No. 37. “The Good Friday Agreement – Two Years On”
Monday, 10th April, 2000
St. Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan
Sean Farren, MLA (SDLP Assembly Member; Minister for Higher Education in the NI Executive)
Dr. Esmond Birnie, MLA (UUP Assembly Member; Chairman of Higher and Further Education Committee; UUP Spokesman on North-South Relations)
Cllr. Gary McMichael (Leader of the Ulster Democratic Party)
John Bruton, TD (Leader of Fine Gael; Former Taoiseach)
Chaired by Ercus Stewart, S.C.
Addresses of speakers
Questions and comments
Appendix: Biographical notes on speakers
Editor’s note: This report is, as far as possible, an accurate transcript of the presentations and discussion on the night – items between square brackets refer to portions of the written speeches of the speakers which were not delivered due to time considerations
1. Sean Farren, MLA (SDLP). “Thank you. Can I say that I’m very pleased to be here, to have the opportunity of speaking to the Meath Peace Group. I’ve been aware of the Group’s activities. Its involvement goes beyond simply holding meetings, important as it is to hold meetings like this, but it’s involvement goes beyond that to direct encounters across the border and indeed elsewhere, with people at all levels involved in the political, social and other aspects of life in Northern Ireland, all focussing on reconciliation and the creation of a stable, peaceful, political situation there.
Scale and scope of the Agreement: “Can I just begin by reflecting with you a little bit on the Good Friday Agreement? Much that you probably know in detail yourselves. But I think it would be helpful to reflect on the scale and the scope, and indeed the ambition that lay behind the Good Friday Agreement. It would be very easy tonight – given the protracted impasse that we find ourselves in – to reflect more on the negative sentiment which is undoubtedly out there in Northern Ireland, and indeed throughout the South and elsewhere where people take an interest in our affairs. It would be easy to reflect the sense of disappointment – to put it no stronger – that people feel two years on, and indeed the question more on people’s lips and in their minds is “whither the Good Friday agreement now?”
“The Agreement has been compared with the Sunningdale Power-sharing Agreement reached in 1973. But on reflection it is much deeper – it attempts to address much more comprehensively all of the issues relating to the relationships that the people of Ireland, north and south, and indeed the people in Ireland and Britain enter into by virtue of the historic legacy which in a sense lproduced the conflict, let the conflict to simmer and to boil, on what A.T.Q. Stewart described as the “narrow ground” of Northern Ireland. But the Good Friday Agreement – looking comprehensively at all of the relationships that form part, or indeed the whole of that legacy – is an Agreement which, despite the difficulties of the last two years, is, I think, going to stand the test of time. It addresses the legacy in terms of its political relationships within the North, between North and South, and between Ireland and Britain, in a very comprehensive way, through the political institutions that it proposed be established and that became tantalisingly close to giving firm roots to last November, and throughout December and into early February.
Sense of self-respect: “Those political institutions began to demonstrate a degree of confidence that people in Northern Ireland in particular – and between North and South – could take political responsibility, and through that political responsibility begin to restore or indeed give for the first time for many a sense of self respect. That their own political representatives could do things together for the benefit of the whole community, and between North and South to begin to work – as the Agreement itself says – to the mutual benefit.of the communities on both sides of the border.
“We had that tantalising sense of restoring the self respect to ourselves through those institutions in that short period of time. That remains there as something which, because we have sensed it I think we will, undoubtedly in the short or the longer term, restore to ourselves, because without it we condem ourselves to failure.
New civic order: “But the Agreement is much more than the political institutions. It addresses many of the issues which were a cause or a contributing cause – if not a root cause – to the problem. The equality agenda, the human rights agenda, the vexed question of prisoner releases, the vexed question of police reform, and – maybe less vexed, depending on what side of the fence you stand on – the issue of criminal justice reform. And indeed all the other associated issues in the cultural sphere, the social sphere and the economic sphere. All of those in the Good Friday Agreement were being given frameworks to be addressed effectively and positively, and in ways which, hopefully, would enable us to create a new civic order – a civic order in which people would feel comfortable, no matter what their allegiance, no matter what their identity, no matter what their aspiration.
Prisoner releases: “Undoubtedly some of those are much more problematic for one side of the community than for the other – trying to bridge the problems associated with policing, and through the release of prisoners – an issue which undoubtedly has caused a great deal of pain. And I have to say, as someone looking at the manner in which the unionist community has received that issue and has responded to it, I have a great deal of admiration for the equanimity with which the unionist community, which bore a great deal of the pain and the tragedy which was inflicted by many of those in prison, responded. We all know there have been responses which have expressed some of the bitterness associated with that, that was not to be unexpected. That equanimity is reflected also within the nationalist community, because there have been many prisoners released who have inflicted a great deal of pain on people from the nationalist community. But particularly I think I should acknowledge, from within the nationalist community, the manner in which I observed the unionist community responding to the release of so many prisoners, many of whom who will live not very far from those very people on whom their actions brought so much tragedy. And yet that has been accepted….
Policing reform: “Alongside of that there is the vexed question of policing. We all noted the reactions within the unionst community to that. There my own reflections might not be so generous in reflecting on their response to the Patten Report, as I have just reflected with respect to their response to prisoner release… But nonetheless there is an acceptance that change and reform of a significant kind is necessary if we are going to create a police service in which people from both sides of the community will comfortably serve, and in turn be accepted through their service by both sides of the community.
Criminal justice system: “Likewise, although we haven’t yet begun in public to debate the recommendations that have come out of the criminal justice review – changes there will, we hope, create a new set of attitudes which will allow the criminal justice system to be one which is accepted with a greater sense of equality and fairness being delivered to people on both sides of the community too.
Political stability: “All of these issues, alongside the political issues, are intended to create the confidence, the trust, that would enable the whole of the Good Friday Agreement to go ahead and progress in a manner that would enable us to reach stability within a political framework in which the identities of all sides are accepted, recognised and respected. And that whatever the destiny of Northern Ireland is to be, that it will rest on the principle of consent – perhaps one of the most fundamental dimensions of the Good Friday Agreement which has led to the constitutional change here in the South – a change that many indeed in the South would have argued for and wanted to see effected long before this. But nonetheless it has been accepted now as a working principle for constitutional change within the North.
Impasse: “Yet despite what the Good Friday Agreement has both promised and indeed begun to deliver, we are at the impasse that I’m sure is going to be the focus of a great deal of our discussion this evening. We all know where the focus of that impasse lies – it lies on the one remaining confidence building measure on which there has been not sufficient progress. You’ll gather that I’m being a bit hesitant in formulating my words and views at this particular point. But there’s been so much debate that perhaps it is important to recognise that while we say progress has not been sufficient, or that no progress has taken place at all, nonetheless we are living in days which compare much more favourably than the days of the early 90s and late 80s and stretching back into the decades before then. We do have a greater sense of freedom from violence, we do have a greater sense of security. And that sense of security – that sense of freedom from imminent danger of violence – comes from the fact that the ceasefires have held since 1997 in particular. They haven’t been complete. I recognise there have been punishment beatings. I recognise that punishment beatings are turned on and off, almost to mirror political developments – almost to remind us at this critical time, that “they haven’t gone away you know”, on either side, And they come back with their terror – that’s what it is in the areas where the paramilitaries seek to exercise their control – to remind us of that very obvious fact, that they haven’t gone away.
Our entitlement: “And of course, underlying that is the question we are all asking – will there be any more progress on decommissioning? Will there be what I regard as our entitlement – I’m talking here about the people of Ireland, north and south who voted so overwhelmingly in the referendum just two years ago. Their entitlement to live free from the threat, free from the actuality of paramilitary violence. That is what we have said to the paramilitaries. And the response, while it exists in the form of the ceasefires – inadequate as we may regard them from time to time because of the punishment beatings – nonetheless they have a responsibility to go beyond that and to give us some sense of reassurance, some clear sense that the threat no longer exists, that there is no danger of a return – insofar as that can be guaranteed and there are no absolute guarantees – that there is no imminent danger of a return to politically-motivated violence.
“That’s our entitlement, that’s what we asked for when we voted “yes” in the Good Friday Agreement. Amongst all of the other things, we did ask for that.
Decommissioning: “The Agreement recognises that “decommissioning is an indispensable part of the process”. The conditions that we’re reminded of that will bring it about – the full operation of the Agreement – seem at times, by those who put it in that way, to remove decommissioning from the Agreement, and to suggest that it would be a desirable extra which would come after everything else has been put into effect. If that’s the attitude and that’s the approach… when is everything else going to be in effect to the point where decommissioning can take place? I don’t accept that it is apart from the Agreement – I see it as an essential element. It needs to be progressed along with all of those other matters I’ve just reminded you of that are also essential parts of that Agreement..
Obligations of paramilitaries: “We do need a reassurance – not only do we need it, we’re entitled to it. We’re entitled to it because we said that that was the wish of the Irish people overwhelmingly. If the Irish people are sovereign, if the Irish people have the right to express themselves openly and freely and democratically through a referendum accepted by all of the pro-Agreement parties, then the paramilitaries associated directly or indirectly with those parties have an obligation to respond to what we have asked for and what, as I say, is our entitlement. So far they haven’t done so sufficiently. They have begun to come closer to it in recent months – some of the things they said before the 31st January, some of the things which are reflected in the de Chastelain report of 11 February – where there is an indication that arms might be put beyond use in a way to maximise public confidence – seem to be nudging the argument on their side in that direction.
