Twenty years on, the political process in Northern Ireland is in trouble

Posted By: September 01, 2014

We must fight government inertia and efforts by unionists to roll back the progress we’ve made since the 1994 IRA ceasefire

GERRY ADAMS. The Guardian, Sunday 31 August 2014 

The Stormont parliament building in Belfast. ‘A process of change needs continuous nurturing to succeed. If it is not going forward, invariably it goes backwards.’ Photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images
Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the historic and groundbreaking 1994 IRA cessation of military operations. At the same time, however, the political process is facing its greatest challenge since the Good Friday agreement negotiations of 1998.

An anti-Good Friday agreement axis within unionism, the pro-unionist stance of the British secretary of state,Theresa Villiers, Downing Street’s refusal to honour its obligations and its efforts to impose cuts in the welfare system have combined to create the most serious threat to the political institutions in the North in recent years.

No one should underestimate the changes that have taken place since the 1990s. Back then, armed conflict was part of everyday life, and this spilled over at times into Britain.

Looking at other conflicts around the world, I have a profound sense of relief that we are beyond this. However, a process of change needs continuous nurturing to succeed. If it is not going forward, invariably it goes backwards.

Last month, with Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle Gildernew, I met David Cameron in London. The meeting took place following numerous requests. It was the first time that Cameron had met the Sinn Féin leadership since he became prime minister. That speaks for itself.

Most worryingly, there is no evidence from Downing Street, the Northern Ireland Office or unionist leaderships of any likelihood of a negotiation on outstanding issues, although Cameron has agreed to meet us again in September, and I welcome that.

The anti-agreement axis within unionism has been active in asserting a negative agenda. In response to this, the Democratic Unionist party has increasingly demonstrated an unwillingness to participate positively in the institutions. It has adopted a tactical approach aimed at serving a fundamentalist rump in the party rather than the needs of the whole community.

As McGuinness noted: “We are in government with unionists because we want to be. They are in government with us because they have to be.”

Political logjams have been reinforced. This is seen in a failure to support the Haass compromise proposals on dealing with legacy issues including flags, symbols and parades, and in the speed with which the Cameron government acquiesced to Peter Robinson’s demand to establish the Hallett inquiry into so-called “on the runs”.

The British government has made no effort on outstanding issues including a bill of rights, an Irish language act, the north-south consultative forum and the inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane. These are not matters for negotiation, but agreements made.

In addition, the Tory-led government wants to impose changes to the welfare system mirroring those introduced in England, Scotland and Wales with disastrous consequences for the disabled, unemployed and the low paid. These changes are part of a Thatcherite agenda designed to dismantle the welfare state. Sinn Féin will oppose them.

During the London visit, Sinn Féin also met the Labour leader, Ed Miliband and the shadow secretary of state, Ivan Lewis. We set out our concerns and made the point that Labour should be proud of the Good Friday agreement. A government is only as good as its opposition. Labour must be a watchdog for the values of power-sharing, partnership and equality, and for the full implementation of the Good Friday and other agreements. The majority of citizens in Ireland, including grassroots unionists, value the progress made. Sinn Féin is committed to the Good Friday agreement and the political institutions. We will resist efforts by unionist leaders to roll things back.

The deepening political crisis puts the onus on the Irish and British governments to create a different political context. This requires the two governments, in conjunction with the US administration, to establish a pro-agreement axis among parties in the north. It means the Irish and British governments making progress on issues that are their direct responsibility. Twenty years on, it is vital that positive change takes the place of political inertia.