Category: Archive

Op-Ed Unionist veto threatens to undermine agreement

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Martin McGuinness

The Good Friday peace agreement was universally welcomed by everyone of goodwill toward the Irish people. It was endorsed in referenda by the overwhelming majority of the electorate in Ireland who voted. It was agreed by the Irish and British governments, Sinn Féin and the political parties in the north of Ireland, including David Trimble’s UUP.

It was hard fought. Hard won. A victory for all. It represents the essential compromise for this phase of a peace process which began several years before and which needs to continue. The exploration and development of all future possibilities is dependent on the implementation of what was agreed.

The agreement is an important staging post of the peace process which can create the conditions for progress. Implementation of what was agreed is key to this.

The agreement itself has not resolved the causes of conflict but has mapped out a framework within which these can be addressed. In categoric terms it makes provision for the establishment of inclusive political institutions as the political foundation on which to build.

Other vitally important issues were addressed but not resolved. Instead, mechanisms to do this were agreed. Among these are human rights, policing, justice, equality in all its dimensions, prisoners, decommissioning and the demilitarization of society. But to listen to David Trimble one would think that decommissioning was the only issue to be resolved. Unionists have sought to rewrite the agreement on this issue. They have deliberately developed an impasse in the process by refusing to cooperate in the establishment of the political institutions agreed and using the decommissioning issue as the excuse for this.

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Nationalists feel strongly about unacceptable unionist militias — the RUC and the RIR — which remain intact, a justice system which has perpetuated the repression of nationalists, the system of pervasive inequalities which has rendered nationalists second-class citizens for decades, and the denial of human rights across a whole spectrum of issues. The resolution of these issues is central to a lasting peace settlement. Sinn Fein has not made any one of these a precondition to progress. But for any party now to make any of these issues a precondition to the implementation of the institutional provisions of the agreement is an act of bad faith which breaches and threatens the entire agreement. At this point, as agreed, what is required is the establishment of the political institutions. This is the next staging post.

The refusal to do so cannot be viewed as an isolated blip in the process. This is not a difference of interpretation. It is a serious breach. This must be a matter of deep concern for everyone.

Central to Sinn Fein’s peace strategy is the development of a credible and effective way of achieving political change through peaceful and democratic methods. Collectively we have constructed a peace process, which has already delivered cease-fires by all the main protagonists with the obvious exception of the British State forces. Sinn Fein played a key role in delivering the total and unequivocal cessation by the IRA July 1997, but fundamentally it was the firm and binding political commitments given that inclusive negotiations would begin that allowed us to convince the IRA that it should restore its cessation of military operations.

The value of that initiative by the IRA should not be underestimated. The fact that the guns are not now in use is of immense significance. It underlines the IRA commitment to the search for a lasting peace settlement.

The refusal to establish the political institutions, and the resurrection of the demand for decommissioning as a precondition to excuse this, strengthens and encourages the rejectionists, makes our task more difficult, undermines our position and strengthens the positions of those that argue that politics cannot deliver real change.

Sinn Fein is committed to the wholehearted implementation of the Good Friday agreement in all its aspects including the provisions on decommissioning. But the greatest threat to all of this is the resistance to change within unionism generally and most critically within the UUP leadership. In effect a unionist veto on progress has been resurrected.

What is required at this time is that David Trimble makes a choice. He is either for the agreement or he is against it. If he is for the agreement he must implement it. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on that basis. He must now earn the Nobel Peace Prize.

When the IRA announced its first cessation in 1994, the response of the then British government was to demand decommissioning to prevent the commencement of negotiations in the full knowledge that the IRA would not surrender.

Unionists seized on this demand as a tactical means to obstruct and delay the process of change.

It should be remembered that if the unionists had had their way, their demands for decommissioning would have prevented the second IRA cessation and inclusive negotiations, and blocked the Good Friday agreement.

It should also be remembered that most of the numerous political initiatives over the recent past have been taken by Sinn Fein unilaterally or as part of the wider political leadership of nationalist Ireland.

Unfortunately, these initiatives did not have the intended effect. Rather than acknowledging and responding positively to these initiatives, David Trimble’s response has been begrudging and ungenerous based on the sterile politics of demanding decommissioning to block progress.

The reality is that in undertaking these initiatives, and in the context of such an ungenerous response from unionism, Sinn Fein has stretched the Irish republican constituency to the limit in the process. And not without taking damage or suffering defections. The republican constituency can go no further.

The Good Friday agreement is the collective product of inclusive negotiations. It is premised on a willingness to accept our political opponents on their own terms, as they are rather than how we want them to be. The agreement cannot be retrospectively rewritten on the basis of unionist demands, preconditions or vetoes.

I am, however, concerned that the UUP strategy for rewriting the agreement is having a negative effect on some of the parties to the agreement and the threat this poses to the agreement itself. There is a collective duty on all of us who negotiated and endorsed the Good Friday agreement to defend it and ensure its implementation. The two governments have a particular responsibility in their overseeing role, to ensure that the agreement is implemented in full, for ensuring that the provisions of the agreement are implemented, in the terms and within the time frames agreed on Good Friday.

The test for the two governments and for the agreement itself is whether the provisions on democratic entitlement will be defended and acted upon.

There can be no going back. Only forward.

(The writer is Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator.)

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