Need for clear response: “But the language is still the language of “might”, “maybe” and “perhaps”. We do need at this stage, if the project is to move forward in the near future and not become a victim to electoral considerations – we do need a clear response. That’s your entitlement, that’s our entitlement in the North most particularly. Without it the Agreement is likely to be further arrested and become a victim to electoral considerations. If that’s the case, then I think the Irish people need to know very clearly what is happening and to give their response accordingly. Thank you…….”
[The following paragraphs are taken from Sean Farren’s written speech – sections which could not be delivered due to time considerations on the night:
Peace and stability or a return to sectarian politics– the choice:
“Despite their clearly expressed desire for reconciliation, stability and peace through the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland are being now faced with the prospect of a return to the poison of sectarian politics. Having voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday Agreement the people of Ireland, North and South, face being betrayed, ironically and tragically, not by political parties in the “no” camp, but by parties who proclaimed themselves in favour of that agreement. The impasse is the result of a failure to build confidence and trust through an open and generous approach to implementing the agreement. For this republicans and unionists share a grave responsibility.”
Breaking the current impasse:
(i) “If we are to deliver on the hopes and expectations of the Agreement there has to be a real commitment from the republicans and loyalists to ensuring that political violence is over and done with. Without that commitment trust will not develop between all those who want the Agreement to succeed.
(ii) “Alongside that commitment it has to be clear that the political institutions will function free of any threat either to undermine or suspend them. Any future difficulty or crisis facing these institutions must be fully and openly addressed by all pro-agreement parties and both governments. Precipitate and unilateral action by either government of any party such as happened on the 11 February must be ruled out. Otherwise the trust essential to making those institutions work will never develop.
(iii) “To break the current impasse the implementation plan being prepared by both governments must, therefore, be comprehensive. It will not be sufficient merely to deal with decommissioning and the re-establishment of the political institutions. The package must make clear that progress will be made on all of the other major issues as well. These include a clear timetable for reform of the police and of the criminal justice system, the full implementation of equality measures, parity of esteem for all our cultural traditions, the establishment of the civic forum as well as progress towards a North-South parliamentary tier and the North-South Forum.
“On this second anniversary of the Agreement, all pro-Agreement parties, together with both governments, must rededicate themselves to fully realising the hopes placed by the people of Ireland, North and South, in the Good Friday Agreement]
2. Dr. Esmond Birnie, MLA (UUP) [Note: additional text in square brackets is taken from Dr Birnie’s written speech]:
“ Thank you very much – It’s the first time I’ve addressed this group and I’m very grateful for the opportunity…. We live in interesting and challenging times in Northern Ireland and throughout the island….. My presentation tonight is in two parts – firstly I will address the immediate issues, and secondly, I want to say a little about some radical suggestions as to how the institutions might be developed in the future…
Part 1: Immediate issues
UUP commitment to the Agreement: “Under David Trimble’s leadership the Ulster Unionist Party has taken a huge leap away from what I do admit was a somewhat insular and exclusive past. David Trimble himself has taken personal, party and political risks – but I believe they were always calculated risks and indeed necessary risks for the good of the Northern Ireland people as a whole. He – more than anyone else – opened the door to a cross-community political partnership which had the potential to provide decent and stable government for everyone. It is against that background that I regard the criticism made, for example, by Sinn Fein of the Ulster Unionist Party – that we are not genuinely committed to the Good Friday Agreement – I would regard that criticism as nonsensical.
“Because in fact we do believe in inclusive government, and indeed we proved that by participating in the Executive between November of last year and February of this year.. But inclusivity is not an unqualified virtue. We believe it does have to be qualified by two things – first of all any government needs to be based on democratic principles, and secondly we cannot govern if we govern under a threat of a return to violence. Sean made that point very well and I would agree with him… In November 1999, the Ulster Unionist Party did take a risk – a calculated risk. Why did we do that? We did that because we felt it was worth making one final effort to bring the IRA – and the other paramilitaries – in from the cold. We did decide to take them on trust. And we hoped that when we – and other parties like the SDLP – took major steps towards implementing the Agreement, we hoped that the paramilitaries and those parties linked to them would reciprocate They didn’t, sadly.
What we were asking for: “It’s important to stress what we were asking for and what we weren’t asking for, because again Sinn Fein propaganda has clouded the issue. My party was not insisting upon a public handover of arsenals prior to the devolution of power. We weren’t certainly asking for surrender. We weren’t asking for the abandoning of power-sharing or indeed the Irish Dimension. We weren’t asking those who had an aspiration to a united Ireland to abandon that aspiration, provided they worked entirely through a democratic political platform. All we were asking in November of the IRA was that it would set itself the immediate task of outlining a process whereby the decommissioning of arms would begin, be continued and be completed. Now in April of this year we’re still waiting to see if the IRA and Sinn Fein are going to offer such a process….
[“There were many people in the Ulster Unionist Party who believed that David Trimble was wrong to take the risk. Not, as Sinn Fein pretend, because they don’t even want inclusive government, but because they believed that the IRA would never make a gesture on decommissioning. It was because David Trimble believed that the IRA were serious about decommissioning that he underwrote the risk by offering his own resignation and further risking his own position as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Since November 1999, the IRA have done nothing to help either the Agreement or David Trimble, and if both are now in a vulnerable and perhaps terminal position, it is the IRA who must take the blame”]
IRA problems with the Agreement: “I do recognise that the IRA have awful problems with the Good Friday Agreement. From their perspective it is probably not a very good agreement at all. It has involved, quite rightly from my point of view, the amendments to Articles 2 and 3 of your Constitution. The so-called British presence has been entrenched in Northern Ireland. To some degree it is an internal settlement – though of course arguably it is much more than that. It does involve a return to a parliament at Stormont, a Unionist First Minister and a unionist input into, and veto, over the activities of the cross-border implementation bodies. [Neither the paramilitary nor political wings of republicanism has been able to win the political and constitutional war and for the the IRA there is still a sense of unfinished business].
“Militant republicanism in particular, and republicanism in general, to some degree is built upon a martyr-worshipping culture. That may be why they find pragmatic things represented in the Belfast Agreement hard to swallow That sort of militant republican culture does I think have a passion for tortured, imprisoned, law-defying, freedom-fighting or indeed dead heroes. They cannot cope with anything which smacks of surrender and I think they do have a difficulty with a political settlement which in effect involves recognition of something of a stalemate with what they regard as their old historic enemy.
“In that context, I suppose some in republicanism view the handover of weaponry as a public acknowledgment that they have lost a military campaign [along with the political and constitutional battles]. Another huge dilemma for the IRA is that 95% of the republican/nationalist electorate within the island as a whole voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement [and in favour of them decommissioning their weapons by May 2000 at the latest]. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the IRA haven’t got a clue what to do at the moment – and that is reflected in Sinn Fein policy at the moment – and nor do they appear to have the moral courage to face facts and start with the very simple statement that “the war is over”.
[“In September 1997 the UUP had to sit down with Sinn Fein in order to move the process forward. In December 1999 we sat down with Sinn Fein in the Executive to move the process forward again. We have delivered everything which was required of us by the Agreement and it is now up to the IRA to deliver the one and only thing we have asked of them – decommissioning.”]
Spirit of the Agreement: “They claim that the Good Friday Agreement makes no specific demand upon them to hand over a single bullet or ounce of Semtex. In one narrow sense I agree with them. In a strict legal sense the Agreement does not do that – if it did presumably we would have taken Sinn Fein to court. But beyond the technical, legal aspects of the Agreement is a concept which has come to be known as “the spirit of the Agreement”…. Even though there was no written guarantee that decommissioning had to happen, there was a hope and a real expectation on the part of almost every party that decommissioning would start soon after April 1998 and continue until it was completed well before May 22nd of this year. If in fact the IRA – and indeed Sinn Fein continue – to take refuge in legal niceties, it doesn’t set a good precedent to the establishment of a pluralist inclusive executive in Northern Ireland where Sinn Fein ministers would have major exercise of power.
[Long-term intentions of the IRA “When the determination to keep your weapons is justified by the legal nicety that no-one actually said that you had to hand them over at all, it does beg the question of the IRA’s sincerity and intentions. As I see it, the possession of weapons is not, in itself, a threat to the peace process. The simple fact of the matter is that the IRA could decommission tomorrow and then replace their arsenals in a relatively short time. Decommissioning does not necessarily mean either an end to the war or an end to the threat of war. What matters more than anything else is the long-term intentions of the IRA.”]
Terrorism still a tactical option: “Whilst I agree with Sean’s view that the extent of peace we have had in Northern Ireland over the last five years is a lot better than what we’ve had before, it is also true that in that time period, the IRA – and indeed the loyalist paramilitaries – have continued to recruit, train, target, intimidate, punish, purchase and stockpile weapons. They haven’t so much de-commissioned as re-commissioned. They have gone about all of the business which is required if they are to maintain their arsenals and organisation, as well as retaining their terrorist capability. The only conclusion which can be drawn from this evidence is that a return to terrorism remains an ongoing tactical option for the IRA. [And that option could remain ongoing even if the IRA began to decommission tomorrow. The continuing existence of that option is why my party has to draw the line at returning to government with Sinn Fein – for the brutal fact of the matter is that the shadow of the gunman would continue to hover over the Executive table. What sort of basis is that for the growth of trust and the success of democracy?
