Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Sinn Féin's Response to submissions from: Standing Committee of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland


Sinn Féin is responding to two documents submitted by the General Synod of the Church of Ireland; the first dated 1 February, the second dated 5 May. We intend to address both these submissions because we believe that the differences between them confirms the negative attitude which continued British stalling has injected into the peace process in recent months.


The February document is another example of the positive input by the Churches to the deliberations of this Forum. As with earlier contributions from religious bodies that we have read, the concern is not to lay down any blueprint for a political solution, but rather to establish basic principles through which such a solution might be found. We understand that it is not possible to address every concern in the course of a single submission and we hope that the observations outlined below are accepted in the spirit of constructive and honest debate which is intended.


Describing the ceasefire declarations of the IRA and CLMC as presenting 'an ideal and unique opportunity for democratic progress', the document refers to reconciliation as 'a continuous and fragile process' and lays stress on the 'paramount need to recognise the sensitivities of all communities', stating that 'every step of the process must be handled with care' and with 'due regard... to genuine apprehensions'. Sinn Féin accepts this analysis, while cautioning against an over-emphasis on 'apprehensions', where these are used as a barrier to equality. In our view, it is of paramount importance that issues of justice should not be held hostage to the apprehensions, however genuine, of those whose sectarianism blinds them to the need for fundamental change.


In the first of several principles addressed in the submission, the authors emphasise the need for the absence of violence and the threat of violence. Republicans endorse the need for a peaceful climate if confidence is to be built in the process: indeed, it was undoubtedly this view that prompted the IRA cessation which is now entering its 254th day. We would only add to this that the commitment to non-violence must apply to all protagonists, including the forces of the state, and would draw attention to the concern of nationalists at the continued presence of all the paraphernalia of war in the midst of our communities; observation towers, checkpoints, armed patrols and a police force that we regard as inherently hostile to the interests of peace and justice.


Emphasising its support for the principle of consent, the February submission acknowledges that 'a peaceful future... cannot be built on coercion' and adds that 'the only way consent can be developed is through the promotion of understanding through dialogue'. As representatives of a section of the Irish people whose inclusion in 'Northern Ireland' is based on coercion, we fully support the view expressed in this paragraph and would stress that we are available to engage in meaningful discussions with all parties, at all times and without any pre-conditions in the search for consensus.


Paragraph 3 of the principles continues the theme of building relationships between 'the people of Northern Ireland' and, after suggesting that this is the 'key issue', adds that 'the future of Northern Ireland depends on a sense of justice and equality for both communities'. While we accept unreservedly the point that everybody has 'a right to look forward to a future in the land of their birth', we regret the implication that the future lies in a continued partitionist settlement and the lack of any acknowledgment of the pivotal role played by the British government as the sovereign power with responsibility for the Six Counties. We would further suggest that this is, in fact, the 'key issue' affecting relationships between the divided people of Ireland.


In paragraph 4 the General Synod states that reconciliation 'will not result from the enforcement of policies or structures'. While this is undoubtedly true, nonetheless Sinn Féin's view is that policies and structures can underpin and even institutionalise inequality, sectarianism and division. Although policies and structures can not on their own secure reconciliation, nonetheless there cannot be reconciliation without policies and structures that ensure justice and equality for all.


We concur with the view expressed in paragraph 5 that 'it will be in the treatment of minorities that the full impact of reconciliation will become a lasting reality'. We have to add, however, that in the experience of northern nationalists, the Church of Ireland has traditionally been all too silent about the violation of our rights as individuals and as a community.


In addressing 'the way forward', this submission notes the responsibility of 'elected representatives both North and South' to ensure that a vacuum does not occur, and warns of the danger of a return to violence. Here again, the responsibility for finding a solution is unfortunately internalised and the role of the British government is ignored. On a positive note, however, the authors continue:

"There is a strong moral obligation on governments and elected politicians to encourage people to engage in activities which will lead to positive progress towards an Ireland which will be at peace with itself."


The document concludes with a call for an end to sectarianism and for an agreement 'based on consent and vision'. This is a noble sentiment and one to which we fully subscribe. In conclusion, while we clearly disagree with some sections of the overall submission, nonetheless we were encouraged by the positive and forward-looking direction that it takes.


As much as we welcomed the positive and progressive tone in the February document, we were dismayed at the negative spirit evident in sections of the later submission. Some elements are positive. In the preamble, in references to the 26 Counties and in a call for the recognition of diversity and for a bill of rights, the General Synod has shown a vision similar to that which was expressed in February. In terms of its call for a pluralist society which values and protects all of its citizens, Sinn Féin concurs without reservation.


In other sections, however, it is as if a different spirit motivated the author. Forgetting its earlier edict in relation to 'the paramount need to recognise the sensitivities of all communities', the General Synod demonstrates an appalling lack of understanding or sensitivity for the community which we are proud to represent. Gone is the positive mood which in February proclaimed that we had 'an ideal and unique opportunity for progress', to be replaced by the sort of negativity that we have come to expect from the British government in the course of the peace process. Repeatedly, we are left to wonder whether the General Synod has abandoned its spiritual role and has taken on a partisan political one.


