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Political process in perilous situation – Michelle Gildernew

21 September, 2014 - by Michelle Gildernew


Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew speaking at a Labour Party Conference fringe meeting told her audience that ‘our political process is in a perilous – I would actually say untenable – position’.

Addressing the theme, "Labour, Ireland and defending the peace process" the Fermanagh South Tyrone MP said:

“Much work was put in by many people to get the Good Friday Agreement.

“However its implementation is far from over – but to continue the task needs momentum. At present, our political process is in a perilous – I would actually say untenable - position.

“Over the last two years, political unionism has clearly moved into an anti-Agreement mode.

“In 2012 we saw the violent unionist and loyalist reaction to the lawful, democratic decision of Belfast City Council to reduce the flying of the union flag to ‘designated’ days – the same as in the Assembly.

“In 2013 we saw the violent unionist and loyalist reaction to the lawful decision of the Parades Commission preventing an unwanted Orange Order march to pass nationalist Ardoyne in North Belfast.

“And then in 2013, DUP leader Peter Robinson reneged on the agreed Programme for Government commitment to develop the Long Kesh/Maze site – by way of a letter sent from Florida, not to his joint First Minister Martin McGuinness, but to DUP party colleagues.

“This approach has increasingly defined the nature of DUP participation in the political institutions in the north. We see no genuine willingness to share power with republicans in a real partnership government, or to embrace things like mutual respect, parity of esteem or reconciliation.

“Since the May elections, we have seen the makings of a pan-unionist coalition of the unionist political parties – including those aligned to the paramilitary UDA & UVF. It is an anti-GFA axis, aiming to subvert the GFA’s principles and processes.

"So we have seen a refusal to agree the compromises emerging from the talks chaired by Richard Haass & Meghan O’Sullivan later last year; a walkout from reconvened party leaders’ talks in July, and threats to bring down the institutions over the issues of ‘On The Runs’, the Parades Commission decision, and now most recently on the issue of cuts.

“This situation is untenable, and it is for the British and Irish governments – with support from the US – to step up, get engaged positively and get things moving again.” CRÍOCH/END

 The full text of Michelle Gildernew's speech tonight

This year marks the 16th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a watershed in Irish politics and surely one of the British Labour Party’s greatest recent achievements.

Much work was put in by many people to get the Agreement and to slowly and painstakingly work to get it implemented.

That implementation is far, far from over – but to continue with that task needs momentum – the bicycle syndrome where at least slow pedalling is needed to keep moving forwards.

However at present, our political process is in a perilous – I would actually say untenable - position.

And this is because not only is the bike not being moved forwards, but there are significant elements looking to find a reverse gear.

Over the last two years, political unionism has clearly moved into an anti-Agreement mode.

In 2012 we saw the violent unionist and loyalist reaction to the lawful, democratic  decision of Belfast City Council to reduce the flying of the union flag to ‘designated’ days – the same as in the Assembly, where unionists accept this state of affairs quite quietly.

In 2013 we saw the violent unionist and loyalist reaction to the lawful decision of the Parades Commission to prevent an unwanted Orange Order march to pass nationalist Ardoyne in North Belfast.

And then in 2013, DUP leader Peter Robinson reneged on the agreed Programme for Government commitment to develop the Long Kesh/Maze site – by way of a letter sent from Florida, not to his joint First Minister Martin McGuinness, but to DUP party colleagues.

This approach has increasingly defined the nature of DUP participation in the political institutions in the north.

We see no genuine willingness to share power with republicans in a real partnership government, or to embrace things like mutual respect, parity of esteem or reconciliation.

And the reasons for this are clear. Many in the DUP entered the arrangement unwillingly back in 2007, and are still lukewarm – to say the least - about the new dispensation. But since the May elections, we have seen the makings of a pan-unionist coalition of the unionist political parties – including those aligned to the paramilitary UDA & UVF.

It is primarily focussed on the parades issue, and trying to reverse the Ardoyne decision - but it’s wider than that – it is an anti-GFA axis, aiming to subvert the GFA’s principles and processes.

So we have seen a refusal to agree the compromises emerging from the talks chaired by Richard Haass & Meghan O’Sullivan later last year; a walkout from reconvened party leaders’ talks in July, and threats to bring down the institutions over the issues of ‘On The Runs’, the Parades Commission decision, and now most recently on the issue of welfare reform – or what are in reality welfare cuts.

I will return to welfare cuts in a minute, but what does need said very clearly is that all of this unionist obstruction, delaying, sitting on their hands and seeking reverse gear back to the 1960’s is being facilitated and allowed to happen by the behaviour of the government in London.

It has repeatedly shown its willingness to capitulate, and an unwillingness to stand up to unionist threats and intransigence. Reasons or explanations are various – a total lack of interest or engagement? Possibly, but it can be argued they are engaged – engaged in doing the wrong things. An ideological sympathy with where unionists are at? Remember, the Tories did not negotiate the GFA or St Andrews – to them republicans are still the enemy. And the small matter of eight DUP seats – and votes – post 2015 general election cannot be ignored.

As I said earlier, this situation is untenable, and it is for the British and Irish governments – with support from the US – to step up, get engaged positively and get things moving again.

We need to talk - there are too many issues sitting unresolved and unagreed - and I welcome signs in recent days that we may be moving into full and inclusive negotiations on all of this.

To return to the issue of welfare reform, let me be brief and clear.

The British Welfare Reform process has not been implemented in the north.

This is due to our party stalling the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill, which the Assembly must pass.

We had hoped for much more cross-party efforts to fight the London government on this.

This has not happened. Unionism are content to bring this insidious Bill into force, and all that flows from it – and I do not need to tell people here just what welfare “reform” really means.

Last week Martin McGuinness made it clear – the DUP minister responsible should bring the Bill to the floor of the Assembly for debate and votes, and let them explain how foisting this welfare cuts agenda on their own working class constituents, as well as everyone else, is in any way desirable.

If they refuse to bring the Bill, then this issue should go to the people, by way of an election to the Assembly.

We fear no election.

Sinn Fein will not deliver the cuts demanded by a cabinet of millionaires in London, who have not one vote in Ireland, and we stand alongside the poor, the low paid and the disadvantaged in this battle.

So things are not good. What unionism’s aim is is not always clear – to collapse the institutions so as not to be handcuffed to Sinn Fein in the run-up to next year's general election?

Possible, but again let me be clear, that is not our agenda. We do not want direct Tory rule from London. We want local politicians making the decisions and doing proper government and delivery.

These institutions are part and parcel of the Good Friday arrangements, and those need developed and strengthened, not thrown to the side.

To conclude, as I remarked at the start, the GFA must be seen as one of Labours biggest achievements, and we certainly believe that there is a big onus on the present Labour party to help in ensuring that things do not go down.

And I know Ivan and his colleagues have been at the heels of Theresa Villiers and the government here to step up and to engage positively – in an even-handed way. That is sorely needed as we find ourselves in the choppiest of political waters, and those demands need to be louder and stronger.

Next year could see Labour return to power, and of course there are many issues we would wish to see them working on in preparation for that, and once in power – the transfer of more fiscal powers to the Assembly, the completion of the many (still) outstanding elements of our Agreements and much else, including Labour's previous public commitment to a public inquiry into the assassination of Pat Finucane.

So we have much to deal with – crunching down on all the difficult issues; ensuring the very survival of our institutions, and standing up against the Tory cuts.

I’ll leave you with all of that, and I look forward to Ivan’s contribution and to the discussion.

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