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Speech by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams on the issue of Decommissioning, Newry, 27 January 2000

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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Speech by Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams at the opening of new Party offices at Newry, County Down, on the issue of Decommissioning, 27 January 2000

AT the time of the Mitchell Review I praised the efforts of all concerned in achieving progress, pointing out that this was only possible because of the very hard work and tough decisions taken by all the leaderships involved.

Following the success of the review I expressed the view that “we have now managed to create the potential to consolidate the peace process and to advance the task of implementing the Good Friday agreement”.

I acknowledged the huge challenges that this will present for all of us and for the two governments and I made it clear that I did not underestimate the difficulties which have to be overcome in the time ahead especially for the Ulster Unionist Party and its leadership.

I also cautioned that everyone in leadership needs to be mindful that peace making is more important, it is different from and it is more difficult than conventional politics or what usually passes for politics. It means resisting the temptation to go for short-term advantages. It involves resisting the urge to misrepresent, to hype or to exaggerate. In other words as much as anything else the success of this next phase may depend on everyone taking a measured and accurate approach in the period ahead”.

There are those on the unionist side who claim that it is only unionists who have to make concessions. This is a nonsense. Sinn Fein has demonstrated time and time again that we want this process to work. We have made strenuous efforts, taken initiatives, stretched ourselves, and our constituency to the limit in a serious and genuine effort to build a genuine and sustainable peace process and to overcome any difficulties that arise.

It was a huge thing for us to decide to take our seats in the new assembly. It required a two-thirds majority at a specially convened Ard Fheis. No one should underestimate how much effort that took. The decision was motivated by our concern to reach out to the unionists. It was a historically unprecedented decision by Sinn Fein and a concession – an important, legitimate, practical and symbolic concession by republicans to unionists.

The positive outcome of the Mitchell Review has been widely acclaimed as one of the great break-throughs of the peace process. Given the widespread public anxiety that the process had run out of space at that time, this is understandable. But it is fair to say that this breakthrough could have come, and indeed should have come, quickly in the wake of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 because what was achieved in the Mitchell Review was nothing more or less than the implementation of two aspects of that agreement.

In summary there are the establishment of the institutions, which should have been in place 18 months earlier, and the decommissioning issue being put where it always should have been with IICD.

In arguing for, and agreeing to this position in the review Sinn Fein was categoric about both the role and the remit of the IICD and the collective responsibility of all the participants under the terms of the agreement. We acted in good faith. We made it clear at all times that we are committed to resolving the entire issue of arms and we argued for a strategic approach which could achieve this objective.

There were no secret deals about when or how decommissioning would be achieved. During the negotiations around the Mitchell Review we also made it clear that like all other parties to this agreement Sinn Fein is obliged to using our influence as part of the collective responsibility under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, and we are not in a position to negotiate on behalf of the IRA.

I remain committed to decommissioning as an essential part of the peace process and I will continue to work to try and bring this about. But I have to say that the achievement of this objective has been set back by the way it is being used as a political football by the unionists at this time. Since the November Review I have tried not to comment publicly on this matter in my belief that the peace process was best served by creating the space for this issue to be satisfactorily resolved.

Speaking personally I can tell you that in my efforts to fulfill my role in the peace process I have within my own limitations endeavoured to take a long-term view of how conflict resolution is managed. So while I am relatively confident about the long-term I know that there are no certainties in this life. The forces against the Good Friday agreement are very strong and I am worried that current tactical maneuvering over the decommissioning issue could destroy the peace process and thwart the people’s will.

I understand why unionists and others want decommissioning now. I can see if from the unionist point of view. But non-republicans need to see this issue from the IRAs point of view, a view that is shared by many nationalists. It is not easy to get the IRA, or indeed any of the armed groups to do this speedily. This is the reality. I know there are other and opposite realities so Sinn Fein have attempted to base our peace strategy in real politik in our efforts to bring about a complete and absolute end of conflict. We are not dealing with tokens or symbols, gestures or stunts. Our approach is much more deep-rooted and durable than that.

In my view the vast majority of people appreciate the significance of the IRA cessation. They understand the political dynamic that brought this about and they have a sense of the huge effort it took for the IRA to engage with the Decommissioning Commission.

So, there is a need for unionism to be patient and for people to have faith.

This will be dismissed by begrudgers and rejectionists and their fellow travellers, but no one should need any reminding of the negative and hostile attitude of these elements to the peace process.

Sinn Fein is genuinely committed to resolving the arms issue and I believe that this issue will be resolved. The IRA has shown its willingness to enhance the peace process through the silence of its guns and through the engagement with the IICD. Is this to be thrown back in their faces?

I am not naive about any of this but I know that it would be a huge disappointment if the advances of recent months are lost in a clumsy attempt by anti-republican elements to inflict a ‘defeat’ on republicans. Popular opinion will be outraged if the process is lost because of tactical maneuvering over the decommissioning issue or as a result of in-fighting within Unionism.

