Sinn Féin - On Your Side

McLaughlin - Political Progress not dependent on trust but on whether British will support or deny democracy

22 August, 2003


Sinn Féin Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin speaking at the Parnell Summer School said: "When Tony Blair or Bertie Ahern claim that the reason for the crisis is a 'loss of trust' between the parties - it's a cop out. Trust was never the basis for the Agreement. We all hoped that trust and mutual respect would develop organically as we worked and deployed the historic Accord." He said "Tony Blair now stood at a crossroads. He can prevent a dangerous political vacuum by announcing a definite autumn date for Assembly elections. Or he can continue to de-stabilise the situation by denying the peaceful and democratic right to vote. The choice is his." Mr. McLaughlin called for a cross-party consensus to manage the process through to a political settlement"

Mr. McLaughlin said:

"Since the suspension of the political institutions and the subsequent cancellation of elections we have heard much talk about the 'loss of trust' between the parties to the Agreement. But the fact of the matter is that there never was a basis of trust between the parties to the Agreement. Political opponents and political enemies who never trusted each other eventually hammered out an Agreement. In fact - the Agreement was negotiated without the Ulster Unionist Party ever once speaking directly to Sinn Féin.

"When Tony Blair or Bertie Ahern claim that the reason for the crisis is a 'loss of trust' between the parties - it's a cop out. When David Trimble says that republicans betrayed the trust of Ulster Unionists - it's a cop out and he knows it. When other political figures attempt to score political points by pointing to alleged republican activities as the reason for the 'lack of trust' - it's a cop out.

"Trust was never the basis for the Agreement. The Agreement was based on a 'confidence' of the parties that they each had achieved the best agreement possible in the circumstances for their respective constituencies. We all hoped that trust and mutual respect would develop organically as we worked and deployed the historic Accord - Conflict Resolution to be followed by Reconciliation.

Role of Unionism

Obviously some within Unionism recognise that changes are occurring in every aspect of life - social, economic, political, electoral and demographic. But the Unionist community have not as of yet, produced a leadership, which will come to terms with the inevitable constitutional implications. If it was otherwise then the Unionist community through its political leaderships would have the 'confidence' to embrace the Agreement in all its elements, go back into the Institutions and allow the process to develop unhindered. Therefore we may need to be patient until such a leadership emerges within Unionism.

Irish and British governments must back democracy

Tony Blair can prevent a dangerous political vacuum in the North that will inevitably be filled by those ill disposed to the entire Peace Process. He can do that by declaring his commitment to the democratic process by announcing without further delay a definite autumn date for Assembly elections. Or he can continue to de-stabilise the situation by denying the peaceful and democratic right to vote.

The failure to fully develop and sustain the Executive and the cancelling of the Assembly Elections is a damaging blow to the Good Friday Agreement. The denial of the right to vote in fresh elections has sent shockwaves through popular opinion here, in Britain and internationally. What we are dealing with here is not a blip but the possible melt down of the political conditions that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

We have all made mistakes, individually and collectively. Whilst it is true that clear majorities exist in both states on this island to support the Agreement, it is equally true that powerful anti-Agreement forces exist and in some instances are being aided and abetted by elements of the securocratic system.

At a time when those, including the Sinn Féin leadership, have been arguing that politics can and will deliver change, change has been prevented. At a time when we needed an effective visible and dynamic alternative to conflict we have been presented with a political vacuum, the abdication of political leadership and the initiative handed to those on all sides, who want to return to the failures of the past.

Republicans committed to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement

Of course there are issues on the Republican side which must be addressed and allow me reiterate once again that Sinn Féin's public position on the question of arms is also our private position. The Sinn Féin leadership are totally committed to doing everything in our power to maintain the peace process and to removing the guns forever from the politics of our country. Decommissioning was addressed comprehensively in the negotiations leading up to Good Friday and is addressed directly in the Agreement itself. The section on decommissioning makes clear that addressing this issue is dependant on two key elements;

· a collective responsibility on all participants to work in good faith with the International Commission; and

· the implementation of the overall agreement.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement all of the participants have a responsibility to deal with the decommissioning issue. This includes the two governments.

