by Gerry Adams MP
Three years ago in November 2003, 108 successful candidates were elected to the Legislative Assembly at Stormont. That Assembly has never met. On 15 May, these members will gather there, at the call of the British Secretary of State, Peter Hain. But the Assembly summoned together by Peter Hain is not the Assembly to which these MLAs were elected. It is not the Assembly contained in the Good Friday Agreement. Instead of convening that Assembly, Peter Hain recently introduced legislation at Westminster. This allows for the recall of Assembly Members on a different basis than that set out in the Good Friday Agreement. The legislation provides for an Assembly period between 15 May and the end of June in which to form an Executive. If that does not happen, a further period after the summer recess has been set, ending on 25 November. Although the two governments have declared that the primary purpose is the appointment of the Executive, the legislation authorises the British Secretary of State to allow other business to be conducted. The Assembly’s rules have also been changed.
Most citizens are probably unaware of all this and, arguably, if they were aware, they may not be too concerned. The big picture focus will be on Ian Paisley and whether or not he will lead his Democratic Unionist Party in the power sharing Executive with the rest of us.
Understandably, there is a lot of scepticism and cynicism about whether Ian Paisley will do the business. The good will and high hopes, which were invested in the Assembly after the Good Friday Agreement was achieved more than eight years ago, has eroded.
Despite this, I detect an undercurrent of hope that progress can be made. The significant moves by republicans last year have emboldened many to hope that this time it will be different – this time real progress can be made.
Notwithstanding this, it is important to recognise, as I have outlined above, that the Hain Assembly is not the Good Friday Agreement Assembly. It is an inferior model. However, if the focus can be kept on the formation of the Executive and away from other distractions, progress is possible. For that reason, scepticism should be suspended and the upcoming period approached in a very positive way.
In this context, a big effort has to be made to keep the two governments on the right lines. For example, it emerged recently that the two governments were considering assembly arrangements put forward by the DUP that would override the Good Friday Agreement safeguards. At a meeting with the Taoiseach, I made it clear that this was unacceptable. And the next day, following a meeting with Tony Blair in Downing Street, Sinn Féin publicly ruled out participating in any form of Shadow Assembly.
It is also worth noting, despite the understandable goodwill that the Taoiseach receives for his work on the process, that any initiatives, imperfect though they may be, have come from the British government, mostly at the behest of Sinn Féin.
For some time now we have campaigned for the Assembly to be reconvened with the purpose of forming the power-sharing Executive. Monday’s meeting is the result of that, but – as always in these situations – the governments have tried to be all things to all men, instead of defenders of the Good Friday Agreement.
Does this mean that the two governments do not want the upcoming effort to succeed? Not at all. The British government is certainly very determined, even at times for all the wrong reasons. For example, in March Peter Hain put forward a proposition which would have excluded Sinn Féin from negotiations. He didn’t push the issue. He was only trying it on. And we immediately blocked his proposal. But what was even more significant is that he was supported by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern.
So for all these reasons there is a need for great vigilance in the time ahead.
I have no doubt that the DUP will enter into power-sharing arrangements. But for understandable reasons they want to do so on their terms. That is not possible unless the Good Friday Agreement is torn up. The objective has to be to get Ian Paisley into the power-sharing arrangements on the terms contained in the Agreement. Until this is achieved, the Assembly should have no other role.
For their part, the DUP want the Assembly to stay away from the formation of the Executive. They want a shadow forum, including shadow committees.
While Sinn Féin is deeply opposed to the politics and the polices of the DUP, we recognise their electoral mandate and the right of their leader to be First Minister under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. In the Assembly, therefore, I intend to nominate the Reverend Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness for the positions of First and Deputy First Ministers.
If this is unsuccessful, we will seek to return to this business at the earliest possible time.
It has been suggested that the Hain Assembly will provide the opportunity for discussion of important issues, like education reform, water charges, health and rates increases. This would be pointless. In reality the Hain Assembly is powerless on all these issues. It would be nothing more than a talking shop. We will oppose such debates.
There is a way to effectively tackle these matters, but that depends on local politicians taking responsibility. Having said all of this, do I believe Ian Paisley will be First Minister? I don’t know. I don’t even know if he knows.
But I’m sure he will be conscious of the irony involved in Sinn Féin preparing to go to Stormont to have him elected as First Minister. That’s the politics of the peace process. Let’s make politics work.