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To vote or not to vote?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Next week, David Trimble, the UUP leader, and the SDLP’s top man, Mark Durkan, will outline their positions.

By Northern Ireland Secretary of State Paul Murphy
The job of secretary of state for Northern Ireland is one that always involves taking a lot of difficult decisions, and my first eight months in the job have been true to form. No decision, however, has been so difficult as the one to postpone the election intended for May 29. However, Tony Blair and I are certain that the decision we took together, and after many days of debate, was the right one to protect the Good Friday agreement and the peace process, for which the agreement is our road map.
The Northern Ireland Assembly, set up by the Good Friday agreement, has been suspended since October last year. It was suspended because of a collapse of trust, trust which hemorrhaged because of continuing paramilitary activity, including alleged involvement of the IRA with terrorists in Colombia and an alleged IRA spy ring in my own Northern Ireland Office.
Without trust, the unique structure of devolved government for Northern Ireland cannot work. For if one side of the community feels it cannot trust the other, and will not participate in government with them, then there can be no government.
Rebuilding that trust has thus been our priority over the last eight months — and it remains so. We began last October when Tony Blair made his famous speech calling for “acts of completion” in the Northern Ireland peace process. The prime minister spoke for all the people of Ireland when he said that the age of paramilitary activity had passed, that a fork in the road had been reached, and that the Republican movement must “make the commitment to exclusively peaceful means — real, total and permanent.”
Over the following six months we worked intensively with the Irish government and the Northern Ireland parties to agree on a way forward. In March, we produced a Joint Declaration, spelling out exactly how and when we would implement all that remained outstanding from the agreement. And we spelled out, with equal precision, what we meant by acts of completion by the paramilitaries.
We delayed the election, which had been scheduled for May 1, to the May 29, in order to give the political parties time to discuss the Joint Declaration with their membership. Meanwhile, we waited for an indication from the IRA that they too were prepared to undertake acts of completion. Their response came on April 13. Unfortunately, our assessment of their statement — shared by the taoiseach and the Irish government — was that it simply did not tell us what they were prepared to do. Did it mean that all paramilitary activity would cease? Did it mean that the conflict would now be closed? Did it mean that all of their weapons would be put out of use?
While Gerry Adams made genuine efforts to answer these questions he could not say that all paramilitary activity would cease. He did not say that so-called punishment beatings would stop, that exiling some people and inciting others to riot would stop. That all of these activities — which have continued since the signing of the Good Friday agreement — would stop. And without a clear answer to those critical questions — without the IRA saying yes, this activity will stop — there could be no trust.
We decided that to hold the election in those circumstances risked inflicting fatal damage on the Good Friday agreement — the only route to lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
Not everyone agreed that this was the best tactic to adopt. However, we, the Irish government, the pro-agreement parties — and the U.S. government — were completely united in believing that whatever the merits of the tactic, the strategy was right.
Because lest anyone doubt it, the Good Friday agreement remains the only way to build a fair and honorable accommodation between the different traditions and communities of Northern Ireland and to secure a stable and lasting peace.
So where do we go from here?
Already we have started to move the process forward. We have begun work on delivering commitments in the Joint Declaration.
An impressive amount of progress has been made. In addition to the Joint Declaration, a further agreement between the British and Irish governments sets out the role and remit of a new International Monitoring Body to report on paramilitary activity. Comprising individuals from the United States, Great Britain, the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, it promises to bring a new clarity and transparency to the process.
And no one — least of all the British government — would deny that the republican movement has also moved forward. I have no doubt that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness remain absolutely committed to the peaceful path. They know that no one is asking the republican movement to give up their legitimate aspiration for a united Ireland. However, they know too that without a clear commitment to an immediate, full and permanent cessation of all paramilitary activity, there can be no trust in Northern Ireland and no early return of the institutions which they helped create.
I arrived in the United States two weeks ago with some trepidation. But I soon found that Irish America understands that we are committed to preserving the Good Friday agreement and that we are committed to delivering a just and lasting peace for Northern Ireland. In my discussions with distinguished leaders of the Irish-American community, I found a bedrock of support for the process that cannot be shifted by temporary problems.
We cherish that support, and the critical role that the United States government has played in the success of the Good Friday agreement. With your continued support, and in partnership with the government of the Irish Republic, I am confident that we can go the final mile in the process. I am confident that, shoulder to shoulder, we can see an end to the violence that has blighted people’s lives and bring about a shared and peaceful future for Northern Ireland.
(Mr. Murphy is Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland.)

