Sinn Féin - On Your Side

McGuinness reports on peace talks

30 March, 2003


Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness presents a report on the current negotiations to the Ard Fheis.

All of you are aware that our party has, in recent weeks, been involved in a very intensive round of talks with both the British and Irish governments and various political parties in an attempt to resolve the current impasse in the peace process.

I want to take the opportunity here to outline our approach to these negotiations and to give you a sense of where they are at this time.

I don't intend to rehearse in detail the background to the current difficulties. This has been amplified by other speakers yesterday. Gerry Adams dealt with it at some length in his Presidential address. Nor do I intend to set out the finer detail of the various negotiations we have been involved in -- this is still work in progress. But I think it is important to say something of the context within which this particular phase of negotiations has arisen. Or, at least to begin with that.

The British government suspended the political institutions on 14 October. In doing so they were acting at the behest of the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party and in clear breach of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. People will make their own judgement as to the bearing of the forthcoming election battle between the DUP and the UUP in the decision to suspend. The UUP, if you remember, signalled as far back as March of last year their intention to bring about the collapse of the institutions.

Later in October the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, came to Belfast and admitted that his government had not fulfilled their obligations with respect to the Agreement. He went on to call on all parties to the Agreement to engage in what he described as Acts of Completion.

Sinn Féin has consistently called for the full and faithful implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Our approach to all of this has been the same approach we have brought to previous phases of negotiations - consistent and persistent. While others were attempting to reduce the focus on resolving the current difficulties to a single item agenda, we have been pressing both governments to produce a comprehensive implementation plan to address all the broad range of issues required to bring about the full implementation of the Agreement.

Some weeks after the suspension of the institutions the governments finally convened all-party talks. In advance of these talks Sinn Féin set out for all the parties our view on all the issues which needed to be addressed.

These included:

  • The political institutions and the democratic rights of all sections of the electorate.
  • Equality and Human Rights
  • Victims of the Conflict
  • The Irish Language
  • The use of flags and emblems for public purposes
  • The issue of arms
  • Demilitarisation
  • Policing and Justice
  • Transfer of powers on policing and justice
  • Prisoners.

Once it became clear that discussions would in fact deal with the broader range of issues rather than the single item agenda the UUP withdrew from these discussions.

While Sinn Féin was in touch with both governments throughout October and November this current negotiations phase did not begin until the start of December. By the 22nd of December we had submitted to both the British and Irish governments a 57 page document setting out our views on how all the issues should or could be addressed with a view to resolution.

The negotiations picked up pace in early January and since then we have been involved in intensive discussions on all the issues with all the parties, but particularly with the two governments and their officials.

Both Gerry Adams and myself have been in London and Dublin on a number of occasions. We have met with both the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach several times throughout this period and with the British Secretary of State and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Our negotiating team including Gerry Kelly, Bairbre de Brun, Conor Murphy, Marylou McDonald, Arthur Morgan, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Martin Ferris and Mitchel McLaughlin, also held regular meetings with officials from both governments.

One session of negotiations in Belfast between Sinn Féin and the two governments on the 20th of February lasted 15 hours starting in the early afternoon and finishing at 5.00am the following morning.

In the following week we spent 2 days in London and one in Dublin in further discussions. This period of intense contacts prefaced the 2 days of negotiations at Hillsborough on the 3rd and 4th of March. By then, even before the Hillsborough talks, we had made significant progress, particularly on policing and justice issues.

And, since Hillsborough we have continued our contacts with all the parties and our discussions with the two governments.

Throughout all of these negotiations we have sought to achieve a plan for the full implementation of the Agreement and to counter any attempt to filter this implementation through a unionist prism.

A particular irony in all of this is that while our approach is premised on inclusivity, equality and the democratic imperative there are those whose sole focus has remained the exclusion of Sinn Féin from Ministerial office, from government and from the political institutions.

While this may be frustrating for many of us we should not view it as indicative of a lack of progress. In fact, quite the opposite. The more progress we make the more intense will become the efforts of the opponents of change.

The suspension of the institutions by the British government has of course been central to this current crisis. Nor indeed is this suspension crisis new. It is the 4th time this has happened in breach of the Agreement. We have been resolute in our opposition to suspension since the British government arbitrarily took this power onto itself. But - and this is the politically important thing -- it is untenable. It has to go and we are confident that, as a result of our endeavours, that it will go.

A related matter is the issue of sanctions outside the terms of the Agreement. This has recently become a part of the story around this phase of the negotiations.

So let us be clear. Sinn Féin will not be held responsible for any words or deeds other than our own.

We demand for our electorate the same democratic rights, entitlements and treatment as all other sections of the electorate. We reject all sanctions outside the terms of the Agreement.

It is perhaps appropriate at this juncture to mention -- briefly, for I did this at some length earlier in the Ard Fheis -- our contacts with the UUP throughout this recent phase of negotiations.

A lot of time was spent at Hillsborough with the UUP. And indeed there have been several meetings and other points of contact with the UUP since then; and on substantive issues.

Our objectives in these discussions are clear: republicans and nationalists need reassured that the political institutions will not be faced with the same serial suspensions and crisis they have in the past.

I cannot say that they have yet borne fruit other than the benefit of discussion and engagement in which there is an inherent political value. But we will persevere with that. We are a patient lot.

All of that said, we are making and have made progress. We have made progress on Policing on Justice, on Human Rights, on Equality, on the Irish Language and on other issues.

Policing

At the core of our approach to policing has been the imperative of ensuring that the police service is democratically accountable and representative.

