British veto deepens crisis
BY SEAN BRADY
Several hundred Sinn Féin delegates gathered in Dublin last weekend for an internal party conference originally organised in a more positive political atmosphere to discuss how best to build on the political progess which had been made in the Peace Process in recent years.
However, with the political atmosphere in the intervening period changed radically for the worse, discussion last Sunday was dominated by a political process which is in deep crisis. The mood at the conference was angry and defiant.
An overriding theme at the Sinn Féin gathering was the existence of a British government veto in the current political situation and it was clear that there is now a huge gap between the British government and Sinn Féin. The point was made strongly that it was a British Secretary of State who unilaterally collapsed the institutions which had begun to work so well for all of the people, and it is a British Secrtary of State who is refusing to reinstate those same instititiuons.
If progress is to be made, all vetos have to be removed. To achieve that political pressure needs to be applied. It is to this end that Sinn Féin turned its attention this week
In meetings since the suspension, Sinn Féin has told Peter Mandelson in no uncertain terms that the British and unionist veto must go and that he must reinstate the institutions. Nevertheless, he remains unlikely and unwilling to do so.
Meanwhile, in what has been described by Sinn Féin as a ``slap in the face'' for those seeking to resolve the political impasse, virulent anti-Agreement MPs Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster have been appointed to an Ulster Unionist Party committee established to devise party strategy in relation to the Good Friday Agreement. Further indicating the increasingly intransigent approach of the UUP, one of its Assembly members, Desmond Birnie, has proposed the exclusion of Sinn Féin from any future Executive. He claimed that unionists had ``nothing more to give and nowhere else to move''. Unless the IRA bowed to a unionist demand on decommissioning, Birnie said that politicians should ``close and bolt the door''.
In relation to any review of the Agreement or its implementation, Sinn Féin has made clear over the past two weeks that it is not prepared to walk in and out of buildings just for the sake of television cameras. Speaking in the United States on Wednesday, 23 February, Mandelson also ruled out a review.
The political reality which many commentators are obscuring is that the issue of weapons is not an issue between Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party. It is and always was a responsibility for all political parties and an area where all must use their influence.
Sinn Féin has and will continue to fulfill its obligations in relation to the Good Friday Agreement. The party has done its best throughout the entire process and will continue its efforts but it is now making clear that it will not accept that it alone has a singular responsibility for the resolution of the decommissioning issue.
A regressive development in all of this has been the emergence of a lack of consensus among nationalist politicians around decommissioning. A particularly disappointing example has been Seamus Mallon's party politicking over the issue. What kick started and maintained the Peace Process through even its most perilous stages was the existence of a degree of consensus among Irish nationalist representatives around key issues. To diverge from that position now would prove disastrous.
Sinn Féin delegates at the weekend conference, while angry, were not despondent and the conference attendance reflected a party which is growing rapidly North and South and attracting young, energetic people in large numbers. Delegates were defiant in their rejection of the British veto and they recommitted themselves to building the Sinn Féin party across the 32 Counties.
While the reinstatement of the institutions under the Good Friday Agreement was demanded, a theme which featured again and again was the necessity and the determination to build greater republican political strength. This means that whatever occurs in the immediate future, Sinn Féin will be coming back at its opponents with an even larger mandate and greater negotiating strength to achieve a better political agreement.
On Wednesday, 1 March, London-based media sources were suggesting that the Irish and British governments had agreed a timetable for talks over the coming weeks. But comments by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Leinster House the same day directly contradicted the British government spin.
Responding to a question from Labour Party leader Ruairí Quinn, Ahern said: ``We have a tentative plan to hold a number of meetings over the next fortnight. I would like to be able to tell the deputy that the meetings are of a concrete nature but I cannot. However there is contact. We must try to get some level of support for an initiative before we get involved in a round-table session.''
Sinn Féin spokespersons said that nobody had spoken to the party on the matter. Party leaders met with Peter Mandelson on Monday and there was no evidence in those discussions that Mandelson was about to restore the institutions, yet this is an essential first step that needs to be taken if the current crisis is to be overcome.
Sinn Féin MP Martin McGuinness met Dublin Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen on Wednesday afternoon, and there will be a further meeting later in the week. Sinn Féin says it will maintain a dialogue with other political parties as well as with both governments.
However, the overriding fact, which must not be lost sight of, is that the institutions have been unilaterally collapsed, that the British government and the Ulster Unionist Party are in default of the Agreement, and that both are exercising a veto over the political process. If progress is to be made, all vetos have to be removed. To achieve that political pressure needs to be applied. It is to this end that Sinn Féin turned its attention this week.