Sinn Féin - On Your Side

McGuinness calls on unionists to work with republicans to build a new Ireland

28 March, 2003


The great task, that has faced the Irish nation throughout history, has been that of taking ownership of our political destiny and evolving a democracy that meets the needs and fulfils the aspirations of all its citizens.

James Connolly called this "the re-conquest of Ireland by the Irish people."

Sinn Fein's task is to be the leadership; the catalyst and the driving force behind that project. The immediate responsibility facing our party is to ensure that there is a meaningful and ongoing Republican contribution to the further development of a Peace Process that we have been instrumental in creating. By building our political strength across this island we will advance the cause of reconfiguring the political structures that have failed our people for so long.

This reconfiguration of the Irish political landscape has already begun. The Good Friday Agreement, the all-Ireland Agreement, is an explicit acknowledgement of the failure of past political structures. It is an admission of the failure of partitionist politics, division and the denial of democracy. While only a beginning, the Agreement has already yielded great hope, new energy and tangible progress in several areas.

It has been a positive development in so many ways. It has been good for the people of this island and it has been good for this party. Although only fully functional for nineteen months out of what should have been a forty-eight month term, through the political institutions, the Assembly, its Executive, its committees, the NSMC, Cross Border Bodies and Implementation Bodies, Sinn Fein representatives have acquired invaluable experience. That experience has assisted us in building our political strength. The work that we are doing is being recognised by more and more people with the result that we have seen our electoral mandate strengthened on every occasion and at every level. I have no doubt that this trend will continue in the Assembly elections.

The Agreement has also been good for broader nationalism. Through the experience of the Peace Process, the negotiation of the Agreement and the working of the political structures, there has emerged a more professional, confident, assured, robust and imaginative nationalist political project.

The entire Peace process brought the issue of the Six Counties to the heart of politics in this state. The Agreement built upon that. This is an immensely important development in political and historical terms. For too long those who governed the 26-County state turned their backs on the North and its people. They ducked their moral and political responsibilities. They pretended that the North did not matter or didn't affect the future development of the rest of Ireland. The establishments, North and South, perpetuated political differences between both parts of the island over 80 years of partition.

It is our task in Sinn Fein, as United Irelanders, to be in the leadership of bridging the divisions between all political traditions on this island - and don't mistakenly believe that the unionist mentality only exists in the six-counties. We need to be in the leadership of evolving the political structures, which allow this to happen.

The Six Counties and all its people must become, in real terms, a permanent feature of the political life of the nation. This is only natural and right. It is also natural and right that there is a need for Unionist involvement in the evolving political shape of this country.

We have witnessed over the course of the past few years clear evidence that republicans and unionists can work together to the benefit of all the people of Ireland. We have seen that politics can work when given the space and the political will is present.

We have seen, despite the various breakdowns and crises over the past five years, the immense benefits of the Agreement for our society and all our people - Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, Unionist and Nationalist. The cessations of armed actions; the reduction in conflict related deaths; the opportunities created for the normalization of life in the community and for increased investment and employment opportunities; local ownership of political decisions; the fact that unionist and nationalist Ministers can deliver results more efficiently than British Direct Rule Ministers; all this has been recognised by unionist people as much as by nationalists. People have seen these improvements and they like what they have seen.

Pro-Agreement Unionist political leaders must, and I believe do, recognise the value of the current process for the people they represent. And, I include in this, members and leaders of the DUP, some of whose Ministers carried out their duties with admirable efficiency and dedication. I believe that the Agreement is changing unionist attitudes, however reluctantly. I believe Unionist leaders see the benefit in the exercise of actual political power for the first time in decades, as opposed to the sterility of years of wielding the negative political power of an undemocratic veto, blocking any political progress.

The Agreement was an historic compromise between Irish nationalism and Irish Unionism. As such it can only work with the willing participation of both political traditions

I welcome Tony Blair's comments in the British House of Commons following Hillsborough that there can be no renegotiation of the Agreement and that it will be fully implemented. Some unionists that I have spoken to recently told me that they noted these remarks -- and more significantly -- the serious tone with which he delivered them. I also noted that serious tone. Rejectionist unionists need to hear that message time and again.

I know this entire process has been a difficult one for Unionists. It has been difficult for republicans also. This party has worked hard to underpin the process and ensure the survival of the Agreement. Cherished positions have been re-worked and remoulded to facilitate changed political realities. These same political realities also confront unionists.

Such realities require pragmatism from a progressive Unionism. A Unionism, which grasps the new realities and works them to the benefit of its constituency. A Unionism which takes ownership -

co-ownership with nationalists - of the Agreement and its institutions. A unionism that recognises opportunity in change and manages it rather than fighting it.

Neither this party nor I, would presume to define for Unionist leaders their political interests, but I think it is now universally recognised that what is required is a unionist stamp on the Agreement. Only with such a brand of ownership can unionist leaders sell the Agreement to their electorate.

As a republican who believes in the value of the Agreement, I have a duty to reach out and find common ground with unionists who are seeking political progress. I say this evening to those unionist leaders - this Sinn Fein leadership is ready and willing to work with you. I say this because I believe we need each other to make this peace process work in all of our interests. I say it because I believe that the majority of people from both constituencies want it to work.

This Sinn Fein leadership is anxious to work with Unionist leaders in building a political future for all the people of Ireland. I believe that many unionist politicians are astute enough to see that current historical and political conditions offer unionism opportunities that should be grasped and built on.

I also believe that Unionist leaders understand as we do that political agreement has to be reached, at this juncture, in the best interests of the people that we both represent. An arrangement which can best secure our political future. They must know there will not be a better opportunity or any better deal available. There are those within the DUP too who can see this as clearly as anyone in the UUP. The DUP, that has already been working the structures of the Agreement, no matter how must they may protest, will eventually find itself in a position where it will deal with republicans in relation to moulding a secure political future.

The Unionist leadership has experienced the pain of making necessary historical and political compromises with nationalism without the gain of ensuring the existence of stable political structures that would lead to social and economic benefits for their community. Such political institutions could create the atmosphere that would complete the transformation of our society and an end to all armed groups. A climate that unionist leaders claim they want to achieve. Such an outcome is in all our interests. But it is an objective of the process that we all must work towards. It should not be used as a precondition or an obstruction to political progress. It is a destination that will only be reached if we are willing to work together. I urge unionist leaders to do the necessary now.

Accept the Agreement that you negotiated in all its parts, take ownership of it and sell its benefits to your electorate. The Agreement can secure all our futures.

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