We have made steady progress in redressing this position, building on the advances made in Weston Park 18 months ago.

On the issue of democratic accountability we have, in our most recent discussions, secured commitments to new legislation. That is, in addition to the raft of legislative amendments we secured at Weston Park, we have additional amendments which:

  • requires the British Secretary of State to consult with the Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission on the key areas of policing objectives
  • requires the same consultation process in respect of Codes of Practice over which the British Secretary of State formally had a blank cheque, and
  • ensures that the Belfast sub-groups are placed on a par with the District Policing Partnerships.

These are important additional and reinforcing aspects of accountability; particularly in respect of the Belfast sub-groups where areas like West Belfast will be a pivotal testing ground in any new beginning.

Other areas that have been addressed are operational or in the implementation field, but are equally important. They range from demilitarisation of the PSNI, to the defortification of police stations and to the objective of an unarmed police service, and to an accelerated process to bring this about.

We have also made progress in terms of creating a human rights ethos.

Other issues which we continue to press the British on, and on which we hope to see early movement, are the future role and power of the Special Branch, the issue of plastic bullets and the achievement of representativeness. We have made it clear that the Special Branch abuses which took place under the cover of the Walker procedures and the force within a force created and perpetuated by lengthy or indefinite tenure of Special Branch positions can be no part of a new beginning to policing.

The British government has also agreed in principle to the transfer of power on policing and justice from the British Government to the Assembly and the all-Ireland Ministerial Council. What we are seeking now is that this is firmed up in terms of specific proposals and a defined time frame.

On Criminal Justice:

We successfully re-opened the whole issue of criminal justice and secured a commitment to new legislation.

This will cover for example a Judicial Appointments Commission which is reflective of the community and which has as a key objective the achievement of a judiciary, which is also reflective of society.

There will also be a requirement on the Director of Public Prosecutions to refer to the Ombudsman any matter which indicates that the police have committed a criminal offence or behaved in manner which would justify disciplinary proceedings and it will be an offence to interfere with the DPP.

Specifically and crucially both of these address the concerns many have about the recruitment and running and protection given to agents like Brian Nelson.

There will also be a new independent mechanism to deal with specific complaints against the DPP

And the criminal justice agencies will have to have due regard to relevant international human rights conventions and standards in carrying out their functions.

Criminal Justice agencies will be required to engage in programmes of action and outreach to achieve a workforce reflective of the community.

All criminal justice agencies will be required to publish statements of ethics which will make clear that employees are not permitted to belong to any organisation which acts contrary to the law or the interests of the criminal justice system.

On Demilitarisation we have commitments but we have yet to close on this issue.

On OTRs we have secured a commitment from both the British and Irish Governments to speedily resolve the issue of people on the run as a result of the conflict. We look forward to their return home to their families.

On Human Rights and Equality

We now expect:

  • Appointments to the Human Rights Commission to be in line with international standards.
  • A process to give new momentum to the Bill of Rights
  • Increased powers and resources for the equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.
  • an extension of the bodies which are subject to an equality duty

We have demanded a renewed focus on:

  • addressing the unemployment differential between different sections of the community
  • the regeneration of areas of greatest need, and
  • tackling sectarianism

I welcome, also the coming on stream in the north of the facility at Post Offices there for Irish passport applications. This was agreed some time ago. We will press for further development of these facilities as soon as possible.

On the Irish language

We now expect:

  • Other commitments in the GFA to be fulfilled in respect of the fund for Irish-language film and TV production and the availability of TG4.
  • adequate funding for Foras na Gaeilge

We expect also an affirmation of the principle that there is no hierarchy of victims and, most importantly, action to support that; for instance, an end to the discrimination in the funding of victims support groups.

We also call on the Oireachtas to expedite the implementation of the recommendations to provide representation in the Oireachtas for Irish citizens in the north through their elected representatives. It is important that all Irish citizens are encouraged and enabled to play an active role in the democratic life of the nation. The Irish Government, obviously, has the primary responsibility for achieving this democratic development and we call on the government to expedite the process to do this.

But let me be clear, despite the claims by some that the negotiations are closed there is no deal done.

And let me be equally clear our best endeavours and energies are directed at achieving a deal.

We do not yet have an acceptable policing service or a representative criminal justice system. We certainly do not have equality. And no one is going to give it to us. This party will have to fight for this issue every day. It cannot be left to the negotiating team no matter what commitments are made. This issue of equality has to be the political and campaigning thrust of this party. In other words it is work for you. We do not have functioning political institutions or the demilitarisation that the GFA promised. But we intend to continue to be an engine for change in all these areas. It was particularly disappointing to hear the Irish government assert that there should be no more negotiations on these issues. Surely their role should be to defend Irish national rights and the rights of Irish citizens north and south rather than try to set limits or boundaries on forward progress.

And Sinn Féin, in the context of the peace process, has entrenched our strategy of negotiations to achieve these ends. That is what we do. So we will continue to negotiate. We will continue to fulfil our political mandate to deliver radical and progressive change.

But negotiations and negotiating strategy cannot be seen in isolation. Every one here has key role to play. Every Sinn Fein voter has a role to play. The political landscape of the North has changed forever.The degree of change that we can achieve is linked directly to our political strength. We have an obligation to reach out to unionists and others; we have a responsibility to use our mandate wisely in the interests of a lasting peace.

Increased political strength will allow Sinn Fein to deliver further change in the interests of all of the people of this island. In the Assembly elections, as in previous elections across this island, we collectively, as a party, have the opportunity to increase our political and negotiating strength. That is the challenge we must address as we leave this Ard Fheis.

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