Last year when I addressed our Ard Fheis the situation in the north was at that time being dominated by negative headlines emanating from violent street protests orchestrated by the UVF, following the democratic decision taken by Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union Flag.
I was at that time critical of what I identified as a lack of positive leadership from unionist leaders to challenge the negative agenda being set and to speak up for the vast majority of citizens who wanted no part of violence by an unrepresentative minority who were attempting to give the impression that they spoke on behalf of unionism.
I made those remarks not in a bid to score political points or to make political gain but because I had a genuine concern that the peace process was under attack and needed defended. It is my belief that that is the job of every political leader in the Assembly. I have never shied away from my responsibilities in this regard. I have never hidden or ran away from confronting those who seek through violence to undermine the progress we have made.
I will continue to stand foursquare for the peace process, for the political institutions and for the rights of all citizens regardless of who they are or where they come from, to live free from sectarian harassment or violence. I stand against those elements, who wish to drag us back to the past, regardless of where they come from. I make no apology for that. They will not succeed.
As part of our defence of the Peace Process I have been rightly critical of the actions of so called dissident groups. In recent weeks I have followed closely a developing debate amongst elements within those factions about moving away from armed actions.
Sinn Fein believes that support for a united Ireland must be built through engagement, persuasion and agreement throughout Irish society. This can only happen through peaceful and democratic means.
We have said for a long time that dialogue with other republicans and across all strands of national and democratic opinion is an essential part of that engagement.
Militarist actions by a few small groups will only set back the progress being made towards a united Ireland. They should stop their activities immediately. The growing public expression among some anti peace process republicans against armed actions is to be welcomed. I have been strongly of the opinion that political leaders must engage in dialogue with everyone, including those in groups involved in violence. Indeed, in recent times, I have met with anti peace process elements, both republican and loyalist, to argue for an end to their activity.
I restate our willingness to engage with these groups and without pre conditions.
Long before Richard Haass and his team came to chair the recent talks, I had come to the conclusion that it is not sustainable for us to continually allow issues like the past, or parades, or identity – important as they are – to continually be manipulated and used to attack the political process by people with deep held hostility to the work we have been collectively involved in for many years. That was our motivation when we invited Dr Haass and Megan O’Sullivan to Ireland to chair the recent talks process.
We approached the talks, as we have every other negotiation we have been involved in, with the clear goal of reaching agreement and seeing that agreement implemented. We always knew that agreement would require compromise on all sides.
Let me make it clear here tonight. The Haass proposals as they currently stand represent a huge missed opportunity, if they are not accepted by all the parties. There are parts of the final Haass document that we are uncomfortable with. That is the nature of a five party negotiation. We approached the discussions in a positive way. We want to resolve these issues for all in our community.
Two months on from the proposals were published, one big question remains unanswered, and it is fundamental to moving forward.
Is political unionism up for doing a deal or not?
Are they up for cutting a deal on the basis of their own mandate?
Or is agreement on all our futures, subject to the whim of the Orange Order, extreme loyalism or mavericks who shout the loudest from the sidelines but hardly have a vote to their name.
I want to appeal to ordinary unionists out there, who believe in the peace process, who want to see a better future built for our children, to make your voices heard and to embolden your political leaders to do the right thing and build a shared future together on the basis of equality and respect.
Time is short to conclude this process. We stand ready to move forward on the basis set out in Haass. But we will not be entering into a renegotiation, or a dead end process aimed at kicking these issues beyond the May elections. The time has come for unionist politicians to stop dancing to the tune of the Orange Order and their extremists.
The time for agreement is not after the May election nor after the marching season – the time for agreement is NOW.
I am frustrated at the failure of political unionism to take that leap into a better future. The issues involved in the Haass Talks are not going away. They need resolved. We cannot tolerate these matters holding back progress and contaminating the daily business of delivering for our people who want to see matters such as , education, health and jobs being discussed, not those issues we have spent so much time on over the past 12 months.
I have to say my frustration does not end there. I believe the potential that exists for the political institutions has not been fully realised. I think that much of the goodwill generated by the agreement reached between ourselves and the DUP which saw the institutions established has been squandered as the result of a very deliberate strategy by some within that party who were uncomfortable first with the notion of sharing power with Sinn Féin and secondly at the relationship which developed between Ian Paisley and myself.
At a time when we should have been accelerating forward and leaving the opponents of the process in our wake, some within the DUP sought to apply the brakes as they stood time and again with the rejectionists and those opposed to power sharing. That was a huge mistake.
But there are senior people in the DUP and I believe throughout political unionism, who know that our political institutions are the only show in town. They know and recognise the reality that we have transformed the situation the north.
Despite the difficulties, the Executive has delivered positives for many people across the North. We have been successful at actively supporting local business and we have secured unprecedented levels of foreign direct investment and over the course of the past 3 years, we have brought more jobs to the North, than at any time in the history of the state. Job creation must remain a focus for us all in the time ahead.
We have refused to implement water charges and blocked any increase in student fees. We are opposed to the efforts of the Tory government in London to disadvantage the most vulnerable in our society.
We have seen significant progress on working towards greater sharing in education, and the beginning of the lisanelly shared campus in Omagh, where a former military base will be the home for six schools from both traditions, relocated on that site. We recently launched a community relations strategy designed to tackle sectarianism and bringing down the barriers between our communities, which is making inroads at a grass roots level.
We set up the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry to enable those victims to find answers and seek redress. It has been truly heartbreaking to hear the testimonies of those many people affected. We launched an initiative to get 10,000 young people, on a cross community basis, into training and jobs.
But the good work is often overshadowed by the negativity.
Sensible people within unionism recognise this.
They know and recognise that we have the potential to deliver much more. They, I believe want to do deals and make agreements with Sinn Féin.
These people are genuine partners for peace and genuine about wanting to build a better future for our children. They are held back by the negative forces within unionism. They need to break free of the naysayers, and lead from the front.
My commitment is to work with those unionists that want to see progress, to consolidate the peace process and turn the political process into one which is solely about delivery not survival.
The starting point must be to honour those agreements already made.
To deliver fully on the Programme for Government.
To sort out difficulties around the table with the other parties, and not in intra unionist forums.
To embrace partnership and equality.
We can unleash the true potential of our people if we can see progress on these age old issues and unite behind the common goal of building a better future for our young people.
In the course of my work I travel around the country a lot. I meet people from all walks of life and in all counties in Ireland.
I sense that there is optimism that we can overcome the remaining difficulties. I have to say despite my obvious frustrations it is an optimism I share. I believe that our people are way ahead of their political leaders.
We need to tap into the reservoir of goodwill, of optimism and of belief in the future and we need to do what we were elected to do. Lead.
Nobody will find Sinn Fein or myself wanting if they meet us on the basis on solving problems and overcoming challenges.
Our record over many years speaks for itself.
None of the issues which currently face the peace process are insurmountable. So let us refocus in the next few weeks and grasp the opportunity presented by the Haass proposals and take the next step forward to a new and better future.