'New Phase?' - Article by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, 7 March 2000
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Article by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, written for the newspaper Irish Voice, 7 March 2000
In the course of a speech to a recent Sinn Fein conference I made the point that a phase in the process to implement the Good Friday Agreement has come to an end. A week or so later and a month after Peter Mandelson unilaterally and illegally suspended the political institutions. I see no reason to change my mind.
I made other points in that speech as well, which are equally valid and which have been misrepresented by some of our political rivals but that is a subject to which I will return to on another day. For now I want to concentrate on the new phase in the process which is opening up. It is my view that how this phase is managed will be critical to the success of the overall process.
I feel very strongly that what Peter Mandelson did on the 11th of February was to give British government support to the closure of one phase of the process. Of course, it may not be if Mr Mandelson moves speedily to restore the institutions. However, I see no sign of that. From my discussions with the British government and its officials it is my view that they really don't know how they are going to proceed from here. I have no doubt that they want the institutions back in place and that the political leadership is concerned about a lengthy vacuum. But having suspended the institutions, and caused the vacuum, London thus far has no real notion of where the process is to go from here.
For its part the Irish government, which stood against the suspension of the institutions, is also in difficulties. It is faced with a British government which has behaved in an illegal way, a British government with which it enjoys good relations, and with which it wants to restore those relations as soon as possible, for reasons I understand and support.
The Irish government also faces the possibility that it may have to introduce legislation to amend the British/Irish Agreement Act 1999 and the related British/Irish Agreement (Amendment) Act in order to remedy the defective legal basis of the southern leg of the all-Ireland institutions. I am advised that this would be seen as a huge international rift.
Dublin is also for obvious reasons gravely concerned about the consequences of a vacuum.
So how can the process be saved? Some parties are calling for round-table talks chaired by the two governments. Sinn Féin is not opposed to this but changes in the format of meetings will not on their own save the process. A change of mind-set and a return to the Good Friday Agreement is required. But because there is no sign of that from the unionists it is difficult to see how any variations of meetings can succeed.
The only way we can get an answer to how the process is to be saved is by establishing why it is in jeopardy. The process was always in jeopardy, as any process of change will be because unionism is against change. It is in jeopardy at this time because the decommissioning section of the Good Friday Agreement was turned on its head and allowed to become an obstacle to progress as opposed to an objective of a peace process.
The arms issue became an issue of tactical political management. That was the downfall of the process.
It may be worthwhile briefly recapping some of the things that we know about decommissioning:
The British government may have a different view. The Ulster Unionist Party obviously wants to continue as it has until now and it probably feels strengthened by London's support. Indeed, for a week or so some elements of unionism may feel they had a victory of sorts. But if they had it was a pyrrhic victory. A successful peace process is about more than that.
It is my view that this is the phase of the process which has come to an end. Of course, I can only speak for Sinn Féin and I have made it clear that I see no merit in us chasing our tails again on this issue. If that has indeed become clear and if an acceptance that tactical short-term gesture politics is not the way to deal with this issue then that can become the one powerful positive in an otherwise bleak situation. Because it is in that context that the issue can be dealt with strategically. For our part Sinn Féin remains committed to taking all the guns out of Irish politics.
The unionists will have lots of reasons to deal with the arms issue on a tactical basis. Remember the UUP, including the then First Minister David Trimble, voted against Patten in the British House of Commons. So this is a battle they intend to return to. They also will obviously oppose the long overdue report of the Review of the Criminal Justice System.
The orange parades are once again an issue and the UUP and DUP have set their faces against demilitarisation and the equality agenda. So we really can't blame them if they see merit in tactically using and abusing the decommissioning issue for their own narrow ends. We have to dissuade them from this course but the big challenge, as always, about bringing about change in this part of Ireland is for the British government.
Is it prepared to think strategically? Is it prepared to abandon the short-term tactical approach it has adopted thus far on the arms issue? Or is it prepared to restore the institutions, to assert the primacy of politics and uphold the section in the Good Friday Agreement on decommissioning?
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