Moving forward - what we can learn from Parnell

Parnell's recognition of political synergy, his awareness of the interrelatedness of constitutionalism and popular direct action, is what is required now. We have had Parnell's example. We have also in more modern times witnessed the benefits of the Nationalist Consensus in the early stages of the Peace Process. We all of us have our pasts, like it or not, but we also have our futures. We can work together on this project to achieve a democratic peace in Ireland. Of course we will have our differences, we will retain our own beliefs and principles, but we should agree that the success of this process will be for the betterment of our people as a whole. Why not a cross-party consensus to manage the process through to a political settlement? Why not an approach to the last great debate of the conflict resolution process, the constitutional future of the island of Ireland and its people? Why not a negotiation process based on mutual respect and openness to any of the possible constitutional options rather than pre-determined outcomes that reflect a legacy of violence and failure and injustice?"

Full Text - Reflections on the Peace Process

From the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 the peace process has limped from one crisis to another.

This period of time could have been used to fulfil the huge expectations generated by the all-Ireland referenda in May 1998. It could have been a period during which the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement took hold, when Irish nationalists, unionists and the British stepped towards each other in an effort to put behind us the enmity resulting from centuries of conflict.

It could have been a time when former enemies gave space to each other to learn new ways of thinking of speaking, of trying to understand one another. It could have been a time of certainty and decisive, forward looking leadership to demonstrate that we had opened a new chapter in Irish-British history - one of compromise, tolerance and genuine reconciliation.

Instead the past five years will be remembered as a time of recrimination, of bitterness, of the blame game.

Since the suspension of the political institutions and the subsequent cancellation of elections we have heard much talk about the 'loss of trust' between the parties to the Agreement. There have been accusations bandied back and forth about who is responsible for this 'loss of trust'. Regularly we hear politicians, Church spokespersons, political analysts and anyone that wishes to voice an opinion tell us that we must 'rebuild trust'. But the fact of the matter is that there never was a basis of trust between the parties to the Agreement. Political opponents and political enemies who never trusted each other eventually hammered out an Agreement. In fact -- the Agreement was negotiated without the Ulster Unionist Party ever once speaking directly to Sinn Féin. So, no handshakes between equal and willing participants to a partnership deal. That is the measure of trust or the lack of trust that existed when the Agreement was achieved.

When Tony Blair or Bertie Ahern claim that the reason for the crisis is a 'loss of trust' between the parties -- it's a cop out. When David Trimble says that republicans betrayed the trust of Ulster Unionists -- it's a cop out and he knows it. When other political figures attempt to score political points by pointing to alleged republican activities as the reason for the 'lack of trust' -- it's a cop out. Could someone tell when the Unionist's were prepared to trust republicans? Or for that matter the British Government, the Irish government, or the SDLP? Or indeed its own leadership or each other? Trust was never the basis for the Agreement.

The Agreement was based on a 'confidence' of the parties that they each had achieved the best agreement possible in the circumstances for their respective constituencies. We all hoped that trust and mutual respect would develop organically as we worked and deployed the historic Accord. Conflict Resolution to be followed by Reconciliation.

But unfortunately the Good Friday Agreement cannot reconcile mutually exclusive constitutional aspirations. The nationalist and particularly the republican constituency have a confidence that the Agreement -- fully and faithfully implemented will provide the vehicle that will enable us to achieve our political goals through exclusively peaceful and democratic methods. That is why we are committed to pursuing its implementation in all its aspects.

On the other hand, the Unionist political leadership's 'confidence' in their ability to maintain and strengthen the status quo through the Agreement is diminishing. If they were, for instance, 'confident' when they accepted the Agreement that it would copper fasten the Union, why are they now attempting to frustrate its implementation? Is it because they recognise that in a society where everyone is treated equally the raison d'être of partition -- dominance by one section of the population over the other -- will be gone forever?

Obviously some within Unionism recognise that changes are occurring in every aspect of life -- social, economic, political, electoral and demographic. But the Unionist community have not as of yet, produced a leadership, which will come to terms with the inevitable constitutional implications. If it was otherwise then the Unionist community through its political leaderships would have the 'confidence' to embrace the Agreement in all its elements, go back into the Institutions and allow the process to develop unhindered. Therefore we may need to be patient until such a leadership emerges within Unionism.

