Sunday, February 1, 2015

Taoiseach sees north as foreign country

The Stormont House Agreement was for Sinn Féin a defensive negotiation. It was about defending what had been gained previously and was being diluted as a result of the ongoing process. In large measure the outcome, while not comprehensive was positive.

However, following on from that agreement, one aspect of the negotiation that bears closer scrutiny is the role of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government.

It is important to recall that for much of the twentieth century successive Irish government’s, mainly led by Fianna Fáil, ignored what as happening in the north. So too did successive British governments. The result was the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a violent response by the Unionst government and loyalist mobs, and the militarisation by the British of the north.

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff for much of the peace process, recently acknowledged the contribution British government inattention made to the failure of politics and the emergence of conflict in the north in an interview with the magazine Civil Service World.

Powell says; In the 1960s and for decades before, the British government paid absolutely no attention to what was happening in Northern Ireland,” he says: Catholic complainants were referred back to the Protestant authorities in Stormont. “We just pushed it to one side. If we’d been sensible, we would have insisted on fair [access to] housing – which was what caused the civil rights movement – and on fair employment laws, and we would have insisted on power sharing rather than allowing unionist gerrymandering to squeeze the Catholics out altogether.”

Since both coalition governments in London and Dublin came to power they have repeated this mistake. They ignored a deteriorating situation which had reached the point of crisis.

In addition, as so often in the past, the Fine Gael/Labour government was acting as a junior partner to the British.

20 years ago another coalition government led by Fine Gael had just recently come into power in Dublin. It was led by John Bruton. The period that followed was particularly difficult. In the view of many republicans Bruton fractured the effort to build a consensus approach to the peace process. He often took up positions identical to the British and occasionally, he was even more British than the British! At one point he refused to meet Sinn Féin and urged the electorate, north and south, not to vote for us. Little wonder the late Albert Reynolds referred to him as ‘johnny unionist’.

Evidence for this is clear in any comparison of the first paper the Irish and British governments presented to the Executive parties on December 11 and the final paper agreed on December 23rd.

The first paper sought to nationalise austerity, with the Irish Government supporting British Tory efforts to hurt the most vulnerable citizens in the North. The Irish Government also acquiesced to the British Government's use of "national security" to deny information to victims and to the British demand to end the rights of families of victims to an inquest in the Coroner's Court. If this proposal had been accepted - it was rejected forthrightly by Sinn Féin - this would have left victim's families, including the Ballymurphy families - whom the Taoiseach has met and who have campaigned for decades for the right to Article 2-compliant inquests - with no access to the crucial inquest system.

It was only after Enda Kenny and Joan Burton had left and Martin McGuinness I had warned the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, and Minister of State, Sean Sherlock that the government’s proposals were not sustainable, that progress was made.

In a deliberate effort to try and damage Sinn Féin in the south the Taoiseach has since then sought to create the illusion that there was a difference in approach and substance between myself and Martin McGuinness. He described my approach to the negotiations as ‘outrageous’ and claimed that Martin McGuinness was prepared to accept a lesser deal than I was.

While I could take that assertion as a back-handed compliment, I do not do so because it is totally untruthful. Martin McGuinness, who is as committed to all these issues as I am, described the Taoiseach's remark as "stupid".

Why therefore would a Taoiseach say such a thing? If he put any thought into his remark, it was obviously to distract attention from the Government's refusal to develop any strategy for engagement with the British as a co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements.

But perhaps the greatest problem is that the Taoiseach, and others in his Cabinet, view the North as a foreign country. Rather than facing across the Border and extending a hand of friendship to all the people of the North, he faces away and turns his back on people here.

Instead of developing a coherent strategy to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements, as it is obliged to do, the Irish government submissively follows the lead of the British. If it has a strategy it is to use the north in a futile attempt to attack Sinn Féin. This is evident most clearly in the Dáil where the north is generally only raised by other parties to score political points against Sinn Féin.

Consequently, the most outrageous claims are often made and repeated as if true. This is particularly the case with the Labour Party which is under serious electoral pressure at this time. For example, it has been claimed that the agreement will result in mass redundancies in the public sector. While this may have been the intention of the initial proposals put forward by the Governments, there will be no compulsory redundancies.

Sinn Féin wants to reconfigure the economy in the north so that it serves all of the people. This also requires co-operation across the border. A single island economy makes economic sense. Sinn Féin is pro-enterprise but we are also pro-worker and pro-trade union.

The Stormont House Agreement provides for a voluntary redundancy scheme for public sector workers who wish to avail of it. The scale of the take-up will be driven by public sector workers and balanced with the need to maintain public services. Sinn Féin will not repeat the mistakes of the Fine Gael and Labour Government by allowing a scheme to undermine public services in pursuit of savings. Any scheme will be agreed in consultation with the trade unions and Executive Ministers.

The peace process is the most important political project on this island at this time. It needs to be nurtured, protected and enhanced. It should be at the top of the Government's agenda alongside other priorities. It isn’t. For my part I will continue to urge the Labour and Fine Gael Government to accept that the success and stability of the peace and political process in the north and the all-Ireland institutions are bigger and more important than any shortsighted, selfish electoral political agenda.


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