31 – “Overcoming Barriers – The Work of the Northern Ireland Women’s Political Forum”
Monday, 30th November 1998
St. Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan, Co. Meath
Lily Kerr (Workers’ Party)
Cllr. Sarah Duncan (Alliance Party, Castlereagh Borough Council)
Joan Cruthers (Progressive Unionist Party)
Patricia Lewsley, MLA (SDLP)
Chaired by John Clancy (Meath Peace Group)
Questions and Comments/1
Patricia Lewsley (late arrival)
Questions and Comments/2 – decommissioning and other issues
1. Lily Kerr (Workers’ Party):
“It’s always nice to come to Navan and see some friendly faces in the audience. Julitta thanks us for taking the time to come down, I have to say I thank you for taking the time to care and giving us the space to tell you some of the more positive things that are going on in the North of Ireland and that have been going on for quite a long time. The person I have the most admiration for at this table here tonight is Joan Cruthers who was stepped into the breach literally last night at ten o’clock. Her colleague from the PUP who was meant to come had a bit of a family crisis and couldn’t come and Joan volunteered. I was thinking about it on the way down and you know – Joan had only met me once and she had never met Sarah but it’s indicative of the work that the Northern Ireland Women’s Political Forum is doing that Joan felt quite comfortable – nobody told her about my driving by the way at this stage! – to come with women she didn’t know because she knew there would be a trust there and I think that actually speaks volumes.
Background to the Northern Ireland’s Women’s Political Forum. “We were founded in February of 1996 and it’s interesting how we were born. We were born the morning after Canary Wharf. A woman called Nina Warden from Joan’s party (PUP) telephoned me at home. She didn’t know me. She got my number from someone else as she knew I was active in the Workers’ Party and telephoned me to say “look, we as women cannot allow Canary Wharf to end all of this. I think it’s time we women took a hand. Can the women in your party and the women in my party meet?” So we met the following Tuesday night at the PUP’s headquarters on the Shankhill road in Belfast. About twenty of us got together and we decided, yes, we are going to work together. That was February and we were conscious that International Women’s day was coming up on the 8th of March. After talking for about three hours we decided we will do something jointly for International Women’s Day. We decided that as the talks were going on at Stormont and the parties were talking at Stormont we thought we might as well kill two birds with the one stone and we might as well make an assault on Stormont – the male bastion! We decided we would have an International Women’s Day event in Stormont. Baroness Denton heard about it and she asked if she could come along. The Alliance Party heard about it and said right, wonderful idea we’ll come along too. Also the Ulster Democratic Party who were involved in bi-laterals, and the Democratic Left and the SDLP, they all turned up on that day. It was nothing heavy on that day, we brought some wine and we brought some roses and we brought some bread and we even brought our children to Stormont. After having the nice time we decided there is the making of something here and we met every fortnight in Stormont in Castle buildings when the talks were going on.
Controversial issues: “We decided as women that we would perhaps tackle the controversial issues first to see how we got on with each other and we came up with a joint paper on policing and prisoners – probably the two most controversial issues at that time- and we were able to find common ground on all of those issues and we went on to develop papers on health, on transport and all of the other issues. I want to tell you because nobody else will tell you that even before the men got talking in Stormont we were there! We’ve had a number of events since that.
Sectarianism: “In September of that year we had a conference on sectarianism, probably one of the best conferences that any of us have ever been to because it was based on honesty, on people being able to have their say in the nicest possible manner. We prided ourselves from the word go that we would far rather have an uncomfortable honesty than a comfortable dishonesty and we’ve always been straight with each other and I think the women learnt early on into the game that they did not have to sacrifice any principle, any great political principle or any principle. All they were required to do was to come together.
“We have built up a trust and we have been going steadily since. We had a conference again in 1997 on sectarianism and we managed to get permission to use Hillsborough Castle, which was a first. The Meath Peace Group attended that conference and we were delighted to have them. I’ve always been particularly happy for the Meath Peace Group to allow us to share some of the work we’ve done. I don’t consider it us doing you a favour coming down to talk, I consider it you putting yourselves out on a limb for us to want to listen to us and to want to expose your tender young to us! Going into that secondary school [St. Joseph’s Navan] with all those young women! We’ve done an amazing amount of work. We go from strength to strength. We’ve even been known for helping each other out as women, writing speeches for each other, discussing with each other what should be said at party conferences etc. We have proved that people can come together in Northern Ireland, that different political parties can sit down and agree on common ground. Because the one thing we should all know about Northern Ireland, the one thing we should know about any country is, that there’s much more unites us than divides us. I’ll stop now and let someone else have a say. I’ll be happy to answer any of the questions anyone wants to put.”
2. Cllr. Sarah Duncan (Alliance Party): “… I’m a councillor in Castlereagh Borough Council. There are twenty-three councillors in Castlereagh. Eleven of them are in the Democratic Unionist Party, the two most prominent being Peter Robinson and his wife Iris Robinson. The rest of the council consists of four unionists, three of whom would have voted “no” to the Agreement and who vote along with DUP all the time. So the only effective opposition in the council is the four Alliance councillors and the two SDLP councillors and every vote for positions of power in Castlrereagh Council has been 17 to 6 – there’s no sharing. The DUP and all types of Unionists vote together and the four Alliance and the two SDLP vote together whether we say “yes” to the Agreement or whatever – the votes are always solidly 17:6. There’s no power sharing at all. It’s one of the most bigoted district councils in Northern Ireland I would think. I’ve only been there for a year and a half and it’s not easy. My role in politics is in very small politics and local politics, from campaigning against planning issues – every blade of grass being covered with housing – to too much traffic. The big issue, it being quite a middle-class area, believe it or not, is dog’s dirt. Every door I go to complains about dog’s dirt or traffic….
Women’s Political Forum: “I’ve been a member of the NI Women’s Political Forum, not since the beginning but since the time I went to the conference on Sectarianism which was held in the YMCA and then to the second conference in Hillsborough castle. I and the rest of the members of the Alliance party found it invaluable to hear what the women in other political groupings think, to hear what the Workers’ party or the PUP think and to find how much common ground we have. I think mostly because we’re women and we’re very sane and we don’t fight with each other. I often thought that men in our parties could really learn a lot because although they meet at Stormont, we meet together in the Shankhill Stress Centre at times, which was unknown territory to some, or the Workers’ Party headquarters on Grosvernor Road which would be sort of unknown territory to me, or in SDLP headquarters on the Ormeau Road or Alliance Party headquarters on University Street.
“So we’re going into each other’s territory as well as listening to what other people have got to say. I find it invaluable and so has everyone else. It’s brilliant the way we can all come together and get on with each other and listen to each other. We’ve got a lot in common. That’s a very important thing we have found out how much we do have in common. I’m not sure what else to say, I’m willing to answer questions. I myself am head of a nursery of fifty children in a very deprived area in Belfast called Woodstock Row, where children are brought up to be sectarian as soon as they can speak, sectarian statements come out of their mouths because of their backgrounds. When they get a little older most of them go to the Ian Paisley Sunday school and Ian Paisley’s church…
“So it’s not an easy school and it’s right across the peace line from Short Strand, just a stone throw from Short Strand and that’s what did happen in the Troubles. A lot of the fathers of the children that I teach would have been involved in the UDA and UVF. I did teach David Ervine’s son and David Ervine’s grandson in my school and I know his wife very well so I know a lot about the PUP really. Where I am councillor is a middle-class area but I know what life’s about on Woodstock Row. I’d be willing to answer questions on anything you want to know. Thank you very much for inviting me to come.”
Chairman: “Now as Lily said, Joan Cruthers has come down at the last minute to speak on behalf of the PUP. So I would like if you would give her a very warm welcome please.”
3. Joan Cruthers (PUP): “It’s nice to be here. My only time spent with the women’s forum was at Hillsborough and it was quite an experience – the conference on Sectarianism – as I had never actually sat down with anybody from a nationalist or republican background and debated with them or talked with them before. I heard their point of view and I listened and I had never heard it before. Never before in my life had I heard somebody from the Catholic community explain to me why they wouldn’t wear a poppy – I just didn’t understood why they wouldn’t wear a poppy and they didn’t understand why I didn’t want the Irish language taught in my school. All that has changed, it has completely and utterly changed my point of view. I now don’t mind if the Irish language gets taught in my school, why should it not? It made me realise my Irish identity because I had for so long fought the Irish identity. I didn’t realise that it was part of me and part of my life. Why should my children not be learnt Irish?
Progressive Unionist Party: “Big issues like that come up all the time within the PUP because we do quite a lot of cross-community work. Believe it or not – one third of our party is made up of women. Unfortunately we don’t all participate as much as we would like but we’re trying to address that, we’re trying to change things. But the ones who do, go regularly across to West Belfast, Catholics from West Belfast regularly come over to us and we sit down and we talk things out. Now we may not always agree but we have a common knowledge that we want to live together – we do live together, every day in our lives. That’s really just where we’re coming from within the Women’s Commission. We have a Women’s Commission in the PUP and they are presently now undertaking training on domestic violence, addiction, child protection – all trying to address things we have to deal with every day, not just who’s going to fight at the end of our street. I actually have the privilege of working in a place called Tiger’s Bay. It’s right on the peace line in North Belfast. I do say it’s a privilege to work with the children because I have a chance to influence them, to stop them rioting, to explain the other side’s point of view and believe it or not, it works. That’s what I do in the Progressive Unionists party.
“I’m just sorry I don’t take so much of a role in the Northern Ireland’s Women’s Political Forum but the last couple of years have been very busy up in Stormont so I haven’t had really much to do with it but things are going to change. We’re really starting to recruit. ..That one conference was definitely a stepping stone for me in politics. Just sitting down with people I have never met in my life, listening to their point of view, giving my point of view and hoping they can come to an understanding and if anybody knows the PUP’s record over the last number of years, you can see that it’s actually working. So any questions, just ask away and I’ll try to answer them as best I can.”
[Editor’s note: Patricia Lewsley’s contribution follows the first section of Questions and Comments below]
CHAIR (John Clancy): “It’s interesting the kind of thoughts that are coming up – “uncomfortable honesty” and “comfortable dishonesty”. I think that is a very succinct way of summing up the kind of discussions that may be taking place and should be taking place which is that uncomfortable honesty where you challenge. Joan touched on that – by being honest and straightforward you actually learn a lot more and see issues that aren’t issues any more. Cllr. Sarah Duncan talked about small politics, but small politics are actually big politics when you come to it. Working in a council that is so divided, so weighted in one direction but still working away. It’s the courage of Lily and Sarah and Joan and many, many other women who are maybe building a new reality within the island of Ireland. I won’t go on any longer. If there are questions and dialogue let’s have it.”
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS/1
Q1: [Irish identity]: “I would just like to take a point up on what Joan said. She said she now feels that she has no objection to Irish being taught and that as well as having an English identity she also has an Irish identity. I think this is a very positive thing and I think it shows all is well with the future and I’d just like to cast you back to Brian Keenan, the erstwhile hostage and he struck me as a person who, when it wasn’t fashionable, realised that as well as having a British identity he had an Irish identity as well. And I’d just like to refer back to three gentlemen we had at the last talk from the Orange Order and conversely as Joan can see that there’s merits in exploring her Irish identity. I also would like to say as someone from the Northern Catholic community originally, I feel that the loyalist community has nothing to be ashamed of. It’s unique in Ireland, it’s unique in the British Isles or as some people like to refer to them as “these Isles” and it’s unique in Europe and I think they’re entitled to pursue that culture and I sort of feel that perhaps the people of Garvaghy Road don’t understand this. … If the two cultures could try and accept each other and learn about each other but I was very, very pleased to hear you say what you said. I think you’re on the right track.”
Lily Kerr: “I’d just like to follow up on from that point. What Joan has said, it’s not done to throw down a challenge to the nationalist people in Northern Ireland but if Joan can say “I accept that this is part of my history”, it also makes the rest of us believe that we live on that part of the island and part of the culture that you’ve talked about and part of the British culture is part of our shared culture too. We have to eventually accept and stop being ashamed that there’s a bit of Britishness in us as well for want of a better word. We do have a shared culture. ..”
Questioner: “Yes we do have a bit of Britishness that perhaps the population of the 26 counties do not have. The Northern Catholic population has that – whether they accept it or even admit it is another thing, but it is there certainly.”
Lily Kerr: “Particularly when it comes to Orange culture, I mean the Apprentice Boys of Derry is as much part of my history and should be as much part of my history as it is for the Unionist / Protestant / Loyalist population of Derry. We have a shared history.
Questioner: “I’m not being facetious but I mean they are great bands-men, they do march terribly well and they’ve lovely uniforms. Could we not get them as part of a folk culture? I’ve said enough!”
Cllr. Sarah Duncan: “You’re saying you’d like to have them as folk culture, the Orangemen?
Questioner: “No, I don’t mean it that way. If the catholic population could accept them as less threatening. I don’t mean it in a derogatory way. As I did point out they are a unique culture.”
Cllr. Sarah Duncan: “They are unique. I live very near Shaw’s Bridge where the Orangemen march to, every year on the Twelfth of July and it is a great spectacle all the banners and the uniforms, but I find it quite sinister to watch the Orangemen. Some of them are very sincere but there are lots of hangers on carrying beer cans, very threatening, people who are not part of the procession who are actually frightening on the 12th of July, frightening to both sides. Could I say that the Alliance Party is perceived by some people as a Unionist party and by some members of the Alliance Party not a Unionist party. I come myself from a very strange background in that this is 1998 and I’m very proud of 1798 as my father was a Presbyterian and I know all about Henry Joy McCracken and everybody else to do with the United Irishmen who were Presbyterians and I’m very proud of the part the Presbyterians played in attempting at that stage to have a United Ireland. The other half of my background is very unusual in that my mother was Jewish and so that I’m a complete outsider as I’ve never met anyone in my life who was half-Jewish and half-Presbyterian.