[“And Gerry Adams’ comments on Saturday [at Sinn Fein Ard Fheis], about a possible return to violence, is the clearest evidence we need that the terrorism option is still available. The IRA’s refusal to decommission, to disband, or to announce a formal and final end to their war suggests that they intend to remain an active terrorist organisation.”]
“The IRA cannot continue to have it both ways. Either they are part of the democratic process or they are not. Their bogeyman strategy, built around the threat that “they haven’t gone away you know” may appease the hawks in their own camp, but if they continue to act like that it will make it impossible for unionists such as myself to take them on trust. And I do want to try to trust them.. [Since the IRA failed to make a positive response to my party’s leap of faith in November 1999, I have to say that I would find it almost impossible to make a similar leap at a later stage]. I do want to see the Good Friday Agreement fully implemented and I want to see suspension lifted as soon as possible. But before that can happen, the element of ambiguity about the long-term intentions of armed republicanism has to go. [In other words, the lifting of suspension must embrace a palpable resolution to the problem of terrorists or their frontmen in government. At the moment it looks as if the IRA’s own survival is deemed more important to them than the survival of the Good Friday Agreement. It is up to the IRA to resolve this continuing impasse, for it is entirely of their creation. My party has nothing more to offer and nowhere else to move. David Trimble has repeated that we are willing to take part in the Executive and I support him.”]
Question to IRA: “I ask one simple question of the IRA: is the bogus god of a terrorist campaign for an unavailable united Ireland more important than the authentic mammon of a political settlement which has already been endorsed by 95% of the nationalist and republican electorate throughout the island?
[“The IRA blame us for insisting upon prior decommissioning and then they issue statements that they won’t decommission at all. They blame us for reneging on promises and yet they are recruiting the next generation of teenage martyrs. They blame us for belligerence and then take a baseball bat to some child who annoys a local godfather. What sort of crazy, convoluted, head-in-the semtex logic do these people actually live by? In the real world the breeze-block and democracy do not cohabit. The sooner the IRA understands that simple fact, then the sooner we will have the Good Friday Agreement back in action.]
Part 2: Institutions – suggestions for the future.
“It is worth mentioning at this stage that it is remarkable that the Good Friday Agreement is still in existence after two years. You may not think that’s much of an achievement. But remember the Sunningdale Agreement lasted for less than six months and in the intervening period there have been countless initiatives which have come and gone with great rapidity.
“I want this Agreement to work because I believe that it represents the basis for an honourable – and balanced – political settlement between all sides in Northern Ireland. [Whether it will survive or not depends upon the actions and reactions of terrorist groups and particularly the IRA.]
Widening the debate – danger of institutionalising sectarianism:
“But let me widen the debate a little bit. There is a faction within the unionist NO lobby which insists that even if we secured a deal on decommissioning and re-established the Executive, that the institutions would always be inherently unstable and unworkable. They are so because they institutionalise and indeed entrench sectarianism because the arrangements in the Belfast Agreement are very very complex. They involve dividing the politicians into designated unionists and designated nationalists or republicans, they involve balanced voting, qualified majorities, vetoes etc. [Rather than paving the way for a better future, they would leave us with the same old parties and the same old problems. The unionists would try and secure their own position while the nationalists worked to a united Ireland agenda.] And there is a quite respectable argument which says that this whole system would grind to a halt. They could point to other areas where such systems of institutionalised power-sharing in deeply divided societies have eventually broken down – and sometimes have broken down very messilty – Lebanon’s civil war is a good example of that. Arguably, Belgium and Austria are other examples…
“It’s arguable we may be in danger of such a system which will deadlock and simply institutionalise our divisions. We have to take that criticism seriously but it’s not insuperable. [We don’t have to live our lives according to the predictions of Mystic Meg and the No-is-me, woe-is-me pessimism of anti-Agreement unionists.]
“One of our problems, of course, is that the main political parties in Northern Ireland are built around their response to the constitutional issues. However, if we get devolution to work, with power returning to Belfast from London, our political parties will be confronting so-called “bread and butter” issues, because at the end of the day, whether you are nationalist or republican or loyalist or unionist or whatever, you need to send your children to school, you use roads, environmental services, hospitals etc….
“There is evidence, even in the short 72-day period when the Executive was in operation – Sean was a Minister and I was a chairman of a committee – we saw evidence that on key social, economic and welfare issues consensus could occur, and could occur across the lines of unionist, nationalist, republican and so on And perhaps there’s an interesting contrast with the old Stormont parliament between 1921-1972, because to a great extent it avoided debate on left, centre and right issues, because the Stormont unionist government tended to legislate in whatever way the national parliament in London did.
[“Stormont had a tendency to take social and welfare legislation which had been passed for the rest of the UK and then adopt it unchanged for Northern Ireland. This had the advantage of saving unionist governments, the split-risking problems associated with internal disputes over policy platforms. Unity of the party was always deemed more important than full debate on “left” and “right” issues.]
“Now I think that the Belfast Agreement could adapt to new-style politics in Northern Ireland. Indeed paragraph 36 of Strand One makes provision for review and adaptation: “After a specified period there will be a review of these arrangements and of the Assembly’s procedures, with a view to agreeing any adjustments necessary in the interests of efficiency and fairness.”
“Power-sharing is desirable in a deeply divided society such as ours, but it does not need to be sectarian-based only, let alone dependent upon the continued existence of the present political parties. There can be power-sharing between parties that take similar views on economic and social issues…. [A minority does not have to mean just nationalist or Roman Catholic. Many of the local parties actually have left-of-centre policies and beliefs and would probably agree on very much more than you might imagine at the moment.]
Political realignment: “Perhaps over time, if we get the institutions up and running, the various parties will experience a realignment towards a continental or European system of politics – towards Social Democrat or Christian Democrat or if you prefer the British political designations – labour and conservative parties. And indeed I would like to see all the United Kingdom parties – Liberal Democrats and Labour – organising and campaigning in Northern Ireland too, along with the Conservatives who are here already.
[“The truth is that most parties in Northern Ireland are little more than loose coalitions embracing everything from the far left to the far right. These differences would be exposed once the parties had to create policies rather than produce soundbites on the constitutional issue. It would be a tragedy if the rules governing the Assembly were so tight that they prevented the existing parties from fading away to be replaced by new parties based on a wide range of social and economic issues. Sectarianism will only become institutionalised if we choose to make it so. ]
Devolution the only way forward: “I believe that devolution is the way forward for Northern Ireland, in part because the United Kingdom constitution as a whole is undergoing reform and change. Devolution has already occurrred to Edinburgh and Cardiff, so Belfast is part of the bigger picture … . We should also bear in mind the growth of European regionalism and that has implications for Northern Ireland and the Republic.
[“It is essential therefore that we in Northern Ireland, irrespective of what we think about the present nature of mandatory power-sharing, grasp the present opportunity to pave the way for a new era of fairness, self-government and inclusiveness. We have to prove that we are capable of living together and governing together. The growth of regionalism has been one of the main consequences of our membership of the European Union (and at the European level it may prove to be somewhat of a mixed blessing) and it isn’t surprising that the Scots and Welsh and even the Irish want to ensure that their voice is heard at many different levels. It is equally vital that we in Northern Ireland are able to represent ourselves and make our case where it matters, rather than depending upon others to do it for us.]
“I believe in a unionism which embraces the whole of the British and Irish isles. I’m not talking of reversing the historic decision of 1921, but what I am saying is that we can recognise that Ireland and the United Kingdom have so much in common in terms of history, culture, to some extent in terms of language, and in terms of the movement of people back and forth between the two islands.. .I believe that the British-Irish Council has much scope in that regard..”
Sea-change in relationships: “I believe that the Belfast Agreement – when and if it is implemented – could provide the platform for an absolute sea-change in all the important relationships – relationships within Northern Ireland, relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic, relationships between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and relationships between the Republic and the United Kingdom. [And the improvement in each and every one of those relationships will do far more to bring about a stable, decent and democratic society in Northern Ireland than our continuing and destructive obsession with the constitutional question.]
Commitment to the Agreement: “This is why I argue that there is no workable alternative to the Good Friday Agreement, even two years on. Yes, alternatives can be spoken of in a theoretical sense, but it has to be said to the anti-Agreement part of unionism – they have yet to produce an alternative which is either viable or available. [And the alternative which dissident republicans want involves decades more of struggle and slaughter.]
“My party will continue to do everything we reasonably can to save the Agreement and indeed to implement it. I ask others – Sinn Fein/IRA in particular – to join us in that task. David Trimble had to face down the rejectionists within unionism in order that he could bring his party this far. Sinn Fein/IRA will have to face down their own rejectionists, abandon their old ways of thinking, and meet us upon the common ground where the foundations for a genuine lasting settlement can be put in place.”
