Sinn Féin responds to Blair

June 4, 1997

The following is an abridged version of a speech by Sinn Féin president GERRY ADAMS in response to the statement on Ireland made by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on May 16.

As Tony Blair began the long Labour climb to power, he showed himself capable of new thinking. It is a matter of regret, therefore, that the speech he delivered in Belfast was so barren of new thinking. Protestations from British sources that the main part of the speech was the invitation to talks with Sinn Féin and that the rest was merely to reassure the unionists ring hollow.

Not so long ago, the British Labour Party had a "united Ireland by consent" policy which reflected the honourable democratic sentiment within the British labour movement that the partition of Ireland was wrong. It is therefore understandable that nationalists should feel disturbed to hear Blair declare himself a unionist with such gusto.

I can accept Mr Blair's assertion, "I believe in the United Kingdom" because that is the British government's position and he is PM. But to declare, "I value the union" begs the question why or which part of the union is to be valued.

It is based on coercion, not consent. It exists not by the popular will of the people of Ireland but by a minority backed by British guns. These guns and others have killed and maimed thousands of people. Thousands more have gone to jail. Injustice reigns.

There is also no point in pretending that a partitionist solution is possible. Mr Blair is right to say, "Violence has no place in a democratic society". But the problem is that the six-county state is not a democratic society.

Its existence is based upon and is the cause of violence. It is governed under a permanent state of emergency on a life support unit of British militarism. It is maintained to deny to the Irish people the universal right to be free from foreign interference.

Double standards

The double standards of the last British government were in evidence in Mr Blair's speech. It was highly insensitive for him to commend loyalists for their "restraint" on the very day that the people of Bellaghy were burying Sean Browne. His speech also typically failed to mention the violence of the British forces.

He seeks constitutional change, but says this must come from the Irish. Apparently it is all right for the British to occupy and lay claim to a part of Ireland by force, but the Irish have to yield our claim to nationhood.

Neither is anyone impressed by the oft-repeated cliché of the train leaving the station. Exclusiveness does not work. A peace process cannot be built upon threats or ultimatums.

Those who drafted Mr Blair's speech are from the old administration. If progress is to be made, the new government must give a new political direction.

The British government will always defend British national interests. Those who argue that the British government is neutral miss or ignore this point.

Sinn Féin will not be deflected by Mr Blair's comments. We see it as our duty to change British government policy, especially on the question of the union.

Dublin's responsibility

This is also the responsibility of the broad democratic and nationalist opinion on this island, to assert Irish national interests and to seek international support for that position. Irish nationalists have a right to expect the Irish government to enter negotiations on that basis.

Sinn Féin has accepted Mr Blair's invitation to talks. Despite his government's reprehensible refusal to acknowledge the democratic rights of our electorate and without prejudice to this, our party believes in honest dialogue and we will play a positive part.

However, we should not blind ourselves to the problems. It would be a mistake to falsely raise expectations.

Progress is only possible if the opportunity which has been created is grasped. There needs to be a speedy move to negotiations of the substantive issues so that the political changes upon which a lasting peace depends can be urgently accomplished.

Sinn Féin believes in resolving political problems through peaceful and democratic methods. We will, of course, bring our democratic Irish republican analysis to any negotiations.

It is our view that the British presence and the partition of Ireland are at the heart of the instability, political divisions and violence which have racked this country since the six-county state was established. We believe that a unitary, independent sovereign Irish state holds the best prospect for a just and lasting peace in Ireland.

Others will bring their perspectives. We uphold their right to do so and we reaffirm our commitment to the agreed outcome of democratic negotiations.

Unionist veto

Mr Blair reinforces unionist intransigence when he says, in relation to cross-border institutions, "If such arrangements were really threatening to unionists, we would not negotiate them". If this logic is followed through, there will be no progress whatsoever on any issue of substance.

Sinn Féin wants to make peace with our unionist neighbours. But peace demands justice. Justice demands equality. The consent of the Irish people to the partition of Ireland was never sought. There is no democratic basis for partition. That is the basis on which the consent issue has to be addressed.

The context in which "unionist consent" is framed today aims to cloud the fact that what is really being talked about is a dated and spurious justification for partition and the unionist veto.

The consent and agreement of the unionist section of our people is necessary to the building of an agreed and stable Ireland. It is our firmly held belief that the consent of the unionist community is only realisable in the context of a clear policy change on the part of the British government. Liberated from the negative influence of the veto, the potential for unionists and nationalists negotiating an agreed future would be opened up.

The British government's failure to commit to working towards Irish reunification also ignores the wish of the majority of British people themselves that their government should withdraw from Ireland and Irish affairs.

Sinn Féin has the democratic right to be involved in negotiations now and to represent our electorate on the basis of our strongly re-established electoral mandate. We reject any preconditions to our involvement in dialogue and negotiations.

Bridging the gap

According to the British legislation setting up the talks, if there was an unequivocal restoration of the IRA cessation of August 1994, Sinn Féin would be invited to participate in the negotiations. The stated position of the IRA is that they are willing to enhance a genuine peace process. The gap between the two positions must be bridged.

The elements of a meaningful process have long been identified. Many have been satisfactorily agreed. A number of critical outstanding concerns remain.

A negotiation process must address all the issues which have led to conflict and division. They include:

  • <~>The British government should outline a program of specific confidence building measures which address equality and democratic rights issues. The principles of equality of treatment, equality of opportunity and parity of esteem would have to apply across the political, cultural, economic, social, legal and security spectrum.

Both governments also need to urgently address demilitarisation, including issues such as political prisoners, emergency legislation and policing. The plight of republican prisoners in Britain should be speedily dealt with.

  • <~>The removal of preconditions. Sinn Féin is totally committed to resolving, through negotiations, the issue of disarmament, decommissioning and demilitarisation. However, it is clear that the issue of decommissioning is being used as a block on the negotiations. If real progress is to be made, this must be corrected.

  • <~>The Stormont talks have not yet begun to address the substantive issues. The two governments should propose a time frame and calendar for negotiations, in the region of six months. At that point the negotiations process should be reviewed and, if there is not sufficient progress, proceed with the substantive issues.

There also needs to be some structural device to ensure that unionist politicians, as the beneficiaries of the status quo, cannot exploit that advantage by using an open-ended negotiating process to ward off or delay political change.

  • <~>The British government should state clearly that Sinn Féin will join the negotiations immediately following an unequivocal restoration of the IRA cessation of August 1994.

If clear assurances are given by the British government that a negotiations process which is both viable and credible will be put in place, the peace process can be restored.

The re-establishment of contact between Sinn Féin and British government representatives offers us the most direct means of resolving these issues. What is required is political will on all sides. Republicans have the political will. I hope and I pray that the new British government also has the necessary political will.
[Reprinted from RM Distribution, an Irish Republican news and information service at]

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