange card' and were "testing London and Dublin... nationalists are watching anxiously to see if the unionist veto will prevail once again".

Several days before the publication of the joint government paper on January 12 I pointed to unionist efforts to "sap the peace process both inside and outside the talks at Stormont, of any credibility or ability to deliver meaningful change". London and Dublin I said, "cannot allow this to happen".

It was against this backdrop, and the killing of four Catholics, the shooting of almost a dozen others in mass murder attempts, and the threat of more attacks, that the British and Irish governments agreed the January 12 position.

Propositions on Heads of Agreement

When Sinn Féin became aware that a joint 'heads of agreement' document was being prepared for presentation we urged both governments to ensure that the document be balanced to ensure a politically neutral starting point for the negotiations. When we became aware of the thrust of the document we left both governments in no doubt about our opposition and our firm belief that it was a mistake. The two governments chose to place the paper on the table.

For many nationalists it is seen as a pro-unionist document. The perception that the unionists have secured an assembly, amongst other things, is a source of grave concern among nationalists. The tabling of 'Propositions on Heads of Agreement' paper will not have inspired republican and nationalist confidence in the approach of the two governments. It is a position which we are opposed to, and which we will challenge. It is for the two governments to prove that their propositions meet the criteria established for the peace process.

As well as seeking to block progress inside the talks the unionists have sought to block action on the equality agenda and demilitarisation outside the process. This is also a critical test. Visible progress is clearly essential on bringing about equality of treatment, demilitarisation and on the release of prisoners.

In some cases such action may only require the implementation of existing British government policy or the fulfilment of manifesto commitments made while in opposition.

In other cases it will require going far beyond this in terms of policy, legislation and other measures. These are issues of basic human and civil rights. They do not require negotiation. They are non negotiable. They are not concessions. They are matters which effect people's daily lives and it is crucial that positive change begins to impinge on their lives now.

Onus on Two Governments

Already we are half way through January on the way to May without proper engagements at the Stormont talks by the unionists. This coupled with the January 12 document has eroded confidence in the process. The two governments need to remedy this.

A dynamic momentum can still be injected. This will require that the two governments demonstrate the will to do so. This will require that London and Dublin: reject vetoes and the current status quo, and:

• create a level playing pitch.

• demonstrate a determination to ensure proper, inclusive negotiations.

• pursue a pro-active leadership role which seeks to advance on agreements already entered into and commitments already given by the two governments. There can be no retreat on these matters.

• accept that nationalist consent to any agreement is indispensable.

• commit themselves to ensuring urgent progress on civil and human rights and equality of treatment.

• work speedily to guarantee real progress on demilitarisation and justice issues including the release of prisoners, policing and Bloody Sunday, collusion and much more.

• adopt concrete measures on the Irish language and culture.

Rights belong to citizens

They are not concessions to be bartered in negotiations. They cannot be an illusion, but must be a fact. There needs to be evidence of this quickly, beyond the rhetoric of speeches and newspaper articles. We need to see the urgent implementation of a programme of measures to ensure political, social, cultural and democratic rights to freedom from discrimination for all citizens, on parity of esteem and on justice and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations for all our people.

Minimalist Change Unacceptable

In order to secure this an energetic diplomatic and political focus by the Irish government in pursuit of substantive and significant constitutional and political change is required. This should be consistent with the New Ireland Forum's preferred options which acknowledged that partition had failed. The political settlements imposed by the Act of Union 1800 and the Government of Ireland Act 1920, subsequently reinforced by the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, have failed the people of Ireland and the peoples of these islands. They have failed the fundamental criteria of eradicating the causes of conflict and providing for a lasting peace and stability.

It is time to leave behind us those things from our past which are bad. Sinn Féin is not interested in dressing the past up as something new. Propositions which result in the copper-fastening of partition cannot work.

An internal settlement cannot bring peace. A peace process cannot be built on a minimalist approach to change. A peace process must be innovative and dynamic. What is required is a transformation of the situation; maximum change.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that the opportunity for peace is consolidated and concretely built upon. Not undermined and subverted.

We have probably reached the most challenging period in our history this century. The people of Ireland have expressed their desire and yearning for democracy and a lasting peace. They are watching events unfold inside and outside Stormont and there is a heightened apprehension at this time.

The UUP continues to refuse to talk to Sinn Féin. They are rewarded for this.

Why should unionists enter into an honest dialogue on any substantive issue when intransigence pays dividends? Why should loyalist death squads stop killing Catholics? The late Cardinal Tom O'Fiaich said: "The present policy of the British government - that there will be no change in the status of Northern Ireland while the majority want British rule to remain - is no policy at all. It means you do nothing and it means that the loyalists in the north are given no encouragement to make any move of any kind. It is an encouragement to sit tight."

The January 12 document from the two governments is a mistake. But it can be rectified. The task of getting London and Dublin to stand up to the unionists' neolithic approach is a mighty enterprise. It requires patience and a resolute and consistent effort.

Sinn Féin has received a significant mandate to negotiate. We will fulfil that mandate, whatever the obstacles or hurdles placed in our path. In the negotiations set to start today Sinn Féin will continue to assert national and democratic positions. It is the duty of all parties which espouse the national ideal and particularly a responsibility of the Irish government to assert and argue the case of Irish unity and independence.

There can be no room for intransigence or party political self-interest or for a partial engagement in the process. We cannot afford to repeat the failures of the past. It is our task to collectively overcome the hurdles before us.