First published: July 1997
The largest swing to any political party in the general election was to Sinn Féin – a 60 per cent increase in their vote over 1992, nationalist voters made clear that they held John Major, not Sinn Féin, responsible for the collapse of the peace process. As well as gaining two seats – Mid-Ulster and Belfast West – the party’s 16.1 per cent of the vote made them the third largest in Northern Ireland, overtaking Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. In the local elections which followed, the Unionists lost control of Belfast City Council and Sinn Féin’s vote advanced further.
But, in his first major policy statement on the north, Tony Blair made clear that as far as he is concerned Labour’s conference policy for ‘Irish unity by consent’ is now a dead letter. Blair did not make clear under what conditions Sinn Féin would be admitted to all-party talks.
For the information of our readers we reproduce here the bulk of Gerry Adams’ reply to Tony Blair.
‘It is a matter of regret that the speech delivered by Mr Blair in Belfast last Friday was so barren of new thinking… Protestations from British sources that the main part of the speech was the invitation to talks with Sinn Féin and that the rest was merely to reassure the unionists, ring hollow.
Not so long ago the British Labour Party had a ‘united Ireland by consent’ policy which reflected the honourable democratic sentiment within the British labour movement that the partition of Ireland was wrong and should be ended.
It is therefore understandable that nationalists should feel disturbed to hear Tony Blair declare himself a unionist with such gusto.
I can accept Mr Blair’s assertion: ‘I believe in the United Kingdom’, because that is the British government’s position and he is the prime minister. But to declare: ‘I value the Union’ begs the question why or which part of the Union is to be valued? It is also at odds with the claim by some here in Ireland, a claim never made by the British government, that it is neutral. When one considers the centuries of conflict and the human misery resulting from the Union forced upon Ireland by England what is there to value in that Union? It is based on coercion not consent. It exists not by the popular will of the people of Ireland, but by a minority who are backed by British guns.
There is also no point in pretending that a partitionist solution is possible. It is now widely accepted that an internal settlement is not a solution. Mr Blair is right to say, ‘violence has no place in a democratic society’. If this were a democratic society there would be no violence here. But the problem is that the Six County state is not a democratic society. It never has been and cannot be. It is the antithesis of democracy. Its existence is based upon and is the cause of violence. It is governed under a permanent state of emergency on a life-support unit of British militarism. It is maintained to deny to the Irish people the same rights that the people of Britain enjoy, the universal right to be free from foreign interference. Is this to be valued?… Apparently it is all right for the British to occupy and lay claim to a part of Ireland by force, but the Irish have to yield our claim to nationhood. There is no chance of that. Neither is anyone impressed by the oft-repeated cliché of the train leaving the station with or without Sinn Féin. One thing which everyone should have learned by now is that exclusiveness does not work. A peace process cannot be built upon threats or ultimatums.
Those who drafted Mr Blair’s speech are from the old administration. They know precisely what they are doing. If progress is to be made then the new government must give a new political direction to its officials. Otherwise little progress will be made. The speed and decisiveness with which the new ‘rules’ for setting interest rates or the social chapter was dealt with must be replicated in regard to Labour’s Irish policy also.
Sinn Féin will not be deflected by Mr Blair’s comments. On the contrary we see it as our duty to change British government policy, especially on the question of the Union.
This is also the responsibility of the broad democratic and nationalist opinion on this island to assert Irish national interests in negotiations and to seek international support for that position. That is certainly what Sinn Féin will be doing and Irish nationalists have a right to expect the Irish government to enter negotiations on that basis. In fact there is a constitutional and democratic imperative upon Dublin to do just that.
Sinn Féin has accepted Mr Blair’s invitation to talks. Despite his government’s reprehensible refusal to acknowledge the democratic rights of our electorate and without prejudice to this, our party believes in honest dialogue and we will play a positive part in the shared task of establishing a lasting peace. However, we should not blind ourselves to the problems involved. Progress is only possible if the opportunity which has been created is grasped.
