Saturday, February 6, 2010
Better late than never
Feb 7th 10
This Blog watched as Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson joined the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to set out the final piece of the jig-saw which saw agreement between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party on the transfer of policing and justice powers and other outstanding matters arising from the Good Friday and St. Andrews agreements. It was another good Friday in the peace process.
Many had thought it wouldn’t, couldn’t happen. That the respective positions of the Shinners and the DUP were too far apart. But it did and it was achieved primarily as a result of very intense discussions between the two parties.
This was a hugely important, as well as symbolic moment. The DUP rejected the Good Friday Agreement. They have an a la carte attitude to the St. Andrews Agreement. But this agreement at Hillsborough Castle is a different creature. It is theirs. And ours. And hopefully before long the other parties will come on board. This marks a new phase in the process.
The Agreement that has now been reached will see the transfer of powers on policing and justice in April. By the end of the year there will also be the transfer of powers from London to Belfast to deal with the issue of parades.
Key to this is agreeing a framework that provides for local solutions, respects the rights of those who want to parade but also the rights of those who live in those areas into which marchers wish to go. It is based on dialogue and on seeking to improve the adjudicating framework for contentious parades. No one should feel nervous about any of this. This agreement, like the Good Friday Agreement before it, asserts the right of everyone to live free from sectarian harassment. In the interim the Parades Commission will continue.
Agreement has also been reached on a process to progress the outstanding issues arising from the St. Andrews Agreement and this clearly includes the rights of Irish language speakers.
It was the Shinners who put Acht na Gaeilge on the table at St Andrews and this Blog is confident that the rights of Irish language speakers will be advanced in the time ahead. This Blog would have liked more progress on language rights. That’s one of the reasons I called the agreement a staging post.
There should be a draft strategy on the Irish language before long. The focus then will be to make this viable; with clear objectives and timeframes, and the inclusive involvement of Gaeilgeoirí to figger all this out. There is also more work to be done by the two governments in tandem with the Executive fulfilling its responsibilities to uphold the rights of those of us who wish to live our lives through our own language.
The Agreement at Hillsborough also agreed a process for clearing the backlog of Executive papers and decisions which are still pending, and advancing the all-Ireland aspects of the St. Andrews Agreement, including an inter-parliamentary forum and the consultative forum.
It is detailed and timeframed agreement.
Of course, there will be some who will rail against it. The naysayers and begrudgers will study the detail of the agreement seeking points of criticism. But they are the minority. The vast majority of people in the north and on this island want this process to work. Public opinion in recent weeks has overwhelmingly favoured a deal.
So, another agreement has been achieved and new and important progress has been made in consolidating the political institutions.
The judgement on our success however will be in whether the political process and the institutions deliver for citizens.
As the parties negotiated last week hundreds more job losses were announced in Belfast and Monkstown, in County Antrim. The numbers of those unemployed is rising; families are finding it increasingly difficult to pay mortgages and make ends meet. There are increasing numbers of our children living in poverty, while our elderly make life and death choices about heating their homes or buying food.
The reality is that for two years the Executive and the Assembly have not been as effective as they should have been in developing strategies and policies to tackle these problems.
There is now a significant opportunity to change all of that. An opportunity to build a society based on respect, equality, partnership and fairness. Sinn Féin is an Irish republican party. As Martin McGuinness said yesterday we believe in a United Ireland. And in two weeks time on Saturday 20th February we will be hosting a conference on Irish Unity in TUC Congress House in London to discuss and debate this very issue.
But that doesn’t mean that Irish republicans and Unionists cannot work together in the interests of those we represent. We can and Sinn Féin is determined to make positive use of the opportunity that now exists to do that.
Putting Irish Unity on the Agenda
A Conference to open the debate will take place on Saturday 20 February in TUC Congress Houses of Parliament Visit: www.londonirishunityconference.org
And Finally …
Good luck to our senior footballers who play Sligo tomorrow – Sunday.