British indulge unionist intransigence
The following is an edited version of the Kevin Coen/Joseph MacManus Memorial Lecture given by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD at the Silver Swan Hotel, Sligo on Sunday 6 February. The Sinn Féin deputy took the opportunity to address the current crisis in the peace process.
This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the death of Volunteer Kevin Coen of Rusheen, Riverstown, County Sligo. Kevin was killed by British forces while on active service with Óglaigh na hÉireann at Cassidy's Cross in County Fermanagh on 20 January 1975. Though their deaths were separated by 17 years, Kevin Coen and Volunteer Joseph MacManus from Sligo town died in similar circumstances in the same cause and both as young men with full lives ahead of them. The loss to their families cannot be expressed in words; we can only offer our continuing sympathy, solidarity and support to them.
Because of a false unionist deadline on decommissioning and a narrow unionist definition of decommissioning, the entire political edifice is to be pulled down. And the folly of it all is that this is the best possible way to guarantee that there will never be decommissioning
The late John Joe McGirl, former Sligo-Leitrim Sinn Féin TD, delivered the graveside oration at the funeral of Volunteer Kevin Coen. His words apply equally to Joseph MacManus when he said:
``He felt strongly that the nationalist people of the Six Counties should not have to fight the war for freedom on their own... Kevin felt that the people of the North should not be left alone... One thing is clear - republicans are sincere that the Irish people should live and work together as Kevin did with his neighbours - but the intruder in Irish affairs must withdraw so that lasting freedom and peace can be brought about in Ireland.''
It is one of the sad aspects of our yet unresolved conflict that on occasions such as this, when we pay tribute to fallen republicans, our actions are often misrepresented as somehow a slight on others who died or were injured in the war. The most recent example was the criticism of republicans from unionist quarters for honouring Volunteer Tom Williams.
We could be much closer to the goal of a permanent peace but for unionist opposition to change and the manner in which the essential process of change has been so often mismanaged by the British government
Such criticism shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what conflict resolution is all about. It is about recognising that no section of our people has a monopoly on grief and suffering, that all active participants in the conflict have inflicted suffering and endured it. As republicans who have suffered many personal losses we empathise with all those who have lost loved ones, be they relatives of IRA Volunteers, British soldiers, RUC members, or civilians. A key part of this peace process is healing for all of those people.
We are Irish republicans. For us the legacy of republicans who died in an effort to liberate our country is profoundly important. We remember them with pride, we commemorate their sacrifice and we celebrate the conviction and the commitment which motivated them. In times of political cynicism with daily revelations of sleaze and corruption among the powerful and the influential in our society it is instructive to contrast all this with the idealism, the discipline and the selflessness of those such as Kevin Coen and Joseph MacManus. We should not mystify them for they were real people whose loss to their families is irreplaceable. But they did more than talk about freedom and they were willing to risk their lives for their political convictions. Self-serving careerism was alien to them as it is alien to everything we as republicans stand for.
At the time of Joseph MacManus's death the Irish peace process was at its tentative beginning. None of us at the time could have envisaged the dramatic political developments which would take place throughout the 1990s. But we did know that we in Sinn Féin were sincere about achieving lasting peace and ensuring that no more young men or women like Kevin or Joseph would lose their lives. We knew also that censorship, marginalisation and demonisation of our party and our electorate must be smashed if progress towards peace was to be achieved. Not the least of the achievements of the republican peace strategy was that we did indeed succeed in breaking censorship and marginalisation and we put the republican arguments for real peace at the top of the political agenda.
The culmination of that phase of the peace process was the declaration on 31 August 1994 of a unilateral cessation of military operations by the Irish Republican Army. It is now nearly five years since the first IRA ceasefire was declared. To listen to some politicians and political commentators this past week you could be forgiven for thinking that there was no IRA ceasefire at all. There is a wilful disregard by Unionism and by many pro-unionist elements in this State of the magnitude of the IRA's 1994 decision, their maintenance of the ceasefire and their commitment to peace which was restated once again on Tuesday of this week, 1 February and again yesterday evening, Saturday 5 February.
The IRA cessation was and remains the biggest single contribution to the peace process. The IRA cessation beginning in August 1994 was in reality the beginning of the process of what is now called decommissioning. Because if decommissioning means anything it means taking the gun out of the Irish political equation. IRA guns were taken out of use, out of commission. This was done unilaterally and with no reciprocal guarantees from the British government or its armed forces. The IRA guns are still silent.
We, Sinn Féin, having helped to persuade the IRA to take the risk for peace, threw ourselves into the task of achieving peace and progress through political dialogue. We made politics work. We built alliances and faced our political opponents with the reality that only through negotiated political change could we resolve this long and painful conflict.
We also made very difficult compromises. These too have been deliberately ignored by some in this current crisis. We changed our party Constitution and entered a Six-County Assembly, even though we had always opposed such a body. We did not oppose changes to Articles Two and Three of the 1937 Constitution, again despite long opposition to dilution of these Articles.
For me and for many of you, I expect, that was a very painful decision. We were prepared to work new structures even though the Six Counties remain for the time being under British government jurisdiction.
At every step the work of those, including Sinn Féin, who were seeking real peace and real progress, was met with unionist intransigence and a British government which too often has pandered to that unionist intransigence.
A huge effort is being made to place the blame for the current crisis, and the onus for resolving it, on Sinn Féin alone. This is wrong. Sinn Fein has played a vital and central role in moving us all towards a permanent peace.
