The Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle today met to discuss the agreement reached at Stormont on Tuesday December 23rd.
There was an informed discussion. The Ard Chomhairle recognised that progress has been made in defending the most vulnerable against the Tory welfare and budget cuts. It also recognised that progress has been made with regard to the issues of flags, the past and parading.
When Agreement was finally reached I acknowledged at the time that there was more to do at a community, political and national level to resolve these matters. Sinn Féin representatives have consistently recorded our concern that the governments have failed to deliver on their outstanding commitments including a Bill of Rights, Acht na Gaeilge, and an inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane and other outstanding matters. The British government specifically refused to implement a number of outstanding commitments and the Irish Government representatives accepted this.
However, the recent talks also demonstrated that with the five main parties acting together, significant progress can be made to safeguard the most vulnerable and to rebuild the reputation of the political institutions.The day before the talks concluded I penned a column for the Andersonstown News which I enclose for your interest below.
This column comes to you from the Castle at Stormont. Could it be a fifth column? Its Monday, it’s late and the talks are continuing. By the time you read this you will know if they have concluded and if an agreement has been achieved.
Sinn Féin’s objectives over the last three months of discussions have been to reach a deal that protects the most vulnerable in society, safeguards the rights and entitlements of citizens, delivers on outstanding agreements, grows the economy and enhances the working of the institutions.
It hasn’t been easy not least because the British government’s welfare reform agenda represents an attack on the welfare state and on the most vulnerable and the least able to pay in our society. Sinn Féin has been steadfast in our opposition to this agenda.
The contribution of the two governments has at times been very unhelpful. The British government in particular, far from seeking to engage constructively with parties, tried to present itself as some sort of independent broker. It then tried to impose its own view and predetermine the outcome of the discussions. It was not willing to engage in meaningful negotiations.
At the same time elements of the media were engaged in talking down the possibility of agreement. It’s almost as if some of our journalistic friends want the process to collapse. And some quickly got involved in the blame game – unsurprisingly targeting Sinn Féin.
They were joined in this by some of the political leaders in the Dáil who have very deliberately used the negotiations process as a platform to attack Sinn Féin. The leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour have been especially vocal. To their shame they have put their own narrow electoral self-interest over the needs of the peace process. When Mr Cameron bluntly told me, in the Taoiseach’s presence, that he would not honour the Weston Park Agreement and hold an Enquiry into the killing of Human Rights lawyer Pat Finucane, the Taoiseach said nothing. Not a word.
Despite these shenanigans and the media fuelled pessimism Martin McGuinness and the Sinn Féin negotiating team were undaunted. We remained focussed, positively engaged and are working hard to secure a comprehensive agreement.
Toward the end of last week a concrete change in the dynamic within the negotiations saw progress made. Very specifically the five Executive parties agreed a set of proposals regarding the public finances that would enable the Executive to advance a reconciliation process and to invest in the economy. These proposals will require additional financial support and are now with the British Government.
The parties also agreed a range of welfare protections designed to safeguard the most vulnerable in our society, particularly those with disabilities. These protections are unique to the north of Ireland and would be paid for by the Executive. This ensures there would be no reductions in entitlement to benefits under the control of the Assembly.
The Executive will create a supplementary payment fund alongside a range of other measures, involving top-ups and the retention of a number of anti-poverty measures.
It has been estimated that the cost of this to the Executive would average £94 million per year – ranging from £54 million in the first year to £134 million in year four.
The outworking of these measures would mean that there would be no increase in the rate of people being disallowed disability benefits; that those receiving the Severe Disability Premium would remain protected; child additional rates for those with disabilities would also be protected.
Over the weekend Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson drove home the message to David Cameron that the British government is a participant in these negotiations and must contribute to a comprehensive agreement, not just in terms of the financial issues facing the Executive but also on the past and truth and justice for victims of the conflict.
Substantial work has also gone into discussions on the other key issues, including the implementation of outstanding issues from previous agreements including the Past, Parades and Flags, and reconciliation, including a stronger role for civic society.
The parties are continuing their work tonight to narrow down the issues and to move in the direction of a comprehensive agreement, which all the parties and the two governments can sign up to.
Progress has been made. Is it enough? At this point I can’t say. But I remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached. It may not resolve all of the outstanding issues but it can mark a step change in the peace process and would allow the political institutions to begin the New Year in a positive atmosphere and protect the most disadvantaged in our society from the worst excesses of the British Tory welfare agenda.
I am very mindful that this business of change- making is a process. It is painfully slow, incremental and at times frustrating. It is always challenging. But that should not daunt us. Whatever comes out of these talks the struggle for equality continues.
The need to be change-makers, to win Irish language rights alongside a Bill of Rights and other modest entitlements in a rights based, citizen centred society will make 2015 an interesting year.
Bliain Úr Faoi Mhaise Daoibhse.