Sinn Féin believes in resolving political problems through the use of peaceful and democratic methods. Our commitment is to peace talks, inclusive, without pre-conditions and without delays. It is a commitment to a negotiated peace settlement, achieved through agreement and based on equality. At the moment there are not the peace talks capable of achieving such a settlement.
Securing meaningful and inclusive peace talks and through them a lasting peace settlement is my personal and political priority.
Sinn Féin will, of course, bring our democratic Irish republican analysis to any negotiations process. It is our view that the British presence and the partition of Ireland are at the heart of the instability, political divisions and violence which have wrecked this country in every generation since the Six County state was established. We believe that a unitary, independent sovereign Irish state holds the best prospect for a just and lasting peace in Ireland. We will represent and promote this Irish republican perspective in the context of democratic negotiations. Others will bring their perspectives. We uphold their right to do so and we accept this also and reaffirm our commitment to the agreed outcome of a process of democratic negotiations.
Sinn Féin is often challenged on our refusal to accept the unionists’ veto. Yet Mr Blair reinforces unionist intransigence when he says, in relation to cross border institutions, ‘if such arrangements were really threatening to unionists, we would not negotiate them’.
It may not be Mr Blair’s intention, but if this logic is followed through there will be no progress whatsoever on any issue of substance.
Sinn Féin wants to make peace with our unionist neighbours. We want to be creative in finding ways to do this. But peace demands justice. Justice demands equality. Consent is a two-way street.
The consent of the Irish people to the partition of Ireland was never sought. It has never been freely given. There is no democratic basis for partition. That is the basis on which the consent issue has to be addressed.
The context in which ‘unionist consent’ is framed today aims to cloud the fact that what is really being talked about is not the issue of consent but rather a dated and spurious justification for partition and the unionist veto.
It is obvious that political stability, political cohesion and lasting peace in Ireland requires agreement between the people of this island. But those who elevate consent into a veto ignore the reality that the principle of consent has never been extended to nationalists.
The consent and agreement of the unionist section of our people is necessary to the building of an agreed and stable Ireland. Sinn Féin has argued this consistently. Our proposal that the British join the persuaders is, in fact, the logical extension of this position. It is our firmly-held belief that the consent of the unionist community is only realisable in the context of a clear policy change on the part of the British government. Liberated from the negative influence of the veto, the potential for unionists and nationalists negotiating an agreed future would be opened up.
There is an onus on those who claim that consent can be obtained while the veto remains to explain how this might be achieved.
The British government’s failure to commit themselves to a positive policy of working towards Irish reunification inevitably increases suspicions among Irish nationalists about Britain’s real intentions. That failure does not dispel the fundamental illusion held by unionists that they somehow possess a unilateral right to Union. It also ignore the wish of the majority of the British people themselves that their government should withdraw from Ireland and Irish affairs.
Sinn Féin has the democratic right to be involved in negotiations now and to represent our electorate on the basis of our strongly reestablished electoral mandate. We reject any pre-conditions to our involvement in dialogue and negotiations. Sinn Féin is not the IRA.
But we accept that inclusive democratic negotiations will best be conducted in a wholly peaceful environment.
All my efforts over the period since the breakdown of the peace process have been specifically aimed at securing that objective. In the context of a pro-unionist conservative government this was not possible. The difficulties arose from that government’s position towards Ireland and its support for the Union. It is this which has consistently underpinned London’s Irish policy, not the government’s majority or lack of majority which merely influences how it implements that policy. This is not to underplay John Major’s dependency on the UUP and Tony Blair’s landslide victory did raise many people’s hope, that freed from the stranglehold of the Unionist Party, the new British Labour government could grasp the opportunity to play a leadership role by tackling the crux issues in a democratic way.
In my view what is required at this time to create a new peace process is the reasonable assurances recommended by Senator Mitchell in the report of the International Body that a ‘meaningful and inclusive process of negotiations is genuinely on offer’. These reasonable and practical criteria are, in my view, the litmus test for progress and essential if there is to be any prospect of success.
According to the British legislation setting up the talks if there was an unequivocal restoration of the IRA cessation of August 1994, Sinn Féin would be invited to participate in the negotiations.
