By Gerry Adams (for the Guardian, April 30)
Last year London experienced the largest demonstration in its history - against the war in Iraq. For those who share that position its size was a great encouragement. Here was clear evidence that people in Britain don’t regard their government as infallible; and that there is support for diplomatic measures and opposition to war.
For Irish republicans and nationalists, or anyone longing for peace and justice, there was an added dimension. Here was proof there are people in Britain who are open to an alternative view of the world, to the problems we face and how they should be tackled. And if this is the case, they are also open to being persuaded about their government’s Irish policy.
In particular, if they don’t trust its intelligence agencies on Iraq, why trust them on Ireland? And what is its Irish policy? Historically, British government policy is about upholding the union. Until now this meant it allied itself to unionism in a blatant way. The Good Friday agreement changed some of that. The commitment to the union remains, but in a qualified way. The dependency on unionism has been retained and has bedevilled the process.
The agreement is one of the achievements of Tony Blair’s premiership. But its implementation is another matter. Sinn Féin has worked with Blair; I have been encouraged by his willingness to spend time on this in the midst of other crises. Sinn Féin knows he has a commitment to the Irish peace process. That doesn’t mean that he will always do the right thing.
My view is that British policy in Ireland should be about ending the union, persuading unionists that their future lies with the rest of us on the island of Ireland, and working with an Irish government to bring about an end to partition. So for someone like me, the agreement is a huge compromise, as are the range of changes republicans have embraced.
These include Sinn Féin representatives working out of Stormont when the British government deems that we can do so, or arguing for the IRA to engage with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to put caches of IRA arms beyond use. Others opposed to Sinn Féin’s strategy, or indeed some who support our leadership but question the efficacy of our strategy, could lengthen this list a great deal.
So the Sinn Féin leadership knows the actions of even a benign British government and its agencies are determined by what they perceive to be their own interests. These actions, or lack of actions, can make a bad situation worse. The Irish peace process is at that point. The contributory factors include the outworking of Irish domestic politics, including the battle within unionism, the growth of Sinn Féin, the existence of armed groups, and the failure by DUP and UUP ministers to fulfil their duties. But what of the effects of the British government’s failure to fulfil its obligations under the agreement on issues such as demilitarisation, human rights, equality, victims, the Irish language and the use of symbols?
In a breach of the agreement, the government has suspended the institutions on four occasions and cancelled the assembly elections twice. The difficulties were compounded in October when Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist party and the two governments agreed a sequence of events to advance the process. Sinn Féin delivered; so did the IRA. The UUP and the two governments did not. Since then, more damage has been done by the refusal to set up, as promised, an inquiry into the killing of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane, and to cooperate with the Irish government’s commission into the Dublin-Monaghan bombings.
The process has since been in free fall. The spiral is accelerated by the apparent desire of the governments to confront Irish republicans. Last week’s report by the so-called Independent Monitoring Commission is another example. Despite an acknowledgement that Sinn Féin “is not in a position actually to determine what policies or operational strategies PIRA [sic] will adopt”, it recommended our party be penalised for activities it alleges the IRA was involved in.
On Friday, Martin McGuinness and I had a significant meeting with Tony Blair. We pressed him for an intensive engagement on these matters. The prime minister said progress is desirable, and possible. I spent the next day at meetings of republicans in Belfast, Fermanagh and Tyrone. There was huge, barely contained, anger. The IMC report is seen by many as part of an ongoing effort to stop Sinn Féin developing as a political party across Ireland. For many, the British and Irish governments’ punishment of Sinn Féin is a bridge too far.
The peace process grew out of building an alternative to conflict, by developing a sustainable process of change and making politics work. That means returning to the strategic vision which helped create the agreement. There can be no halfway house.