“So I’ve never felt that I belonged anywhere, and still don’t and possibly that’s why I joined the Alliance Party! When I was a child I lived in a street .. in a totally Protestant area and I was excluded in that street and my best friend who was a Catholic was also excluded and we came to be outsiders, because we didn’t fit in. Neither of us were perceived to be Protestants so from a very early age I experienced sectarianism. When lots of other people would have thought that it wasn’t around in Northern Ireland I experienced anti-Jewishness from a low age at school. As people don’t realise I am half-Jewish they don’t realise why I am withering up and dying when people make anti-Jewish remarks in my presence. So I’ve always felt for both sides in the conflict although but didn’t feel part of it at all and would be outraged at any sectarian remark about Catholics or about Protestants but wouldn’t really feel that I belonged to either of them as I don’t go to Church and brought my children up not going to church and called them “Catherine” and “John” so that no-one could figure out what religion they were, being as our surname is Duncan and can’t be identified. So we’re accepted wherever we go as being whatever people want to think we are. But I think it’s a very sad indictment that I had to call them John and Catherine because they’re of the age; one’s thirty and the other’s twenty-eight and they were born when things were really bad in Northern Ireland – when you had to think of things like the importance of names and surnames. That’s a bit of a divergence now on what was being said but it’s just what I wanted to say to you.”
Q2. [Women in politics]: “Lily spoke about the lovely image of the bread and roses in Stormont, and with all the talk about the 50/50 in Scotland and the Scottish Parliament and the campaign there to have 50/50 representation within the parliament, of women. I’m just wondering about the Women’s Political Forum – presumably you are looking for some sort of an outcome in Northern Ireland so that you will have representation of women. It would be nice to see the 50/50 carried through because if it’s acceptable in Scotland, I think it’s very acceptable in Northern Ireland as well. But what exactly is happening?”
Lily Kerr: “I really agree wholeheartedly and once they have got over the shock we will become a dangerous group of women because we will start to challenge the establishment. That’s one of the reasons we were together because of a mutual understanding, but we are all political women and we know the barriers in society and those barriers we are talking about breaking down and overcoming aren’t just the perceived religious barriers. They are the barriers that are there against women, they are the barriers that are in the South, they are the barriers in the North and they are the barriers that are global.
“There is an issue about gender and we hope to support each other and that’s what our constitution is, to give expression to those issues which affect women and challenge society on them and to increase women in political life and to ensure when we talk to each other, for example my party has a 40% quota for our NEC we expect when we run candidates that 40% will be women. You share these experiences with people from other parties and I know that the PUP has similar things. So we’re learning from each other, we’re encouraging each other and we’re supporting each other so I would anticipate that things will change. I know there’s not that many women in the Northern Ireland assembly but if you look at the British Parliament and indeed if you look at Dail Eireann, there’s not that many women there either. Women not being in Stormont isn’t a symptom of the so-called “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, it’s a symptom of the problem with society that still by and large will not accept that women have an equal role to play, albeit that we do happen to be 51% of the voting population. I think things will change and things should change.”
Questioner: “In terms of the Civic Forum, is that part of the Agreement and what’s happening with that now?”
Lily Kerr: “Yes, it has not been decided yet but there are a number of groups including ourselves and community groups as well and even some of the Church organisations are saying that it should reflect society. So I’m hoping that a Civic Forum will reflect that and that there will be a proper gender balance. Now we get a problem when it comes to try and balance rights. In Northern Ireland they look at how many Protestants they can get on it and how many Catholics, and you know what they’ll do with the gender balance – if they can sort out the gender balance and the religious balance at the one time you’ll probably find if they can find a Catholic woman or a Protestant woman they’ll say they’re killing two birds with the one stone and we ain’t about to let that happen. We are not about to let that happen…”
[Editor’s note: Patricia Lewsley, SDLP Assembly Member arrived at this point]
CHAIR: “We’ll just continue with this discussion and then maybe we’ll ask Patricia to talk …. I think we have another question from the hall.”
Q3:Kitty Harlin, ICA: “My name is Kitty Harlin. I’m from the Irish Country Women’s Association. Rosemary [Wallace, also present] is President and I was a former national president. We had a lot of communication down through the years with the Women’s Institute in Northern Ireland so we know them very well and we have an awful lot in common with them. My own guild where I attend the meetings regularly, for the past seven years we’ve had exchanges with a coach load of women, possibly 50, from the Knocka area from Antrim and other parts of Northern Ireland to our own area here in county Meath and every second year we go up and meet their people and are taken to all the places.
“We’ve met Lord Mayors and whatever, likewise here they have met our politicians and we have had them overnight very recently, a coach load stayed with us. We had a lovely day and night with them. So we have always had women’s discussions of all descriptions. We keep away from politics because both our organisations are non-party political so we do not discuss politics, apart from the fact when things happen like Omagh, our hearts went out to them and we told them so and we cried for them. I know many of our women who met them recently had actually cried and cried when they watched the television. We felt – I wonder were any of them involved and surely their relations were involved. We were communicating all of the time and we built up a great relationship so therefore I was wondering do any of you have any communication with the Women’s Institute of Northern Ireland and how do they fit in or do they fit in at all and do they have any part in the process? Also listening to the speakers tonight it was wonderful to hear their attitudes and to hear what they have to say. I can’t help but feel that it will take time but with the attitudes that they have they’re bound to pass this on to the future generations and it just brings to mind a sort of an idea that where the seed of peace begins in the peaceful heart of everyone and I think that is what you are doing, it has to take root, it has to pass on and it has to be a success. “
Lily Kerr: “They don’t have any formal connection or even informal connection but I can tell you when we had an International Women’s Day event in the Wellington Park Hotel in 1997. We had an exhibition of millworkers photographs and the Women’s Institute were having a function in the same hotel. Some of them did wander in and some of them stayed and felt that what they saw going on was quite worthwhile. I think they probably still take the attitude that they should shy away from party-politics. Now while I accept that people may not want to be party-political, politics actually affects us from when we get up in the morning to when we go to bed at night and we can’t ignore it.
Q4: “Just talking to Sarah there for a minute when she came in and the way they all came together in the one car. I never heard of men all coming together and I suppose my memory goes back to when we were just getting ready for the Good Friday Agreement where some of the women came out [of the Talks] and they were talking about coming from different camps and they seem to be relating that exactly…”
Joan Cruthers: “It’s building up a trust. I mean you were there two years so obviously you just didn’t sit around the table, you got to know all the participants, you got to know their natures, you got to know if they were approachable or not approachable; well I’ll not tell you the ones I didn’t want to go up to sometimes! That’s really how you work it out. You build up friendships with people from the other side of the community. Debate really helped. You got to like these people whatever their beliefs.
“You got to like them as actual people. You got to respect them and they respected us back. It worked.”
Q5: “You mentioned small politics and big politics. I have a feeling, correct me if I’m wrong, that all politics in Northern Ireland and the years before have been conducted at the level of small politics and that it is only now that Northern Ireland is getting used to big politics. … Am I right or wrong?”
Cllr. Sarah Duncan: “Until 1972 we did have our own parliament so that was big politics from the 20’s until the 70’s, but it was what politicians did with the big politics that we have to take a good hard look at. The politics were completely sectarian between the 20’s and the 70’s so that now we have a chance to have non-sectarian, big politics up at Stormont and I hope it works “
Lily Kerr: “I think what you have confused is that in the past we had the democratic deficit where there was actually no political institution in Northern Ireland and it’s going to be interesting to see when the Assembly beds down and settles down, we tackle the political issues that exercise our minds. Because believe you me no matter what side of the so-called divide you came from in Northern Ireland, when I woke up in the mornings my first thought was not “will the border fall today?”, we wondered about all the things other people worry about – health, education, have I got enough money, unemployment all of those things, and the politicians in Northern Ireland are going to have to address those all very soon. I mean it’s always been very easy to oppose everything because it was always someone else making the decisions. Now they’re going to have to take those decisions. It’s going to be interesting to see how it pans out and Patricia’s probably better placed to talk about that than any of us as she is going to be one of those decision makers.”
4. Patricia Lewsley (SDLP Assembly Member): “First of all I’d like to thank you very much for inviting me here tonight to speak and I have to apologise for being late but unfortunately I got lost and was driving in circles for about an hour. So I am glad I’m here now, the other issue is I’m not quite sure what you want me to say but what I’ll do is I’ll just give you a quick background of where I come from and where I am today. I joined my party, the SDLP, about 14 years ago because I believed they were the politics for me and I believed in their policies. I would have voted SDLP from when I was able to vote at 18. I lived in what we would term a mixed area, which is Catholics and Protestants living together in a working class part of South Belfast. As I said about 14 years ago I got involved with the party and up until about five years ago I wasn’t really motivated to do much except be a member. Five years ago I was elected onto Belfast city council for four years and I realised how little women were involved in politics and yet it was one of the areas where we had no power and there was still decisions being made for people on the ground and women didn’t have an input in that.
“Also I had to realise the reason why women didn’t get involved in politics over the last 28/30 years because of the Troubles and because many of them were the home-makers and the women who kept the body and soul together. Right through the whole Troubles they were the mothers of the sons and daughters who were either imprisoned or killed and the wives of the husbands who were either imprisoned or killed. I find that women now wish to be able to have part and ownership of what their future is about and obviously that happened in the referendum in May of this year.
Women in the Assembly: “I went on to stand in the elections in June and was elected. I am one of 14 women out of 108 in the Assembly, which isn’t good but it’s better than what we had hoped for. We had hoped for 8 and we actually got 14 women. That’s made up of three SDLP, five Sinn Fein, one DUP, two UUP’s, two Women’s Coalition and one Alliance. We’ve come together as a group informally in the Assembly to support each other and also to talk about our commonalities that we have.
Women’s Political Forum: “I got involved in the Forum about 18 months or 2 years ago. I felt it was important at that time that women across all the parties should get together because as the leader of my party would say “we have more in common than we have to divide us as people” and we found that we did have and we found that the biggest learning process for us was about respect for each other and being able to take on board the differences without causing any kind of division or bitterness between us. Also an awful lot of understanding, especially for many of us who tried to understand what the marching season was all about and what it meant to other people.
“I think the two conferences that we’ve had on sectarianism have been again another learning process for us from the point of view of where we would have invited people from the community and who couldn’t believe that even four of us here tonight from different political backgrounds and perspectives could sit down at the one table and talk civilly to each other. That was the biggest thing to come out of any of the conferences that I’ve been to.
“I’m now as I said part of the Assembly and I feel that now it’s time that the grass-roots issues will be addressed and that we won’t be talking permanently about constitutions and all those kinds of things. I do believe that many of the people in the Assembly don’t realise the responsibility they’ve taken on and the hard line decisions that we’re going to have to make but here’s hoping that it’s going to work and I believe that it will work and it’s the only thing we have to look forward to in the future, especially for our young people.”
Chair (John Clancy): “If I may I’d like to put this question to Patricia as an Assembly member – as to how she sees things panning out in the Assembly over the next week or two with the stand-off between the Unionists and Sinn Fein in connection with decommissioning. I think some of us would be very grateful for a view and possibly an insider’s view on that.
Patricia Lewsley: “Well I do know that over the past couple of weeks I’ve been at gatherings like this, particularly women’s organisations that I’ve been to. I was in one centre … on Friday and women were saying “we voted “yes” in the referendum, we voted for these people to be elected into power, why can’t they just get on with it?” The problem is that the situation as you understand is still very fragile at this stage. I believe that the impasse will be got over. Don’t ask me how because if I knew how it would have been sorted out weeks ago! I do think that the will of the people and the voice of the people is being heard and I do believe that we will get over it. You see the people are saying “but the deadline was the 31st of October”, but it wasn’t a deadline, it was a target date. It’s the first target date that we haven’t kept to. [tape ends here]
Q6: Do you believe there will be decommissioning?
Patricia Lewsley: “I think there will be decommissioning but I don’t think that decommissioning should be a precondition. The problem is when that will come within the two years. But it’s in the Agreement, it’s written into the Agreement that it has to happen but whether it will happen tomorrow, next week or six months down the line, I think that it will happen. We see the LVF where they’re talking about decommissioning and the whole issue and I think this is where the General [de Chastelain] comes in and I think that this is his job and I think that he might have to bring out a report of some sort..
CHAIR: “Would anyone else care to comment on the decommissioning issue, Sarah would you have a view on that?”
Cllr. Sarah Duncan: “I have a gut feeling that there won’t be any decommissioning soon, not until the executive has been set up and the North/South bodies. Then when people see that that has happened and Sinn Fein have positions in the executive, then I think there will be decommissioning. The Alliance party feels as it says in the Good Friday Agreement that decommissioning is not linked to executive powers being set up. There is not one word in the Good Friday Agreement saying that, just that all Parties work towards decommissioning within the 2-year period. But nothing in the Good Friday Agreement says that the IRA, the UVF etc. must decommission before the executive is set up. I think it’s wrong to link the two things as the DUP and Unionists are doing at the moment. Of course I do see Unionist and DUP fears. I would be concerned by the fragmentation of the Unionist party, if the Unionists decided to get rid of Trimble and hard-liners took over, then I think the whole thing would fall apart.
“I can’t see the DUP sitting down and working with Sinn Fein. The whole thing is fraught with difficulties but certainly my party doesn’t link decommissioning with setting up the executive and doesn’t link letting out of prisoners with that either but I’m sure Joan would have something different to say.”
Joan Cruthers: “I would actually agree with Sarah on most of those issues and we do believe that decommissioning will happen but I don’t believe it’s going to happen right away. It’s going to take time to build up trust before there is going to be any arms handed over. It is the PUP’s policy to get rid of all illegal weapons from Northern Ireland and we hope to see it done. At the present we feel it’s far more important to make sure them weapons aren’t lifted up and used. …”
Lily Kerr: “Just before I deal with the decommissioning issue – I would share Patricia’s optimism that things aren’t going to fall apart up at the Assembly. We’re dealing with good old Northern Irish politics and we like a crisis every other week, we like our “Mexican stand-offs”. Someone will have to wean us off them. So in my view most of the parties that are up there even those like the DUP and the UK Unionists who say that this Agreement was terrible and everyone has been sold out are quite comfortable. Any time I go up to Stormont they all seem quite happy and have fitted in quite nicely so I don’t that there is going to be this big fall like Humpty Dumpty!
