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Speech by Mitchel McLaughlin on the current state of political negotiations in Northern Ireland, 2005 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, (6 March 2005)

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Text: Mitchel McLaughlin ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Mitchel McLaughlin, then Sinn Féin National Chairperson, on the current state of political negotiations in Northern Ireland, 2005 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, (6 March 2005)


"This is now the third successive Ard Fheis in which this section of our clár has opened with a report on the state of play in the negotiations front. This means that for the better part of the past three years Sinn Féin has been involved in negotiations to bring about the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. It also means that seven years after the endorsement of that Agreement by the vast majority of the population north and south we still await its implementation.

On three separate occasions during a period of 22 months we have concluded negotiations with the two governments around a political package which, had it been adopted, would have ended the political stalemate and opened the door to a future based on partnership, inclusivity, equality and justice.

On the latest occasion, in December 2004, we reached a potentially defining moment in the peace process, a potentially watershed moment in the history of this island.

Now, just 10 weeks later, and in the midst of a maelstrom of groundless accusations against our party leadership, attempts to discredit our entire party membership, the unjustified and undemocratic penalising of those we represent, what we were on the verge of achieving in December seems light years away.

Some of you may question therefore the relevance at this point of the detail of last years negotiation. You may think there is little need for anything other than a summary of a now familiar story - been there, agreed that, unionists say no, so governments renege and then blame it all on republicans.

For whatever the detail of last December's political package the reality is we are certainly some way off from a restoration of the political institutions, we are some way off from unionists embracing power-sharing, we are some way off from a society built on equality, where the rights and entitlements of everyone are given equal status. In fact, seven years after its creation, we are so far off the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement we would all be forgiven for asking is there any point in clinging to such an objective, is there any life left in that Agreement.

We were posed a similar question last year. Our answer then is our answer now. We will continue to negotiate, and campaign and argue to have the Good Friday Agreement implemented not only because that is our obligation, not only because it is the right thing, but also because it fits into a strategy of providing and maintaining a political alternative to conflict, a means of sustaining and anchoring the peace process and a transition to the free independent Ireland we have worked long to achieve. We are in this process to the end, we are in this process until we have achieved our objectives, all of our objectives.

Last year's round of negotiations began early in the year and continued throughout the summer months and autumn and until conclusion in December.

Sinn Féin's focus in these discussions has been to achieve a comprehensive agreement which would see all outstanding matters dealt with and the Good Friday Agreement implemented in full.

Our approach was therefore two fold - to ensure that any proposals from the governments, and any agreement emerging out of these discussions, were rooted firmly in the Good Friday Agreement and to try to get the DUP on board for working with Sinn Féin in partnership in the power sharing, all-Ireland institutions.

The objective we set ourselves with regard to the DUP has confounded many. We had been accused of being unrealistic, of being naïve, of being fooled by noises from within the DUP before and after the Assembly election in November 2003 when they publicly espoused a willingness to do a deal.

Quite the contrary however. We have experienced too much of unionism's tactical engagement with the Good Friday Agreement to take at face value any assertion by unionist political leaders of a new found willingness to embrace change, to buy into a new dispensation based on equality.

No, far from being naïve, our approach was premised on a strategic calculation that our overall political objectives would best be served by testing the DUP's conversion to partnership, power-sharing and inclusivity, and by ensuring that this test, as presented by the two governments, would take place on Good Friday Agreement ground. And of course we are duty bound to recognise and respect the DUP mandate whatever we think of the prospect of them joining with us in our efforts to advance the political process.

The negotiations culminated in November last with the two governments proposing to the parties a comprehensive agreement which included draft statements dealing with issues which are the responsibility of the governments, the DUP, Sinn Fein, the IICD and the IRA. The bulk of these dealt with outstanding aspects of the Good Friday Agreement as well as the DUP position on IRA arms.

Sinn Fein said yes to the political package and conveyed this clearly and in writing to the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister.

We did so because we were satisfied that we had defended the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement, including its power-sharing, all-Ireland and equality provisions, that we had resolved issues of concern and succeeded in strengthening key provisions.

We had secured from the British government agreement to:

  • the reinstatement of the political institutions
  • the rescinding of the British Government power to suspend the political institutions
  • the creation of an automatic entitlement by Ministers to attend All-Ireland Ministerial Council meetings (removing the power of veto over attendance previously exercised by unionists)
  • the creation of a requirement on Ministers to attend Executive meetings and to attend, where appropriate, All Ireland Ministerial Council meetings (which the DUP refused to do in the past)
  • the creation of a requirement on Ministers to observe the joint nature of the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (which the DUP had sought to erode)
  • the establishment of the All-Ireland Consultative Civic Forum
  • the establishment of the All-Ireland Parliamentary Forum
  • the transfer of powers on Justice and Policing away from London and the NIO to local democratic accountability
  • the repeal of repressive legislation
  • the provision of new powers for the Human Rights Commission
  • the removal of the restriction which prevents Irish citizens from taking up senior civil service positions in the north
  • a peace dividend
  • the implementation of measures to repair the electoral register in the north
  • A process of rolling and frontloaded demilitarization

Both governments also agreed to a resolution of residual issues around prisoners and OTRs.

