Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Murphy Challenges Unionist Political Leaders At Trinity Debate

19 October, 2005


Sinn Féin MP for Newry & Armagh Conor Murphy tonight addressed the annual T rinity College Historical Society Debate entitled - "That the Peace Process Has Let Unionism Down".

The debate was chaired by Garrett Fitzgerald and included contributions from former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, British Secretary of State Peter Hain, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, the PUP leader David Ervine and the SDLP leader Mark Durkan.

Mr Murphy told those assembled that 'instead of embracing concepts of conflict resolution and embracing the equality agenda as a mechanism to undo years of systematic discrimination unionist political leaders have sought to undermine it, they have sought to filter the basic demands of the Good Friday Agreement through a unionist prism as they seek to maintain an unsustainable status quo.'

The full text of Mr Murphy's speech follows.

" It is unrealistic to simply take the enormous political developments of the last 10 or 15 years in isolation from the decades since partition which preceded this time. We have to examine the causes of conflict. The nature of the six county state. The political forces which conspired to institutionalise discrimination and the failure of others including successive governments in this state to defend the rights of Irish citizens in the north.

Nationalists and republicans were undemocratically locked into a statelet to which they had no affiliation and no allegiance. A statelet whose government and institutions were as Craigavon correctly proclaimed a 'Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People'. As the late human rights lawyer PJ McGrory declared - Nationalists were in effect foreigners in our own land.

For decades nationalists and republicans endured a system of institutionalised discrimination. That fact is irrefutable. The six county state was not, as revisionists within unionism seem to believe, some sort of model society. The reality is that a system of one party rule operated for half a century which along with partition itself resulted in sowing the seeds of the violent conflict which we have all lived through for the past three decades and more.

In the 1960s at a time when the rest of the world was embracing an exciting new era, the unionist response was to baton and shoot the civil rights movement off the streets and anti-Catholic pogroms in Belfast and Derry with the B-Specials and RUC leading the way.

Violent repression was met by violent resistance and so began the cycle of conflict and division which we are now finally emerging from.

The British government embarked upon a failed strategy of trying to defeat Irish republicanism, the oldest political ideology on this island, through a mixture of military force and political sanctions. We have lived through Shoot -to -Kill, Collusion, Criminalisation and Ulsterisation. Yet this was always a political conflict. It could only be solved through politics. It could only be solved through dialogue.

When the IRA took the courageous decision in August 1994 to call a cessation of their military operations, unionism would be challenged as never before since partition to face up to deal with the inequality which underpinned the northern state since its inception. We can all recall that the response of the then UUP leader James Molyneaux to the cessation was to describe it as the most destabilising event since partition. Equality is a difficult concept to deal with when the state is so tilted in your favour. But equality was always going to have to underpin the future if the causes of conflict were to be addressed at all.

The equality agenda which has been advanced since 1994, but is no where near completion yet, has been about addressing the imbalance. There would not have been provisions on equality and human rights in the Agreement if we did not live in a society which fostered discrimination and human rights abuses. The process has been about creating a level political playing field.

Equality should threaten nobody. But instead of embracing concepts of conflict resolution and embracing the equality agenda as a mechanism to undo years of systematic discrimination unionist political leaders have sought to undermine it, they have sought to filter the basic demands of the Good Friday Agreement through a unionist prism as they seek to maintain an unsustainable status quo.

By embarking upon such a strategy unionist political leaders have ensured that the process of change which is necessary and demanded now by an international treaty has been viewed with suspicion and hostility from within their community. This was entirely the wrong approach. Unionism cannot stop the process of change. It cannot stop equality or human rights. The Good Friday Agreement offered unionism a template to move forward upon.

However the vast majority of political unionism choose to ignore this path. Instead of selling the Agreement and its positive benefits for all citizens they retreated to the sort of outdated sectarian certainties offered by organisations like the Orange Order and presented the Equality agenda as a threat to unionist communities. This compiled with the collapse of the traditional, protestant dominated, industries such as ship building, led to an increased sense of loss. But catholic areas continue to experience disproportionately high levels of poverty and deprivation.If unionist or loyalist communities claim to be voiceless then that it not a reflection on the peace process - it is a damning indictment of the standard of political leadership offered by the DUP and UUP in the years since 1994. If similar sentiments were being expressed by republican or nationalist communities I would not whinge about it - I would get into those communities and begin to deliver for them.

There is undoubtedly deprivation and poverty within working class unionist areas and this needs to be tackled and addressed. Sinn Féin are committed to doing this. However deprivation and poverty can only be tackled on the basis of need - not perception. 150,000 children in the North live in poverty and half a million people live in poor households. However all of the poverty indictors prove that the reality remains that the majority of wards in which people continue to live below the poverty line are in nationalist areas. Almost twice as many Catholics as protestants remain unemployed. More catholic young people leave school without formal qualifications than their protestant counterparts. These statistics sadly are facts and undermine much of the nonsense being offered by unionist politicians in recent weeks to excuse the violence witnessed on the streets of Belfast.

Lets be very clear, the riots in Belfast were nothing to do with deprivation. What they were about was a demand from the Orange Order to open a gate in the peace line which remains closed 365 days of the year to allow them to cross into a nationalist area and coat trail through that community. The Orange Order flagged up to us all well in advance that they were planning violence. They sat on a forum with all the main unionist paramilitaries to discuss their parade tactics in the run up to the parade. So what happened on the streets should come as a surprise to nobody.

Unionist political leaders must bear the responsibility for the position within which unionism finds itself. If unionist political leaders continue to hark after an era which has long since past then political unionism will remain in a cul -de -sac. Their response to the recent historic initiatives by the IRA is evidence of that. The IRA initiatives do not in themselves solve the crisis in the peace process. It can only be solved through dialogue and meaningful engagement. But the DUP continue to refuse to talk to Sinn Fein the largest nationalist party - while simultaneously sitting on forums with the leadership of the UDA and UVF.

All of the evidence shows that the protestant working class is most disadvantaged by current educational arrangements, yet both the DUP and UUP continue to oppose changes to the education system - a system which currently means that only 2% of children from the Shankill area go to third level education.

Sinn Féin do an extensive amount of outreach to the broad unionist community

- civic, business, churches and community. It is our belief that many of these sectors are far in advance of their political leaders when it comes to the job of rebuilding the process and putting the political institutions back in place.

The peace process has the capacity to deliver enormous political and social changes which will benefit people across the island. That is without dispute. Society has been transformed in the years since 1994. The recent IRA statement is evidence of that. But much more work remains to be done in the time ahead. The institutions have to be put back in place. The outstanding aspects of the Agreement need to be delivered upon. A strategy to deal with sectarianism and racism has to be put in place. The issue of loyalist weapons and ceasefires needs to be tackled and deprivation needs to be tackled across the spectrum.

But unionist political leaders need to embrace change. They need to end the pretence that the peace process is a line of concessions to nationalists. Obviously properly tackling inequality will result and has resulted in those previously enjoying a privileged position being challenged. But deprived communities whether protestant or catholic, the Shankill or the Falls can only benefit from equality, economic development and political stability. Change cannot be stopped. It can only be managed. And that is the task of all of us including unionist leaders in the time ahead.ENDS

Connect with Sinn Féin