Fifteen years ago this weekend the eyes of the world were firmly fixed on Ireland.
Hope, Expectation, even Disbelief were in the air.
Inclusive dialogue had won over censorship
Respect for democratic mandates had won over exclusion.
Equality had won over discrimination
Parity of Esteem had replaced triumphalism.
All-Ireland political structures would be formed and all decisions would be based upon power sharing as equals.
Policing would be transformed and the political prisoners would be released.
It should not be forgotten that it was the leadership given by Irish Republicans, leadership for an end to conflict and for Peace which made all this happen.
Fifteen years on the principles, which underpinned that historic negotiation remain the basic tenets which underpin our political process.
While not a political settlement in itself the Good Friday Agreement was a levelling of the political playing field in the north since the first time since partition.
It would allow us as Irish Republicans to map out very clearly a peaceful and democratic path to a United Ireland, it would enshrine in law the rights of citizens in the north to our Irish identity and offer the same checks, balances, rights and responsibilities to the unionist people also.
Nobody can argue with any credibility that the foundations laid 15 years ago for a better, peaceful and democratic future hasn’t been for the good.
By the same token no one could argue that whilst in the North we have come a long way, there is still a further way to go. And because of that truth, commentators with some justification are critical of what is seen as a lack of cohesion between Unionist and Republican Ministers.
More than once in recent months the observation has been made to me that Sinn Féin Ministers are in government with unionist ministers because we want to be, but that unionist Ministers are in government with Sinn Féin because they have to be.
Speaking frankly this isn’t good enough.
15 years on we need to apply the very same political skills and political principles to politics in the here and now if we are to truly harness the great potential that still exists.
I have no difficulty whatsoever in respecting Unionist’s allegiance to their Britishness – but it gives me no satisfaction to tell you that there is a marked reluctance by unionist leaders to respect the Irish identity of nationalists and republicans.
This difficulty goes to the very heart of the failure to resolve contentious Orange parades and the need to ensure to ensure that symbols and emblems on the basis of equality reflect the allegiances and identity of the community as a whole.
I am so confident in my Irishness that I have no desire to chip away at the Britishness of my neighbours. Unionist leaders really should have enough confidence to facilitate the Irishness of the Gael.
With the will we together have the skills and the talent and ability to deal with the big issues in the here and now – be it standing up to the Tory Welfare cuts or developing a modern Education system, or dealing with the legacy of the conflict.
And I will deal with some of these issues in more detail tomorrow.
But all of this would be helped greatly if some within unionism ended the pretence that they are not working the Good Friday Agreement institutions.
People need to be in government not because they have to be but because they want to be – and approach decision making in that spirit.
I believe that this taken with a number of other initiatives would have a transformational impact on the operation of the political institutions.
Let unionist leaders say clearly that they recognise that my Irish identity and culture holds equal value to theirs. That is what parity of esteem means. That is what Equality is about. It is also what the Agreement demands.
Yet when faced with the recent violence around the flag issue, and indeed in the debate leading up to the decision at Belfast City Hall, instead of returning to the values which underpin the political process many within political unionism resorted to the failed politics of the lowest common denominator. Instead of seeking solutions and standing united against violence with the other political parties they turned inward to the inevitable cul-da-sac of a unionist forum.
A unionist forum, which issued a statement this week on the issue of parades. A statement which ignored entirely the most obvious fact on the subject – the issue of contentious parades will only be resolved when the Orange Order sits down and talks to residents on the basis of respect and equality.
That is the message, which unionist political leaders need to tell the Loyal Orders instead of dodging the issue and pretending to themselves that a resolution to the issue of parades can be found in a forum talking to themselves.
It is simply no longer sustainable for the Orange Order to march where and when they want and expect the rest of society to pick of the pieces afterwards.
Time and again since 1998 people have voted for progress. They have voted for the process of transformation to continue. We collectively have a strong mandate for action. And that is a mandate we need to act upon for the remainder of this term.
I also noted earlier in the week that the British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a statement to mark the anniversary of the Agreement. I recently met with Mr Cameron in Downing Street and to say I was unimpressed is an understatement.
There is little point in Mr Cameron issuing statements lauding the Agreement when it was his government who reneged on the Peace Dividend to build new schools, hospitals and roads, agreed as part of St. Andrews, or who is trying to force welfare cuts on the needy and most vulnerable or who has made a complete mess of the issue of corporation tax powers for the Executive.
And it is unfortunate that his semi detached approach to the Peace Process and delivering the outstanding commitments from Good Friday, St Andrews and Hillsborough has been in many ways mirrored by the current Irish Government also.
Outstanding issues remain. These include a Bill of
Rights for the North, an all-island Charter of
Rights, establishment of the North-South Consultative Forum, introduction of an
Acht na Gaeilge and resolution of the issue of those people still ‘On The Run’
as a result of the conflict.
There has been a failure to act on the Weston Park commitment to hold an independent inquiry into the killing of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane.
And Martin Corey and Marian Price remain in prison.
I have been to visit Marian Price and I have attended and given evidence on her behalf to the Parole Commissioners. I am totally convinced that Marian Price represents no threat to the Peace Process and only wishes to be returned to her family. Her continued imprisonment is both cruel and inhumane.
Both Marian Price and Martin Corey should be released and released now.
The complacent attitude of the governments needs to change if the true potential of the Good Friday Agreement is to be harnessed.
And I believe that it can be – Inclusivity, Dialogue, Parity of Esteem and Equality threaten nobody.
The violent actions of those whose desire to plunge Northern society back to the past has to be unreservedly condemned. Whatever else about those amongst the groups responsible it is obvious that they have now been swamped by ruthless criminal elements with an island wide network.
Recent squalid feuding amongst these groups and the recent murders in Dublin and Meath has nothing at all to do with Republican ideals and everything to do with money, ego and self interest.
There is no future in these actions. There can be no going back.
But the enemy of this process in many ways is not from outside. They have failed to damage the Agreement by pointless, sporadic armed actions – but instead by those within the process looking inward instead of outward - looking back instead of forward – playing safe and aiming low instead of seeking to deliver on the ambitions and aspirations of those who elect us.
We are a party with vision.
We are a party with a clear view of the future.
We are a party with ambition and with desire for a better type of politics on this island.
We are a party that believes in achieving what people tell us can’t be done.
We were told that peace could not happen.
We were told that Sinn Féin were unelectable.
We were told that power sharing couldn’t happen with the DUP.
The very same people who said this are the people who now seek to talk down the achievements of the past 15 years and seek to bring a negative commentary to the current situation and to the prospects for the future.
They were wrong in the past and they are wrong now.
I am confident in the future. I believe in the Irish people and I believe in what we are doing is right.
The challenge for all of us – republican, unionist, nationalist or loyalist is to move to a new phase of the peace process. To use the solid foundation laid for the next big effort.
Let us deal with the past but not become entrapped by it. Let us rebuild relationships not on the basis of recrimination but on the basis of equality.
A new agreed Ireland will not build itself. It is the job of nation builders to step forward and play their part. The foundations are there for a better future, for a country at peace with itself and its nearest neighbour.
A country united on the basis of respect and tolerance.
A truly New Republic.