Sinn Féin - On Your Side

McGuinness reports on negotiations to Ard Fheis

29 February, 2004


In my political report to last year‚s Ard Fheis I set out in some detail what progress had been made in what was then an ongoing and protracted negotiation with both the British and Irish governments and the various political parties aimed at resolving the political impasse.

One year on I want again today to set out where things are at on the negotiations front.

I want to focus on two particular negotiations over the past year - one which was ongoing at the time of our last Ard Fheis and which ended a short time afterwards and the negotiations which led to the events of 21 October last. I want also to deal with our approach to the Review of the Good Friday Agreement which is presently underway.

It is however, important to first set out the political context in which all of this was and is taking place: that is, a political crisis in the process which has existed in its current acute form for almost 2 years now. This crisis has essentially two different but related elements, one is the refusal or inability of unionist leaders to come to terms with the changes heralded by the Good Friday Agreement, and the other, and deeper element of the crisis, is the failure of the British Government to fulfil their obligations and commitments which have flowed from the Agreement.

David Trimble knows the Agreement is good for our society. But since April 1998 he has allowed his political compass to be set by Ian Paisley.

This is what has driven his 'ducks into the water, ducks out of the water' approach to the political institutions. For this has been part of his wider battle within unionism. As Ian Paisley set the unionist agenda of opposition to the Good Friday Agreement David Trimble's biggest mistake was to respond by trying to out Paisley-Paisley.

Even when the IRA leadership moved to save the peace process by putting a first tranche of arms beyond use in October 2001 David Trimble responded in the same vein as before. Mr Trimble‚s bluff had been called. He was now preoccupied with Mr Paisley at his shoulder rather than the Agreement or the peace process or indeed the issue of arms.

So while he initially responded positively to the IRA initiative he soon chose instead to up the ante at his Party Conference in March ‚02. Putting arms beyond use was no longer good enough. He reverted to the old demand of a complete surrender and he got the support of Tony Blair and John Reid for this. The British system after all had been trying to get an IRA surrender or defeat for decades.

Anti-Agreement unionist political forces with the assistance of sections of the British system were now setting the political agenda. At the UUC meeting in September ‚02 Mr Trimble signed up to an anti-Agreement motion tabled by Jeffrey Donaldson. This was the point when the political process tilted into political crisis - September ‚02, a full one and a half years ago; when David Trimble signalled his intention to pull the institutions down in January ‚03.

But rather than having the UUP seen clearly as responsible for this the British security system in the form of the PSNI stepped in with the Stormontgate charade. This was pure street-theatre. In the past few week it has been exposed as no more than an attempt to provide a spurious validation to David Trimble and provide a pretext for British Government suspension of the institutions again. That is the second and deeper part of the crisis.

Instead of holding up its end of the Agreement and in a vain attempt to preserve him as the leader of unionism the British Government chose to cosset David Trimble. Even when 'saving Dave' meant following him onto Paisley‚s political ground

Our job however is to confront setbacks, to deal with them and move on.

This is the approach which underpinned the two mammoth negotiations we were engaged in throughout 2003.

At the time of last year's party conference we had been locked for a period of months in discussions with the two governments which centred around their failure to faithfully implement the Agreement and we had also begun what we considered to be a significant and meaningful engagement with unionists.

At that time we had secured commitments from the governments on a range of issues, many of which I reported to you at the time. Many of these commitments were brought together in a Joint Declaration by the two governments which was eventually published at the end of April. But lets be absolutely clear about this declaration. Although it deals with many of our concerns, it is a bilateral position agreed only by the two governments. It is not a Sinn Féin position. It does not and cannot supplant the Good Friday Agreement. The validity of any aspect of its content only obtains insofar as it matches or is consistent with the Agreement. Sinn Féin has rejected those elements of the Joint Declaration which do not meet this test.

We had of course sight of the content of the Joint Declaration in its early draft form and well in advance of its eventual publication. And as I have just said, we were not totally happy with its final form. It contains difficulties, some of which were then and remain wholly unacceptable to Sinn Fein. We believed nevertheless that it committed to significant progress across a range of issues. Indeed it showed just how much of the Agreement the two governments had failed to implement. These commitments, if and when acted upon by the two governments, would see the commencement of a process that could see the implementation in full of the Good Friday Agreement.

Consequently, the IRA leadership was persuaded to take yet another initiative to support and inject momentum into the peace process.

On Sunday, 13 April, Gerry Adams and I passed the final copy of a proposed IRA statement to the two governments.

It contained several highly significant and positive elements unparalleled in any previous statement by the IRA leadership.

A copy was also shown to the Ulster Unionist Party leadership.