“The issue of decommissioning, while it’s not a prerequisite, while there are no organic links in the Agreement [between the executive and decommissioning] I think we would have to be honest and say there is an expectation on the part of the Irish people that guns will come out of politics. There is a genuine expectation. There is an expectation from people on both sides of the border who voted for the Agreement in the Referendum that the gun would be taken out of Irish politics once and for all. … There’s a lot of talk going on about how the paramilitaries are going to have to learn to trust each other before guns are handed over. There are over a million people who don’t have guns who can’t seem to be able to trust without guns being taken out of Irish politics, so in a sense it’s a chicken and an egg situation and we have to in all fairness look at David Trimble and the position he’s in. I mean he cannot at this moment in time set up the executive without some word or deed…. It has not been helped by statements saying the IRA will never decommission because they see it as surrender and I’d like not to dwell on it …but I was listening to “Talkback” the other day and I heard Eugene McEldowney from the Times talking and he said he had spoken to one senior republican who said “the arms are not ours to give over because we need to keep them for a future generation”. I wanted to stop the car and be sick because I thought my God what kind of a statement is that? Why would we want to hand on a legacy of weapons, a legacy of instruments to kill to anyone?
“The sooner the gun is out of politics the better. If we’re going to have a crisis – and people have said this to me on the street – I would much prefer it now than two years down the road when everything’s in place and there’s no decommissioning. Because whether we like it or not the Agreement says decommissioning within two years. We’re already nearly a year into that two year time span. So I think it’s not helpful. It can all be very easy to point fingers at the Unionists and say they are the people that’s holding this up. When we’re pointing fingers we’d better have plenty of them to point all around the place and apportion blame in that way. “
Q7: [Phil Cantwell, Ind. Councillor, Trim]: “I agree with Lily there. I had the opportunity to go into the House of Commons during the summer and watching the body language of David Trimble there’s no doubt about it, in my opinion it’s a testing ground for David Trimble… I think he’s very, very exposed … and certainly I believe that Trimble sees that this is his testing ground and he feels that the sharks are going to get him and that it’s more to do with that than decommissioning for the sake of decommissioning so I think I would be very fearful of that.
“Can I ask the women would they see the handing up of semtex or arms as a sign of surrender because that’s the big thing from the republican side down here…..The idea of handing up one bullet … The final thing I wanted to say to you is that in politics I have to say it’s great to see women because they have a much more practical approach. I see every night of the week in politics what goes on amongst men and it’s appalling. It took Mary McAleese to go out to Belgium recently and we felt so proud.”
Lily Kerr: “I think the important thing you’ve said is would we see the handing over of weapons as surrender. Absolutely not! There’s no room in politics for this old notion that if one gives something it has to be an absolute surrender. It’s time we got rid of that type of thinking. We would see it as a victory for common-sense, as a victory for decency but in the nicest possible way there’s absolutely no talk about surrender nor do I think it fair for the people who are asking for decommissioning seeing it in terms of surrender. This business of surrender to be perfectly honest, seems to be in the mind of some hard-liners amongst those groupings who are holding on to guns at the moment. The ordinary people on the streets do not see it as surrender.”
Cllr. Phil Cantwell: “Again, this has been put to me by republicans and various other people – there is no inventory of what arms are there….. What’s the issue, is it more important to keep talking rather than trying to hand up a few weapons which could bring down the talks?”
Lily Kerr: “I think the issue has to be, and I say this as a negotiator and one who makes my living negotiating. … Whether we like it or not or whether the republican movement likes it or not it is a part of the Good Friday Agreement that decommissioning will happen within two years. Now I agree with them when they say that the unionists can’t rewrite certain aspects of the Agreement. They can’t rewrite certain aspects of the Agreement either. I take the point, there is no inventory and you can nearly turn that argument back on them and say well why all the hassle about giving over something – you can hold something back if you want. It is more of a symbolic gesture. It is a gesture that people are waiting long to see – for once in Ireland we’re going to have politics in the normal way that we expect it to be without being done through the barrel of a gun. You mentioned semtex. Some of the arguments being used is that we need the guns for defensive purposes. I’ll never accept that but if I accept that twisted logic, how can semtex be considered as a defensive weapon? The people in Omagh would disagree with that.”
Patricia Lewsley: “I have to say that I look at it slightly differently from Lily in a way because I don’t see it as a surrender or a victory. I see it as part of the process. It’s been written into the Good Friday Agreement that decommissioning will happen in two years so therefore they signed up to the process so therefore they have to give it. I’ve said to Unionists you know we’re not being naive when we say we don’t know how much is out there so how will we ever know whether it’s fully decommissioned? Let’s be honest they could decommission today and recommision tomorrow. They will say to me but it’s the token gesture, it’s the confidence-building measure that people are assuming they’re serious about the whole process and if that’s all it takes is a wee bit of something to give from one side to the other, I don’t see it as a surrender or a victory for one side for either. I see it as a future for our younger generation. When you talk about women, there is only 14 of us out of 108 so it’s a start. The difference in women and men is that women don’t want to compete with each other, they want to co-operate because they can see the good of working together for everybody not for one side more than the other but for everybody. That’s why we need more women than men.”
Joan Cruthers: “I would agree. I wouldn’t look on it as a surrender. We want to see the arms taken out. It’s just a matter of time.”
Q8: “Just about decommissioning would it not be more important for semtex to be got rid of rather than the weapons?”
Patricia Lewsley: “Well it probably would be but I think at this stage anything handed in would be seen as some kind of a gesture. I mean we can’t say well if we’re talking about decommissioning we’ll just have the semtex, forget about the guns.
Questioner: “In terms of damage done recently, such as blowing up town centres or whatever the semtex has done more damage.”
Lily Kerr: “Could I come back on that and make the point that all weapons potentially do damage. There are a number of people, over 3,000 dead in Northern Ireland. They weren’t all killed by bombs, some of them were killed with guns. Young men and young women with their knees blown off don’t have them blown off with semtex. But I would take your point – if it’s about making a gesture in the first instance and I go back to the point that I made to Phil – if I use their weird logic that we need these weapons to defend themselves then they should make a gesture with semtex… But I don’t think we can give anyone the luxury of saying there are certain arms that are instruments of death that we find less offensive so you can hang on to them. The whole kit and kaboodle should go if and when.”
Questioner: “Because they are illegal weapons I agree. There are guns that are held legally too.”
Q9: “That’s a very good point. Is it not that the IRA are the ones that are not decommissioning. I think that if they did the others would decommission too. I think they’re trying to bargain away illegally held guns. … Is it not connected to the Patten Commission and that they want the RUC disarmed as a bargain for decommissioning and I think that’s the fundamental problem that’s stopping it. What do you think of that?”
Patricia Lewsley: “The problem for me is decommissioning. At the end of the day we can get into the detail of it, we can get into the nitty gritty of it and we can go around in circles for the next six months and you’re still not going to be any further down the road. The bottom line is that decommissioning is part of the process in the Good Friday Agreement and until we get to the end of the two years nobody’s going to know how much is ever going to be decommissioned. I’m just sorry that everywhere I go this is the topic because there’s more to it than decommissioning. The biggest priority for the 108 people that are in the Assembly at this given moment is that as long as they’re talking, as long as they’re negotiating, as long as they’re even arguing, there is fewer people being killed on the streets.”
Lily Kerr: “I think that’s a very valid point but while there’s talk of decommissioning – I think we can very easily lose the point that if Trimble is backed into a corner. It’s not about Trimble and his own personal decision. If we don’t have the Ulster Unionists in the Assembly, we don’t have an Assembly. We can forget any notions that we can operate without the Ulster Unionist party – we can’t. We need them there and we need the likes of Trimble who has shown courage .. and sometimes even going against his own people. We need to recognise that and we need to give him the bit of space.
“I take the point Patricia made. There’s no deadlines being broken and all this talk about deadlines being broken and we have to review the Agreement and review the implementation etc. etc. is just about hyping up the issue. There has been one target date missed as Patricia said. There’ll be other target dates missed and the sky won’t fall in!”
Chair: “Could we just move the dialogue on at this stage and ask the question: In the discussion about the portfolios, in relation to the ministries that will be, have they been agreed at this stage?”
Patricia Lewsley: “No. We haven’t even agreed on the number. The maximum number we can have is ten. At present there are six departments. There’s talk of the DUP splitting into two so there could be seven departments. We as a party would be going for ten and that’s the maximum we can have and it still hasn’t been sorted.”
Chair: “What apportionment would the ten give to the parties?”
Patricia Lewsley: “It goes on the D’Hondt system. For anybody who doesn’t know what the D’Hondt system is – it starts with the largest party and then works its way down. It would work out like this – if we had ten departments there would be three ministers for the UUP, three ministers for the SDLP, two ministers for the DUP and two for Sinn Fein. There would be none for the smaller parties.”
Chair: “There is in fact another scenario of the six portfolios only, which would mean that Sinn Fein, as I would understand it and the DUP… wouldthey get one each is it or what would the apportionment be?”
Patricia Lewsley: “They would get one each and the bigger parties would get two each.”
Chairman: “Is that linked to the decommissioning debate in any way?”
Patricia: “I don’t think so. At the end of the day it’s irrelevant whether there is two Sinn Fein or one Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein would still be at the table.”
Lily Kerr: “There seems to be talk that it’s linked to expenditure and all these arguments going on. Let’s be honest about it, the more ministries you create the more money it takes to run them and the Unionists seem to be saying at the minute that six is sufficient and I take Patricia’s point that it is not another engineered effort of keeping Sinn Fein out. They’re in there whether there’s one of them or two of them. It’s nice if we want to be really optimistic about this, and I know my good friend Patricia will take this the right way, there is a bit of normality about it – they’re already fighting over the spoils.
Q10: “When the country voted in favour of this why do we have to have obstacles like decommissioning? After all the people said to go ahead with the Assembly. Could we not bypass that and sort of accept the fact that we have to go ahead with legislation and get on with the talking?”
Lily Kerr: “There is one slight flaw in that the Ulster Unionists and other parties are saying that we’re not going to bypass that and part of the problem is that we’ve one group of people who are paying a lot of attention to it and another group who are pretending that the decommissioning issue does not exist. It’s hard to re-square those circles but I think they will be squared. I seriously do think they will be squared. Remember what I told you earlier on about good old Northern Irish politics; we like to go toe to toe. The problem is – just watch our history – the more we pin ourselves into a corner, the bigger capacity we have for getting out again. There’s 108 Houdinis up in Stormont !”
Q11 [Julitta Clancy]: “Will we always have to be running to the Americans?
Lily Kerr: “I would hope not.”
Patricia Lewsley: “I don’t think we really run to the Americans. I think if we underestimated the type of help or assistance that President Clinton gave to Northern Ireland we would be very unfair. Even the Southern government with Bertie Ahern and the previous Taoiseach, I think the whole point was that everybody… and I mean Northern Ireland’s on the map around the world, it’s not just kept to itself and everybody wants to see peace there and everybody wants to see a future for the younger generation and I think that if anybody from outside can help in any way we shouldn’t stop them.”
[Member of audience]: “Seamus Mallon said a day or two ago that the time with one side looking over their shoulder to the South of Ireland and the other side looking over their shoulder to the British was over… They should look to each other and that is the answer. First and foremost.”
Julitta Clancy: “Can I just clarify what I meant? … I value very much what the Americans have done for us particularly what George Mitchell did but I’m saying that we now have an Agreement. How on earth are we going to work things out on this island together if parties are forever calling in the US? I’m just wondering that if a crisis arises, are we always going to run to the Americans.. and I sense that President Clinton is also saying this to us that “you can’t go running to us”. We’ve got to sort this out ourselves and talk it out and the difficulty is, I feel myself as a person who signed up to that Agreement and campaigned for it that our views are being ignored by a lot of people. When I signed up to it I remember saying to people that decommissioning would be part of it and to me it was never a red herring because it was coming up all the time.. It isn’t surrender, it’s just taking the normal route that you have to take in democratic politics to get rid of those weapons and it’s part of the Agreement. I can’t see how that executive can ever work if this hurdle isn’t got over now. “
Patricia Lewsley: “Well I think that part of the problem always is that when you’re starting something, especially something as fragile like this as a peace process, and there was so much that really went into the Agreement that there were probably details that were missed, maybe one of these details was a start date rather than a finish date for decommissioning. Again it’s all part of the process of how we get through it and I agree with you and obviously with what Seamus Mallon says that at the end of the day that we have to sort this out ourselves, nobody else. I don’t believe that the people outside are actually sorting it our for us, they’re giving us a helping hand. They’re not coming in saying you have to do this and you have to do that. But they are there as a means of support of some kind. It will only be the people in Northern Ireland who can sort it out, nobody else. With regards to decommissioning there are details and there will probably be something else further down the road that a detail has been missed on and it depends on how it’s got through to get us through for the future.”
Q. 13: [Re the role of the Women’s Forum in helping to promote possibly the various formations of the entities within the Assembly including the North/South bodies]. “Do you see the Forum as having a role in that regard?”
Lily Kerr: “We actually are unique in the Forum .. we created a bit of history by the way and the media did not pick it up, the media ignored us. We as a Women’s Political Forum had a joint press conference and a joint canvass on the “Yes” campaign. We called for a “Yes” on all of the issues within the Good Friday Agreement, the North/South borders etc. because we know with working with groups like the Meath Peace Group, with working with the Women’s Political Association in the South we learnt that there are non-threatening ways of working with each other. There’s good sensible ways as well in the North/South bodies. I don’t believe by the way that the North/South bodies are a really big bugbear to many people, other than the Jeffrey Donaldsons and the Bob McCartneys and Ian Paisleys. If there wasn’t that to give out about it would be something else they’d be complaining about. Once they start complaining you know you’re on the right track, you know you’re going the right way.”
Patricia Lewsley: “I would see the Women’s Political Forum as one route to including everybody and the North/South bodies are as important to us in the North as they are to the Women’s Political Association or anybody else in the South. I personally believe that part of the remit of the Women’s Political Forum is to educate and inform women of the whole political arena and of the whole political agenda as much as possible. I know we as a party particularly in March of next year are having a joint conference with our sister parties, the British Labour Party and the Irish Labour Party. The topic of that conference will be the Council of the Isles, the North/South bodies, the European dimension and young women within the parties and what impact that will have on women and how women can input into those bodies so that they can be part of the decision making and so it is a topic for everybody. As I said the North/South bodies are as important to us as to the south, women or otherwise. I can only go back to saying about the lack of women within politics and mainstream politics particularly and the reasons for that over the years. I mean it wasn’t very safe or sexy to be in politics five or six years ago when I joined first, I can assure you. “
Q14: “This question is particularly to Sarah as coming from Castlereagh and the population of Castlereagh is about 5% Catholic; in terms of that figure, as a woman and as a mother possibly – I’m not too sure of her status – how does she see the future and the integration of the children in that area into a truly inclusive society that will actually go forward and without the prejudice which she feels are already in groups of children as young as pre-school children. It’s very difficult within an area like that and I know there’s very little cross community education in that area as well. Is there anything happening in that area?