If this seems hard, then we would ask the members of the General Synod to consider how northern nationalists are expected to feel when they see the Church of Ireland knocking on the door to 10 Downing Street, not to ask for the speedy introduction of equality, but to represent the 'not an inch' fears of unionists? How can we treat seriously your commitment to justice when for the past 75 years of discrimination and repression we have heard only silence? Justice, in our view, is much more than merely 'having a voice in the political system' (your definition on page 9); it is about having an equal voice, equal rights and equal treatment. Is the General Synod prepared to actively support us in the pursuit of that definition of justice?


Although the Church of Ireland includes 'a wide political spectrum from the most loyal unionism to the most convinced nationalism', as your preamble suggests, there is little doubt that the sympathy and understanding of some of its most senior members is confined to that element which is unionist. Despite the document's acknowledgement of what it terms 'the equal validity of both unionist and nationalist aspirations', we have seen no practical demonstration that they believe this to be so. And beyond the wider political debate, the General Synod seems incapable of recognizing any fault on the part of the British government for the conflict which divides us.


Section 4 of the document is typical of this partisanship. Referring to an 'implicit armed threat', you attack 'paramilitary violence', refer to punishment beatings and identify 'as a most serious obstacle to progress' the 'retention of arsenals and the existence of organisations prepared to use them'. Are you unaware of the hundreds of victims of British army and RUC violence? Are you unaware of countless others who have suffered harassment and exile because of the actions of these forces? Are you unaware of the fact that today in the Six Counties, the only people pointing weapons at other people are members of the Crown forces? As for ourselves, we acknowledge our share of responsibility for the grief of the past 25 years and Sinn Féin is on record as being opposed to punishment attacks. Our position on decommissioning has been made crystal clear by our party leaders, as has our view that this issue cannot be allowed to impede the entire peace process.


You refer to 'threats to resume violence' and 'to make a community ungovernable', but fail to say who has made such threats. Again, Sinn Féin rejects any implication that republicans have engaged in such behaviour. On the contrary, our supporters have shown commendable restraint and responsibility in the face of provocative stalling by the British government in resisting equality of treatment. You applaud the British government, amongst others, for supporting economic projects and you particularly welcome community self-help schemes. We have to point out that the politics of inequality affects this area also and that worthwhile projects, such as those in the Conway Mill, are still discriminated against for political reasons.


On page 19 you address what is referred to as 'suspicion, fear and lack of confidence in the peace process' from within the unionist community. You say that 'it [the process] is being regarded as a way whereby some individuals and groups will attempt to obtain goals which were unobtainable by violent means'. If this implied criticism is being levelled at republicans, then we can assure you and the unionist community that of course our objectives remain unchanged. Is there anything wrong with that? As for distrust 'of some of the principal figures in the process', in so far as this is directed at Sinn Féin, surely it will come as no surprise that we have similar misgivings about many of those in British government and unionist circles, but we will not use that as an excuse to avoid talks with them.


You say that the Framework document was perceived by unionists as predominantly 'nationalist' and was 'silent on the strengthening of links between Northern Ireland and Great Britain'. You will be aware, of course, that unionist opposition predated the actual publication of the Framework document and so it is ridiculous to ascribe hostility to any element within it. It would be more accurate to acknowledge that what unionists really fear that the old order is slipping away and that change is inevitable. Rather than suggesting that the peace process should feature a 'balancing of concessions', would it not be more honest to recognize that concessions must come from the British government and from unionism. It is they who traditionally have had all the power and privilege in the Six Counties? As to the role of the leadership of the Church of Ireland, it should be in encouraging the unionist members of your communion to look to a future where there will be equality for all, through inclusive dialogue and respect for all traditions.


Your contribution to the debate on policing again betrays your total lack of understanding of the depth of nationalist feeling on this issue. You say that 'there is... an extreme risk in that the goal of the disbandment of the RUC is being regarded by some as an essential element in the development of the peace process'. The issue of disbandment is crucial for a number of reasons, the most important being that we need a policing service that can command the allegiance of all. Because of its ethos, because of its record and because of the total impracticality of reform, disbandment is the only possible course of action. As to the risks involved, surely these are no greater today than they were when the B-Specials were disbanded? And would the risks be any less in a piecemeal, reformist approach?


Your attitude to the early release of prisoners is unclear. While you say that 'the wholesale release of prisoners into society is an unrealistic aim' you do not say if you favour a phased programme of releases, only that released prisoners [and presumably their families] should be held hostage to the political situation (even though they may have had neither hand, act nor part in its development). You state that your concern is for the feelings of the victims of violence, but there are victims on all sides. For our part, we recognize that a programme of prisoner releases will undoubtedly see the liberation of many who were involved in heinous attacks on our party activists, on their families and on the Catholic community. We accept that in the changed climate such releases must take place if confidence in the process is to be maintained and built upon. The Church of Ireland has a role in preparing the victims for a release programme that must happen, rather than using their grief as an excuse for delaying such a move.


We regret that our response to the 5 May submission has been so critical, but we have a responsibility to our electorate to tell the truth, even when it hurts. Despite our disagreement today, we remain committed to dialogue and would welcome a further opportunity to engage in discussion with your General Synod and with individuals and groups within the Church of Ireland.