DUBLIN — On the eve of the Washington meeting last month between Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and the British direct ruler in Northern Ireland, Patrick Mayhew, Green Left Weekly's ROBYNNE MURPHY spoke to An Phoblacht editor MICHEAL MacDONNCHA about recent developments in the struggle for a united Ireland.
What is your evaluation of the effort to achieve a peaceful political settlement?
At this stage we're almost nine months into the IRA cease-fire. Since then there's been major developments and our view is that [the cease-fire] has transformed the political situation. The pace of change has been much faster at the Irish end of things than from the British point of view.
The Forum for Peace and Reconciliation was set up in Dublin by the previous Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds. It was a forum for all the Irish parties, including the unionist parties, to discuss how to achieve peace and national reconciliation.
Parties representing about 80% of the population are in the forum, but the unionists in the six counties have refused to attend. The forum has taken submissions and heard contributions from a wide range of political, community, church and trade unions groups, and it's an ongoing project.
But the main focus obviously has to be the drive towards all-party talks — a negotiated settlement — and that's where the delay is at the moment.
The main factor causing that delay has been the British government. When the IRA cease-fire was called, the British, as they had done prior to the cease-fire, continued to place obstacles in the way of progress.
Firstly, as the IRA didn't use the word "permanent" in their cease-fire declaration, for several weeks the British government carried on word games and refused to recognise the validity of the IRA action. Eventually force of public and international opinion forced them to drop that precondition [to negotiations].
Other preconditions then followed — the major one being the decommissioning of weapons. This issue was raised simply as a means by which the British government refused to recognise Sinn Fein's electoral mandate. They've met and entered bilateral discussions with all the parties except Sinn Fein because they say that Sinn Fein is associated with an armed group, the IRA, which hasn't given up its weapons.
What's the attitude of the different parties towards negotiations?
Even after last week when they finally had ministerial meetings with Sinn Fein, the British still said Sinn Fein would be treated differently from other parties — their excuse was the bogus issue of the decommissioning of weapons.
The British envisaged our party talking to Michael Ancram [the British minister for political development] solely on the decommissioning of weapons issue, while all the other parties went into talks with Patrick Mayhew [secretary of state for Northern Ireland]. That would be a two-track approach where we would be on the sidelines. We weren't prepared to accept that.
Also, the other nationalist parties are not prepared to accept that: the Social Democratic and Labour Party led by John Hume, the Dublin government led by John Bruton and the nationalist parties in this state have all said that Sinn Fein should be in on an equal basis. So, really, the British two-track talks are a non-starter.
This carried on until mid-May. Until then, Sinn Fein was meeting with British officials and civil servants in Stormont, the old parliament in the six counties. It is still the headquarters of the British civil service — the British administration in Ireland.
We were meeting with civil servants in that building for a number of weeks until we said that we weren't prepared to continue a process where we were third-class party representatives from the British point of view. We demanded to meet British ministers, as the other parties had.
Eventually the British were forced to back down and in mid-May a Sinn Fein delegation led by Martin McGuinness met Michael Ancram at Stormont. After that we again made it clear that we weren't prepared for any kind of two-track approach to the talks.
We went to the meeting with an open agenda; we were willing to discuss any issue which is of concern to both sides. [The meeting] was described in the usual diplomatic language as "frank and useful". Other than that, we do not have any details, as it was a private meeting.
After the meeting we demanded that Gerry Adams meet with Patrick Mayhew at the Washington investment conference. This would be another step on the road to full recognition of Sinn Fein's mandate by the British government — but a long overdue step. This should have happened years ago.
Is there progress towards a mutual disarmament in the north?
The British have hardly made any moves at all in relation to their garrison. They have 30,000 armed forces between their armed police force, the British army and its locally recruited regiment, the Royal Irish Regiment. They have 30,000 armed people and dozens of heavily fortified bases, spy-posts and check points throughout the six counties. Patrick Mayhew has said that every step, every minor step that they've made, is "immediately reversible". That's the phrase he's used.
The only progress is that the British have ordered the reopening of border roads and sent 800 of their 30,000 armed forces back to England. At the moment the only armed forces on the streets in the North are the British — the same people who are demanding that the IRA give up their weapons.
That's the spin the British are putting on the present situation internationally. They're trying to say that the Republicans are holding up the situation, even after the Republicans took the unprecedented step of calling a unilateral cease-fire. There's no precedent anywhere that I know of, certainly not in Irish history, for weapons to be handed up and a community to be left defenceless.
The Republicans took this step of having a cease-fire as a means of continuing the struggle by other means. We regard it as a step which creates a huge potential for advancing the struggle for a united Ireland.
The Republicans' aims haven't changed; Sinn Fein's ultimate aim is still a democratic socialist republic in Ireland. Our immediate aim is British withdrawal and Irish unity. The tactics we've adopted have been to build an Irish consensus amongst the nationalist parties, to counter the British-unionist consensus.