Cllr. Sarah Duncan: “It’s actually 10% Catholic, believe it or not and 90% of the other, well I would say 70% of the other persuasion, there must be 20% like myself of no particular persuasion. There is a lot of cross community work. All primary schools do Education for Mutual Understanding [EMU] – each primary school within Castlereagh would be linked, not necessarily with another Castlereagh primary school but in other words state primary schools are linked with Catholic primary schools. Under EMU and community relations in schools they meet from about P4 or P5 upwards. All schools do, my school does. They would meet children from other schools, they would visit other schools, they would go to the zoo together and they would go on outings together. Not particularly in Castlereagh now but in the school which I teach they would have been linked in with programmes where they went… one Catholic child went to America with families. There’s a lot of work done in primary schools and in secondary schools with understanding people from different persuasions.
“Also in Castlereagh there’s an integrated school called Lagan College. I was at it last Wednesday with another member of my Party and it’s 50:50 obviously and the staff are 50:50. It’s growing all the time and there’s a primary school linked with it as well which is expanding all the time. It keeps having to get more and more mobile classrooms so I think that that’s a very healthy state of things. All the schools within the Castlereagh area would link up with other schools. There would be a lot of mixing among children and being where I actually live, and the area that I represent is a very middle-class to upper middle-class area and so the housing is mixed and people get on very well, being where it is. There are other areas of Castlereagh … which would be totally not-mixed housing estates. There’s a large housing estate near where I live which would have perhaps 20% Catholics in it, 80% Protestant but a lot of other housing estates would be completely Protestant and always would have been, a safety point of view I expect. Even Castlereagh Council is not that sectarian in it’s own way. When our mayor switches on the lights in each of the four electrical areas of Castlereagh, there will be children from State schools and children from Catholic schools singing carols together. I think there’s a lot of hope … the actual residents of Castlereagh are not any more sectarian than any where else in Northern Ireland, but it’s not easy within Castlereagh Council if you’re in a non-sectarian party as I am and being opposition, it’s not easy to survive the sarcasm… I’ve had to learn too keep my mouth shut and to look at Peter Robinson as a woman and – this is my feminine psychology on him – and I found it worked, only don’t tell him that!”
Q15. [Paschal Kearney, Ardbraccan]: “Just talking about the media and how the media’s role in all of this is so crucial and yet Lily you said that some time ago you had a very important meeting of the Forum, a press conference which they didn’t turn up to. I think because Ian Paisley was down at the City Hall. How do you deal with it? How do you deal with the media?”
Lily: “On that particular occasion I was down here on that day and I came in to talk to those poor students of yours [in Navan] and I was white with rage – the whole way from Belfast to here… Patricia and company in my absence picketed the BBC and UTV and we got press coverage on the picket – we got press coverage for the negative thing we did and did not get press coverage for creating that bit of history. We have a problem dealing with the media because by and large they marginalise us, they ignore us. If they’re carrying anthing to do with women in politics they will usually carry it with the Women’s Coalition and leave it at that. They ignore by and large all of the good work we do so it is extremely, extremely difficult. But we’re not going to be beat by it.”
Patricia Lewsley: “Just to agree with what Lily has said. On that day we decided that enough was enough and we had to make a stand and we stood outside UTV and they sent out one of the women out, they didn’t send one of the men out, and we gave a letter of complaint in. I got a phone-call back as I was the Press officer for the Forum and he told me if I wanted a profile to start my own party first and that was the gist of it. The seven women who were on that table that morning weren’t just ordinary members of parties, they were quite high up, they were chairs and vice-chairs of the parties and women who had sat at the talks tables and councillors and different types of people. The media is a problem in the first place. I mean we were “Yes” women, we weren’t “No” men and that’s probably why we didn’t get coverage. “
Lily Kerr: “The interesting thing about the line-up of the press conference…it was amazing as it galvanised us…there was actually the Worker’s party, the SDLP, the PUP, the Alliance party, the UDP, the Women’s coalition and the Ulster Unionist party. There was not only a cross section – we crossed the sectarian divide, the political divide, we came from all classes and all cultures and it was nearly standing up with one voice. There would even have been people, dare I say it, who would have been considered from the “blue rinse brigade” and the one common cry was “this is happening to us because we’re women and we ain’t going to stand for it”. It was marvellous that reaction that those women, all from different backgrounds and different political parties realised at that single instance that this is because we’re women and we’re having no more of it. They did us a favour in a sense.”
Sarah Duncan: “I just wanted to say that the press don’t just ignore the Women’s Political Forum – they ignore all the women in politics in Northern Ireland with the exception of the new, sexy Women’s Coalition… We would all feel – people who have been involved in politics over 25 years – our contributions have been ignored – in my party and the SDLP and the Unionists, the PUP and all the other political parties. Press don’t want to know that there are women in those parties beavering away. Mo Mowlam herself imagines that the only women in politics in Northern Ireland are Monica McWilliams and Jane Morris. It’s very hard for the other women in Stormont to have an acknowledgement at all. Within my party, 50% of the executive of the Alliance Party are women but even within my own party… the men ignore the contribution of women. So I’d like all you men in this audience to talk up the contribution of women in politics in Northern Ireland and women in community groups in Northern Ireland and women who have kept Northern Ireland together really, it certainly wasn’t the men.”
Joan Cruthers: “Just an example of what was written in one of our local papers the Sunday Life, this Sunday. The DUP had their conference on Saturday and the Women’s Coalition had their conference as well. The whole page was taken up with Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Junior, Peter Robinson. – the whole page – and right down at the very bottom – I just took this as an insult to women regardless of being the Women’s Coalition – “there was a 10-line paragraph of the Women’s Coalition, and that 10-line paragraph spoke more sense than what the whole page said on the DUP had said at their conference and that is just a prime example of what women in Northern Ireland face.”
Q15. [Cllr. Phil Cantwell]: “.. Let me assure the women that it’s not just in Northern Ireland that this happens. I see it in the council and where are the media tonight? It isn’t an issue to come out to a peace meeting but if there was a fight here they would be here tomorrow morning…”
Rev. John Clarke (C of I Rector, Navan): “… I think it’s the fact that you’re made up of different political parties. It’s like as if we had Methodist Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland people at an ecumenical gathering. It wouldn’t quite get the press coverage. …If there was a particular problem or otherwise within a particular denomination it’s highlighted by the media and I’m afraid it’s something we’ve got to live with. But really when you get a conglomeration of people together, I’m not suggesting that you’re not at the coal front you are as individuals and within your own parties and working together as women and so on, it’s those that are at the coal face are getting the media coverage at the moment.”
Patricia Lewsley: “I just have to say that I know that the day my own party launched the “Yes” for the referendum, our own campaign…. one of the journalists asked “Why did all the parties who were for the Yes vote not come together to campaign for the Yes referendum?” We did that as women and nobody took any heed of us.”
Lily Kerr: “That’s actually the point – because it was women that whole contribution was undermined because someone in the media deemed it wasn’t important – it was important.”
Rev. Clarke: “There must be women involved in the media and surely there must be an inroad there, who’d like to cover what you’re doing.”
Lily Kerr: “You’ll get women in the media but – the women in the media will tell you this – it’s always someone else in the production team or elsewhere who decides what’s going to get covered.”
Patricia Lewsley: “I also have to say in defence of one journalist called Julie O’Connor who writes for the Mirror – she was the only one who came that day and she actually had been with us a couple of days before and gave us a piece in the Mirror and she followed it up then the next day with the bad response that we had, but it was only one woman.”
Lily Kerr: “To be fair to the Irish Times they ran the story the day beforehand complete with photograph, they were the only two but the Northern Ireland press ignored us.”
Julitta Clancy: “…Even though it is a reality it’s an extremely important issue – the media and their treatment. We need to educate them – how can we do that – in this Peace process. Take our experience – we only learnt about Northern Ireland .. from the press and all we got in the press, until we started going up to Northern Ireland and talking to people, was the negative … We never heard anything about the tremendous work that was going on….”
Patricia Lewsley: “I think it goes back to our culture because for years the media covered the Troubles and what was happening. Now that we’re going forward to a peaceful process they will have to deal with all the other issues because they will be the things that make the news…. It’s a bit like somebody said over here a while ago the press will always, always fight each other for something that is negative and contentious. They won’t come out as quickly with something that unites us and is good. Hopefully the future will hold more of that and so therefore they will have to print it.”
John Clancy (CHAIR): “Thank you very much. With that last contribution we will draw tonight’s more formal session to a close…. May I say thanks to Patricia Lewsley, Lily Kerr, Councillor Sarah Duncan and Joan Cruthers for coming down. I think at our last talk in October a lot of people were depressed with what we perceived as an entrenched attitude between the various participants on the Drumcree issue… Mind you they were nearly all men who talked if I remember correctly. Isn’t it amazing when we sit down here and we have a very broad-spectrum of political opinion in Northern Ireland and are able to sit down and agree that they’ve more to agree on than disagree. It’s women that are putting this forward, the common sense attitude and down-to-earth. I think there’s great hope and I think we’ve been very reassured I have to say by tonight in terms of what each of the speakers have said that there is great hope in Northern Ireland…. There’s great hope there and I think we’ve all seen it tonight and let’s pray that this hope is nurtured and developed and knocks some sense into people in Northern Ireland and also down here as well. … Thank you all very much”
Meath Peace Group Report. January 1999. (c) Meath Peace Group
Compiled by Sarah Clancy from video tapes taken by Anne Nolan; edited by Julitta Clancy
Meath Peace Group – contact names: John and Julitta Clancy, Parsonstown, Batterstown, Co. Meath; Anne Nolan, Gernonstown, Slane, Co. Meath; Pauline Ryan, Woodlands, Navan, Co. Meath; Philomena Boylan-Stewart, Longwood, Co. Meath; Paschal Kearney, Michael Kane, An Tobar, Ardbraccan, Navan, Co. Meath
29. “The Good Friday Agreement”
Tuesday, 5th May, 1998
St. Joseph’s (Convent of Mercy) Secondary School, Navan, Co. Meath
(Held in Association with Transition Year Class, St. Joseph’s)
Noel Dempsey, TD (Fianna Fail, Meath;Minister for the Environment
Nora Owen, TD (Fine Gael, Dublin; former Minister for Justice)
Cllr. Brian Fitzgerald (Labour Party, Meath)
Cllr. John Fee (SDLP, Newry and Mourne District Council)
Lily Kerr (Workers’ Party, Belfast)
Mary Montague(Corrymeela Community)
Chaired by Paul Murphy (Editor, Drogheda Independent)
Introduction: Paul Murphy
Addresses of speakers
Questions and Comments
Chair (Paul Murphy): “ I would just like to thank the Meath Peace Group for asking me to chair this meeting. I have known of course for quite some time of the Meath Peace Group and I have admired them from afar and this is an opportunity to get together and share some ideas. I have a few introductory remarks and I hope you will bear with me:
“…. Since the summer of ‘92 the Irish and British governments and the various parties in the North have embarked on a political talks process. It’s a process which tries to understand the other’s point of view. The only thing wrong is not that our relations have improved but that it took so long. For most of the time most of the people on these islands behave in a perfectly normal manner towards each other. We share the same culture, we share some of the history, we share a geography and we have similar institutions and similar ways of doing things. The antipathy in the Republic towards things British has undoubtedly eased in recent years even if it has not dissipated yet. Also, as was demonstrated very powerfully in the weeks following the Warrington bombings, the great mass of our people share a desire to bring about an end to terrorism and a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
“There was no quick fix to the problem in Northern Ireland. If there was a solution it would have been acknowledged or discovered a long time ago. There is no magic wand. The principle behind the Anglo-Irish Agreement is democratic consent. Of course I know it is often maintained that Northern Ireland is an undemocratic entity athat the normal rules don’t apply. But the similar answer is that consent is more than just a necessity. It’s a practical one too. This incidentally is why terrorism is pointless as well as morally wrong. Terrorism itself will not persuade a million or so unionists or half a million nationalists to change their beliefs. Nor will it persuade British governments or Irish governments to abandon their polices or principles.
“In 1993, the then British Ambassador to Ireland, Mr. David Blatherwick, visited Drogheda. He said that as the authority responsible for Northern Ireland, “the British government had to ensure effective government there. In doing so, they sought to ensure that they operated an administration which recognised the special nature of society in Northern Ireland and which was guided by the imperative to provide fair, equitable and effective government for all.” Mr. Blatherwick ended with these words: “Our chief goal is the resolution of the tragic situation in Northern Ireland itself. Its people have suffered too much and too long. But there’s a wider issue that needs addressing – the “putting to bed” of the “ancient quarrel” as it’s called within these islands. The tragedies and complexities of Northern Ireland represent the final tangle in a long, shared history. The final tangle is always the hardest to undo.”
“I just wanted to repeat those words to you to remind us that we’re a long way down the road and that’s what we’re here to discuss tonight.
ADDRESSES OF SPEAKERS
1. Noel Dempsey, TD (Minister for the Environment)
“I would like to thank the Meath Peace Group for organising this talk – they have been to the fore in trying to bring about peace and reconciliation and have played a great role in Meath over the past few years.
Historic opportunity: “Speaking for the government, I have to say that the Irish Government believes that this Agreement offers a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning, for relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between Britain and Ireland.
“The Agreement itself is the culmination of two years of very intense negotiations, but in a wider sense it is the product of over two decades of closer partnership between the two governments. It was built on and drew upon the previous attempts that were made to forge some kind of settlement.
“In many ways the document agreed on Good Friday at Castle Buildings represents an accumulation of the wisdom and work of a generation of politics and politicians on the island. I believe that its value is all the greater and all the deeper for that. While great credit is due to all those who took part in the latter stages of those negotiations, it is also very important, as a member of Government, that we pay tribute to all those who were previously involved.