But in the meantime, what of the two Governments and in particular the British? In terms of Iraq, the 'hand of history' was never more firmly on Tony Blair's shoulder or is it on his neck? But Tony Blair can prevent a dangerous political vacuum in the North that will inevitably be filled by those ill disposed to the entire Peace Process. He can do that by declaring his commitment to the democratic process by announcing without further delay a definite autumn date for Assembly elections. Or he can continue to de-stabilise the situation by denying the peaceful and democratic right to vote.

The failure to fully develop and sustain the Executive and the cancelling of the Assembly Elections is a damaging blow to the Good Friday Agreement.

The denial of the right to vote in fresh elections has sent shockwaves through popular opinion here, in Britain and internationally. It stands democracy on its head and causes uncertainty about the future. At a time when politics must be seen to work, to deliver change, we have a political vacuum.

What we are dealing with here is not a blip but the possible melt down of the political conditions that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

We have all made mistakes, individually and collectively. Whilst it is true that clear majorities exist in both states on this island to support the Agreement, it is equally true that powerful anti-Agreement forces exist and in some instances are being aided and abetted by elements of the securocratic system.

At a time when those, including the Sinn Féin leadership, have been arguing that politics can and will deliver change, change has been prevented. At a time when we needed an effective visible and dynamic alternative to conflict we have been presented with a political vacuum, the abdication of political leadership and the initiative handed to those on all sides, who want to return to the failures of the past.

The Good Friday Agreement was signed up to by the British government. It is therefore British government policy. The British government have a responsibility to implement the Agreement as negotiated.

It would be preferable if unionism was not divided but instead generally embraced the spirit and the letter of the Agreement. But the Good Friday Agreement was voted for by a majority of the electorate in the two states on this island. It cannot be subjected to a unionist veto. It has to be implemented. That is the democratic imperative.

At every stage in the peace process, particularly before, during and after periods of negotiation, there are conflicting and confusing signals from some of the participants and from the media. Most of this is unhelpful, though not always malign or malicious. But when seeking to get across a particular view of events no party can match the British government in resources and influence.

In fairness after the most recent round of negotiations the Irish government has, by and large, been measured in its pronouncements and media briefings. The British government on the other hand has been blowing up a storm of media spin, of which the so-called 'Steak-knife' affair is a particular example.

This has been totally unhelpful. Of course, if the British government spin-doctoring had the effect of settling the unionists then Sinn Féin could take the pain and given the messing, prevarication, delay (and deceit) of the last number of years that would be a small price to pay. But it is my belief that media campaigns will not resolve the unionist divisions.

It is a contention of many commentators that every election in the North (European, Westminster, Assembly and Local Government) is at a basic level about the 'Constitutional' issue. An analysis of election results of the past 30 years demonstrates that electors increasingly are voting for those parties who proclaim either for the pro-union or pro United Ireland options. This study also reveals a consistent 'squeezing' of the so-called 'Other' or 'Independent' candidates. If it valid to suggest that this underlying influence can distort electoral outcomes then equally it can impact on other aspects of the political process. Eg. The Peace Process itself, sectarian interface violence and efforts at developing political dialogue, etc.

I would contend that Unionist insecurity on the 'Constitutional' issue explains amongst other political matters, the discriminatory policies of the old Unionist Stormont Government, the current resistance to Equality and the constant factional disputes and leadership challenges which now characterise Irish Unionism.

Of course there are issues on the Republican side which must be addressed and allow me reiterate once again that Sinn Féin's public position on the question of arms is also our private position. The Sinn Féin leadership are totally committed to doing everything in our power to maintain the peace process and to removing the guns forever from the politics of our country. Decommissioning was addressed comprehensively in the negotiations leading up to Good Friday and is addressed directly in the Agreement itself. The section on decommissioning makes clear that addressing this issue is dependant on two key elements;

· a collective responsibility on all participants to work in good faith with the International Commission; and

· the implementation of the overall agreement.

· .