Ten days later the British Prime Minister publicly raised three questions about the proposed IRA statement.

There is little point in rehearsing the detail of what amounted to an exercise in political scrabble by Mr. Blair. Other than to point out, firstly, that the IRA statement was clear on each of the issues raised by Mr Blair, and secondly, lest there be any doubt, each and all of the questions were subsequently, publicly and clearly, answered by the Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.

In an attempt to break the stand off the IRA leadership had authorised a third act of putting arms beyond use to be verified by the IICD.

The UUP responded in the negative. In doing so they made it clear that their primary concern was the forthcoming election battle with the DUP and conceded that this battle would be fought on the political ground of their opponents within unionism. With unionists rejecting the IRA initiative both governments reneged on their commitments and we were back to square one, stalemate.

Fast forward to October last year and the script is the same. Protracted negotiations, Sinn Féin secure commitments from both the Governments and the Unionists, the IRA are persuaded to take yet another initiative ˆ which they do ˆ David Trimble reneges, the Governments in turn renege and the process is put on hold. Back to square one, stalemate.

Again I have no wish to rehearse the twists and turns in the October negotiations. But I do want to make some things absolutely clear.

At Hillsborough castle, in the early evening of Sunday, October 19th Sinn Fein and the UUP reached agreement on a sequence of events. That night I asked David Trimble for his word of honour on this agreement and he gave Gerry Adams and I his solemn word.

When the two governments were informed that we had reached agreement they also signed on for it.

This agreed sequence was the product of many weeks of intense discussions involving Sinn Féin, the UUP and the British and Irish governments and would allow for the restoration of the political institutions and the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and allow elections to be held in a positive context.. It involved many hours of direct engagement between ourselves and the leadership of the UUP.

Everything you have heard which seeks to explain the breakdown in the sequence as something to do with misunderstanding, ambiguity, confusion, lack of clarity, deception or non delivery by republicans is absolute rubbish.

There was no confusion, no ambiguity and not the remotest possibility of misunderstanding.

All elements of the sequence were agreed in advance, including the public statements containing the commitments, which we would all make as part of this agreement.

The sequence involved:

  • An announcement by the British Government confirming the date for an Assembly election.
  • A statement by Gerry Adams
  • A statement by the IRA
  • A further act of putting arms beyond use by the IRA, and verified by the IICD.
  • A report by the IICD
  • A statement by David Trimble
  • A joint statement by the two governments.

Gerry Adams and I have in our possession copies of the statement that Mr Trimble was to make. We have copies of the Joint Statement that the two governments were to issue.

In fact because Mr. Trimble wanted to ensure that everything was done quickly to create a political momentum, Gerry Adams agreed, at David Trimble‚s request, to bring forward his remarks by one hour.

Sinn Féin delivered our part of this sequence as agreed. The IRA delivered their part of the agreement as agreed. The IICD presided over a substantial act of putting arms beyond use and reported this. The UUP however, at the point of delivery on their side, effectively walked away. Only they can explain why they did so.

And likewise with the two governments. They failed to publish their joint statement and, thus far, they have failed to follow through on a range of commitments which formed part of this agreement.

So where does this leave us? Two protracted negotiations culminating in each instance in Republicans stretching ourselves in an effort to save and advance the peace process and, also in each instance, a negative response or reneging on commitments by both the governments and the leadership of unionism. Stalemate.

Are we any further on? Is it time to think anew with respect to our approach, our strategy? What have we to show for our efforts. Some might think - not a lot. I take a different view. But these are all legitimate questions. Not just for now. These are the questions we must ask ourselves on a regular basis.

Yes, eleven months on, with the political institutions in continuing suspension and no movement on issues of equality, human rights, and demilitarisation you could be forgiven for concluding that we have made little progress or that we have nothing to show for our efforts of the past year.

There is certainly no getting away from the fact that the process is in serious crisis. Gerry Adams has told it as it is in his presidential address yesterday. This is a dangerous crisis.

But remember, at the time of our last Ard Fheis the governments were declaring that there would be no further negotiations. Despite their assertions we have, over the past year, engaged both governments on a continual basis on what is required to move the situation forward.

And more importantly we do have something to show for it. In the course of our engagements with both governments and on more than one occasion we have frustrated their attempts to sell the Agreement short, we have resisted their efforts to impose a deal which allows them to evade or dilute their obligations. And we have managed to hold the two governments to the Good Friday Agreement as the template for change.

And crucially we have built and continue to build our political strength which is the only guarantee that the process of change will continue.

We have reminded them again and again that the commitments they made in the Agreement, in last years Joint Declaration and in subsequent discussions, commitments on prisoners, on OTRs, on demilitarisation, on policing, on the rights of Irish citizens in the north to representation in the Oireachtas haven't gone away, not will we allow them to go away.