“We believe that the Agreement is fair, balanced and very comprehensive. Each party to the negotiations will undoubtedly find aspects to its particular liking and equally each will have difficulties with some part or other of it.
“Somebody said before the Agreement was reached that if any party walked away from the talks 100% satisfied with the Agreement, then the Agreement would be a failure – it would mean that somebody got everything they felt was necessary, and maintained their own position.
“If you want a very negative view of the Agreement – nobody was satisfied with it in the sense that nobody felt they had got their own way entirely.
Balance: “There is a balance there, and I think it is important when we’re discussing the Agreement that we should recognise that there had to be that balance – there had to be give and take on all sides.
Risks for peace: “The Agreement itself envisages a future that’s based on the acceptance of diversity and on the principles of mutual respect, equality and partnership. In the interests of peace and reconciliation all sides were required and are required to move from traditionally absolutist positions. We’ve all been asked to take our own risks for peace and make our own compromises in the interests of the Agreement as a whole. That’s what the people North and South are being asked to do on the 22nd May when they vote on the Agreement. The Government believes that in asking others to take such risks and make such compromises that we have to be prepared as well and be willing to do the same ourselves.
Principle of consent: “If I could turn briefly to the constitutional issue – in that section of the Agreement a new accommodation has been forged regarding the special position of Northern Ireland that’s based on the principle of consent. The centre of gravity as far as we’re concerned – of the whole issue of sovereignty and self-determination – has been shifted back to the people of Ireland. For the first time a precise mechanism has been defined and accepted by the British Government by which a united Ireland can be put in place or a continuation of the current situation can be maintained. The principle of consent is there and that principle of consent is to be exercised by the people
Constitutional change – modernisation of basic principles: “The British and Irish governments have committed themselves to incorporating this new approach into their respective constitutional frameworks. The specific changes to the Irish Constitution – to be put to the people for their consideration on 22nd May – represent a modernisation of our basic principles, not a rejection of them
Equality: “In terms of the new institutions being established, the whole focus is on partnership that is based on equality. There will be no going back to the days of domination by one community over the other. Currently the nationalist community in Northern Ireland are in a minority and we should be striving for a situation now where those that are in a minority should feel that they are equal to the majority. Equally, when and if changes take place, demographic or otherwise, that the minority community in the future will feel equally part of the community and feel equal citizens. That’s what we had to achieve in this Agreement, and I believe the Agreement will do that.
The focus on a new partnership is also at the heart of the agreed North-South arrangements and structures. The central importance of the equality agendais recognised in the Agreement – there’s a major section in the Agreement on human rights protection, social, economic and cultural issues, including the Irish language. There are measures to deal with consequences of the conflict, in particular in regard to the sensitive issues of prisoners and policingThere are major new initiatives in the crucial area of policing and the administration of justice.
Change: “If I could sum up the Agreement I would say the Agreement is about change – the whole theme about the need for change and a new beginning runs throughout the document. It was clear, I think, to all the participants in the negotiations that we just couldn’t go on as we had, and that change had to occur. It is true, obviously, as well, that different people had very different views about the kind of change that was necessary, but nobody disputed the fact that change was needed. We believe that in reaching this particular Agreement, the negotiators have set in motion the process of change which will be to the benefit of both communities and to the island as a whole, and to the relationships between east and west.
“Obviously over the next number of weeks it is up to the various parties to put their views across in relation to the referendum and to try and get a yes vote in both parts of the island. I think it would be a very foolish person to imagine that if a yes vote is secured on both sides of the border that the work is finished – at that stage the work is only beginning… Thank you”
2. Nora Owen, TD (Fine Gael; Minister for Justice during Coalition Government, 1994-1997)
“I would like to thank the Meath Peace Group for calling this meeting together. I hope that throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland many such meetings will be held between now and the 22nd May, so that people can put life into this document. It’s being dropped into every household – but it is really only through this kind of interchange and discussion that some of the issues you need to question can be addressed – and believe me, there are people, perhaps in this room tonight, who are concerned about some elements of this Agreement, and what I and the Minister and others have to do between now and the 22nd May is to convince people that this Agreement has balance in it, an Agreement that will work for all the people on this island.
Maturity: “I was struck when we went to debate the Agreement in Dail Eireann that the reception the Taoiseach got was very very different from the reception that Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith and the other signatories of the Treaty in 1921 got . I looked at the Dail Debates again. There was much heckling, much bitterness, much acrimony across the floor of the Dail when Michael Collins was explaining why he felt it was necessary to sign the Treaty. Bertie Ahern, thankfully, did not have to put up with that kind of acrimony from across the House, and in fact, by the time the lead speakers had spoken and by the time the rest of us got into speak there were very few people left in the Chamber and no media at all left. Now I’m not making that as a critical point. I’m just saying that it is an indication of the maturity, perhaps, of our democracy that all the parties in Dail Eireann were able to come together and support the Agreement as signed by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and by Tony Blair and by the people involved in the talks. I think all of us should be grateful to all of us as citizens of this island that we had reached that maturity, that we were not tearing each other apart and creating acrimony and dissension in the Dail.
“So if you didn’t hear what some of us said in the Dail, it’s not because we didn’t make a comment – it’s because by that time the main speakers had spoken and the media had enough lines to quote rather than stay in the Dail.
Triumph of people power: “I believe this Good Friday Agreement is a triumph of people power over violence – not just the people who were there at the end when the Agreement was signed, but all the people North and South, who over the last number of years came out and declared both publicly and privately that they were fed up, sick to the teeth, of the kind of violence that had been part of their community in Northern Ireland.
“The did that in a number of ways – they did it when the ceasefires came in 1994, they did it in their manifestation of anger when the ceasefire was broken at Canary Wharf in 1996, and when the new ceasefire was declared in July of 1997, there was a fairly muted acceptance of that ceasefire for fear that it would go the way the previous ceasefire had gone. But none the less people clearly spoke to their politicians, whether publicly or privately, and let them know in no uncertain terms that they weren’t going to put up with the return of the bomb and the bullet and the intimidation and the kind of life that many of them had to lead.
“It’s easy for us in the South to forget what life was like in the North – what became the norm for people in Northern Ireland. Parents couldn’t let their teenage children go on the bus into the city, go to the cinema, go to McDonald’s or wherever they wanted to go. That was not the norm in Northern Ireland for many many years ….. The norm now is becoming as we have enjoyed it down here – that people can let their teenage children out without worrying whether they have got caught up in a bomb somewhere in the city centre. They can let their teenage children out without worrying that perhaps they might be seduced into joining a paramilitary organisation, and they can let their children out without worrying that if they stay out overnight that they will be home the next day. That now is becoming the norm and the people of Northern Ireland made it clear to their politicians, both unionist and nationalist, that that is what they wanted.
Talks: “So when on June 10th , I and others went to Northern Ireland to start the talks which eventually led to this Agreement, although there was still disagreement, a lot of disagreement around that table, there was a sense that people did want to reach some accommodation.We had a lot of difficulty at the beginning of those talks to get the unionists to accept Senator George Mitchell – but they did accept Senator Mitchell, and I felt that once the chairmanship of the talks had been accepted by the unionists, we were on the road, even if it was going to take the two and a half years that it did take.
“But remember, when you look at the history of Ireland,and remember that for 700 plus years we were under the yoke of the British (and I see at least one representative of the British Government here) – what’s two years between friends? It’s not that long really. I think we have to recognise that, with the frustration we all felt with the delays and the fact that sometimes it looked like the talks were going to break up, in the moment of history, in that little grain of sand for the last couple of years that makes up the history of these years, it was a very very small moment in history for us to have reached this momentous and historic Agreement on Good Friday of this year.
Need for overwhelming vote: “So all of us as citizens of this island must all take credit that you and us together urged each other on, we were not going to allow things to return to the way they were. That I think is the great success of this Agreement. And that is why I think that despite some reservations people will have about Articles 2 and 3, I believe people will overwhelmingly vote for this Agreement on May 22nd. And I hope they will overwhelmingly vote for it in Northern Ireland too.
“I can only make that appeal to anybody here in this audience tonight from Northern Ireland – that they will do what they can to make sure it is voted for by both communitiesin Northern Ireland. I don’t think it’s enough for a very strong nationalist vote – I think we need a strong unionist vote as well for this Agreement. Because if we don’t have that, the fear and the danger is that perhaps there will be a slipping back into the old ways and the old language.
Change in attitude: “What we are aiming for now with the passage of this Agreement is for a change in attitude – a change in people’s attitude to each other. The Agreement recognises that there are differences, recognises the aspirations of both the nationalists and the unionists, and nobody has to give up those aspirations, nobody has to relinquish them, on one side or the other. This was not a winners’ and losers’ agreement – this was a balanced agreement.
“But we have to hope that peoples’ attitudes will change and that they will say “OK, fair enough, that’s what you think, that’s what you like – well, sorry I would like to remain part of the United Kingdom, but let’s get on with it and let’s see what we can do to make, here and now, Northern Ireland a better place to live, let’s make our housing policy more unified, let’s make our schooling and education policy more unified”. We don’t have to keep on arguing that you’re a unionist and I’m a nationalist – we both have children, they need education – let’s see how best we can deliver the education.
Normal politics: “That’s why the north-south bodies have been built into this Agreement, and I hope that when those bodies are set up, we will see some normal politicscoming into Northern Ireland. The Anglo-Irish Conference has been in place, and I’ve sat many times at Anglo-Irish Conferences and saw how we generally concentrated on things political really until the last couple of years. I remember distinctly at one of those Anglo-Irish Conferences raising the issue of the fight against drugs, and after that meeting we all said “thanks be to God – we had an Anglo-Irish Conference where we actually talked about something that unifies us, rather than the differences between us.” Because people in the North were just as concerned about the growth in the use of drugs and drug-trafficking among their communities as we were here in the South. And so some normality came into our cooperation with Northern Ireland and the Ministers and officials there.
“So that’s what I hope we will see over the next few months when we have the Assembly elections, and then we have the Assembly in place, and the North-South institutions, and the East-West institutions made up of the British and Irish Governments. Where we can talk about environment policy, tourism policy, agricultural policy. That’s what this Agreement is actually all about – bringing that kind of normality into our politics.
Making history: “History is what we make it ourselves… You’re making history – this referendum will be talked about in twenty, thirty and forty years from now, in the same way that we talk about the Treaty in 1921. People will be asking “I wonder what people were like then – I wonder why they voted so overwhelmingly for this Agreement”, and I hope they will be saying that and I hope they will be saying “thank God they voted for that Agreement”. All of us together are now making history – and it’s sometimes easy to forget that. We think this is just something we are being asked to do. It’s not something we’re just being asked to do – it’s something that is crucial for us all to do together.
Treaty of substance: “Sean Mac Eoin said, in the 1921 Debates on the Treaty, that they brought back a “treaty of substance”, not a “treaty of shadows”. Well this treaty of Good Friday is a treaty of substance, not a treaty of shadows – a treaty which we must all read carefully . But it is a treaty of substance – it is real and will make a difference to all our lives. Who would have thought five years ago, even three years ago, even two years ago that the unionists would have sat down with Sinn Fein at any table? I saw the antipathy between the unionists and the SDLP (and the SDLP weren’t involved in any way with a party involved in violence), but now they are sitting down, or did sit down with Sinn Fein at the table.
Articles 2 and 3: “Who would have thought five years ago, with no disrespect to the Minister here, that Fianna Fail would be advocating a change in Articles 2 and 3? That has happened. Who would have thought that some members of Fine Gael and other parties would be advocating a change in Articles 2 and 3, because we all felt Articles 2 and 3 were precious to us and they shouldn’t be changed. But the language and the changes that are being advocated here are brilliant in their terminology and brilliant in the way they have recognised both aspirations and the reality of what Ireland is today, and what Articles 2 and 3 should really be today. They’re talking about the right of Irish people to decide which part of the territory they want to belong to and it’s also recognising what Mary Robinson talked about, the diaspora of Irish people who have gone abroad.
North-south bodies: “Who would have thought we would be talking of north-south bodies, with ministers of both governments, North and South, actually having the power to make laws and regulations that would have an effect north and south of the border? I certainly wasn’t thinking like that three or four years ago myself – I never thought we would see the day when we would actually be sitting down and doing things like that.
Sensitive issues: “What we are asking people to do is: read the agreement, to realise that peace does not belong to one community as opposed to the other. To realise that issues like and the decommissioning of armsare still issues that have to be handled sensitively, that are going to cause ups and downs in the Agreement and in the new Assembly as it goes along.
Prisoners: “There’s no simple answer to the release of prisoners – some people will think it’s absolutely essential, others will think it’s a disgrace. There’s a balance somewhere in the middle – some prisoners will have to be released.
Victims: “… If the Agreement is a bit weak and light on something – it is on the issue of victims. And I know there are some young men here who I would call victims of what has been going on in Northern Ireland for 25 or 30 years. There are some young men and women living in Northern Ireland who have never known anything except strife and division and anger and bombs. The only way they have known in their community to get what they want is to join in that kind of anger and strife. Those people need attention, they need help now to make the fundamental change to their own attitudes to their neighbours in Northern Ireland. I hope the sections in the Agreement about victims and about cross-community endeavours – I hope they’re not just pious aspirations. I genuinely hope that the government in Northern Ireland, the new Assembly, will make a difference in those two areas – without that we will not actually see full reconciliation. There is unfinished business – there are people like the IRA and Sinn Fein who will have to tell people where their dead relatives are buried – so that they can be given the dignity of a burial and people can get on with their lives
Encouraging people to vote: “There is still some unfinished business, but I think together, all of us, we can make a difference. But you here tonight do have a responsibility to ring up your friends and tell them they have to go out and vote – it isn’t enough to say “ah sure someone else will vote”. Each person in this room has to stimulate at least another five people who might not otherwise go out and vote – you’re the actual converted because you’re here at this meeting tonight. It’s not enough to feel “I’ve done my bit, I’ve read the Agreement and I’ll go out to vote.” You have to get some more people to vote – and I give that message to people here from both the North and the South. Thank you very much.”
3. Lily Kerr (Belfast trade unionist; member of Ard Chomhairle of the Workers Party):
“Thank you chairman Can I once again thank the Meath Peace Group – as usual they have always got their finger on the button. These meetings are important – it’s important that people come together to discuss these things.