3. Cllr. Gary McMichael (leader of Ulster Democratic Party)
“Thank you very much for the invite. It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s a very important time – two years after the Good Friday Agreement. … I’m not going to get into the business of apportioning blame for the difficulties we face now. Because the Good Friday Agreement was a collective arrangement – a collective process to develop a solution to a long-standing problem… a very complex and wide-ranging Agreement with many part. And the reality is that if one part fails then it all fails. We didn’t sign up to those bits of the Agreement that we liked – we signed up to it all, and today the Good Friday Agreement doesn’t work. The question has to be dealt with – do we try and fix it, or do we try and look for something else? The deputy leader of the UUP said today it may be time to look for other options. I don’t think he means that seriously. I’d like us to concentrate minds. We have to deal with the problem now. Unless we try to deal with this problem now, then there will not be anything to fix.
“Sinn Féin have been tallking about instead of concentrating on the peace process they will be concentrating on their electoral process … Looking at the next general election and the subsequent elections, and the southern election also, and their ambition would be to take the majority from the SDLP within nationalism, perhaps thinking that that would put them in a stronger negotiating position. But the reality is that if this Good Friday Agreement is not corrected, then by the time those elections are held, they will only be negotiating with the DUP.
Process not about majority rule: “There’s no point in me trying to explain the different parts of the Agreement and what they mean for each of us. We all know what they mean… most of you voted yes in the Referendum – if you voted “no” you’re probably a unionist. Because when people talk about the 71.12% who voted for the Agreement, they forget that 50% of the unionist population voted against it. And that was one of the primary causes of the difficulties that we contended with in this Agreement. You mightn’t agree with the rationale of Ian Paisley and people like that – I certainly don’t agree – but it’s their Agreement as well, whether they like it or not. We have to understand that this process is not about majority rule – it’s not about saying “ok, we got an Agreement, 71% voted for it now implement it”…. We can’t just implement it. We have a growing crisis within this process which means that if we lose a majority of support within unionism then the Agreement is finished anyway. Therefore it has to be fixed and it has to work effectively.
Problems from a unionist perspective – “I would just like to deal with Unionism for the moment because Nationalism is very much pulling in one direction in terms of the peace process, whereas Unionism is pulling in many different directions. The two problems for Unionists revolve about Sinn Fein being in government and decommissioning. Most unionists don’t like the idea of Sinn Féin in government – and you can understand why – but it’s an essential part of the Agreement.
Decommissioning – “I don’t believe in decommissioning – never have. I don’t believe that the bona fides of people can be determined by how many guns they hold. I don’t care if the IRA have guns – I dont’ care how many tons they have – I just want to know if they’re going to use them. That’s the core issue. My view is a minority within the unionist community. …There are arguments about the spirit and the letter of the Agreement… The Agreement didn’t say decommissioning has to be completed by 22 May 2000…. the reality is that it is the least defined part of the Agreement, and the reason for that is we couldn’t have got an agreement if we had defined it… At the same time we have to also understand that this is a practical world and that the only way the Agreement is going to work is that everyone will work within the Agreement and work within the institutions it provides. There’s no point in having an Executive if people won’t work with each other, there’s no point in having an Assembly if it doesn’t command the support of the people. So we’ll have to find a way of making it work. I see the issue of decommissioning as being not about decommissioning… The only language being used within the Unionist community… since 1994, decommissioning was put at the top of the agenda by the British and Irish governments and Unionist politicians, and in every successive negotiation process since the Good Friday Agreement, rather than finding a way around the issue of decommissioning, getting it off the stage, we’ve actually made it more centre-stage….
Intent the essential issue: “The reality is, whether we like it or not, the terminology of decommissioning and what that represents is the only currency that is being used to measure intent. Essentially for me it’s about intent. I want to know what the intent of the republican community is. Because the intent of the republican movement will make a huge impact on what the behaviour of my community is going to be in the future. I come from a community which has resisted republicans face to face, which has participated in the war and will again if it felt it had to. But I also speak for my community in saying that we don’t want to see that. We need to know – is the war over? Has the option of force.been removed?
“If you understand the Unionist mindset, and it’s important we do, it’s a very simple issue. There’s a broad spectrum of opinion within Unionism…. It’s very difficult to get people within Unionism to agree on many things, but the one common thread throughout that whole spectrum is this – it is based on a failure to accept that the IRA is involved solely within the democratic process, and there is a desire to have that issue cleared up. When a unionist looks at the Agreement, or where we are today, he see a democratic process, he sees institutions which have been created by the Agreement – institutions based on co-determination, which means that both communities depend on each other for stability and future political progress. He sees Sinn Fein represented in government at the highest level, difficult and all as that is to accept. He looks at an equality agenda emerging where provisions are being made and will be evidenced through a future bill of rights – a protective mechanism…. He looks at RUC reform, the recent review of the criminal justice system, and he sees that in the context of all this Sinn Fein and the republican movement still need to hold on to the option of force.
“They can’t understand it. I can’t understand it. Either this peace process, which is about transition between war and peace, is actually about achieving peace through a democratic coming together of people who have existed outside the system and against the system, through their own negotiation, to create a new situation which they should all remain within, which embodies the framework through which they can pursue their objectives. Is that what we’ve agreed? If it is, do we need the option of force? I don’t think we do.
“The mindset of the unionist says – the concessions we make in order to keep the process alive, the concessions we make to republicans, “are those concessions which will lead to peace, or will those concesssions be taken and when they dry up the republican movement retains the right to use armed struggle again?” I think that’s an understandable fear. I think that the people in my community, that all of us, have the right to know – does the creation of the institutions and the placing of republicans in government represent the swapping of physical force for democracy, or is it a tactical shift on the part of the republican movement?
“Usually the best way not to get republicans to do anything is to ask them to do it, or particularly to demand them to do it. They don’t respond well to demands, certainly not to unionist demands or British demands. But I think a reasonable demand is to know whether this process is for keeps. I think it’s a reasonable demand for any of us to make. And I think it’s only reasonable to respond to that in an honest and clear way. Now the reality is that if the war is over for the IRA, then it’s over for us all – we all know that. But as long as the IRA hold on to that option, then we can’t have real peace. As long as the IRA retain the possible intent of armed force in the future, then I don’t think we’ll have a stable government. I don’t think we will have a government at all. Certainly what I want to see is a commitment from the republican movement, and from everybody – all paramilitaries have a responsibility in this regard. To know that as bad as it gets – as bad as it ever gets – that the problems will be sorted out through the democratic process. That we will commit ourselves to the risks and the rigours of democracy because that is what a peace process is about.
“My party’s position is hardening on this issue. We want to see the IRA commit itself to the unionist community that they have set aside the option of physical force for good. And if they do that then I think we will have a stable government, a government that will work and can command, through time, through its outworkings, the confidence of the entire community.
“But equally – and no one can doubt the commitment of my party and myself to the success of this Agreement, and in many ways we would be in the very moderate wing of unionist opinion – be under no illusion. If we believe, in the next talks process that is going to develop in the coming weeks, if we believe that the IRA and Sinn Fein are seeking to enter government while retaining the tactical use of force for the future, we will not accept that. I think this issue has to be dealt with once and for all… Myself and my party will go into a future process determined to see the decommissioning issue resolved, whatever the implications of that may be. I don’t believe in decommissioning but that doesn’t mean that that’s not part of what maybe is necessary in order to sort out this problem.
Expectations of failure: “People are looking now, we’re hoping to see some kind of process emerging by Easter. I think it’s important that that happens – that a vacuum isn’t allowed to continue to be created. We’ll find that the community out there is turned off… It’s not surprising that whenever the Assembly collapsed – this “holy grail” of unionism – there wasn’t any sense of real trauma within the unionist community, because what we have now is a growing sense that the community expects us to fail. After two years of the Good Friday Agreement not being able to get this thing up and running, not being able to resolve these problems – people are starting to expect us to fail. And that in itself will kill the Agreement off.
“The time is now for everyone to sit down, to share the collective responsibility, to share the implications of this collective failure and to collectively work towards resolving this problem once and for all, so that we can look at this next year and see an Agreement that is working, which does have an Executive that does include Sinn Fein, where the community is secure, where there is no prospect of physical force from one side or the other in the future, and where we have a stable environment. And then next year when we come here we’ll have something to celebrate. Thank you.”
4. John Bruton, T.D. (leader of Fine Gael)
“First of all I’d like to say that I’m very pleased to be here for the 7th anniversary of this group, and I think it’s very important that we should look at a meeting like this for a way out what is of an increasingly deep morasse into which the process is now sinking…
“If you want to know why decommissioning of weapons is important you simply have to reflect on the reality of punishment beatings because people would not “agree” to be beaten if there wasn’t a threat of a trigger being pulled if they didn’t agree to be beaten. Without the guns there wouldn’t be punishment beatings …
Formula to break the Northern deadlock:
“I believe that a formula to re-establish the institutions can be found. It contains three elements:
(i) Mutual respect
(ii) A renunciation by the British Government of the unilateral right that it has exercised to suspend the institutions.
(iii) A committal to the Mitchell Principles by all parties and by all paramilitaries associated with them.
(i) Mutual respect: “I would like to acknowledge some important positive contributions to the peace process in the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis over the weekend: Mr. Gerry Adams said, “We know that, by its very nature, this historic task [the peace process] cannot be completed unless unionism has ownership of it.” And later he added “by-passing unionists is not an option for us.”