I want now to turn now to the Review

So how have we approached this review and what of its prospects?

Despite the negative context within which it is set Sinn Féin is bringing a positive attitude to the review.

We submitted a comprehensive agenda for discussion to the governments covering a range of issues under the broad headings of Stability of the Institutions; Equality and Human Rights; Expansion of the All Ireland Elements; Demilitarisation, and Policing and Justice.

We have prepared detailed positions on all of these including specific proposals for action to advance the equality and Human Rights agenda, to increase the number of Implementation Bodies and Areas of Co-operation, to establish an All-Ireland Inter-Parliamentary Forum and All-Ireland Consultative Forum, to enable the transfer of powers on policing and justice.

We have also raised the disgraceful situation of electoral registration in the north and the resulting disenfranchisment of over 200,000 voters.

The issue of collusion is on the agenda, including the refusal of the British government to publish the Cory report and their failure thus far to initiate independent inquiries demanded by families of those killed by State forces or through collusion between British forces and unionist paramilitaries.

We have argued also for a genuine and substantial social economic peace dividend for deprived working class areas, both unionist and nationalist.

These are all matters directly linked to the Good Friday Agreement and which require focussed discussion and action.

While we have adopted a good faith approach to this review we are under no illusions with regard to its prospects.

We are very mindful of the inconsistency between the British Government's assertion that the Agreement cannot be renegotiated and their failure to restore the political institutions which are the democratic core of the Agreement.

We are equally mindful of the contradiction in the Democratic Unionist Party‚s position of taking part in a review which is about determining how best to implement the Agreement when they have declared their intention to subvert it.

The DUP tell us all, in their published documents, and I quote, „Any agreement must command the support of both nationalists and unionists‰.

Sinn Féin emerged from the recent Assembly election with 60% of the nationalist vote.

Surely the logic of the position outlined by the DUP must mean that they graduate now from sitting in councils with Sinn Féin or sitting in TV studios with Sinn Féin to face to face negotiations with our party. The logic of their position is, as Gerry Adams put it yesterday, they should be in government with Sinn Féin.

Of course, neither the British Government nor the DUP has attempted thus far to explain the contradictions in their respective positions.

And everyone knows the Ulster Unionist position. Last week David Trimble threatened to walk out of the Review. He declared that any further participation by his party would only be on the basis of discussions around the issue of paramilitary activity.

And what is the governments response to this? Well, lo and behold, Review business on Monday has been cancelled and Review business on Tuesday is now scheduled to be focussed on what the governments describe as „paramilitarism and its detrimental impact on our collective efforts to find a basis for sustainable devolution‰.

We, of course, have no difficulty with such a focus. In fact we welcome it. We have many many questions with respect to paramilitary activity.

We know that the PUP for example during last summer used their influence to help bring about a decrease in loyalist activity on their side. We hope to hear that this will continue.

We don‚t know as yet whether or not the announcement last week by the UDA that they are extending their ceasefire will mean anything. However we are prepared to wait and see. We certainly welcome the UPRG signalling an intention to work towards this end.

But there are other issues of concern to us which we intend to raise in next weeks discussions. There is the very big issue of the continuing British Government involvement in loyalist paramilitary activity. And of course there is ongoing concern about the DUP involvement in Ulster Resistance.

So, it will be interesting to see how the respective parties address these particular concerns about their connection to paramilitary activity, and also about their future intentions in this regard.

As to the prospects of the Review - well, we can be certain of one thing, it won‚t lead us out of the current stalemate. It was not designed to deal with a crisis in the Agreement.

Yes, the current stalemate is a crisis, a dangerous crisis. But it is not a crisis that - began one week ago outside a bar in Belfast. It is not a crisis around the IRA or IRA intentions. The institutions have been suspended now for almost 18 months. This is the 4th suspension. In the same period the IRA have taken a number of initiatives to move the process forward, whereas both governments, and particularly the British Government, have failed repeatedly to deliver on their commitments. In the same period the securocrats have succeeded in stalling the process of change. But that is all they have managed to do. They have not halted this process, nor have they reversed it. Nor will we allow them to.

We have negotiated, and campaigned and argued to have the Good Friday Agreement implemented not only because that is our obligation, not only because it is the right thing, but also because it fits into a strategy of providing and maintaining a political alternative to conflict, a means of sustaining and anchoring the peace process and a transition to the free independent Ireland we have worked long to achieve. That is what our negotiations strategy is about. That is what we will continue to do. Sinn Féin is in this process to the end

Our intention is clear.

Our intention is peaceful.

Our intention is to succeed.

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