All the parties and the two governments know exactly what the Good Friday agreement entails. They also know the popular support and the democratic imperative behind this agreement. They know also how many times deadlines were broken and initiatives rejected as for 18 months unionists succeeded in delaying the institutional elements of the Good Friday agreement.

When the UUP leadership was eventually persuaded during the Mitchell Review to participate in the institutions it was on the clear understanding that Sinn Fein could not deliver on decommissioning on the terms which now appear to be demanded. It was on the clear understanding that there is a collective obligation for all the parties to use their influence to resolve this issue and that the mechanism to pursue that was outside the political process and within the decommissioning commission with the responsibility resting on the armed groups.

Sinn Fein succeeded in persuading the IRA to meet with General de Chastelain because the UUP leadership gave commitments to enter into the institutions. There was no question of this being for a conditional period.

There should also be no doubt about how difficult this was and of how badly the February deadline damaged our efforts.

Sinn Fein has done all that we can and more than is required of us by the agreement on the issue of decommissioning. This is because of our commitment to building a just and lasting peace.

I know that unionists have many suspicions about republicans. I also know that many unionists are also beginning to accept our good faith, and the fact is, despite all the republican suspicions about unionism and the British government, Sinn Fein representatives are in the institutions working with the unionists and others and trying to sustain and to make politics work.

Our advice on the issue of decommissioning and other matters has been ignored in the past. It is possible that it is going to be ignored again. This is deeply politically frustrating. At one level I can understand the concern within the governments that the unionists are going to walk away from the institutions if they do not get a report from the IICD which suits them – a report that incorporates their ultimatums deadlines and pre-conditions.

The future is being put in jeopardy one again at the very time when the priority is to maintain stability. In my view we should not give up on this issue.

I believe that decommissioning is achievable. But is obviously a voluntary process. The onus is still very much on political leaders to continue with the political progress which has been achieved thus far, not only because this is justified in its own terms but because it is only through such progress that the disarmament issue can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Will collapsing the institutions or resigning leadership positions or going into another review settle this matter? Of course not.

Will it make it more or less likely? The answer is obvious. It will serve only to advance the interests of the no men of unionism.

It is a fundamental mistake in strategy to try to force decommissioning by seeking to marginalise a political party and its electorate. The strategy of political exclusion has failed and the redeployment of this strategy no matter how it is dressed up will guarantee failure in the future as it has always done in the past.

Others of course may believe that the resignation or the threat of resignation by David Trimble and his executive colleagues and the triggering of a review will have the effect of putting the UUP on the moral high ground, while putting the blame on republicans. They may be right. But then again they may not. At any rate, right or wrong any perceived short-term advantage for unionism could be at the cost of the entire process. And this is exactly the objective of the rejectionist unionists and others. They want the Good Friday agreement to collapse.

The reality is that a collapse or even a soft landing or another review phase would recreate a political vacuum, reinforce and encourage negative unionism, put the entire process into jeopardy and make decommissioning even more difficult than it has been so far.

There is speculation that the British government may be considering triggering a review before the UUP ministers would resign because there is some doubt about whether the first minister would get re-elected.

The only premise, and it would be an entirely fabricated one, would be for this to be presented as a default on decommissioning. There is no basis whatsoever for this and there is no basis in the Good Friday agreement for the British government to trigger a review at this time outside of the collapse of the executive.

There has been no default on decommissioning. There is no reason for the executive to collapse or for any minister to resign. Given the progress that has been made and the progress which it is still possible to make, there is no reason why the IICD report cannot be allowed to get on with its work and why the forthcoming report cannot contribute positively to this.

The nub of all this is whether the UUP leadership is really for the type of changes that are required to build a just and lasting peace. Mr Trimble has taken risks and I commend him for this. But the peace process is bigger than him. It is bigger than me. It is bigger than any politician or political party because whether we go or stay the challenge and the need to build peace on this island remains.

I hope common sense will prevail and that Mr Trimble and his colleagues will stay in the institutions.

I appreciate the difficulties facing all parties to this process. Sinn Fein also has a political situation to manage so I know how challenging this can be.

We have consistently and unilaterally taken initiatives over the last decade or so. The Mitchell Review saw Sinn Fein taking more of these. Decommissioning by February was never part of that. Neither do we or any one party have a singular responsibility for this issue.

So, no political party or section of the electorate should be punished on this issue. More importantly the Good Friday agreement or the peace process should not be upended over this matter.

We want this process to work. We want the institutions to work. We want the permanent and lasting peace that will come with political progress and stability. We want the economic benefits for all our people that a stable political situation can deliver.

With patience and perseverance I believe all aspects of the Good Friday agreement will be achieved. Let each of us give the other the space that is needed to make a better job of our future than we have of our past.

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