“The latter comment is particularly important because it removes the possibility of some form of one-sided imposed solution, such as advocated for example in the Sunday Business Post some time ago… Gerry Adams has specifically rejected that. I believe that Unionists should seek to develop this issue in dialogue with Sinn Fein. It provides a solid basis for the sort of mutual respect that is essential for the success of the process.
(ii) Renunciation of suspension: “I would also urge Unionsts to develop a dialogue on this important issue on the basis of what Sinn Fein has said.
In his response to David Trimble’s Washington offer to re-enter an Executive in advance of decommissioning, the Chairman of Sinn Fein, Mitchell McLaughlin, said that “Sinn Fein would not itself re-enter the Executive unless the British Government gave a commitment that it would not unilaterally suspend the Executive again.”
“I believe that is something that could be conceded to Sinn Fein in return for some movement on other issues… It is a productive area for discussion between the Parties. I believe that a commitment not to unilaterally suspend the institutions again is one the British Government could and should give. It should not be forgotten that under the rules either the SDLP or the Ulster Unionists are big enough anyway by themselves to suspend the Executive, simply by resigning from it. The particular voting situation in the Assembly – the position concerning Weir and Armitage – that required Mandelson to exercise the suspension option rather than allow David Trimble to resign – or allow Josias Cunningham to resign him – is unique and would not be likely to recur in any relevant circumstance concerning resumed institutions. Therefore I believe that that Sinn Fein demand can be conceded without any loss on the part of the British Government. I believe that Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Fein could agree between themselves that all would re-enter the Executive on the basis that the British renounce any unilateral right to suspend again.
“As I have said, either Unionists or Nationalists themselves can, in any event, bring the executive to an end if it is not working for them at any time. That is what the Agreement provides. They can and should be left to do make their own judgments on that without any assistance from the Secretary of State.
(iii) A Recommittal to the Mitchell Principles:
“There remains the problem of the “no guns, no Government” position of many members of the Ulster Unionist Party, and indeed the wider unionist community. These guns are held by paramilitaries. Paramilitaries were not parties to the Belfast Agreement. But they have now appointed interlocutors to deal with General de Chastelain. Therefore, since then, they are now in the process in a recognisable way and this engagement of the paramilitaries in politics does open up a method of breaking the deadlock over guns and government
No timetables: “Sinn Fein is right when it says that no timetable for decommissioning is contained in the Belfast Agreement. No timetable was included for anything else either, including the setting up of the Executive and North-South bodies, for that matter. There is no statement in the Agreement about the sequence of any of the steps in it. This is a fault in the Agreement. But it is a fault for which all the negotiators, not just some of them, have a responsibility. From their perspective, Unionist negotiators can be criticized for not insisting on a timetable for decommissioning. Equally, Nationalist negotiators can be criticized for not getting a timetable written in for the setting up of the institutions. It is just as pointless now for Unionists to complain about the lack of a date for the start of decommissioning, as it is pointless for Nationalists to complain about the Unionists making decommissioning a precondition. Both positions are unfortunately perfectly tenable under the vague terms of the Agreement as it was negotiated by all the same participants. We cannot rewrite what was written, and we cannot write now in the past what wasn’t written in the past. It wasn’t written, and it wasn’t clarified..
New formula: “The challenge now is to negotiate a new formula,which adds to the Agreement and which can get us over the current obstacle.
“I believe the answer is to be found in a return to the Mitchell Principles. These principles were antecedent to the entire negotiations. Everything, including the ground rules for the negotiations and the Agreement which emerged from those negotiations, stem from the Mitchell Principles. All Parties accepted these principles as their entry ticket to the talks. Unfortunately the parties did accept the Mitchell Principles, but the IRA Army Council, and the UDA and the UVF – though they were associated who were at the table in the talks – they did not accept the Mitchell Principles and they were not formally asked to do so. Because at that time they officially didn’t exist in political terms. They now do exist because they have all appointed interlocutors to de Chastelain, and that has changed the situation and that is why I think we can now take a new approach.
“If all the paramilitaries could now be persuaded to formally accept the Mitchell principles, as their sister political parties have already done long ago, a basis would then exist to restart the Executive and Institutions straight away without prior decommissioning.
“The Mitchell Principles involve a commitment:
(a). To democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues.
Agreeing to this would be tantamount to the IRA saying the war is over. The UVF and UDA would then be redundant, in their own terms, because they only exist to prevent the IRA taking over..
(b). To the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. In saying “yes” to this the IRA, the UVF and the UDA would be agreeing to disband and disarm.
(c). To agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission. Sinn Fein signed up to that, so did the UDP and PUP. If the IRA signed up to that it would involve re-engaging fully with de Chastelain…
(d). To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations. At the stage that this would be agreed to the negotiations would be over, so in a sense this would be null.
(e). To agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree. That involves … the IRA accepting the Good Friday Agreement, something they never did. And I remember, I think, being the only politician in the broad nationalist community who made the point.in the euphoria that existed in the immediate aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. Do remember the total suspension of critical faculties in the immediate aftermath of the Agreement when to ask a question was to be almost something equivalent to treason. I did point out repeatedly and painfully that Sinn Fein had accepted the Agreement, but the IRA had never accepted the Agreement. Well if they signed up to the Mitchell Principles they would be accepting the Agreement…
(f.). To urge that “punishment” killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions. This would mean, if the IRA, UVF and UDA accepted the Mitchell Principles then punishment beatings would stop
“Sinn Féin, as I said, on behalf of the Republican movement, signed up to these principles before they even entered the all-party talks. The question is simply this. Can the IRA not do now what Sinn Fein have already done? Signing up to the Mitchell Principles cannot be portrayed as surrender, because Sinn Fein have already done it. If the IRA were to refuse to follow Sinn Fein’s political line, one would have to ask – why does Sinn Féin remain in political alliance with the IRA?
“The issue of peace and war – in any discussion of politics in any jurisdiction in the world – would have to be said to be the most fundamental political issue there is. No coalition could exist between political entities that had a different view on that question…. Peace and war is the fundamental question. Yet we have a situation where, in formal terms, the Mitchell Principles – which deal with peace and war – have been signed up to by Sinn Fein and rejected by the IRA, and yet the two remain apparently happily in alliance, and nobody asks any searching questions about the truthfulness of this alliance. The Mitchell Principles are about peace and war. Sinn Féin accepts them. The IRA does not. That is unsustainable. It is something that must be resolved.
“Exactly the same contradiction has to be resolved between the Loyalist paramilitaries and their sister parties. It is not possible for Gary McMichael to sign up for the Mitchell Principles and the associated organisation not to sign them. We’re either in or not in… And this is a rubicon that all the participants – not just Sinn Fein and the IRA – have to cross. The Loyalist paramilitaries and their political associates have to cross it too, and they haven’t. There is no point in my view in all the weight being placed on the shoulders of Sinn Fein and feeding that “martyr syndrome” which was referred to by Dr. Esmond Birnie where they’re able to feel or argue that everyone is against them, because. the finger is pointing at them. Of course it’s understandable it’s being pointied at them – they’re the only ones in government. The UDP and PUP unfortunately didn’t get enough votes to have Ministers – it would be good if they had, because then they would be under the same amount of spotlight as Sinn Fein now is. I might have voted for them myself just to get them into the embarrassing situation that Sinn Fein are now in. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be embarrassed, because they can’t be in a situation where they are talking democracy and yet they are associated with an organisation which opposes democracy and practises punishment beatings. It isn’t on, it’s hypocritical.
“There’s a lot of room on this island of ours for “blarney”, but I think we’ve probably had enough blarney, enough blarney from politicians associated with paramilitaries. There’s a time for a bit of old-fashioned plain old boring straight talk. We haven’t had it and I think we need it now.
“Let me say why I have come forward with this formula now.
Punishment beatings: “The recent increase in punishment beatings is a dramatic sign that the political situation is rapidly deteriorating. Punishment beatings – as was said already – far from being spontaneous expressions of local frustration, are in fact turned off and on centrally, as a means of signalling political satisfaction or political dissatisfaction with the activities of the powers-that-be.
“The paramilitaries, who use the shattered limbs of petty crooks and social outcasts as one of their chosen means of communicating their political messages to the outside world, are cynical and depraved. The peace process has asked many decent people to avert their eyes from such depravities in the greater interest of polite discourse, and to carry on as if nothing was happening. Punishment beatings are submitted to “voluntarily” by the victims. The victims “volunteer” to have their kneecap shattered for one reason, and for one reason only. That reason is that the paramilitaries – who are making these adjustments to their physique for them – have guns and will use them. The “volunteer” has an option between a broken leg, a bullet in the knee, or a bullet in the head. He only “volunteers” for one of the first two options, because the third option very definitely exists…. Remove the threat of the gun, and there would be no more punishment beatings.
Guns not silent: “The existence of punishment beatings and shootings demonstrates why paramilitary guns do remain such a central part of the peace process. These guns are not silent. They are being used – used when they are discharged into somebody’s kneecap, and also used when they are silently displayed in a threatening way, so as to encourage someone to “volunteer” to have their leg broken. Paramilitary guns are at the centre of politics. Gerry Adams said at the weekend: “We remain wedded to our objective of taking all of the guns out of Irish politics”. I agree with that. I do not agree with him when he went on to say, “There is no special onus on our party to do this over and above and beyond the responsibilities of every other party in the process.”
