McAliskey: 'We want a new negotiation'

June 17, 1998

The following is abridged from a speech about the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement by Bernadette Devlin McAliskey to a public meeting in San Francisco on April 25.

We are being pushed into retreat. This is not an accord of equals, not an agreement to proceed in an equitable and fair manner towards a solution. This is a realignment within the existing system.

This is a solution inspired by and created by the British government, with the assistance of corporate America and the American government.

They have serious opportunities there that are drastically reduced by the lack of peace. Northern Ireland is a prime location for American investment. It is a low-wage economy. It has a culture that is easily identified with and assimilated with mainstream American culture.

The development of the European Union creates trade problems for America. They have to have a foot inside the European Union. For that reason, the White House begins to listen to the organised campaign of Irish Americans.

Now Irish Americans think that it's because suddenly they began to do their propaganda right. They actually think that by changing the presentation Irish America finally got through to the president, and the British started to move.

But let's get behind all of that pretext and pretence. These were never all-party negotiations. The British government issued invitations to certain organisations which were allowed to stand for election in order to approach the negotiating table.

No socialist organisation was allowed to stand. The Irish Republican Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Movement were excluded. Not because they were too small — loyalist organisations, which at the polls could only hold 1% of the vote, were specifically invited. Right-wing, paramilitary organisations on the unionist side were specifically invited to form parties for the purpose of being invited to stand for the elections to the negotiating table.

Sinn Féin, with some 15% of the vote, having been invited to stand for election, was excluded from the procedure until they were able to get a cease-fire from the IRA. So the democratic mandate of Sinn Féin has already been eroded. The basis on which they have been allowed to sit is dictated by the British government.

We go through these laborious pretences, and at the end of the day there is no agreement. [US mediator] George Mitchell informs the press that he is now not going to allow the people in the negotiating procedure to speak to the press. These are now even more secret negotiations. He is not going to allow them out of the building, and he is not going to allow them any sleep until he has an agreement.

People who fought 30 years for fundamental human rights allowed Mitchell to induce an answer which the government needed. If the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] had done it to Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness, the wouldn't have played ball. Yet they all sat through the night and came out with this historic accord.

I think Sinn Féin are still trying to work out how they came to this position after having consistently opposed the formation of a Northern Ireland partitionist assembly. For 30 years they had coherently argued that a partitionist assembly actually compelled the unionist politicians to behave badly.

Once you gave them power within that undemocratic gambit of Northern Ireland, you gave them power to behave badly. There is no will on the part of unionist ideology to change its attitude to the republican and nationalist community. Yet power has been handed to them.

A power-sharing assembly was consistently opposed by Sinn Féin on the basis that the question we have always asked in the progressive movement is: with whom will power be shared?

What are the structures by which power will be shared with women? with the poor? with the socially excluded? with the socially and economically marginalised, with the long-term unemployed? None.

Power-sharing is between two artificially contrived definitions of the community, created by the British and imposed by them — the Protestant-unionist, Catholic-nationalist axis. Power-sharing is a regulation of the interaction of those two power blocs.

We have heard increasingly over the past few years: maximise the nationalist agenda within each bloc. I'm not opposed to maximising the nationalist agenda — if somebody tells me clearly what the nationalist agenda is.

If the nationalist agenda is the reduction of everything on the nationalist side to the lowest common denominator, then I am not interested in maximising it.

If maximising the nationalist agenda is, don't criticise the church, then I don't want to know. If maximising the nationalist agenda is, don't mention reproductive rights, then I don't want to know. And if maximising the nationalist agenda is, let's not create difficulties with the social prejudices of the most conservative element, so don't raise the question of gay and lesbian rights in Ireland, then I don't want to know.

If the nationalist agenda is to say, don't raise the divisive question of minimum wage legislation, then I don't want to know about maximising it.

Given that the nationalist agenda is currently being led by the Irish government, there is no indication that maximising the nationalist agenda means anything other than reducing all those divisive elements from the equation.

