Sinn Féin - On Your Side

On the Peace Process and the future work of the Forum

Today's Forum meeting is taking place against the background of a steady deterioration in the peace process.

The events of the past week illustrate in a very dramatic way the fragile nature of the situation in the Six counties. The problem is typified by the attitude of those who approved Lee Clegg's release, who defend it and who claim it has no bearing on the peace process.

The British government was well warned about this situation by the Irish government and by others, including some who are here today. Typically, London decided to ignore this advice and it did so in an arrogant way.

This is another slap in the face for those who are trying to develop a non-violent way out of the conflict. That is how Clegg's release was viewed by many, many people, especially those who took to the streets to protest.

On August 31st last year a climate of hope was created for the people of Ireland. As has been said before, and whatever we think of the IRA, the cessation was courageous initiative, universally recognised and applauded throughout the World. For the most part, the cessation was viewed as an opportunity to create the conditions which would remove the causes of conflict and lead to a lasting peace in our country.

Today, that hope is beginning to dim and anxiety is replacing anticipation, within sections of our people.

I do not wish to solely concentrate my remarks on the British government's failings. The British government historically has rarely shown imagination or vision in its dealings with Ireland. When it has moved, it has been because it has served British strategic interests to do so. The British government's engagement with the peace process to date has been a bad faith engagement, but not just last week, not just the last 10 months, but going back to when John Hume and I were trying to initiate a way forward. This way forward required everyone to play their part in creating and in agreeing a solution. It is on this element that I wish to concentrate my remarks. There were those, many of them in this room, who have said for a long time that the IRA was the problem, that the British government was neutral: that an end to the IRA's campaign would see the prisons emptied, a complete withdrawal of troops, an end to repression and discrimination, and most importantly of all, the commencement of real peace talks.

I have a different attitude to the British government's involvement in our country and to its policy. But the problem facing us here is that not one person here and not one person in this forum and no one on this island has a notion of when all-party talks will begin.

The British government has yet to be moved to this logical development. And they blame the unionists. We know we have to make peace with the unionists, but we have to ensure that the British government does not dodge its responsibility and that the unionists cannot dictate the agenda by their absence. This is the Orange Card being played once again. And this must be put to the British government. John Major must be asked to set a date and a venue so that those of us who want to make peace can do just that. The alternative is that we dance around the issues while the opportunity for a lasting peace slips away.

The reality which everyone of us has to consider is that the British government is afraid of peace talks, because peace talks demand compromise and accommodation. This is the real challenge facing John Major. A peace settlement requires fundamental change - political, constitutional, economic, cultural and legal change. Real peace talks demand that the British government address the whole range of issues which they have failed to address up to now. Peace talks demand action to address the failure of past and present political structures; action to redress the injustice of Partition; action to reverse the apartheid of discrimination and inequality at the heart of the Six County state. Peace talks require positive and effective action to make equality of treatment a reality.

The British are not yet prepared to change that reality. They must be convinced, persuaded, pressurised to do so. The strategy for change must be an effective strategy - a strategy which works to remove injustice. The British cannot be allowed to stick to their own narrow agenda. We cannot allow London to squander the present unprecedented opportunity for a negotiated settlement.

A lasting peace requires fundamental political and constitutional change, it demands a demilitarisation of society and the application for the first time of democratic principles throughout this island.

Agreement on these changes and a democratic accommodation can only be achieved through a process of all-party negotiations. We here who have created this opportunity, who have built this peace process and who have supported the creation of a process of peaceful change, we need to remove the obstacles to forward movement. This is our responsibility. Peace in Ireland cannot simply sit and wait till the British government is ready or willing to move.

We need to move the peace process into negotiations - into all-party peace talks as the only way to secure an agreed political settlement and therefore a sustainable peace. That is the commitment which the two governments made publicly prior to the IRA cessation. Most importantly it is the essential and urgent next stage of the peace process.

It is of crucial importance that this is our agreed position and that the signal we send is a clear and unambiguous one which the British government cannot misrepresent and misunderstand.

Sinn Féin has always recognised the positive potential in this Forum and we acknowledge the role it has already played in identifying areas which need to be addressed in the ongoing peace process. At this stage, however, we believe that its full potential has yet to be realised. This is partly the fault of the British who, from the outset, showed their contempt for its deliberations by refusing to send their ambassador to its inaugural meeting.

We fully agree with the Secretariat proposal that the Forum should meet in Belfast in the Autumn. And if we meet in Belfast, why not in Derry; and if in Derry why not also in Cork and Kerry? This is something that could be worked out for the Autumn period as it would help communities around the country participate in and see the Forum at work.

Sinn Féin has produced detailed analysis of almost every submission made to the forum and has directly addressed the points made by the submissions. We think that is the most elementary courtesy to the groups and individuals making submissions and, indeed, a political duty.

We would also like the issue of cultural apartheid addressed. The Irish language should be moved from the experience of discrimination and absence of funding. It must be seen as a focal point for reconciliation. The Protestant community in the South embraced the Irish language, and thereby the richness of Irish culture and tradition, after the setting up of the state here. The Forum should address that experience and assess its relevance for the Protestant community in the North.

Finally, we would like the Forum to develop a vision of national self-determination which aims to win over all of the Irish people to support for a free, equal and just society on this island. If we are to escape from the frustrations, anger and the attritional demoralisation of the Six County state we must re-capture the initiative and momentum of the Peace Process. A great deal of the onus lies with Britain. Britain still needs to be persuaded to become a persuader for peace.