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Many Challenges in Store for 1995

By Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, The Irish Voice, 11 January 1995

This year will be a decisive on in Anglo-Irish relationships. The peace process which came to public prominence in 1993 and which moved the entire situation forward in 1994 must move even further in 1995. As we face into the new year, that much at least is obvious if we are to secure a peace settlement.

1994 was an amazing year. Great work was done. But yet we have not yet got peace. Justice remains absent from any of the institutions in the occupied area, British troops continue their military activities, the prisons remain full and the real peace talks have yet to begin. So there is a lot of work to be done.

Looking back on 1994, one gets some sense of the type of year it was be reflecting briefly on the week before Christmas. In that one week there were four meetings. There were between Sinn Fein and the British government representatives at Stormont; between Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail—now the main party of opposition in Dublin; between a delegation of Sinn Fein and the SDLP and between myself and the new Taoiseach (Prime Minister), John Bruton.

These meetings are a sign of how the parameters have been publicly shifted in the recent past. Most skeptics would have scoffed at the notion of such get-togethers. Now they are taken for granted. This is important. We all have come a long way and there is great hope and expectation.

But how far the situation can be moved along in this new year depends on whether the British government is willing to tackle the core issues which cause conflict in Ireland. AS the time of writing there is widespread concern throughout nationalist Ireland about the seriousness of John Major and his commitment to the peace process. Given the history of British strategy in Ireland there is always cause for republicans to be apprehensive about the British government's attitude, but the present concern is much wider than the republican constituency. It affects all of the nationalist Ireland and other who may not be nationalist but who are concerned to see a peaceful and functioning democracy on this island.

Their concern comes from the British government's refusal so far, and despite all of the great advances of last year, to pro- actively move the situation forward. The British immobility is reflected in its attitude to prisoners. This Christmas, for example, fewer prisoners received parole. It is reflected also in the refusal of the British to recognize the rights of Sinn Fein voters. A good instance of this was the British government's stance on the economic conference hosted in Belfast by John Major last December. Sinn Fein was excluded from this conference. This stance is grounded in the old agenda of ostracizing and marginalizing Sinn Fein and our voters.

The new agenda demands that everyone is dealt with on an equal footing. It is thus important to note that the British were forced to move partially from the old agenda and towards a new one by the sense of outrage, especially in the U.S., about their attitude. Thus the talks with us were moved forward to an earlier date than london had intended. But their position on the conference was fudged.

The British government's first position was that Sinn Fein would be excluded completely from the conference. It was moved to shift this slightly so that six of our councillors would have been permitted entry for 2 1/2 of a two day conference. But that London moved at all is important and that U.S. opinion and particularly Irish/American opinion helped to move them is of signal importance for the time ahead. This conference could have played a positive role in confidence building and in consolidating the peace process. Instead, the British government sought to use it as an instrument of discrimination against Sinn Fein and those who vote our party.

We do not need preferential treatment. We simply want equality of treatment. Sinn Fein will not permit our voters to be treated at second class citizens. The British government must recognize our democratic mandate. This is one of the key points which has been out by the Sinn Fein delegation, led by Martin McGuinness at the meetings with the British at Stormont.

The people we are meeting at Stormont are not policy makers and this phase of our discussions with them is from our point dealing with logistics of moving to all-party talks and of us receiving assurances that the British government recognizes the rights of our voters. We presented the British government with a document which outlines the basis for our entry into dialogue.

I have to say that the British do not at this time recognize our mandate. From the report I received of the Stormont meetings and there is another set for Monday, January 16, it appears that they may wish may wish to barter over this.

We will not be bartering with them. Each and every voter must have the right to equality of treatment. This is the democratic norm. The British government must move to embrace it. This is a matter which can and should be speedily resolved. There are other matters which include the presence and behavior of British troops, the release of political prisoners and other related issues, and continued cultural discrimination. Our representatives raised all these matters. They also argued for the opening of cross-border roads and for compensation for all who had been adversely affected. They also pushed forthe reversal of the decision to refuse funding to Meanscoil Feirste, an Irish language high school in West Belfast.

These bi-lateral talks-about-talks are, of course important, but they cannot find a solution. This is not their purpose. That is the business of all-party talks led by both governments. Our attitude to this phase of talks is straight-forward. We consider them to be another phase of the evolving peace process. I welcome the opportunity they provide to Sinn Fein to give our detailed analysis of the current situation and of the steps which the British government should take in order to consolidate the progress made so far in the search for a lasting peace. As I point out above, there is considerable consensus that London needs to play a more pro-active role in this. We wish to encourager them to do just this. Many people are looking to the British government's intentions.

At the time of writing, there is a concerted effort by John Major and his colleagues to make the issue of arms an obstacle to moving the peace process forward. The British government's states position on this is not shared by their military advisors, so obviously this is a political and not a security matter. There is much apprehension that London's intentions are to stall on this issue in a contrived way as they did following the Downing Street Declaration.

Sinn Fein's position is a transparent one. We want to see the removal of all guns from Irish politics. Our commitments to this and our partial success in this is a matter of public record. It should not be a precondition imposed by the British to show up or to stop the peace process.

In my view, the issues of decommissioning of weapons is a question of practicalities for armed groups. Sinn Fein is not an armed group and our desire and our work for completed demilitarization remains a central function of our peace strategy. The British and others must match this if we are to collectively influence the armed groups. Throughout this peace process, Irish republicans have developed a very flexible and imaginative strategy. There would not be a peace process without Sinn Fein's pro-active involvement in all the initiatives which have brought the situation to this point.

In 1995, it is our intention to continue to focus on all these issues. The question of weapons and the removal of all guns from Irish politics must be accomplished if we are to secure a peace settlement. So in the year ahead—even at this early stage—it is obvious that we will be facing as many challenges as last year.

It is important to note the breadth of discussions in which Sinn Fein is currently engaged. These include a series of bi- laterals with other political parties here in Ireland, an on- going engagement with the White House, protracted engagement with Dublin and the recommendation of talks with the British. There is much room for optimism, therefore, and everyone meeds to be aware of the strength of the democratic argument and those committed to the peace process need to be confident in our own ability.

It is in the interest of all progressive forces in Ireland and abroad that the peace process culminates in a peace settlement and that 1995 moves us closer to that achievable goal. Irish America will once again be called upon to play a leading role in this process. The British must not be allowed to dictate the pace or the agenda. The year must unfold against a background in the U.S. of visible mobilizations for an end to British rule in Ireland, a total demilitarization and the release of all political prisoners.