Election delay wrong, but progress possible

By the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Cowen

The health of the peace process is often dependent on the perspective of the doctor providing the diagnosis. The truth of the matter is, on the good days, the patient is never as fit as we would all like. Neither, on the bad, is he ever as ill as some would fear. The prudent prescription is that we should never be complacent about the achievements of the peace process or fatalistic about the challenges that remain.
Any peace process requires constancy, resilience and an unwavering will to succeed. Despite the disappointment of recent weeks, the Irish government is determined that the Good Friday agreement be fully implemented.
To paraphrase the eloquent Sen. George Mitchell, I don’t intend to resort to an inventory of recrimination as to why our best hopes and expectations were not fulfilled over recent weeks. While we welcomed and acknowledged the significant steps taken by the republican movement, the Irish government was disappointed that a clear and credible closure to paramilitary activity was not secured.
Similarly, while we greatly value the partnership between the two governments that has been one of the main engines of progress in recent years, we did not agree with the decision to postpone the May 29 assembly elections. We felt that such a postponement would cause more problems than it solved and shared that frank assessment with the British government.
However, we now need to move on, to be forward looking, and to regain momentum in the process.
In 1996, Sen. Mitchell wrote that the people of Northern Ireland “want lasting peace in a just society in which paramilitary violence plays no part.” We have made great progress in achieving that vision but are not quite there yet. The Good Friday agreement provides the blueprint for that just society, and the recently published Joint Declaration is the shared agenda of both governments for fully implementing the outstanding aspects of that agreement. Over the next few months, the Joint Declaration will be our program for action in such areas as criminal justice, human rights and equality.
However, we also need to create the confidence that Northern Ireland is irreversibly on course to become a society where paramilitary violence plays no part and where democratic institutions, open to all who have an electoral mandate, will operate on a stable and sustainable basis. These are the two sides of the same coin of trust and confidence. Both objectives are best achieved together.
Elections are the key interface between democratic politics and government. The recent postponement of assembly elections not only closed off the route to the formation of the next devolved administration in Northern Ireland, it also drained a great deal of energy from the operation of day-to-day politics.
The restoration of that political momentum requires a credible prospect of the elections being held as early as possible and, in any event, no later than the fall. The holding of elections should not be contingent on some subjective judgment that a particular party or community has sufficient trust and confidence to proceed with the democratic process. The elections should proceed as of right and, in a positive context, as part of the process of renewing that trust and confidence.
The holding of elections will not, of course, guarantee the formation of an inclusive administration. Unionist participation in government, like that of nationalists, is a voluntary engagement. Securing such unionist participation will be dependent on achieving an end to paramiltarism in a way which everyone accepts.
Equally, the ability of the republican movement to undertake these final steps will be influenced by its assessment as to whether Unionism is willing to embrace the agenda of change represented by the Good Friday agreement.
Both sides have fundamental choices to make but will only make them in the context of a vibrant political process; they will not make them where it is frozen and the prospect of elections is a receding target.
So, our goals in the weeks and months ahead are pro-actively to implement the Joint Declaration so that we proceed on course to the achievement of a just society in Northern Ireland, create a credible context for elections in the near term, and, at the same time, enhance the prospects for the subsequent restoration of the full institutional architecture of the agreement.
Those prospects will be immeasurably strengthened if republicans and unionists give each other the trust they require so that it is clear that paramilitarism is being definitively consigned to the past, and that partnership and equality is the accepted route map to the future. The achievement of a peaceful summer on the streets, a restrained marching season, calm at the community interfaces, and a cessation of sectarian attacks would also help create the conditions for renewed and constructive political engagement.
A great deal has been achieved in the five years since the agreement. Northern Ireland is being transformed for the better. All of the pro-agreement parties deserve credit for the risks they have taken to make the process work — to light candles of hope rather than smugly curse the darkness.
The support and encouragement received from the United States has also been a beacon of light. President Bush and his administration — in particular Ambassador Richard Haass — have provided valuable advice and assistance whenever needed. Our friends on both sides of the aisle in Congress have kept their doors and phone lines open and the wider Irish-American community has constantly offered its solidarity and support.
We will need all of that support in the coming months if we are to finish the job of fully implementing the agreement. If we respect the primacy of politics, do not allow ourselves to be distracted by destructive allegations and leaks, and renew a sense of confidence and momentum in the process, I firmly believe that we can and will realize the full promise of the Good Friday agreement — to the collective benefit of everyone who lives on the island of Ireland.
(Mr. Cowen is Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs.)

