London Friends back Agreement
BY FERN LANE
The London-based group, Friends of the Good Friday Agreement, held its first major conference on 14 and 15 April at the TUC building in central London, entitled `Making the Good Friday Agreement Work'. The group, founded by British Labour MPs Kevin McNamara, Maria Fyffe and John McDonnell, called the conference to coincide with the second anniversary of the signing of the Agreement and invited key players from all pro-Agreement parties in the Six Counties and the British government. Representing Sinn Féin at the condference were Assembly members Alex Maskey and Mitchel McLaughlin.
In the opening plenary, which included the SDLP's Mark Durkan and British government minister George Howarth, Alex Maskey, referring to the broad conference themes of inclusivity, trust and confidence, told the audience of the problems in building trust between the protagonists to the conflict.
``People have to recognise that there is no trust. You can't have 30 years of conflict and, from a nationalist and republican perspective, many decades of unionist misrule before that and have trust. Whatever way you look at it, there was a very unstable society which led to a conflict. So how could you have trust?
``We had an agreement which brought parties into government that had been implacably opposed to each other for many years,'' he said, an agreement which has now effectively been set to one side. One of the issues that has dogged the Agreement for the past two years, apart from decommissioning, said Maskey, has been ``the need to facilitate David Trimble.
``I have to say that the supposed weakness of David Trimble has actually been a very strong negotiating tactic. This weakness - whether it is real or perceived I'm not sure - has been used to dilute the Good Friday Agreement right through the process.''
In a workshop entitled ``Emergency and Criminal Justice: Who Owns the Law?'' Garvaghy Road residents' spokesperson Breandán Mac Cionnaith and human rights activist Paul May provided an overview of the history of emergency legislation and an update of the situation in Portadown. The prospects for the coming marching season were discussed, particularly in view of the British government's recent suggestion that it may bring forward its new human rights legislation - due to come into force in October - in order to enable an Orange march down the Garvaghy Road in July.
Mac Cionnaith told the audience that a state of emergency had in effect operated in the Six Counties since partition because of the draconian legislation introduced by successive British governments, legislation which had also been systematically abused in order to harass the nationalist community.
``Quite clearly, in the Six Counties, the law was the property of the unionist community,'' he said. ``It was controlled and implemented by a unionist police force and judicial system. With the Good Friday Agreement, tentative steps are being taken towards reform of the judicial system in the North, but I have to ask; will even those tentative reforms be implemented?
``The summary of the criminal justice review states that the targets set out in the review are subject to the political process. That is not how human rights are protected. Human rights should be above and beyond whatever political structures are set up in the North of Ireland. They should not be subject to the political vagaries of the process. And it is also a contradiction for the commission to set out these protections as part of their remit, when the emergency legislation which already exists, rather than being dismantled, is actually being reinforced [with the new Terrorism Bill] to a more severe degree than has existed in the last 30 years.''