“Although my party was not in the talks, I would have to add my thanks to all of the politicians and my congratulations to all the parties that were in the talks, and all the politicians that were there beforehand.
Agreement: “I think actually what amazed me and a lot of people was that there was an agreement, never mind the contents of what was in the Agreement, but the very fact that eventually an Agreement was able to be reached.
Strength of the Agreement: “We could nit-pick our way through the Agreement – there’s many things in the Agreement that I don’t like, that I have a problem conceptually with. Having said that, as a negotiator, I do know that you don’t get all you want when you go to the table. And probably in a perverse way the strength of the agreement is that didn’t get exactly what they wanted, because as Minister Dempsey said earlier on, had it come down in favour of one party or another then it wouldn’t have been fair.
Need for resounding “yes” vote: “Nora talked about the demand from the people in Northern Ireland, and in the south of Ireland, for talks. The people actually did lead the way, and that’s not to take away from the politicians who sat around the table and hammered out the Agreement. Now it’s back to the people again, and it’s not just down to the people in Northern Ireland – it’s down to the people in the south of Ireland as well We need a resounding “yes” this side of the border as well, because anything short of a resounding “yes” can send out a very very negative message.
Individual responsibility: “I don’t think we can afford to be complacent about this Agreement. We read the opinion polls, and I’m heartened by the opinion polls, and I see that 70% of the population in Northern Ireland and 69% of the population in the South will be going out to vote and they will be voting “yes”. That can have its downside as well because someone can suppose that everyone else is going out to vote I speak now as an individual, because there is collective responsibility and there is individual responsibility.
“Nora Owen spoke about parents. I’m a parent, I’ve got 5 children – the oldest is 25, he’ll be getting married in July. I want his children to know a peace that he didn’t know. My youngest son is 15. Nora spoke about people being able to let their children go out to the pictures – the cinema is not half a mile from me, but I couldn’t let my youngest go to a matinee on a Saturday because I was fearful that there would be a bomb scare or that there would be a bomb. I remember when the first ceasefire broke down I was quite annoyed – my older children were able to go to the cinema and go into town and I was damned sure I wasn’t going to allow anyone to take that away from me. And that’s the kind of spirit we need. We need individually to exercise responsibility.
“As I said, there are things as a socialist which I’m not happy with in this Agreement, but I have no right to put my high-faluting principles in front of peace. This won’t deliver an instant peace – it is a start, as Noel Dempsey said. For far too long in Northern Ireland we’ve had a democratic deficit with absolutely no accountability. Getting an Assembly means there will be accountability.
Normal politics: “When you take away the siege you take away the siege mentality and the one hope I hang on to is that this is the start of something, and then we can get down to normal politics, we can get down to discussing the social and economic issues that dearly need to be discussed in Northern Ireland.
Hope: “What this agreement gives us is not a panacea for all ills – it gives us hope and no one has the right to take that hope away from us.
Duty of Care to each other: “That is why I’m determined, and my party is determined, that we will be out knocking on doors, and if necessary I will knock on every door in my street and point out to my neighbours, though they might think I am lecturing to them, that they owe a duty of care to each of their neighbours and each and every citizen in Northern Ireland. I would say to you that people on this side of the border owe that same duty of care to each other and particularly to the people within the North who have suffered for thirty years. Thank you”
4. Cllr. Brian Fitzgerald (Labour Party, Meath):
“Thank you chairman – first of all I would like to thank the Meath Peace Group for organising this meeting. There is a considerable lack of such meetings taking place. There are meetings taking place from a negative point of view, but certainly there are very few meetings from a positive point of view taking place. Credit is due to the Meath Peace Group who have been toiling away for many many years now.
“At the outset, I would like to declare my position: I would ask people to support the Agreement because I think it is the only chance we have, and it is the only chance the people North and South have of ever getting back to real politics. We should have our discussions concerning aspects of the agreement because they are going to come up at the doorsteps, and during the debate which will take place, probably in an intense way, over the next few weeks.
Difficulties ahead: “It may not be as sound an Agreement as it may appear – it is highly aspirational at this stage. People shouldn’t think otherwise. The more you read it the more difficulties you can see. Obviously I see serious difficulties ahead, because when the referendum is held on 22nd May, and I would sincerely hope and pray that this end of the country will vote overwhelmingly yes, and indeed I’m quite certain that the majority of people who go out to vote will vote “yes”, my concern is, as has been happening down through the years with different referenda, that we have an extremely low turnout. That is a difficulty, because, as someone mentioned earlier, that would send a very wrong message to the people who have other ideas
“When the referendum is over, with a resounding “yes”, then the real work will begin – the Assembly elections will take place some time afterwards.
Duration of the Assembly: “It would appear that there is no timescale for the of the Assembly. I would hope that if there is an Assembly election that the Assembly would last at least 5 years to ensure that people will be able to settle in.
Executive: “There will be some difficulties with the setting up of an Executive to that Assembly. I don’t see a problem with the unionist party or the SDLP, but certainly if there are a considerable number of people from other parties elected, and there is a difficulty with some of them taking seats on an Executive, I can see long hard debates in trying to resolve those particular issues. People will obviously have to be very patient.
North-South bodies: “Then you have the Ministerial Council which will be set up between the Assembly and the Oireachtas – we do not know exactly what powers they will have or what powers they will be allowed to have, because it will require both the Assembly and the Oireachtas to approve what they are proposing to do. There are areas there which will take a lot of very hard work.
“I believe it’s going to need a number of things:
• It’s going to require courage– and over the last few months and weeks, people have been saying that various people had displayed courage. A number of people over the years have displayed considerable courage, none more so than John Fee who was prevented by what he would regard as fellow nationalists from carrying on his duties, and he bears the scars still. Yet he stuck with it through thick and thin, and it’s great that he is with us here tonight.
• We will have to be open – all the parties will have to be open to each other, after the election
• We will have to be honest with each other as well – all parties.
• Above all, we will have to be patient and they will have to be patient. Because everything is not going to happen over night or over the first year of the Assembly or over the first five years of the various ministerial councils which will be set up.
Hard decisions: “If we set up an Assembly and if we set up all of the bodies surrounding that Assembly, we have got to be firm, and very hard decisions will have to be taken, because nobody should be allowed to wreck those institutions once they are set up. And it means that hard decisions will have to be taken, both in the south as well as in the north, then they will have to be taken.
Principle of Consent: “The key to success for all of those bodies is for people to accept what has been enshrined in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration, the Framework Document and the Good Friday Agreement – that is the principle of consent – that has to be accepted. And if the people of Ireland accept that, which I believe they will, nobody has the right to overthrow or overturn that decision of the people.
Declaration that the war is over: “I believe the ceasefires have to remain in place – but I would prefer, and .. I do agree with Mary Harney when she said today, that the IRA has got to declare that the war is over. I believe that has to happen. I’m not talking about arms or ammunition because, as someone once said, “rust never sleeps”. I want to see them making that declaration if the people of Ireland decide on the 22nd. That is most important.
“The Agreement will be judged on its durability to withstand all the pressures that will come after. We saw what happened to Sunningdale – we do not want another Sunningdale. I do not believe you will have an Ulster Workers’ strike, but there will be other forces who will try to wreck it.
Potential: “The Agreement has a lot of potential – tremendous potential both North and South. During the 18 months to 2 years when I sat on the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation – and Noel and myself were there week in and week out – we had the opportunity to meet with various politicians from Northern Ireland and various community groups. We saw an experience – tremendous ability which was not being allowed to do what it wanted to do…. They had to deal with issues on a daily basis which were negative issues in many respects, whereas they should have been dealing with health and education.matters etc.
“I sincerely hope that those people elected to the Assembly will be at last given the opportunity to do what they wanted to do and were not allowed to do over the last 25 years. I think we will be surprised at the ability when it is displayed and we will all learn from them.
Changes to politics in the south: “In the south I also see changes in the whole political makeup. Nora touched on it slightly here tonight. For many years parties were divided because of the national question. The flag was pulled out in the course of general elections to maybe get the party faithful the bandwagon moving, but it did divide parties and we could all say, “for what?” I believe after May 22nd , that issue will no longer be there, and people will start looking at politics from a different perspective than they have been – maybe they will look at it from a left or right position, I sincerely hope that happens. Heaven knows what realignment we will have in the south after the referendum.
Encouraging people to go out and vote: “I would like to ask each and every person who has any influence to try and encourage others to go out and vote on the 22nd. It’s important that we have not just a “yes” vote but that we have a high turnout – ng equivalent to a general election , 70% at a minimum. We need that high vote to demonstrate to the people who have other ideas, and they are out there to wreck this process, but we should not allow them to do that. When it is accepted by the people of Ireland North and South, that firm decisions are taken to ensure that the people have their say which will be a “yes” vote on the 22nd. Thank you”
5. Cllr. John Fee (SDLP, Newry and Mourne District Council)
“Thank you Chairman, and thank you Brian for your gracious words. Can I also say thank you very much to the Meath Peace Group for inviting me – I have to apologise for the number of times I’ve been invited and I haven’t been able to come here and I’ve let people down at the last minute.
“Because I haven’t been here before, perhaps I’d better introduce myself. I’m John Fee – I’m 34 years of age, I’ve been an SDLP councillor for ten years in what they call “bandit country” – I was born and reared in South Armagh, in Crossmaglen. I still live there with my wife, I still represent it, and I’m very proud of the community I come from and the place where I live.
“I am also absolutely committed to ensuring that my community which has suffered so much for so long sees a lasting peace, sees justice, stability, equality and equity and has opportunities available to it that have not been available for so long. That’s why I’m going out on the doorsteps for the next three weeks, around my neighbours, my friends and everybody in what is termed “bandit country” with no fear whatsoever to go out and ask for a “yes” vote in this referendum.
“I took a look at the little document – the actual Agreement that you have – and I took a look at the glossier version of it that we have, and as far as I can see word for word, what you are being asked to agree or disagree on is precisely the same as what my neighbours are being asked to adjudicate on north of the border.
National self-determination: “I disagree profoundly with anyone who tries to say that all of the people of Ireland and its islands voting on the same question on the same day about how we agree to share this island for the future is not an act of national self-determination. It most certainly is. And it’s not only an act of national self-determination – it’s the first time we’ve been able to do it before – in a referendum it’s the first time ever, and it’s the first time in an election since 1918. It’s an opportunity, I believe, at the end of the century to put right some of the problems that we created at the beginning of this century.
“I actually believe this document is absolutely compulsive reading – everytime you read it there’s something more in it. But could I ask you to go back and read it again and read it in the light of two entirely separate agendas that are being pursued:
Political agenda: “There is a purely political agenda – setting up structures etc…. We’ve tried it in the past, this time we think we’re going to get it right. We’ve had assemblies in the past. We had the Sunningdale Agreement – why did it fail? It failed because the other elements of that agreement were contingent on a gentleman’s agreement – “set up your assembly and then we’ll look at a Council of Ireland or something like that later.” This Agreement doesn’t allow for one element to be put in place and the others to be left in abeyance.
“This Agreement requires the all-Ireland bodies to be put in place – their structures, their constitution, I presume their budgets and their modus operandi – to be up in place before the Assembly in the North of Ireland gets any powers.
“It also agrees that when those two things are done, the Council of the Islescan be instituted, all in one act, on one day, when the Oireachtas and the Houses of Parliament can agree.
“It actually takes the concept that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” one step further, and it says: “nothing is created until everything is created”. The target date for that to happen is, I think, February of next year.
“So there is an entirely political agenda – setting up structures, institutions, checks and balances and the like which will allow us on this island to govern ourselves without interference in a way that we agree, and we agree with our neighbouring island.
Suing for peace: “There is a second agenda and it is the most difficult agenda. For thirty years in Northern Ireland we have been prosecuting a war. Indeed in the politics of the Republic of Ireland since 1920 on there has been Civil War politics. If we can get this agreement between unionist and nationalist, between north and south, between the British and the Irish for the first time ever, we will be suing for peace – the type of peace we have never had before, the type of inclusive arrangement to which we can all subscribe, offer our allegiance, offer our support and can work together for the stability of our country and the prosperity of our future and the like.
Difficult questions: “It’s in the suing for peace that we have many of the really difficult questions and they are questions that have to be answered north and south. Letting people out of prison – morally an enormous question. If to sue for peace we have to do that, I believe it is right. Removing all the trappings of war, reforming the RUC, introducing the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law north and south, building in protections for the individual citizens on this island. If those things must be done, then they must be done and they must be done quickly.
Articles 2 and 3: “In the whole area of suing for peace we are being asked how we define ourselves. We hear a lot of concern about Articles 2 and 3. I never heard about Articles 2 and 3 before Chris McGimpsey and his brother went into court down here. I didn’t hear anyone getting up on soap boxes saying they were necessary for the protection of nationalists in Northern Ireland. I didn’t see anyone saying they were a defence against some of the injustices by the State north of the border. I can’t see any way that Articles 2 and 3 have actually provided protection for me as an Irish nationalist who happens to live in the North-Eastern part of this island.
New Articles an improvement: “But I have read the proposed new Articles 2 and 3. I know the calibre of the people – and there are three of them sitting at this table – who, on the Irish Government side over the years, have used their creativity and their imagination and their intelligence, and have used their collective genius to come up with an improvement on de Valera’s Articles2 and 3. I believe it is an improvement. I believe that nationalists in Northern Ireland for the first time will see that in the Constitution there is an entitlement to Irish national citizenship which did not exist previously in the Constitution.
“When you hear people saying “it’s a sell-out”, or saying “we can’t do this”, I would ask you to remember that this is an improvement on what existed before. And I would ask you to go out to your neighbours and family and quite confidently say: “listen, life is improving, this settlement will deliver for all of us”, and just ask them to vote “yes”. Thank you.”
6. Mary Montague (CorrymeelaCommunity)
“I just want to say thank you to the Meath Peace Group who invited me down. It’s a privilege to be here and I’m very much aware of the work the Meath Peace Group has done in helping to secure the situation we have now where at least we have a political agreement.