When they talk about writing "majority consent" into the constitution of the Irish Republic, it means writing in the unionist veto on all relationships within Ireland. When they talk about "writing majority consent into the Assembly", it means writing the unionist veto into the Assembly. And when they talk about writing it into the Government of Ireland Act in the British parliament, they mean exactly the same thing.

This agreement reduces the relationship between Britain and Ireland, and the relationships between the groups within Ireland, to the veto of the least progressive group in the country — the unionists of the North. How is that supposed to lead us to peace?

This agreement is a bad agreement. Every progressive-thinking person and every republican has an individual and a collective responsibility to say calmly, out loud: this is a bad agreement and people should reject it.

It is not true that our only alternative is the continuation of the war. The IRA called a cease-fire in 1994, and with the exception of some dramatic and some horrendous breaches of that cease-fire — most of which came from the loyalists — the cease-fires have been the most disciplined of any conflict throughout the globe. In maintaining a cease-fire for four years, they are bringing the military struggle to an end.

If they think that is a good idea, they have a moral and political responsibility to the people who follow them to argue that idea and to hold it — not to publicly say we have a cease-fire, and pragmatically say to their own people, hang on till next week and if it doesn't work, we have a war.

If the collective leadership has come to a point where they believe that the armed struggle was not progressing their case and was creating difficulties for their political development, that's fine.

But that does not mean the only alternative to war is a bad settlement. If we say no to this deal, the British government will come back and say, "Okay, if it's no to this deal, what about that one over there?", and we can begin to look at where we actually should be going.

There is a fundamental principle at stake here. Somehow or another in this agreement, the British government, at the beginning of it, was the protagonist in a war. At the end of it, they are sitting at the right hand of George Mitchell as the independent arbiters of a dispute between two tribal differences in the north of Ireland. And they have created a settlement on that basis.

I say we go back to the beginning. Even recognising the limitations of 200 years ago, when people like Wolfe Tone began the Republican movement, there were some fundamental principles that people understood. We have to raise them in Ireland today.

All of us [have] different advantages and disadvantages; the one thing that we share is an equal, individual and collective right to the respect of our individual and collective integrity and person, space, culture and thought. Each of us is entitled to those basic human rights for no reason other than we breathe in and out.

And what we are required to do as equal human beings, individually and collectively, is first of all to discuss and debate and argue, but ultimately to agree amongst ourselves the principles of humanity by which we govern ourselves. That should have been the first step of any peace negotiation in Ireland. It was not to sit down with the British government or George Mitchell. They do not live, work, vote in Ireland.

We should have determined that and put that to the vote. That is a basis by which we establish a fundamental constitution for the people of Ireland.

Then our next business was to put together a mechanism by which we delegated authority to government, to a judicial system and to those who would act as arbitrators. And it was to determine a mechanism by which we would hold those people accountable to us, and dispose of their services should they fail to serve the people in the manner in which the people had decided.

That is the way one negotiates a settlement, a solution, a system of government, for the people and by the people, which the people agree with because they determined it for themselves. The fundamental principle of republicanism is self-determination — and not one shred of self-determination is involved in this "peace accord".

We need to sit down together and remember and redefine and clearly establish what it is we are for. Unless somebody is prepared to tell me that we have changed our minds, we are for the establishment of an independent, democratic, 32-county, socialist republic.

I need to hear from Sinn Féin either how this agreement leads us towards the enhancement of the peaceful progress towards that goal, or that they have abandoned that position.

It's not a question of sell-out. These are good people, and we have fought and struggled long and hard together. But we owe it to ourselves, to the people with whom and for whom we have struggled, to all the people who have suffered in prison, who have lost their lives and lost their liberty as a result of our struggle, to at least conduct our business in the spirit of intellectual, political reality and debate.

We have all fought long and hard. That is not the issue. The issue is plain and simple: does this settlement bring about an equitable, peaceful resolution of the conflict, or even facilitate the bringing about of the same? And the answer has to be "no".

This is a settlement which uses our prisoners as hostages. This is a settlement that takes our leadership step by step by step into the limited, partitionist, constitutional sectarianism that is the Northern Ireland state. There is no shame here in putting your hand up and saying, "We are out of this agreement, and we want to start a new negotiation".

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