“Most political parties are not associated with a paramilitary organisation. Fine Gael is not. Fianna Fail is not. The Ulster Unionist Party is not. Nor is the SDLP. Nor the Labour Party. Nor Alliance. Nor is any other party in the Dail, except Sinn Féin. Nor was any other party in the suspended Northern Executive, except Sinn Fein. The only party in the Dail, or in the suspended Northern Executive, that is associated with a paramilitary organisation, is Sinn Fein.
Loyalists: “The UDP and the PUP do not have seats in the Dail or the Executive, but they are, like Sinn Fein, associated with organisations that have guns. Like Sinn Fein, they too have not severed those links. Like Sinn Fein, they too have failed to get their associates to start to decommission, in accordance with the political commitment in the Belfast Agreement. I ask at this stage, now that we have changed our Constitution, and taken out Articles 2 and 3 which made a claim to which the supporters of the PUP and the UDP might have reasonable objection – why won’t the loyalists be the first to decommission? Why are they taking the view that the first bullet to be deommissioned has to be an IRA one? Why can’t loyalkists lead by example, now that we’ve changed our Constitution to facilitate the removal of the threat that existed. Why can’t Loyalists take the first step? Why should they always be waiting for Sinn Fein and the IRA to move first? Why can’t they move first? I believe they should.
“I believe however, that the best way of all for that to be done would be that all of the parties and all the paramilitaries could be asked to re-commit to the Mitchell Principles. Those Principles are the fundamentals of democracy. There would have been no talks process and no Agreement if everybody who participated in the talks had not first signed up to those Mitchell Principles. All we’re asking now is that not only should the parties sign up, but that their allies on the paramilitary side should sign up too. It’s not an unreasonable request and I believe that with the other confidence-building measures I have mentioned – no suspension and building up mutual respect – I think we can and should solve this problem.
Time to move on: “It’s not an intractable problem. Northern Ireland shouldn’t be the subject of any more theses, or any more verbal gymnastics. We’ve had it all. We’ve heard all the weighty tomes of discussion. We’ve had all the people getting their pictures on the television talking about the problem, saying they’re moving the process forward and all this. It’s time for the attention-seeking to end and for decisions to be taken and to move on. This is not a complicated problem. Guns are irrelevant.. Guns have achieved nothing in Ireland – nothing at all.. Guns have achieved nothing for Loyalists except misery for their own people. Guns have achieved nothing for Republicans except misery for their own people. The people concerned don’t need to rely any more on the crutch of the bomb or the crutch of the Kalashnikov. It’s time to put it aside – it’s time to grow up and get on with it!.”
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS [main points only]
Questions 1-4 (taken together):
1. [to Gary McMichael} “Was Peter Mandelson right or wrong in relation to the suspension of the Executive?”
2. [re decommissioning] – I was told by a Sinn Fein supporter – “if you give them 10 guns, they’ll ask for 20, if you give them 20, they’ll ask for 40”. What is the UUP position on that?
[to John Bruton]: “The Meath Peace Group and others have asked for the re-constitution of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation or something similar, possibly starting in Louth and Meath. While there is a very strong peace movement in Louth and Meath, there is also a very strong presence of Real IRA in those counties… Would he consider calling for the re-constitution of the Forum?
3. “How would you persuade paramilitaries to sign up to the Mitchell Principles?”
4. Re statement of intent, what wording is suggested?
Replies to questions 1-4
Q3. ….My understanding is that the UDA accepts the Mitchell Principles…It was the only paramilitary group following the Agreement was made to come out and support it and call on its members to vote for it. … Whenever the Mitchell Principles were announced, the IRA had difficulties with them – they had difficulties with the idea of resolution of differences by exclusively peaceful and democratic means….
Q4. Re intent: “one of the problems is the notion of republican “doublespeak” – what we want to hear directly from the IRA… in a sense all we need… that in the context of the Good Friday Agreement there is no justification for the use of force….
Dr. Esmond Birnie:
Q1. [decommissioning]: “I can see the problem…. what we have said is we want a substantial verifiable process to start. and in a sense we have recognised the problem by devolving the responsibility for checking the process away from the 2 governments, away from the army and the police. It’s in the hands of a neutral international observer – General de Chastelain and the decommissioning Commission – it’s for him to judge. The sad thing that made suspension necessary if deeply regrettable is that de Chastelain as a neutral observer was unable to report substantial progress
Q3 – Re Mitchell Principles… “ I think that was an excellent suggestion. Paramilitaries are subject to pressure, so the influence of public opinion does matter.. The influence of various governments matters, in particular your own government and the government in Washington… if you look at the shifts in the position of the IRA as reported by de Chastelain, there was some progress … between the end of January and the middle of February and that shows to me… that opinion was having some effect… There needs to be maximum public opinion and pressure
John Bruton: Q3. “I think the merit of trying to get the paramilitaries to sign up to the Mitchell Principles rather than some other new formula is 1) that they are there already, 2) their associate political parties have already signed them…3) they’re actually very demanding, and 4) their author is an American.. George Mitchell has acquired, in political terms, the nearest thing to sainthood – and deservedly… I also think that the player who has exercised the least pressure is President Clinton.. He could have exercised far more pressure on the republican movement than he did. They really do need the oxygen of support from the United States… It was a great pity that the opportunity of the St. Patrick’s weekend was lost … pressure was put on Trimble rather than the Provos… The pressure should have been put on them to get movement on the arms issue … America is far more important than Dublin. The amount of influence the Irish government has on Sinn Fein and the IRA is very limited, yet the amount of influence the White House has is enormous … Perhaps President Clinton was concerned not to lose some of the Irish vote for Gore… I’m not so sure if that is a factor – the Irish vote is not all that important in a Republican/Democrat contest in the United States nowadays… I think that that the Americans could take more risks … in pressurisng on this issue.
Q2: “I regret to say I wouldn’t be in favour of a re-constitution of the Forum…. The assumption would be that talk could do no harm, and the more talk you have the better. I think we’re at the point now of decision, and the setting up of the Forum would be just an alibi for more talk and more indecision… The issues are very clear – it’s not a seminar we need, it’s jumps……
Julitta Clancy (Meath Peace Group): “I would just like to clarify what we were looking for when our group talked about a Forum. We were not looking for a forum as a method of getting out of a crisis – we were looking for a Forum throughout the island – a Forum of the people. Grass-roots understanding is not being built – you will get groups like this in Meath and Louth, but it is not being done around the country. We wanted something that would move around the country and would enable unionists and nationalists to start working out our differences….
John Bruton: “I would have no problem with that. I just don’t want to create another alibi. That’s my only concern.”
Q5. “Did Mandelson get an impossible task ? There was no communication between Mandelson and de Chastelain. Was it stage-managed?… The thing was inevitable – the dogs in the street knew it was going to be suspended
Q6. “I am glad to see everyone here making a contribution – this wouldn’t have happened two years ago. . Everyone perceives things differently … unfortunately Northern Ireland is slightly different to here….there are many organisations in NI who have guns … I come from Northern Ireland .. for people in the South to understand the mindset that could accommodate the concept of decommissioning – it’s not the decommissioning of arms we want, it’s the decommissioning of mindsets that requires the need for arms… Gary McMichael, Gerry Adams, billy Hutchinson, David Ervine have lived their lives bearing witness to what happens to families… Gary McMichael cries the same tears as Billy Wright’s father – we have to make a quantum leap in accommodating… If Gary McMichael who has lost his father can make that quantum leap of accommodating, of listening to and sitting down with people who have perpetrated unbelievable injustices against his people, and Gerry Adams can do the same … that is the future … I think the UUP party leader is trying his damnedest, but he doesn’t have the grass-roots intellectual rationale built up to facilitate the accommodation that is required…….
Q7: “I’m an Ulster Unionist from Portadown…. I worked very hard to get the referendum passed in my area … One of the things you need to be careful of when you address rejectionist unionists is to see them as some sort of enemy… At the time of the referendum, 50% of unionists did not have confidence in the Belfast Agreement to vote for it. Don’t get the impression that that 50% don’t want to accommodate an inclusive government in Northern Ireland. They didn’t have the faith to put their vote to it – that didn’t mean they didn’t want what it aspired to…. In all sections of the community in NI we have people who are basically bad – it’s a human trait. The vast majority of the unionist population do want to look to a new vision of the future… they’re not trying to wreck it.
“I do not like phrases such as “they don’t want a Catholic around the place” – because that is not true. They want to feel safe – they want to feel as secure as their fellow nationalists do…. What has happened to those people since is that their fears have been confirmed … … we have confirmed the fears of 50% of the Unionists, we have undermined the feeling of support for the Belfast Agreement of a significant section of the other 50%. who voted for the Agreement. How in a very short period of time.. do we instil confidence and security? Does a complicated formula of words and techniques involving phrases like the Mitchell Principles and parity of esteem – and all that spent language which is going to be heard… We need something much more concrete. Esmond is absolutely right – we’re not looking for surrender, or handover of arms.