Corrymeela: “ Corrymeela is a community that dedicated itself to reconciliation. It actually started in 1965 before the present “Troubles”. The whole ideas was that we ourselves are a group of Catholic and Protestant people, and we would walk side by side through the feelings that we have living in the North of Ireland, in a divided society. And that that perhaps would help us understand how we can relate to people in the wider sense and help them find ways of securing some kind of peace and reconciliation. My remit, my work, is classed as being the family and community work coordinator. And it’s really a privilege because I have been given the chance to walk alongside groups. I say walk alongside, because these are groups of people who could be classed perhaps as working class people, but they are my people, for I come from Andersonstown in West Belfast – a little bit like “bandit country”.
Interface: “The people that I work with live on the interface areas – and we refer to interface areas in the North when we’re talking about where the Protestant and Catholic communities actually live beside one another and are divided by walls, or out in the rural areas where they are divided by a river or by a road.
Prisoners: “Along with those interface groups, I also work with prisoners’ groups, and especially those groups that are helping released prisoners to re-integrate into our community.
Front line of war: “So I class our people not as working class people, but as the people who have lived at the front line of the war. And what does that mean? It means that we are the people who carried the coffins, or walked behind the coffins, and we didn’t do that because there were cameras there and politically it would be nice to be seen at the funeral. We did it because the people in those coffins were our relatives, or they were our friends or our neighbours.
“Just as we carried the coffins we also filled the hospitals. We filled the hospitals with injured people. We also filled those hospitals with people who have suffered from stress, because you also suffer from stress if you live at the front line of a war.
We also filled the prisons – and why did we do that? A lot of the people who filled the prisons from our community were victims, not because they were imprisoned, but victims before they were perpetrators of acts of violence. They were hurt people who reached for the gun or the bomb – they were people who felt injustice, who felt frustration and turned to violence to release that frustration.
“Just to give you one idea of what I mean in statistics. There is one street in an interface area – it has 24 houses and every house has lost a member of their family through the violence. I have with me a mediator from an interface area – Mickey Doyle from the Limestone road. Where Mickey lives, within a mile radius of that area, there have been 653 deaths. That’s the concentration of suffering that has happened in the North of Ireland.
Security: “Of course alongside violence you get a security response. So my people are the people who have suffered from the vicious circle where security was tightened, where the police would move in as robo-cops with heavy vehicles, not taking prisoners. And they suffered from that as well – one violence fed into another.
“And there was deprivation and unemployment– because who is going to build a factory in the front line of a war?
Survivors of trauma: “A lot of people at the moment are talking about victimsand speaking of victims. We don’t look upon ourselves as victims – we are the survivors of trauma. We have been brought to our knees, but we have stood up and we have looked around and said: “no one is going to do anything for us unless we start to do it for ourselves”. So there was a growth of community groupsin the interface areas. And those community groups looked at the needs of the people in the area and how to address them. And beside that, they went to paramilitary organisations and they began to lobby for an end to the conflict. the peace process didn’t start with politicians at the top of the political pyramid. It started at the grass roots – it started with ordinary people taking a lot of risks.
Good Friday Agreement: “So what does the Agreement mean to the people that I work with? It’s strange that on the day we heard there was an agreement – on Good Friday – there was no euphoria. And I think it was a little bit that people were shocked. But I also think that even over the weeks that followed, people realised there was a sense of loss in this Agreement. Because this is a see-sawand it’s very difficult to balance a see-saw. So the nationalist and republican family of my community felt the loss of their dream of a united Ireland happening very shortly down the line. Equally the unionist and loyalist family that live within my community recognised that there was not going to be a return to the Stormont government and that they might well have to accept these north-south bodies.
“Even though there was no euphoria, generally there was no great outcry. Because people realised that this was a balanced agreement and at least it offered them something – the first step towards a better quality of life.
“The previous speakers have all mentioned each of the different strands of the Agreement – that if you were British you were being recognised and respected as being British. Equally if you felt Irish you were being respected and recognised as being Irish. That we do have these changes to the Irish Constitution which is helpful. That we have our North-South bodies, we have our British-Irish structure.
“But I think for people living on the front line of a war some of the most important things came when we began to see that there would be a Bill of Rights, and economic rights, because people who are unemployed seek employment. And with security and policing,it wasn’t just the Catholic or nationalist or republican areas that suffered from heavy-handed policing – equally so did my loyalist and unionist friends. And the fact that that is being looked at is a plus for people living at the front line of a war. And the review of the criminal justice system– the prisoners I have the privilege of working alongside, all went to prison by facing Diplock Courts, and there is no justice in Diplock Courts.
Victims: “And of course there are the victims. As a victim – my family lost a family member – I am so tired of hearing different politicians speak for me. It has actually opened the wounds my family feel far deeper than they were ever opened before.
“I have not the right to speak for all victims – no one has the right to speak for all victims. One of the things I have had the privilege to do lately was to be with Sir Kenneth Bloomfield who was talking to groups of people who had lost relatives. Within those discussions it became very clear that people didn’t want a monument to the person they had lost. They wanted to be treated fairly – they wanted financial support, and they wanted the resources to help people through the trauma that they had been through.
Prisoners: “And when we talked about prisoners, the biggest majority agreed that the greatest and most wonderful memorial we could have to our loved ones is that there is never going to be another victim. And prisoner release is something that should be considered, though it is painful for some people.
Decommissioning and demilitarisation: “There is also decommissioning – and there is a word called “demilitarisation” which is associated very much with the Sinn Fein party. Demilitarisation and decommissioning do have to be considered, but not one without the other. Because we have a number of children and teenagers living at the front line of the war who have been badly injured by the use of plastic bullet rounds. We have very many military establishments, especially around the bandit country and in West Belfast, which cause a great deal of stress to the people who are living there. Only last week I was talking to someone in the loyalist side of Belfast who was saying that the young people can’t even play at the moment because of the situation that needs demilitarisation.
“No” campaign: “At the moment up north we are hearing a lot of people who are shouting and saying “no”. They are saying “you can’t talk to certain politicians”. What we say is “you have to talk”. If we did it at the grass roots level before there were any kind of ceasefires, then our politicians must take the responsibility of talking and talking with all politicians
“To those who are crying at the moment: “blood – we will spill our blood”, I want to ask, “whose blood are you going to spill?” – because my community has had enough blood spilt. They are crying about “fighting the final battle” – the very prisoners that I work alongside have already fought battles and when they became prisoners, those same politicians ignored their needs and the needs of their families.
Alternative: “And what is the alternative? – that is what Corrymeela has to ask those people. “What political alternative do you offer the people in Northern Ireland?” Unfortunately the alternatives that have been offered are a return to division, a return to politics that isn’t about equality. And the whole root of the war in Northern Ireland is about division and because of inequality at a political level.
“Therefore really what they are saying is the alternative is a return to war– and that’s both the extremes of republicanism and loyalism.
Voting “yes”: “I have a thousand reasons why I’m going to vote “yes” – and I’ll tell you the story of one of them. Within the community, I have worked with a number of children, and one of them is a six year old boy from North Belfast…. Because he was suffering from trauma – not recognised, the school just recognised him as being a child with difficulties who couldn’t concentrate and caused a lot of difficulties in the classroom. And he was referred to me….
“During one of our games – one where you could pretend to be whatever you wanted to be and wherever you wanted to be – this little boy said “I’m God – and I’m going to take all the blood that has spilled out of people and I’m going to pour it back in… because if I can do that then my friend’s daddy will be alive again.” (His friend’s daddy had been shot about two months before this). And he said “my friend will come back out and play and he will stop crying”. One of my jobs, unfortunately, is to rationalise an adult situation in a child’s mind. So I had to say to him, “but sweetheart you’re not God and neither am I, we can pray, and God will help, but He also expects us to help ourselves. What do you think we can do?”
And he said “we can go Mary to all our Catholic friends and tell them to stop fighting and then we could get [and he mentioned a co-worker’s name] to go to all his Protestant friends and tell them to stop fighting. And then we could get them to talk and become friends and throw all the bombs and guns into the sea.”
“That was profound wisdom, yet that story I have heard over a thousand times with children who have suffered trauma. A profound wisdom about peacemaking that unfortunately some of the adults in our society don’t seem to have, especially some of the politicians.
“Really this Agreement, this referendum, gives people both north and south the chance of voting and working in partnership with my community – those that have lived at the front line of the war – so that we may all have a better quality of life.
Constitutional change: “And I recognise that for the people in the south, there will be a certain grief – that there is a loss in changing the Constitution, but I’m asking you to enter into our grief, into our loss and do that.
Celebrating diversity: “This is only a political agreement, is not a peace agreement. Because peace isn’t about a political agreement, and it’s not just about ending the violence. Peace is about working together, about accepting one another, and as we say in Corrymeela, it’s about celebrating diversity. So this is a chance for us all to celebrate diversity. Thank you.”
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS (summaries only)
Q.1: On the 22nd of May, apart from the referendum on the Peace Agreement, there is another referendum in the South [on the Amsterdam Treaty]. Why hold the two on the same date?
Noel Dempsey, TD: “ I think I would be speaking for everyone in saying we’re very much aware of the importance of the referendum on the Peace Agreement to the people North and South. I think the second referendum on the Amsterdam treaty is also of importance to the people of this island North and south as well. Neither I nor the government perceive any difficulty in having the referendum on the same day. It’s done on a fairly regular basis. I think it might help to focus people’s minds not just on the Ireland context but we are a part of Europe and I think that both referenda are important for the future of the country and I don’t think anybody is under any illusion about that and under any confusion about it. ”
Q.2: Frankie Gallagher [from East Belfast Post-Conflict Resettlement Project who had come with a group of loyalists to the talk]. “… One of the things Bertie Ahern has said, which was probably part of the confidence building that Tony Blair has been doing, was that he was there to protect the nationalists in Northern Ireland. If there’s a Yes [outcome] does he not realise, or do his ministers not realise, that as well as buying into the good you’re buying into the bad? – you’re buying into the fact that you’re going to have to help protect the national aspirations of Unionists and Loyalistsas well. You can’t take angles on it and say I’m going to represent this side …. Would you think that you have to be there being the guardians in the future of people’s national self-determination as they perceive it?
Noel Dempsey: “Certainly I won’t speak for all the parties involved here but I will speak for Fianna Fail. We’ll never make any apologies for feeling that we had – and I think that goes for Irish governments in general – a role to play and a very strong role to play in giving a voice to the nationalist community, to try and represent to the British government the views of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland as we saw them.
.. “I think we would equally see that once this Agreement is passed by the people of Ireland, that our responsibility is to the Agreement and to every thing that is contained in that Agreement, to the aspirations that are contained in it, and to the actual practical considerations that are in it, from a nationalist point of view and from a unionist point of view. That includes the right of the unionist community, or people that are not necessarily unionists but who believe they are British citizens and want to remain so. So to reassure you on that track – the Irish government will be fully committed to the full implementation of the Agreement and to the protection to all the rights that are there. And I think the question is a very good one and one that I can speak for all parties in the South. We will be totally committed to ensure that it is fully implemented.
Nora Owen: “ I believe that Frankie has touched on something that perhaps has happened since the Agreement. With the availability of the media now there is no privacy any more about speechmaking and statements and I think all sides both British and Irish governments, unionists and nationalists, must be conscious that there is no private audience that they can speak to and make a statement that won’t get coverage on the national media and international media. So we can’t speak to a private group and say something that is for their consumption only and not expect the other side to hear it. So unionists who say this Agreement strengthens the Union, and nationalists who say this is a stepping stone to a united Ireland have to be conscious that that type of language will have to cease and they will have to recognise that the Agreement is a balance of both. …. Those who make statements have to be conscious of what they’re saying. Already since the Agreement there have been statements that I don’t think helped but I think people have learned from them. .. I think during these weeks up to the 22nd no matter where you are we’ll have to all get ourselves into a mode of delivering our thoughts that does not antagonise one side or the other. And that’s part of the sea change we’ve got to just face up to and I think Frankie’s point is a relevant one.
“But equally could I remind people of what the IRA said in An Phoblachtrecently, and that is very worrying – they have indicated they are not going to take the democratic vote North and South as meaning what we think it means and that they have no intention of ever giving up their arms. Now those are statements that do worry me very much and worry my party very much and I hope that those who have any influence on the IRA will let them know that those kind of statements are not helpful in getting people to vote for this Agreement.
Frankie Gallagher: “One of the reasons why I posed that question was because any reasonable person within this island, whatever their aspirations, will have to recognise that we have to become guardians of each others rights In protecting each other’s rights you’re by and large protecting yourselves – and until everybody gets to that stage I don’t think there will ever be peace but I think we are getting to that stage.
Lily Kerr: [On the point made about the IRA statement in An Phoblacht]: “People North and South have to make it perfectly plain to the IRA, and to Sinn Fein who have some influence on them, that you cannot actually claim to represent the will of the Irish people and then, if that will does not coincide with your own will, ignore it. There is actually no turning back and I think we have to be very plain and very straight with that.”
Frankie Gallagher: “ I think the violence as well has reinforced division. It’s probably driven aspirations of unity further away and I think the Worker’s Party realising that violence was not going to achieve unity was very forward thinking.”
Lily Kerr: “Could I just make a further point on what you’ve said from a Worker’s Party point of view? I am a republican as well as a socialist and I believe passionately in a 32-county socialist Republic. Unfortunately the violence has ensured that a million Protestants who have been bombed over the last 30 years aren’t going to be eager to be cajoled into a United Ireland. I am now actually convinced that I will never see my aspiration fulfilled because of that violence.
Q.3: [Re the time-frame of May 22nd]: “I don’t think it’s long enough in order to teach the lay person to put in their minds what the Agreement actually means. It’s OK for people with some sort of education to take out bits and read it, but I know for a fact ordinary people won’t read it. … I believe that a process of education should be put in place by all parties responsible for the Agreement, both North and South. I don’t believe that people in the South understand exactly what the Agreement entails. I think May 22nd is too short a time frame.”
Speaker from floor [agreeing with the last speaker]: “I’d be very concerned. There’s general apathy. I was in Dublin yesterday and there were a few posters up with Bertie Ahern signing something “Vote Yes for Peace” and speaking to my neighbours and friends, they don’t know anything about the Agreement, they haven’t even looked at a copy of the Agreement. I’ve been giving them out all week – people didn’t have them. So I’d be very worried – after all these years in Northern Ireland and all the violence.”
