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Martin McGuinness MP keynote address at Mid Ulster Election Convention

13 December, 2012

I was first elected MP in Mid Ulster in early 1997.  In the previous year the British Tory Government had first obstructed and then rejected the opportunity to establish a peace process and the IRA had resumed its Armed Struggle. 

 Many feared that our peace process would not advance. I had no such doubt. We had all embarked on an inexorable journey of change some years earlier. I knew in my heart and in my head that there should be no turning back, that there could be no turning back.

 Within 3 months the IRA's cessation had been restored. Shortly after this the talks process began. And months later the Good Friday Agreement had been accomplished.

 And that is perhaps the most crucial lesson from the peace process and the political process that we have all been engaged in for the past 20 odd years.   

 When change begins, and we have the confidence to embrace it as an opportunity and a friend, and show honest and positive leadership, then so much is possible.

 In the wake of the events of this last 10 days or so, many in our society, from all political persuasions and none, are now frightened that the huge progress we have made could be rolled back. 

 Tonight I want to speak to that fear.

 And although we are gathered here tonight at a Sinn Fein election convention I want to speak to more than republicans, I also want to address  unionist and protestant people.

 Our society has witnessed remarkable changes since 1998 in all respects. 

 We have witnessed changes that the naysayers and the prophets of doom told us were impossible.   

 We have power-sharing government by parties with opposing political aspirations. 

 We have a political framework and arrangements which reflect the equal legitimacy of our differing political aspirations. We have institutions at Stormont and a developing all-Ireland political architecture.

 We have new policing and justice arrangements. 

 And we have support for all of this from right across our community. 

 But none of this has come easy. And of course we have much more to do. And maybe that is the big lesson of the past 10 days.

 We have still to grapple with, and develop the principles or templates which will determine how we progress some very sensitive issues.   

 How, for example, do we prioritise equality?  What exactly do we mean by mutual respect or parity of esteem for the differing political traditions?  How do we de-segregate our society, heal divisions and create the dynamic which will construct new human and political relationships between our communities?

 These are awesome challenges. But none of us should be daunted by them. None of us should assume the role of the past naysayers or prophets of doom. 

 We can address and progress all of these if we adopt the same confident willingness to embrace the process of change as an opportunity and a friend as we did 5, 10 or 16 years ago. 

 We can address all of these if we show confident positive leadership .

 But when we begin to meet these challenges it must be on the basis of compromise, not the politics of zero sum or "winner takes all". 

 It can only be on the basis of equality and the politics of mutual respect which we clearly must now discuss. 

 In the here and now we need to reflect long and hard about what exactly the Good Friday Agreement provision on symbols and emblems means for each of us and how it challenges us to act. 

 And however we construct the framework to address all of these issues we need to be clear about one thing, there can be no going back.

 James Craig once described the Six Counties as a Protestant state and Stormont as a Protestant parliament. A few days ago a very senior unionist politician described the place where we live as, and I quote,  “a unionist country”.

 The days of  Sir James Craig or Lord Craigavon are long gone. This is not a unionist country. The current political reality links the Six Counties to Westminster. I understand that. As an Irish republican I am committed to changing that by purely peaceful and democratic means. Those who reside in the north of Ireland have mixed political identities and aspirations, all of which command respect and recognition.

 Belfast city is a mirror of the process of change which has been shaping our wider society. It is a changed city from 10, 20, or 50 years ago. Its ethos has changed, its demography has changed, its politics has changed and it continues to change.   

 The pace of change in Belfast has outgrown and left the old status quo way behind. And I am proud that Sinn Féin have played an important role in all of that. 

 Belfast City Council’s decision last week was a vote for compromise. 

 It has been cast - or rather – it has been miscast - as a victory for nationalists, as a victory for Sinn Féin. It was neither.   

 Sinn Féin Councillors proposed that there should be no flag flown.   

 The Council preferred the compromise proposal in favour of designated days.

 This decision was in line with the Flags legislation brought forward by Peter Mandelson and which David Trimble from the Ulster Unionists commended many years ago.

 It was in line with the position of the PUP up until a few short weeks ago.

 It was in line with the position adopted by Lisburn Council on designated days which unionists supported.