“We just simply want to know that as we take this difficult job and bring it forward, that somebody else is not going to beat us.. Is it not the case, that as with beauty it is very difficult to define, but it’s something you know when you see it?… As I said once to the Sinn Fein Assembly member for Upper Bann – you have to persuade our electorate that the war is over and we have to persuade your electorate that we’re interested in totally democratic and inclusive means… I can assure you as long as David Trimble and the present leadership is there we will do our damnedest to make sure this Agreement works. And we will continue to go anywhere, any place we can to show our intent on making it work. We do need some reciprocation from Sinn Fein.
Q8. [To Dr. Birnie] – you stated your party as a whole wants the Agreement to work – In the light of the UUC vote perhaps you are overstating the amount of support for the Agreement?
Q9. [To the unionist speakers]: It might be useful for us to find out what their problem is with the Agreement, not with IRA and Sinn Fein… I feel that tonight I’ve heard from the speaker from the UUP an awful lot about what other people’s problems are and not about what their own problems are…
Q10. I find decommissioning frustrating and hypocritical because even if the republicans hand over all their guns it is still only symbolic. It’s heart -warming to hear Gary McMichael say that so prudently by saying he personally didn’t believe in decommissioning, because they can always be replaced. So what I heard Gary McMichael say is that it’s the real thing they want, a guarantee which inspires trust and will last so that they won’t go back to war again… I can’t help getting the impression that both sides are using decommissioning as a political football to delay the process, and is it because London is moving too fast? I would like to ask Gary McMichael — why can’t he come out straight and demand the real thing – since decommissioning is only symbolic?…
Q11. The gentleman from the UUP spent two-thirds of the night talking about the IRA and Sinn Fein – I would have liked to have heard the position regarding unionists… At an earlier talk I asked if and when the SNP marches out of the Union, where will the unionists go?
Q12. If every party handed over their guns, can we say that any one individual in each party knows where all the guns are – and who can certify at any time that all guns are handed over? Also, in many countries in the last 2 centuries agreements have been agreed and adhered to before any guns are handed over by either side…
Replies to questions 5-12
Esmond Birnie [re confidence-building measures] – “I think first of all we need a statement directly from the IRA that the war is over, secondly a timetable about when decommissioning will start and the process and speed with which it will be completed. We thought back in November ..that that what would happen in December and January, our understanding was that that was the subject-matter which the interlocutor from the IRA would talk about with the Commission… But they didn’t sadly, so that’s what we need now…
“Also, I think the London government need to deal in a balanced manner with the very contentious matter of reform and change, and perhaps necessary modernisation of policing services in Northern Ireland. One of the most contentious elements has been what are they going to call the police… I would suggest a reasonable statesmanlike compromise as suggested by Denis Faul, – that we use both names.. It’s long and inelegant but many aspects of the Belfast Agreement are complex and inelegant.. but it would be a confidence-building measure which, rightly or wrongly… would help that section of unionism which has been “iffy” – on the margins of the Agreement – to come back to it, and …come back to supporting David Trimble…
Re level of extent within UUP for the Agreement – “my party is a broad church. Arguably over the past couple of weeks it has become so broad that the ceiling may collapse and we’ve got two different choirs singing from different hymn books as it were… Having said that, David Trimble has been re-confirmed as leader, he got 56% of the vote …The percentage change against David Trimble between November and 2 weeks ago is only 1 point something percent which I admit is bad… but in the light of the difficulties we faced – IRA intransigence – it is hardly surprising, I think the majority of the party is still behind the Agreement if only because no viable alternative has yet been suggested…
Re criticisms: I was asked about unionist problems about the Agreement -,there are many. The Agreement is complex, it is rigid. There is is a danger that we would simply institutionalise sectarianism rather than facilitate the fading away of the two predominantly sectarian based blocks… A mistake was made, not so much in the Agreement but rather in the legislation that followed – in that the release of paramilitary prisoners was not made conditional on delivery or disposal of weapons.. ..Obviously there is a moral difficulty … that Sinn Fein get into government notwithstanding what Sinn Fein were associated with in the past… Yet on balance it was a good agreement – it was a compromise, but anything negotiated between political parties will be a compromise…
Re last question directed to myself – you said I spent too much time on Sinn Fein and the IRA. But they are the root of the blockage.. if Sinn Fein and the IRA had done things differently we would be talking about the success of the Belfast Agreement….
Esmond Birnie: Re implications for NI politics if Scotland left the Union:
“I am Scottish, born in Edinburgh, educated in Northern Ireland – I don’t think it’s likely to happen – the opinion polls suggest maybl about 30% of Scots.. that leaves 70% as unionists… If Scotland did want to go independent then I would suspect that Northern Ireland would remain within the RUK – “residual UK” … I don’t think it would change the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – nationalists need to recognise that….
John Bruton: Re question on suspension: “I can only rely on second-hand information – Sir Josias Cunningham had received a letter of resignation – he was told he could table that letter at whatever time he judged right .. He told Peter Mandelson that if the suspension wasn’t announced by the 6 o’clock news, he would be handing the letter to Lord Alderdice… Peter Mandelson decided to suspend rather than let this happen… Because if David Trimble had resigned… Peter Weir and Pauline Armitage had indicated that they would not vote for a reappointment of David Trimble or Seamus Mallon.. .. Resignation had to be avoided and suspension was chosen as a less bad alternative… because If resignation had occurred they couldn’t have put it back together again… through suspension they can put it back again…. I believe Mandelson had no choice whatever.. I can’t understand why the Irish government appeared to be criticising him – they didn’t come out and criticise publicly, they had their spokespersons out criticising, which meant they didn’t have to answer for their criticism because it was done third-hand. I think that was not very honest. I think they should have actually said “this was an impossible position and he did all he could possibly have done”. I think that would have been a more courageous thing for the Irish government to have done – it would have enhanced their standing with the participants in trying to put the whole thing back together… …
The IRA knew that General de Chastelain was going to produce his first report on 30 January… They only met de Chastelain twice in the whole two months…. and then didn’t table anything until the final day, and even then that was inadequate. They took de Chastelain in a car … to an unknown location, where he was handed bits of paper… He didn’t actually have anything until about 5 o’clock that evening… I think that was gamesmanship on the part of the IRA. They wanted the appearance of doing something without actually doing anything of substance…
Re other organisations having guns – “I assume you are referring to the UDR and RUC and the British Army. There is a big difference between the UVF, say, and the British Army… The UVF are not amenable to the law, they don’t take orders from politicians. So I don’t think you can compare them. The RUC, British army, UDR ar subject to the law – they may do things that are wrong, but they subject to accountability which may be inadequate but which are there… the IRA, UDA etc. are accountable to no one… You can’t compare the guns held by one with the guns held by the other.
“There is a problem with the very large amount of legally-held licensed weapons in the unionist community .. That is something that should be regulated… there aren’t that many rabbits around……
“The issue was raised about 50% of the unionists voting against the Good Friday Agreement. … Many people believe that the reason the Sunningdale Agreement fell is because Harold Wilson was too cowardly to stand up to the .. .Ulster workers’ strike. That isn’t the whole story. The truth is that in the previous Westminster election, the Faulkner unionists had got 13% of the vote and the anti-agreement unionists had got 53% of the vote… 80% of the unionists were against Faulkner staying in the Executive… The truth of the matter is that no agreement in Northern Ireland will work unless it has a majority of unionists supporting it and the majority of nationalists … no agreement will work without that. That is why it is so important that David Trimble wins the day, because there will be no progress unless he wins the day and holds the majority of unionism – and he’s coming very close to losing that at this stage.. And I think that the sort of temporising we see from Sinn Fein .. is highly irresponsible.. because they know the sand is going out of the glass as far as a majority within unionism prepared to support the Agreement is concerned – and they are just sitting there letting it happen, taking some pleasure in the discomfiture of the old enemy.. the new politics is one in which the old enemy is the new friend, and they aren’t realising that and not acting accordingly… They are losing an historical opportunity of enormous proportions….
Re decommissioning issue only symbolic — “decommissioning is only important because people are refusing to do it.. If they were willing to do it it wouldn’t be an important question. But it is the fact that they refuse that makes it important… So decommissioning is an important question only because people are refusing to do it. Why do they need guns if they are in a genuine peace process? They can’t answer that question. I know people disagree with me on this point…
Questioner. The process hasn’t worked, John
John Bruton: “the process has worked – the executive was set up, Bairbre de Brun was Minister for Health aking decisions, Martin McGuinness was Minister for Education making decisions. It had been delivered… It was there but there was no decommissioning. Two meetings between the IRA and de Chastelain – two measly meetings – no decisions, no delivery. Why? It is that refusal to deliver that makes me think the republican movement is actually taking an each-way bet. They want to keep their guns, for the next round – they want to pocket all that has been conceded, keep their guns, and when the time is right, start all over again. That’s the fear a lot of us have about the IRA… the more they delay now, the less that fear is being allayed.
