Following last week’s election results I travelled to Washington DC to brief senior officials in the State Department, White House and Irish American Congressional leaders. I also met other Irish American leaders in New York. The focus of our conversations was the current difficulties in the peace process and the steps that are needed to resolve them.
The last two years especially have seen the process drift from one crisis into another. Sinn Fein has been warning of this but the British government, and especially the Irish government, have refused to listen. Both governments have been disengaged from the process and the pro-unionist stance of the British government has encouraged the worsening political impasse.
My arrest on April 30th changed this. Now there is a realisation that all is not well. The question is what will the two governments do to end the impasse?
There are many issues contributing to current difficulties. Not least of which is the refusal of the Unionist leaderships to engage positively. This is most evident in the refusal of the UUP and DUP to sign up for the Haass compromise proposals on legacy issues, flags and symbols and parades.
But then why would you expect the unionist parties to behave differently if the British government has not signed up to the Haass compromise proposals and backs their intransigence?
It is a fact that the Cameron government, like the Major government in the 1990’s, has been explicitly partisan in championing a unionist agenda. The British Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, has played a key role in this. She recently rejected requests from the Ballymurphy families for a review into those events. Instead she expressed her concern at what she described as ‘the one-sided approach which focuses on the minority of deaths in which the state was involved.’ Such arrogance.
This is the same British government that refuses to hand over information on the Dublin Monaghan bombs which killed 34 citizens 40 years ago. Events which the Dáil described as “acts of international terrorism that were colluded in by the British security forces.”
This is the same British state that was directly responsible for almost 400 deaths and many hundreds more through state collusion. These are not the ‘minority of deaths’ which Ms. Villiers seeks to dismiss as if unimportant.
At the same time as Ms Villiers denies truth to the victims of British state violence she implements a policy that implements, in effect, an amnesty for British forces.
On top of this we now know David Cameron recently hosted, what the London Guardian described as a ‘lavish reception in the Downing Street garden’ for the DUP. The purpose? To court that party’s support in the event of a hung Parliament following the British general election next year. The Guardian wisely questioned whether this was Cameron playing the traditional conservative ‘Orange Card’.
The effect of the British government’s handling of the political situation has been to reinforce political logjams.
In an article last week in the Belfast Telegraph the British Prime Minister indicated a willingness to make progress. The jury is out on that. If Mr. Cameron is serious about ending the impasse – if he is serious about reaching agreement on the issues of contention then he needs to move beyond a minimalist approach which merely tinkers at the edge of the difficulties. He needs to sign up to the Haass proposals.
David Cameron also has to demonstrate a willingness to make progress on those matters arising out of the various agreements, including the Good Friday Agreement, the Weston Park Agreement, and the St Andrew’s and Hillsborough agreements which have not been implemented.
These include the Bill of Rights, the all-Ireland Charter of Rights, Acht na Gaeilge, the North South Consultative Forum, the Civic Forum and the inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane. These are not matters for negotiation. They are agreements made and are the responsibility of the British and Irish governments to implement.
Nor can the Irish and British governments sit back and, like Mr. Cameron in his Telegraph article, seek to place all of the responsibility for progress on the Executive parties in the north. There is a huge onus on the British Prime Minister to take positive decisions that enhance the political context for agreement. Persuading unionist leaders to move forward through an intensive process of discussions will only work if the British government constructively engages and provides those parties with clear and positive leadership.
There is a small window of opportunity between now and July which must be fully utilised to negotiate agreements on outstanding issues, including legacy issues, parades, and flags and emblems.
The peace process is in trouble. It cannot be allowed to meander. The road has too many pitfalls. There are too many elements on the fringes of nationalism, within unionism and especially within the British system, who want to derail the process and build obstacles to it.
For all the issues pressing down upon people’s lives every single day, the people of this island, the diaspora and the international community believe in the peace process. Our efforts in the time ahead must be to ensure continuing progress and the full implementation of outstanding issues.