Frankie Gallagher: “There’s a lot of apathy and uncertainty. People are confused and people are fearful… We’re either going to get an apathetic voter or we’re going to get one that is totally scared out of their wits and is going to vote No.”
Cllr. John Fee: “ I just want to make a personal comment about this. On Good Friday, having been awake for almost 14 hours, we got called into the room and many of my colleagues and people from all over the SDLP had flocked down to Belfast to pick up on what they thought was going to be an historic day. (And I have worked by the way for 11 years for Seamus Mallon and over many years have from time to time had the task of meeting loyalist leaders and putting them in cars and taking them to have meetings with Seamus Mallon that no one could possibly know about, taking place in very hazardous situations.) In the room where the document was being signed I looked around … and I saw Gusty Spence and David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson and another loyalist leader who was convicted of being involved in the killing of an SDLP senator in the 70s
“And I looked around and I saw Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Martin Ferris, Gerry Kelly – and I was counting the amount of jail time that had been done by people around that table and then we had a rapid run around the table and so many people signed up to the Agreement from every possible section of the community. Wouldn’t it be an awful tragedy if the people in the North of Ireland with all the trauma behind them, turned around and voted “Yes” and people in the Republic of Ireland just don’t bother. That’s our biggest fear…”
Q.4. “…. I do not condone violence – I have been out of Ireland and spent many years in Pakistan and the Philippines and I have seen what violence does. But also I think to be fair, as it says in the Agreement, there should be an equal demilitarisation not just from Sinn Fein and the various other elements there but also from the Loyalists and other groups. That has got to be discussed. Not enough has gone into it….
Mary Montague: “The loyalists think it impossible to think of decommissioning before the republicans have decommissioned. I think the republicans and also many loyalist groups think that demilitarisation is something that has to be considered as well. It’s a vicious circle. As for victims, the most merciful thing that happened to my relative was with a trigger after the terrible torture that he was put through before he died, and he was only thirteen years of age. So I wonder how you can decommission arms and cigarettes, and part of me thinks that decommissioning is about decommissioning feelings and sectarianism and a token gesture is needed of decommissioning arms. I would agree to it but I would also want it alongside demilitarisation because I think the justice for me is very important and there are a lot of people in my community that have been hurt by the security forces as well.
Lily Kerr: “Just to follow on from that – I think that most normal societies are entitled to have a police service that’s not sort of along the lines of paramilitary forces and to take the point that Mary’s making, I think we do need some form of decommissioning. I will make another point as well – punishment beatings– we’re going to have to decommission baseball bats and iron bars as well… We have to get the message across to all sides that the armed struggle is now no form of political expression – that people cannot solve political problems through the barrel of a gun. All the guns have to go from our society and then the paramilitaries are going to have to find a new reason for saying they want their guns to rust or they don’t want to hand them over. Because as a natural progression of this agreement there will be reforms within the RUC – possibly evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary – in a sense it will take the gun out of the so-called military side of it and then the paramilitaries are going to have to keep peace with that. … People can be very disingenuous, especially those in the No camp, and they are putting this about that the police are going to be stood down etc. and how can we sit around the table when people have guns under the table. … I think it is a big, big issue and we can’t duck it or hide from it, its going to have to be faced up to sooner rather than later.
Q.5. – Julitta Clancy: “We in the Republic are part of the problem and part of the solution as well – and we don’t often realise that. Our own group has been going now for five years and we have received tremendous support locally …. but we’re battling against [some elements in] the media and against people who don’t think that the role of ordinary people is important at all. Yet we have seen changes coming about just having people talking together. … Noel Dempsey and Nora Owen were talking about a new mode of thinking and I would agree wholeheartedly with that – we’ve all got to get ourselves now into that new mode of thinking which Frankie put so well. We all have to be guardians of each other’s rights – that’s a revolutionary idea, but how do we get that across? We in the South seem to be all for peace but when you scratch us there are barriers and prejudices – we think we’re for peace but we often don’t understand what we have to do. The Forum for Peace and Reconciliation did wonderful work, but they lost a glorious opportunity to go out to the country and start focusing people’s minds on how we have to change. We all have to start changing our mode of thinking … We’ve got to start thinking and bringing about change in our society and it’s not going to be so difficult. As John Fee said about Articles 2 and 3 – I never heard about them until Chris McGimpsey brought that case and then I opened the Constitution and discovered a whole lot more things wrong as well. The proposed new Articles are a liberating thing for us but we’re hearing negative voices all the time. How are we in the South going to get ourselves into this process and work to understand people from different points of view and aspirations? There are not enough people working at it. ”
Q.6: “ I’m actually from Belfast myself and I’ve been living here for eighteen years. And something just struck me – that man is from East Belfast and I’m from the Falls road and I’ve never consciously sat in the same room as a man from East Belfast. That’s a fact and I think, or I hope that with this Agreement there will be more people sitting in a room consciously and that they will forget about whether they are a Catholic or a Protestant because I think that’s part of the problem, we don’t know each other. I’m very emotional about it. I think it’s very sad, that people have died that I know and I’m sure this man as well. I think certain politicians in the North have done a disservice to their own people by not facing the issues properly and not bringing the people together and just extending their friendship … and forget about all the nonsense. …. I personally would like to see just Peace. That’s all. Just peace. Respect for each other.”
Q.7: “ I would like to commend the three men from East Belfast because they overcame their fears, their mindset to come here”. ( Round of applause.)
Q.8. Rev. John Clarke (C of I Rector, Navan): “ Obviously I am very impressed with this forward thinking and this all-inclusive language that has been used this evening. I suppose my concern is what happens to the fringe elements, those that are not prepared to let their personal aspirations be absolved into what’s happening and the outcome. What would the situation be for those who will not be part of what’s going on and who will still look to the bomb and the bullet on both sides of the divide? That gives me great concern.
“In regard to the time-frame of the 22nd of May I’m not so sure what choice a politician has, what are the options. There’s no point talking about it – the date is set, we’ve got to start getting positive about it. If people are not informed we make it our business to inform them. It’s just part of our nature. We need things close to the last minute to find out the information. The Gospel has preached reconciliation for many years on this island. And if we want to hear the message of peace and reconciliation and all that goes with it, I suggest many of our people return to the church.
Nora Owen, TD: “The reason why I’m here is because Charlie Flanagan, our spokesman on Northern Ireland, who was supposed to be here was called away to Prime Time for a major debate tonight. But sadly let’s actually tell the truth of it ourselves – how many of you turn off or switch to another channel when you hear that a debate on Northern Ireland is about to start or personalities that normally talk about N.Ireland are about to speak? You turn it off, you use the zapper and you know that’s the reality because after thirty years of debates on N.Ireland people have got a bit tired of it so really they have a big job to do. Local media which normally don’t cover national stories have a responsibility to try and stimulate people’s discussion. People will get a copy of the Agreement but the problem is that most people won’t actually read it. There will be responsibility on the national media to stimulate people ….
Chair (Paul Murphy): “We heard it mentioned earlier on about the fringe groupsand what they might or might not do post-referendum and I think there is a genuine fear in some people’s hearts that some of the fringe groups might be strengthening somewhat. I’m going to ask Brian Fitzgerald to say a word about that.
Cllr. Brian Fitzgerald: “When you read what the political commentators are saying at this particular time, one has got to be concerned , and reading reports from the Gardai who say that the dissident groups are far greater in numbers than what was first thought, and when you speak to people who live on the border counties and hear what it is like on the ground one has to be worried. I don’t think any of us should be under any illusion that there are not problems ahead for the democrats – the people who have stuck through it thick and thin against violence.
“I am very worried that there will be a low turnout [in the Referendum]. I’ve no doubt what the result will be but a low turnout would be nearly as bad as a negative response or a negative result and I say this because like everybody at this table we have knocked at doors at various elections, and … the Northern Ireland issue is never ever mentioned…. Even at the bye-elections that took place last March – at no door was the Northern issue mentioned in Dublin. Yet at that stage discussions were going on and it was all over the media with George Mitchell being interviewed here and there and the Taoiseach was up and down, but nobody was prepared to talk about it at the doorsteps and thats why it worries me that we’ll have a poor turnout even with a Yes vote. Because there are difficulties down the road and the people who want to continue the violence have to get a very loud and clear message that the people of Ireland north and south are going to make their decision in a democratic way as enshrined in the document.
“How we can get the people out? – the media, ourselves, the clergymen, all have a responsibility We got a chance before in 1974 with the Sunningdale Agreement and we didn’t grasp it and we saw the consequences of that. If we don’t grasp this one I believe myself that we will have a civil was in this country with more people killed in six months than in the last thirty years … and we’ve got to ensure that this does not happen and we’ve got to use whatever resources we can to stop this and people have to come out and say “yes” to this agreement and say “no” to violence North and South .
Lily Kerr “The point made about the Agreement is quite complex and perhaps people don’t understand it . It’s up to the political parties to do something as to what the main points in that agreement are. The day is already set and I think it would be negative to try and put it on the long finger. But to get back to the point about the fringe groupsno one should be in any doubt about it. There will be those on both sides who have guns and the community itself will have to deal with it. Now [in this Agreement] we’ve got a Bill of Rights, we’ve got rights for the two communities. With rights come responsibilities. There will be responsibilities for those people to move away from the taboo that you don’t turn people in . People will have a responsibility with those rights not to harbour the gunmen and women in their community and to oust them.
Chair: “I throw in a note of possible controversy. How does anybody here feel about the possible exclusion of the Women’s Coalition from the Assembly? What does anybody feel about the blatant sexism that is among the male political class in Northern Ireland?
Cllr. John Fee: “Could I just address two points that have been raised here? First the date and the timescale. The date was from the fact that talks started with a piece of legislation passed in the House of Commons which in time limited the Northern Ireland Talks and Forum and from the very, very outset set a time limitation on the Talks. There was also the fact that to get these institutions started in Northern Ireland we have to get the elections out of the way before the marching season. Do you think that we would get out on the streets without bloodshed if we were trying to run an election and there was trouble with Drumcree. We’ve also got to resolve those issues between Nationalists and the various loyal orders, both with rights, and there is no doubt they have rights so we really need to get stability there for the consent of the people before we have another crisis on our hands.
“The second thing is the role of women and the Women’s Coalition and there is no doubt that some of the spokeswomen performed an extraordinary talented task over the last number of years. What was the option of getting the smaller parties involved? The option was a form of election like a list system used in the North’s election . Then they saw that all the concerned residents groups across N.Ireland …or any other concerned group of people could get together on single issues and form a 20 odd group of people on obscure or highly confrontational issues. So the compromise to get smaller groups together was to move five different constituencies to six. It may or may not work….. Of course there is another option. Parties who will win seats could put women forward. There are parties who will win seats – the Unionists, SDLP, Sinn Fein and the various Loyalists, and they can put women on their tickets. Just to lighten it somewhat there was a tendency especially on the Unionist side to whenever myself and Monica McWilliams spoke (there were only ever two women at the talks), whenever the person answered they would always use words like “we don’t like being lectured” or “we don’t like being bossed by hysterical members”. I never once heard the words “hysterical” or “bossing” or “lecturing” being used to the men members, it was an automatic reflex use of language when one or other of us spoke and I hope that the policy of the Unionists has changed somewhat in the last two years and that they have actually learned that women can be quite intelligent, we can be very stupid too though!
John Fee: “Can I make one party political point? The SDLP has set a target that 40% of elected representatives should be women. Setting this target is the easy bit; actually getting the candidates willing to run is the difficult bit and we have set up a women’s group to try and identify to see what it is that impedes women and to get the resources to give the training necessary to allow more women to be put in these positions.
Lily Kerr: “… It is not just the unionist men who are sexist, and it’s not just in the North of Ireland – it can be just as prevalent in the south of Ireland You’ll accuse me of being a heretic … but could I point out to you that there were women in politics even before the Women’s Coalition. … There have been women in politics in Northern Ireland when it wasn’t safe to be in politics, for 25 years. … Now there is a group called the NI Women’s Political Forummade up of two people from John’s party, people from my party, people from the PUP, people from the UDP, the Official Unionists and the Women’s coalition – it was formed long before the Women’s coalition. It was set up by Loyalist women contacting me as a Worker’s Party member after Canary Wharf – so there has been one hell of a lot of work going on by women. I do take your point that there needs to be more women coming forward and getting involved but I would remind you a woman’s place is where she chooses it to be.
Noel Dempsey: “Both North and South there needs to be more women involvement. Its difficult to get women forward because the infrastructure is not there for them to facilitate them. If I can refer back to the point that was being made on fringe groups: Brian’s point that the best thing we can do over the next three weeks to try and convince these people on the fringes is that we can organise to get a massive turnout that will get the “Yes” voice that I think we all want. I think in politics you have to be an optimist – I think if people look at the Agreement, if they look a little bit down the road from the Agreement they see an Agreement that deals with equality, an Agreement that deals with justice, that recognises the birthright of both nationalists and unionists and recognises their identity, talks about a Bill of Rights and so on, and puts instructions in place that ensures that it’s guaranteed for everybody. And I think if we convince people and get that message across, the fringe groups will be very much smaller but I think at the end of the day if they are not convinced and they persist and go the way that they seem to be now, they will have to be dealt through the normal criminal justice system that we have and dealt with very very straight forward. What I would be concerned about would be the incident that occurred last week in Wicklow and the age group of the four or five people that were involved, that’s what would frighten me somewhat – that another generation would be doing that and I think that would be the job of the politicians both North and South to try mad convince people that is not the way. ”
Chair (Paul Murphy): “I know that many people have travelled along way to come here so I think we’ll just wind up now and I’d like to finish by thanking all the speakers for coming here tonight and especially the Meath Peace Group for organising it.
On behalf of the Transition Year students at St. Joseph’s, Ann Maginn thanked the Chairman and speakers, and Mr. Ray Hegarty, Transition Year teacher, thanked the Meath Peace Group for organising the talk. On behalf of the Meath Peace Group, Julitta Clancy thanked the Chairman and speakers and all who had come and participated. A particular thanks was due to the Principal and Staff of St. Joseph’s, Navan, for permitting the use of their facilities to hold the talk, and the transition year students and teachers for all their help in preparing for the talk.
Meath Peace Group Report. July 1998. (c)Meath Peace Group
Transcribed by Julitta Clancy and Sarah Clancy. Edited by Julitta Clancy