“I would like to address what I think is the thinking about the question re Scotland – that somehow or other this is all about catching the unionists out… If Scotland pulls out – there’s no longer a union there for the unionists, so therefore the unionists are washed out… That’s not the point at all.. This is an Irish problem. The truth of the matter is that, saving your presence, Esmond … this has nothing to do with the island of Britain at all – this issue! … It doesn’t matter if the UK were dissolved into 40 different counties – or if the island of Britain disappeared – there would still be a problem on this island.. The problem is that the Ulster unionist people feel they are different from the rest of us – I personally don’t feel they are all that different actually, but they feel they’re different, and it’s what they think that counts… And we think we’re different from them too, because there isn’t a huge welcome out there for the proposed Orange march in Dawson Street – if we thought they were the same as us, wouldn’t we be all clapping this march…. saying “this is part of our culture” – “they’re us” …But we’re not saying that, because they’re not in our minds “us”… We believe they’re different too, that’s the problem…
“It doesn’t really matter if the UK disappeared and It’s not a question of tricking them – it’s a question of finding a way of getting along with them. I ultimately believe that Ulster Unionists have more in common with us in Dublin than they have with anyone else in the world … I think for that reason I believe a united Ireland is actually inevitable but it’ll happen as long as we don’t talk about it and ignore the issue. We may evolve in that direction by stealth.. but it’ll only happen if everybody wants it….
Gary McMichael: Re new negotiations “… one of the problems with the last talks, was that Sinn Fein and the UUP essentially were more involved than the other parties – we had to take their interpretation, and we had to sell it.. .. That didn;t work … so we won’t be selling anything we didn’t negotiate ourselves…
Re problems unionists have with the Agreement:: Policing – we would have preferred if control of the RUC was transferred to the Assembly… The electoral system used in the Assembly electiosn… there was a different electoral system going into the negotiations… But the most important problem is the possibility of a referendum every 7 years, because while cross-community consensus is needed for contentious decisions in the Assembly, the most contentious decision will be based on majority rule….
Re legally held weapons – I don’t want to take the guns off the farmers. Re British army guns etc. – I want to see soldiers off the streets. Re Scotland leaving the Union – “you’re getting us all wrong – I’m a unionist but essentially what I want to see is a 32-county Ulster!”
Sean Farren: “It’s getting quite late but I’d like to deal with one or two issues.
Firstly, on the issue of decommissioning – I’ve heard all the points made here umpteen times – the question about rusty guns, and how many more would be asked tomorrow, and about how they could re-arm tomorrow – the insinuation is that the issue is a bit of a red herring.. Well if it was only a red herring it shouldn’t have been in the Agreement. But it is in the Agreement and therefore it is disingenous to try and dismiss it.. it’s there, and however vague the language, the first paragraph refers to the fact that all parties are agreed that decommissioning is indispensable – now that means it is an essential part of the Agreement, however difficult it is to achieve that objective. And it places an obligation on parties to work to achieve that end, and it does set down a time-frame for it. .. obviously we will have to look at that timeframe again in the light of present circumstances… But since I am in a religious house tonight – some of you may have learned your Catechism the way I did … in that Catechism the question is asked “what is a sacrament”? The answer I learned is is that a sacrament is an “outward sign of inward grace” .. And decommissioning is the outward sign of inward intent – the intent not to pose any threat by holding onto arms – not to threaten directly or indirectly through the continued possession of arms a return to political violence – in other words that the war is over.. There is no guarantee that if we so declare this war to be over, there won’t be other wars… Every war that has ended has ended …with remarkable declarations by all of the combatants never again to resort to arms. But you need that, however much history has demonstrated that the .. practice doesn’t live up to the promise of those words.. But we need it in order to build confidence in the present generation that at least we have a chance of going forward together.
“At the end of the day …implementing the Agreement is a confidence-building process in which there has to be a positive response to all of its elements. Maybe, as John remarked, we should have timetabled things more precisely … I would make the point that they weren’t precisely timetabled because there was confidence at the time the Agreement was signed that progress would move ahead in parallel and that indeed if we timetabled things we would log-jam by cross-referencing progress on one thing to another part entirely. But of course when there isn’t progress after a considerable period of time on one or other of the elements… it’s not surprising that people say ”hold on here – why are we continuing to push forward with the aspects we are more responsible for, while others who have a responsibility are not matching in any way the progress we are making?” … So we are probably going to .. find ouirselves required – in order to get out of the impasse and create the confidence – to so timetable things. Because having been disappointed.that the kind of spontaneity that we expected with respect to movement across all the elements was absent with respect of one key element – it’s not surprising then that specificity is required. As Seamus Mallon said.in the debate on the Suspension Bill we want to know whether or when……
“But really what we are asking for is reassurance that the threat is lifted.. we can’t be expected to implement all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement while some participants however directly or indirectly involved in the Agreement … retain arms on the scale which we believe them to hold and which the mere possession of them implies a threat….
Guns: “It’s been said, what about the police and the army and what about the 100, 000 weapons? I agree we should regulate the possession of weapons… but I was at a meeting of an SDLP branch in a rural area some time ago – I asked how many had shotguns….Most of those present had shotguns, they have them for gun clubs, for leisure activities and putting down vermin.. Those weapons are not all held by unionists… and in the course of all the Troubles not many legally held weapons were used, unless they were legally held weapons that were stolen and used by paramilitaries.. … Regulation obviously is required..
Demilitarisation: “I agree with what John Bruton said about the police and the army. The demilitarisation aspect of the Good Friday Agreement is being put into effect.. I cross the border in a number of different places quite regularly… fortifications at the border crossings are closed – those on the hills are not… The troops are not on the streets in anything like the numbers they were previously, and police patrol without flak jackets… The demilitarisation process has been progressing … it’s not complete… I don’t live in South Armagh, I’m not familiar with the security situation there… but it’s quite obvious from both Garda and RUC evidence that it was from that part of the country that the bomb which devastated Omagh came and was transported … So there is obviously some security risk
Accountability: “Furthermore we have the evidence of the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday – evidence of an intent to make the security forces accountable in a very public way… When can I ask will those who perpetrated the Le Mans atrocity, when those who murdered six people, two from my own constituency, returning from work at Omagh on a Friday evening, when will the truth about that situation be exposed? When will what even the IRA themselves admit was a tragic mistake – Bloody Friday in Belfast when 20 bombs were set off within two hours and devastation and tragedy visited on totally innocent people. When will a truth and reconciliation commisison sit and hear evidence from those responsible for that atrocity and every other atrocity for which nobody has been made accountable?… Maybe we should draw lines – maybe we should try and build the trust and the confidence and try in doing so to allow the past to recede and the wounds to be healed through the reconciliation and confidence that we build… But we need contributions from all sides and at this particular point – and I agree with the urgency John Bruton expressed in his remarks… it will only fester if we don’t resolve it.and all the hopes and expectations of the Good Friday Agreement will recede… I believe that even if they do recede we will have to come back to something like the Good Friday Agreement next time around. Now that we have it I believe it would be almost polticially criminal for us to allow it to so recede…”
APPENDIX: BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES ON SPEAKERS:
Sean Farren, MLA (SDLP) was elected to the new NI Assembly for North Antrim in 1998, and was Minister for Higher Education in the Executive set up in November 1999. His previous career in politics included membership of the Assembly for N. Antrim (1982-86), and SDLP chairman (1981 to 1986). He was a negotiator in the Brooke-Mayhew talks from 1991 to 1992. Elected to the NI Forum in 1996, he was an SDLP talks delegate in the multi-party talks which concluded in the Belfast Agreement.
Dr. Esmond Birnie, MLA (UUP) was elected to the new NI Assembly for South Belfast in 1998. He held the post of Chairman of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee in the Executive and is currently the UUP spokesman on North-South Relations and British-Irish Council Prior to his election, he was research assistant at the NI Economic Research Centre, and lectured in Economics at Queen’s University, Belfast, from 1989-1998.
Cllr. Gary McMichael (UDP) was active in community politics at the age of 17 and became involved in the wider political arena at the age of 18 after the murder of his father, John McMichael. He was elected to Lisburn Borough Council in 1993 and became leader of the UDP following the murder of Ray Smallwoods by the IRA in July 1994. He was the principal UDP negotiator for the Loyalist cease-fire. In September 1995 he led the first loyalist delegation to meet the Irish Government in Dublin. On 8th February 1996, he became the first Loyalist to take part in a live TV debate with Sinn Fein. Elected to the NI Forum in 1996 he served as Vice-Chairman of the Political Affairs Committee. He led the UDP delegation at the multi-party talks (1996-1998).
John Bruton, T.D., Leader of Fine Gael, was Taoiseach in the Coalition Government from 1994-1997. He was first elected to the Dail in 1969, and held numerous offices in the party before becoming leader of Fine Gael in 1990. From 1982 to 1986 he held the post of Leader of the House. He served as Minister in several departments, including Finance (1981-82 and 1986-1987) Public Service (1987), Industry and Energy (1982-83), Industry, Trade, Commerce and Tourism, (1983 to 1986). He was a Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from December 1989 to January 1991, President of the European Movement from 1990-96, and President in Office of the European Council, June to December 1996
Meath Peace Group Report: 16 April 2000. © Meath Peace Group
Transcribed and edited by Julitta Clancy from video tapes recorded by Anne Nolan.
Acknowledgments: The Meath Peace Group would like to thank the Columban Fathers for their support and encouragement and for permitting the use of Dalgan Park for the series of talks, and we gratefully acknowledge the assistance given by the Community Bridges Programme of the International Fund for Ireland. Contact names: Julitta and John Clancy, Parsonstown, Batterstown, Co. Meath; Anne Nolan, Gernonstown, Slane; Pauline Ryan, Woodlands, Navan; Philomena Boylan-Stewart, Longwood; Michael Kane, An Tobar, Ardbraccan, Navan