Sinn Féin submission on East-West relations
This submission is intended to aid the debate on how new structures would assist the search for a lasting peace. A sovereign agreed Ireland will evolve institutions with our nearest neighbour based on a relationship of trust, equality and respect. Our problem is how to create steps which will get us to that point. Our analysis today is focused on the practical difficulties which face us in the attempt to force Britain to deal with Irish people and our discussions and debates on a basis of equality. The Framework document is not a blueprint. Our evaluation is based on our Republican analysis of the way forward and the principles outlined by John Hume and Gerry Adams in their agreed statements.
It is important when debating any future new structures which might emerge this side and the other side of the Irish Sea from all party peace negotiations that sight is not lost of the nature of the political problem that is being tackled. From a republican/nationalist perspective the problem lies in the interference in Ireland, dating back many centuries, of the British government. Arising from this long military occupation and the measures taken by successive generations of Irish people to remove that presence, we have been left with a legacy of division and misunderstanding among the Irish people themselves and between the Irish and British people - exactly what a policy of "divide and rule" was designed to manufacture.
Sinn Féin believes that the division and misunderstanding can be overcome provided there is a willingness on all sides to address the root of the problem: Britain's presence in the Six Counties. Any new institutions and structures put in its place should be based on this reality and should be designed to address it.
Meaningful structures which help to remove division and to encourage agreement between the people of Ireland on a political settlement would be welcomed by Sinn Féin. Similarly structures which foster good relations between Ireland and Britain are to be welcomed.
The present 'East-West' governmental structures consist of the normal diplomatic channels between Dublin and London, the Intergovernmental structures set up under the 1985 Hillsborough Agreement and the British-Irish Parliamentary Body.
The Intergovernmental Conference and the Maryfield Secretariat were put in place against the background of promises that the Hillsborough Treaty would "end the nationalist nightmare". Nationalists in the Six Counties were assured that their rights would be guaranteed through the Dublin government's participation in the Hillsborough structures.
The experience remains, on the contrary, that abuses of their rights by the British state continued after 1985 and in a number of ways, their situation has deteriorated. In the years after 1985 the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Provisions Act were extended and refined, abuse in interrogation centres continued, nationalist districts remained under siege from British forces who raided and arrested at will, direct political censorship was imposed on broadcasting by the British government. Along the border a line of forts, spy-posts and watch-towers sprang up - the Hillsborough Wall - and the entire British military infrastructure was reinforced.
Loyalist death squads were re-armed with the help of British intelligence and intensified their campaign of political and sectarian assassinations. Collusion between British forces and loyalists became a public issue but as the Stevens Report debacle made clear the British government's main concern was to cover it up.
Throughout this period all these issues and more were raised by nationalists with successive Dublin governments and in turn raised by them with the British government through the Intergovernmental Conference and the Maryfield Secretariat. But the British remained unresponsive as ever. The Hillsborough 'East-West' structures, as far as nationalists and republicans were concerned were largely ineffective and became simply a conduit for complaints which were met with indifference or intransigence by the British government. The "nationalist nightmare" continued.
British government intransigence did not end with the commencement of the peace process. Throughout this process they have had to be pushed at every stage to play a positive part. Their sincerity in engaging in the search for lasting peace remains in doubt. Of particular concern now is their stance on the issue of all party peace talks. British bad faith and procrastination, exemplified by the refusal to initiate such talks combined with the continual placing of arbitrary conditions on Sinn Fein, is causing widespread public concern. We need to ask the question, do the British want a Peace Process in the first place? Or do they hope to gradually recreate a scenario of "divide and rule".
Of increasing concern is the treatment of political prisoners, especially those in England - for whom conditions have actually deteriorated since the cessation . Britain once before underestimated the depth of support and concern that exists for the prisoners. They are making a fundamental mistake if they continue as at present to implement the failed policies of the past. The prisoners and their families cannot be used as political hostages and failure to address their situation has the potential to further undermine confidence in the entire peace process.
In the light of such a negative response from the British government there is a clear duty on all of us to exert whatever influence and political pressure we can on Britain to move towards a pro-active and positive role as a persuader for agreement and for the immediate implementation of civil and human rights.
Clearly any new structures must set aside the failures of the past, not repeat them. For too long the East-West relationship between Ireland and Britain has been one of domination and subjugation. Political structures based on British jurisdiction in Ireland and on partition have failed because they maintain that unequal relationship.
Relationships on a non-governmental level, such as in trade unions and voluntary organisations, demonstrate the good relationships between Irish and British people. Many trade unions and voluntary organisations already have an East-West dimension, and this works well when it is done on a basis of equal partnership, not the domination which has characterised the British government's relations with Ireland in the past.
Sinn Fein believes any new structures between Ireland and Britain should be used to assist the resolution of the conflict, facilitating a negotiated settlement on the basis of all-party talks. A lasting solution will be based on national self-determination for the Irish people. A national democracy will decide what formal structures, if any, are needed between Britain and Ireland.
Ultimately the aim should be for structures which encourage and enhance good relationships between two neighbouring sovereign states.