The agreement reached at Stormont on Tuesday is far from perfect. But it is the best that was possible at this time. It is the culmination of over three months of intense and difficult negotiations that arose following a series of crisis in the political process.
Last year’s Stormont House Agreement was a genuine effort to secure a deal that would protect the most vulnerable in society, to safeguard the rights and entitlements of citizens, to grow the economy and to enhance the working of the institutions.
But resistance to change, which is particularly strong within elements of unreconstructed unionism and the British security system, and the ideological commitment of the British Tory party to austerity saw the agreement come under immediate pressure.
The contrived political crisis by the Ulster Unionist Party following the murders of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan in Belfast led to the virtual collapse of the institutions.
Martin McGuinness and others in our negotiating team have worked hard to find solutions to all of the core issues. Our focus was on defending public services, while dealing with outstanding issues. These include the Bill of Rights and Achta na Gaeilge, contentious parades and identity. Securing the full implementation of the legacy proposals from last year’s Stormont House Agreement was also critical.
On Tuesday, following progress in the talks, a new agreement was achieved. Not all issues were resolved but this is an important development which seeks to stabalise the political institutions, tackle some of the outstanding matters, and allow for progress. Sinn Féin has successfully negotiated a package of measures, including in excess of half a billion in new money; and additional flexibilities to invest in public services and the economy. We have also negotiated a fund of £585 million over four years to support the vulnerable and working families.
A panel headed by the renowned advocate Dr. Eileen Evason is to report on how best to use the £500 million fund to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. These measures will mitigate some aspects of Britain’s austerity policies but will not cover in their entirety the cuts being imposed by the Tories on working families, claimants and the block grant. The British approach is unfair, fundamentally undemocratic and economically counter-productive. Sinn Féin will continue to oppose this policy.
The agreement reached also seeks to deal with the issue of criminality and the continued existence of armed and active groups.
Of particular concern is the British government’s refusal to honor last year’s Stormont House Agreement on full disclosure to meet the needs of victims arising out of the conflict. Several weeks ago the British government introduced legislation, in direct contravention of the Stormont House Agreement, which seeks to prevent the victims of British state terrorism from getting the truth.
Using the pretext of ‘national security’ a British secretary of state can close down an investigation and push aside the genuine needs of victims. These proposals are unacceptable. As a result no agreement has been possible on dealing with the legacy of the past.
The British objective has been to prevent full disclosure to the families of victims of the conflict. The British government and its security and military apparatus continue to cover up the action of their agents, informers, army, police and political establishment by using a ‘national security’ veto. This is unacceptable.
What conceivable ‘national security’ concerns can exist for events, many of which occurred 30 and 40 years ago? What ‘national security’ interests are now served over 40 years later by a British government refusing to unlock the files to the Dublin Monaghan bombings or the actions of the Force Reconnaissance Unit or the role of Brian Nelson and others?
Will the efforts of the hooded men to get to the truth of who in the British cabinet sanctioned their torture come up against the excuse of national security?
Will the Ballymurphy families or those who believe the British agent Stakeknife played a part in the murder of their loved ones, or the hundreds of other victims and their families of British counter-insurgency strategies find their efforts thwarted by the overriding demands of British ‘national security’?
Will the truth about the apartheid south African arms shipment, involving MI5, which saw the capacity of the UVF and UDA and Ulster Resistance to kill Catholics in the late 1980s and 90s significantly increase, be hidden from the families of the two hundred people who were killed as a consequence?
The refusal of Theresa Villiers to implement the agreement she made last year is about covering up the extent to which the British state created and organised and provided information to unionist paramilitary gangs in the killing of citizens.
It is not acceptable to those victims who survived gun and bomb attacks or the families of those who died. Nor is it compatible with the Stormont House Agreement.
Finally, the Irish government has not asserted its role as co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday and other agreements. It has played the part of junior partner and has acquiesced to British demands, especially around the issue of legacy. Their role should have been to hold the British government to account. They failed to do this.
We should not be surprised by this. In economic terms, Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party have consistently made common cause with the British Conservative Party in their relentless pursuit of austerity.
In the time ahead Sinn Féin will continue to stand up for the rights of the vulnerable, working families, our economy and our public services.
We believe the new agreement offers the best hope for a new start – a new opportunity to build a better future.
It is also an opportunity for Republicans to show that the union with Britain is not in the interests of citizens in the north. The price of the union is that a London government, unelected by citizens here, is imposing policies that will attack the vulnerable, the elderly and the young, while denying the Executive the resources to invest effectively in our economy. That doesn’t make sense. Uniting Ireland and building an all-island economy, rooted in equality makes perfect sense.