We also secured from the Irish Government agreement on measures to facilitate Northern representation in the Irish parliament. For our part, on the issue of policing, we committed to recommend to an Ard Comhairle meeting that we convene a special Ard Fheis to decide on our position on this issue in the context of:

  • Agreement between the parties on the departmental model and the powers to be transferred; and
  • The enactment by the British Government of the legislation to give full expression to this transfer of powers on policing and justice away from London and
  • A DUP commitment to a short timeframe for the transfers of powers on policing and justice.

The resolution of this central matter will ultimately present an enormous challenge for republicans, not least because the primary function of both the policing and judicial systems in the north have been to repress republicans and nationalists. But this very same issue that makes it such an enormous challenge for us all is also a most compelling motivation to bring this issue to satisfactory resolution.

You will no doubt hear more of the detail of our approach to resolving the issue of policing from Gerry Kelly in the section of this Ard Fheis which deals specifically with this issue.

Throughout these negotiations we believed also that a comprehensive agreement would motivate the IRA to address satisfactorily the issues which are its responsibilities. We have many times stated our commitment to the objective of taking the guns out of Irish politics. And our commitment to this has gone far beyond words, far beyond the rhetoric of others. While it remains our position that resolving the issue of arms is a matter for the IICD and the armed groups we have not shirked from using our influence on many occasions in the past in an effective and productive way to help bring this about. Last December Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness again went to the IRA to seek to persuade that organisation to address the issue of arms in a conclusive way and in a way which took account of the genuine concerns of unionists.

The IRA subsequently set out publicly what they were prepared to do in the context of an agreement. What they offered to do was unprecedented and beyond the wildest expectation of the most optimistic observers of this process. The IRA were prepared to move into a new and peaceful mode and to put their entire arsenal beyond use within a space of weeks and do so additionally under the watchful gaze of two independent witnesses.

And so, we arrived in early December at, what I described earlier as, a potentially defining moment in the peace process, a potentially watershed moment in the history of this island. So what happened?

Well the first thing that happened was the DUP refused to sign up for the political package. They failed the test that had been set for them in the terms of equality and power sharing. This was no surprise. They had failed it many times before in the council chambers of Ballymena, Lisburn, Castlereagh and elsewhere. They had failed it in the discussions at Leeds Castle last October. But the DUP also rejected the IRA offer to put all its weapons beyond use and demanded instead at their party meeting in Ballymena the humiliation of the IRA, and for republicans to wear sackcloth and ashes.

They signalled clearly that they were not yet prepared to leave behind the sectarianism, bigotry and intolerance that marked the political life of the northern state since partition.

The second thing that happened is that, in the run up to the conclusion of these negotiations the governments, in the knowledge that the DUP would fail to come across the line, tried to shift the blame onto republicans by supporting the demand for photographs of the IRA putting their arsenal beyond use.

And of course, the governments themselves then refused also to honour their part of the political package.

In effect, they failed the very same test set for the DUP. And of course, like the DUP, this was no surprise either. On every occasion in the past when unionist leaders have walked away from or reneged on agreements to break the political stalemate the governments in turn have reneged on their end of the deal. On each occasion they have failed or refused to confront a unionist veto.

While all of this has tried our patience we must not allow it to distract us from our objectives. The outcome of past negotiations including that which ended in December has been increased validation for our political analysis.

It may be that as the governments walk away from each negotiation in the knowledge that there will be another, they do so in the hope that republicans will come back to the next round of discussions weaker and prepared to accept less. The two governments have now joined with our political opponents in a concerted effort to weaken the Sinn Féin negotiating hand.

We must now shift our focus away from negotiations to the coming elections. In the coming months we have an opportunity to once again seek an increased endorsement of our strategy, an opportunity to ensure that when we return to discussions which will shape a way forward we will do so with an increased mandate.

The process of change cannot be frozen because rejectionist unionism refuses to come to terms with the new political realities. Political unionism cannot be allowed to veto the fundamental rights of citizens or to veto other changes necessary for the development of a peaceful society.

That is our message to the governments. With increased political strength we will be better able to increase the pressure for radical social and political change across this island.

Sinn Féin's radical, alternative voice is a challenge to the sectarianism and inequality of the 6 County state. But also it is increasingly a challenge to the corruption and elitism of the Southern political establishment. That is why they seek to halt the surge in support of our party.

Sinn Féin is in this to the end. We will secure our rights and entitlements on the same equal basis as available to others. We will persevere and we will achieve all our political objectives. So, let's get out and build a radical alternative."


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