 And yet, suddenly, for no apparent reason, unionist have set themselves against the designated days

 The decision of Belfast City Council was the right decision. And although it was not the preferred option for Sinn Féin, my party accept and respect that decision. Compromise favours no side but benefits us all.

 We can all very easily agree or nod in the direction of equality. That is the easy bit. But the application of an equality agenda requires a recognition that equality challenges us all. And it begs positive and honest leadership.

 I am very disappointed that, in response to the events of the past week, we have yet to see from within some sections of unionism the honest leadership we require. I am disappointed to say that we have seen a failure of leadership from some quarters. Only they can explain why. 

 The protests and the attacks on the police, the City Hall staff, the Alliance party and their family members, and on business were a disgrace and must be condemned. So too must we condemn the threats, from whatever source, against members of various political parties, including my own and  the DUP. I call for all of this to end. 

 Belfast deserves better than this. We all deserve better than this. 

 The Belfast Council discussion and decision on flags did not fall out of the sky.  It has been outworking in a manifest way for a very long period.

  And it was a democratic decision made by the elected representatives of the people the Council serves.

 But the response to this decision was far from democratic.   It was violent and it was orchestrated in a very cynical way. Both the UVF and UDA have played a significant role in this orchestration. Unionist leaders, for some reason or other, may now pretend otherwise. We have yet to hear a unionist leader question the role of loyalist paramilitaries in all of this. And at this point, we can only speculate as to why that is so, or how far this orchestration extended and who all it has involved.  

 Those responsible for this should now be told by unionist leaders to bring it to an end.

  I am conscious of the sensitivity of symbols and emblems. I recognise that some unionists have fears about what they may perceive as a dilution of their ‘Britishness’.  And it may be the recent census results which point to gradual but significant demographic changes will needlessly heighten further these fears. But we must also recognise that nationalists have concerns about their ‘Irishness’.

 So, let me say this very clearly, Paddy McGrory, a human rights lawyer from Belfast who passed away many years ago, once, very famously, described the nationalist experience in the north of Ireland as akin to "living in an alien and hostile environment in their own land."

 I grew up in that state. So did many generations of nationalists before me.

 We experienced, in a very stark way, the denial of human rights. We experienced first hand institutionalised discrimination. Our cultural rights were systematically trampled upon. We were denied democratic participation.    

 Many many nationalists in this constituency and elsewhere in the north will know exactly what I refer to. Many of them, just like Pat Finuncane and his family, bore the brunt of state violence against them, aimed at defeating their demand for civil rights. And many have borne the brunt of various British government attempts to suppress their sense of Irishness and the expression of their Irish identity.

 Republicans have no wish, desire or intent to visit any of that on unionism.

 Sir James Craig was also Lord Craigavon. I have crossed the Craigavon Bridge, which was named after James Craig, nearly every day of my life.  It lies in the heart of Derry City, the population of which is mainly nationalist and republican. Nationalists have never sought to have the Craigavon Bridge renamed. Nor do they seek the flying of the Irish national flag over the Guildhall.

 The identity and symbols of those who see themselves as British must be protected. I accept that, I support that and I will commit to that. But, so too, must the identity and symbols of those who see themselves as Irish. I commit to that also.

 Mutual respect is a two way process, parity of esteem must be for everyone. I challenge other political leaders to make the same commitment as I.

 There are many other important issues beyond flags to address and much bigger challenges up ahead. And it may be that we have some new thinking to do on all of these.

 Attempts to convene a meeting of the Assembly Commission to consider increasing the number of flag-flying days at Stormont suggests that some unionists have a distance to go yet to come up with new thinking. 

 Unlike most other Committees at Stormont, the Assembly Commission is not subject to cross-community voting. The clear intent in this was to impose a unionist position rather than to seek an agreed position.   

 The Assembly Commission has responsibility for ensuring that the culture, identity, ethos and traditions of all who are represented there, of all who work there,  and all who visit there,  are respected. It is not the place for political strokes.

 What we need now is a period of calm reflection. We need a calm discussion, not an attempt to outmanoeuvre each other. We need an examination of common ground or the potential for common ground, we need to be generous. And we need honest leadership.

 Hopefully, in the coming days, we can begin the type of discussions with all other political parties on this basis.  I am confident that we can map a way forward in which everyone can have confidence.

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