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement all of the participants have a responsibility to deal with the decommissioning issue. This includes the two governments. The British government in particular has been a hugely negative factor in the development of the conditions of conflict in Ireland. I believe that Mr Blair has a sense of responsibility and has given more time than any other British Prime Minister to the quest for peace between our two islands and among the people of this island.

He knows that Sinn Féin's position has been consistent and that we want to play a full and advanced role in this quest. But he knows also, as does the Taoiseach that we have made it clear that through the good faith implementation of this Agreement that we can achieve an end to the 'armed force' dimension of Irish Republicanism.

Paradoxically, the unresolved nature of our colonial past in Ireland should give us hope. Despite the achievements and the glosses of the past century, we still live in an unmade country. And because of that fact, we, as a people, still have the possibility to remake the country. This opportunity to change history is not available to many people and we should not throw away our chance.

Politics need not necessarily follow the line of least resistance, but can, and should, be vibrant, challenging, with a sense of purpose. The people of Ireland have, at certain significant moments in our history, developed a purposeful politics that for one reason and another we have let slip away.

Once again, at the start of a new century, we have the possibility of remaking the country. We have all in varying degrees been engaged in a Peace Project for many years now, and because the Process is ongoing, unfinished, fluid and developing, it is everyone's project. We can all be involved in it; we can all breathe life and colour into it, we can all agree to shape it for the betterment of the people of Ireland. We are not presenting the people with a fait accompli, a secret deal done in back rooms. We are saying, come and join us in this process, help us to radically alter the political landscape of our country. Get rid of the venality, cynicism and corruption in this state, the growing poverty and despair, and in the North, recognise the Unionist dependence upon a Britishness that may no longer actually exist, but is none the less of vital importance to the confidence of the Unionist community.

Ironically, one of the great attempts to seize the moment was attempted by Parnell, a man who earned the wrath of all involved in the Irish struggle for independence, and while it might be possible to argue that political leaders who make the truly remarkable revolutionary choices will be condemned to an eternity of misunderstanding and hostility, it need not always be the case.

The only purpose of a colonial power is to make the colony profitable, stable and governable, and so the Victorians went to work in Ireland, testing this, trying that, modifying, tinkering, seeking new forms of control that were cost effective and sustainable. Admittedly, some of the experiments were relatively benign -- the introduction of a countrywide postal network, years before they established one in Britain -- while others were violently coercive -- mass deportations, evictions, curfews, martial law.

And during this period we saw the flowering of Charles Parnell's particular vision. He realised that the oppressed could mirror the oppressor that the Irish could experiment too, that we could develop dual strategies towards Britain, and that a potent combination of constitutionalism and Fenian insurrectionary action could achieve what neither could achieve on its own.

Parnell's constitutionalist tactics in Westminster were not of the passive variety. With his filibustering and his imaginative use of a relatively small number of seats he could reduce that great parliament to immobilised frustration. He could bring its workings to a halt. And while he paralysed Westminster, the Land League and the rump of the Irish Republican Brotherhood could combat the ravages of the landlords and the military, unifying the people of Ireland in a popular mass movement for independence. Despite repeated attempts by the British to link Parnell to 'organised crime', it was the issue of adultery that brought him low in an Ireland of small-minded clergy and bitter, jealous politicians, including many who would have considered themselves Republican, all whipped up by a British tabloid-style campaign of character assassination.

But Parnell's recognition of political synergy, his awareness of the interrelatedness of constitutionalism and popular direct action, is what is required now. We have had Parnell's example. We have also in more modern times witnessed the benefits of the Nationalist Consensus in the early stages of the Peace Process. We all of us have our pasts, like it or not, but we also have our futures. We can work together on this project to achieve a democratic peace in Ireland. Of course we will have our differences, we will retain our own beliefs and principles, but we should agree that the success of this process will be for the betterment of our people as a whole. Why not a cross-party consensus to manage the process through to a political settlement? Why not an approach to the last great debate of the conflict resolution process, the constitutional future of the island of Ireland and its people? Why not a negotiation process based on mutual respect and openness to any of the possible constitutional options rather than pre-determined outcomes that reflect a legacy of violence and failure and injustice?

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