GFA opponents will seek to fill political vacuum

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By Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams

The Irish peace process has transformed the situation in Ireland.
Only a short time ago a vicious circle of injustice, inequality and conflict afflicted us all. This was the legacy of the undemocratic partition of Ireland. We seemed trapped in a conflict, believed intractable. Yet the political landscape has been altered and we have provided the hope, if not the certainty, that the injustices and failures of the past will never be repeated.
All of this has flowed from the peace process and the consequent political negotiations. For 25 years armed groups — on all sides — dictated the agenda. The peace process has changed all of that. For the first time political leaders are in the driving seat.
The Irish-American community and their political representatives have played a significant role in all of this. Good Friday 1998 would not have happened without the energetic involvement of President Clinton. The current administration under President Bush is also fully engaged in the efforts to defend and advance the peace process. I welcome and commend those efforts.
Unfortunately, our peace process is again in deep crisis:
” First, the British government unilaterally suspended the democratic institutions agreed and established under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.
” Second, the British government has publicly accepted that, five years on, it has failed to fully implement its commitments under the terms of the agreement.
” Third, the British government has now cancelled elections and there is no guarantee when these elections will take place.
” Fourth, the British government has ignored the Irish government’s status as joint and co-equal partner in the agreement. Irish government opposition to unilateral British decisions has been ignored.
The British government has no right to cancel elections in Ireland, which derive directly from the Good Friday agreement and the endorsement of that agreement by the overwhelming majority of the Irish people. The Irish government opposed this. Indeed, every political party in Ireland opposed it. Only UUP leader David Trimble and the British government supported this undemocratic action.
The cancellation of elections is a subversion of democracy.
In any normal democratic society, a crisis in the political institutions would lead directly to elections to establish a fresh mandate for the political parties. That is the way of democracy. That is the way of politics. The cancellation of elections has created a dangerous political vacuum which those opposed to the peace process will seek to fill.
The process of conflict resolution in Ireland as elsewhere is premised on the creation of a viable political, democratic and peaceful alternative to war. In short, it is about making politics work. The British and Irish governments themselves stated in their Joint Declaration: “The best way of ensuring that peace remains permanent is by demonstrating that politics work.”
How does canceling democratic elections demonstrate that politics work?
The damage is compounded because the failure to implement the agreement in full, the suspension of the political institutions and the cancellation of the elections all result from the opposition of the Ulster Unionist Party to a new political reality based on equality and inclusivity.
No party should have a veto over change.
The elections cancelled by the British government must be rescheduled without delay.
The political institutions suspended by the British government need to be put back in place urgently.
There can be no renegotiation of the Good Friday agreement. The agreement must be implemented in full.
The commitment contained in the recent joint statement from the two governments should not be conditional. They are about the rights of citizens and they should be delivered now.
We must see an end to political and paramilitary policing.
Our society must be demilitarized, on all sides.
There must be an end to discrimination, inequality and sectarianism.
Human rights must become a reality for all our people.
The Ulster Unionist Party and their allies in the British system have blamed Irish republicans, and in particular the IRA, for the present hiatus. This is nonsense. The willingness of the IRA to contribute to the peace process was spelled out in a statement given to the two governments on April 13. The Irish government, and, incredibly, the British government also, recognized the many positive aspects of the IRA statement, the obvious progress and, crucially, the clear desire of the IRA to make the peace process work. In any other conflict situation an acknowledgement by one side of the peaceful intent of the other would have been seized and built upon. But not so in Ireland.
Instead, we had a word game, which ended ultimately with the rejection by the Ulster Unionists and the British government of the unprecedented IRA initiative. There was no lack of clarity in the IRA positions. Their commitment to the peace process and their willingness to contribute to its success was explicit and unambiguous.
The word game was a cover for the rejection of the IRA initiative by an Ulster Unionist Party now dominated by anti-peace-process elements and whose agenda is to halt the process of democracy and change.
Despite the present difficulties, where we are now is a far better place than where we were 10 years ago. There is a heavy onus on political leaders to build on this progress and to avoid the mistakes that wrecked hopes of peace elsewhere in the world. That is my commitment and that of Sinn Fein.
The key to making politics work is democracy. People have the right to vote. This means elections.
Sinn Fein is totally wedded to the peace process. We want an end to conflict in our country. I believe if there is political will and common sense and a determination to leave the failures of the past behind us, we can collectively achieve a new, better and peaceful future for all of the people of Ireland.
(Mr. Adams MP is the president of Sinn Fein.)

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