The stated position of the IRA is that they are willing to enhance a genuine peace process. The gap between the two positions must be bridged.
The elements of a meaningful process have long been identified. Many have been satisfactorily agreed. A number of critical outstanding concerns remain.
To be effective in achieving a lasting peace a negotiation process must address all the issues which have led to conflict and division. These need to be resolved if a meaningful and inclusive process of negotiations is genuinely being offered.
1) Confidence building;
2) The removal of pre-conditions;
3) A timeframe for the negotiations;
4) Sinn Féin’s entry into negotiations.
Absolute clarity is essential on all these matters.
1) Confidence building
If trust and confidence is to be built then the British government should outline a programme of specific confidence-building measures.
The issues which need to be addressed as part of a programme of confidence-building measures are:
Those issues which fall into the equality and democratic rights agenda and which address political, economic, social and cultural discrimination. These issues do not require any negotiation. They can and should be addressed immediately.
The principles of equality of treatment, equality of opportunity and parity of esteem would have to apply across the political, cultural, economic, social, legal and security spectrum.
Both governments would also need to urgently address a demilitarisation agenda dealing with issues such as: political prisoners; emergency legislation; and policing.
At this time the plight of republican prisoners in Britain continues to cause concern. This should be speedily dealt with.
2) The removal of pre-conditions
The two governments should outline how the obstacle of decommissioning is to be removed so that this issue can be properly addressed along with all other issues without blocking the negotiations.
The removal of the gun from the political equation in Ireland is a clear objective of a lasting peace settlement. Sinn Féin is totally committed to resolving all issues through negotiations, including the issue of disarmament, decommissioning and demilitarisation. Sinn Féin is willing to address all aspects of the Report of the International Body and to sign up to the six Mitchell Principles in the context of our participation in inclusive negotiations.
Our party is prepared to consider any proposals which address the need to take all the guns out of Irish politics and we will be putting forward, for consideration, our proposals on this issue.
However, it is clear at this time, 12 months after the commencement of the talks at Stormont, that the issue of decommissioning is being used as a block on the overall negotiations process, thus preventing movement towards an agreement which would resolve all of the vexed issues. If real progress is to be made and the substantive issues addressed then this situation must be corrected.
3) A timeframe for the conduct of negotiations
The two governments should propose a timeframe and calendar, in our view in the region of six months, for the conduct of the negotiations. It should be made clear that both governments will review the negotiations process at that point and if there is not sufficient progress the two governments will proceed with the substantive issues.
The Stormont talks have, after 12 months, not yet begun to address the substantive issues. The loss of confidence as a result is obvious. Confidence and momentum is needed.
There also needs to be some structural device to ensure that unionist politicians, as the incumbents and beneficiaries of the status quo, cannot exploit that advantage by using an open-ended negotiating process as a tactical instrument to ward off or delay rather than seek agreement on political change.
The two governments have already taken such a leading role in relation to a number of issues including both the chairing of the talks and the ground rules for the talks. The alternative is endless stalling and obstruction.
4) Sinn Féin’s entry into negotiations
The British government should state clearly that Sinn Féin will join the negotiations immediately following an unequivocal restoration of the IRA cessation of August 1994.
Just as we have sought clarification from the British government we also acknowledge that there are real issues of concern on the part of the British government. We have attempted to deal with these issues of concern in a positive and flexible manner and to create some space for others to move accordingly.
I have outlined Sinn Féin’s belief that a restoration by the IRA of its cessation of August 1994 will be genuinely unequivocal, containing a clear and unambiguous commitment to enhance a genuine peace process.
Sinn Féin believes that an unequivocal restoration of the IRA cessation would represent the most important confidence-building initiative on the IRA’s part.
I firmly believe that if clear assurances are given by the British government that a negotiations process which is both viable and credible will be put in place than the peace process can be restored and that the opportunity to finally resolve the conflict can then be brought to a successful conclusion. The re-establishment of contact between Sinn Féin and British government representatives, offers us the most direct means of resolving these issues. What is required is political will on all sides.
Republicans have the political will. I hope and I pray that the new British government also has the necessary political will.’
(An Phoblacht 22 May)