It is equally clear that we could be much closer to that goal but for unionist opposition to change and the manner in which the essential process of change has been so often mismanaged by the British government.
The granting of a veto to unionism has always been an impediment to peace. It was granted again this week by British Secretary of State Peter Mandelson in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement and the Mitchell Review.
Armed with his post-dated letter of resignation, David Trimble has brought the process to a crisis around the false deadline of 31 January, now extended to the end of next week. The British government has facilitated this by preparing to suspend the institutions and effectively set aside the Agreement, all in order to save David Trimble from the political consequences of pulling the plug himself.
To justify this it is suggested that republicans are in default and that everything but IRA decommissioning is on course and on schedule. This is also wrong. Since Good Friday 1998, we have seen a succession of missed deadlines and broken agreements.
On 1 July 1998, David Trimble was elected First Minister and Seamus Mallon Deputy First Minister. On 20 July in the House of Commons David Trimble made his intentions clear when he said he would seek to have Sinn Féin excluded from office in the Executive. The summer passed with no Executive formed.
The All-Ireland Bodies were due to be established through the Shadow Ministerial Council by 31 October 1998. Because of unionist refusal to enter an Executive this deadline was missed. Expectations that this would be done before David Trimble and John Hume accepted their Nobel Peace Prizes on 10 December were also dashed.
On 13 January 1999 a new deadline was set by the British government for 10 March 1999. Once again this deadline was allowed to pass. Five days later Rosemary Nelson was murdered.
A new deadline of the week beginning 29 March was set to ensure that the institutions were established before the first anniversary of the Agreement on 10 April. Once more the deadline passed.
Yet another deadline - an absolute deadline the British government told us - was set for 30 June and it too passed.
On 12 July the British government, in another effort to mollify unionists, published legislation which went beyond the Agreement and created further conditions on the establishment of the Executive. That was not enough for David Trimble and on 15 July he refused to nominate ministers to the new Executive, leading to the resignation of his Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon. Here was a classic case of British government pandering to unionism and rather than respond positively David Trimble used every opportunity to obstruct progress and meaningful change.
On 24 July against this difficult backdrop the Sinn Féin negotiating team reported to the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle on the preliminary discussions with Senator Mitchell and the British government in respect of the review.
Our work for a resolution continued through the autumn and the Mitchell Review concluded with agreement that:
(a) The institutions be established
(b) The decomissioning issue be dealt with by General de Chastelain and the IICD.
The Executive was finally established on 29 November 1999, almost 20 months after the Good Friday Agreement.
The ink was not dry on the Mitchell Review before David Trimble ran to the Ulster Unionist Council and created a new pre-condition and a new deadline. With a dramatic flourish, he produced his now notorious resignation letter. Like a device with a long fuse, this letter has been allowed to threaten the life of the fledging Executive and All-Ireland institutions since their inception. By suspending the Executive the British government will fulfill the threat.
Because of a false unionist deadline on decommissioning and a narrow unionist definition of decommissioning, the entire political edifice is to be pulled down. And the folly of it all is that this is the best possible way to guarantee that there will never be decommissioning.
We in Sinn Féin have repeatedly stretched the republican constituency during this peace process in order to reach accommodation with our political opponents. But there comes a time when the question must be asked: ``Are we expected to stretch republicanism to breaking point and is this the aim of our opponents?''
The pressure on republicans must be seen in the context of the lack of progress on key measures which the British government is obliged to undertake in the Good Friday Agreement.
The Agreement commits the British government to publish and implement an overall strategy for demilitarisation. Apart from a pre-Christmas statement by Peter Mandelson nothing has been published and on the ground the British Army is still concentrated in huge numbers. In areas like South Armagh, British Army activities have greatly increased. Despite a saturation presence and daily harassment amounting to armed provocation, the republican people of South Armagh remain committed to the peace process. The guns on the streets of the Six Counties which are in commission and which are being pointed at citizens, are those in the hands of the British Army and the RUC.
The Patten report on policing is a set of positive recommendations and nothing more; we have a statement of intent from the British government but no legislation and there is a long way to go before an acceptable police service is established. In the meantime the RUC remains as unacceptable as ever. Evidence of collusion between them and loyalist paramilitaries continues to emerge, most recently in the Rosemary Nelson case and in the revelations about the murder of Pat Finucane. Sectarian loyalist attacks have continued, including several murders since the Good Friday Agreement.
This is the context in which republicans are being portrayed as the wreckers of the peace process.
If the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement are collapsed this week it will be because Unionism was not prepared to allow the fundamental changes needed to ensure equality, justice and lasting peace. And because once again unionist intransigence is being indulged by the British government.
Sinn Féin negotiators are working night and day to resolve this crisis. But it can only be resolved on the basis of equality and parity of esteem for the electoral mandates of all participants. Sinn Féin ministers are in the Executive by right and not as a concession from Unionists. The rights of our voters must be respected. And the rights of all who voted for the Agreement, including people throughout the 26 Counties, must be respected also.
I have had to dwell at length on the perilous state of the peace process but I think it is equally important that I address briefly here the development of our party in the 26 Counties. The strength of Sinn Féin in County Sligo is a measure of our success.
Sinn Féin is the only real alternative to the tired, careerist and conservative politics of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The corrupt elements in these parties have poisoned the politics of this country and made many people cynical about the political process. Such cynicism is always difficult to overcome but in place of it we in Sinn Féin can offer the commitment and dedication of our political activists and the sound, sensible and radical policies of our party.
Real democracy at local and national level is our goal and it is one shared by a broad mass of people to whom we appeal.