Thursday, July 3, 2014

Unionist walk out of talks – a step back


With the intensive all-party talks less than 48 hours old the Unionist parties all walked out. The reason? The Parades Commission has barred an Orange march from returning along part of the Crumlin Road through a nationalist area.

The DUP leader Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt were then joined by the leader of the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) Jim Allister and by the parties linked to the UVF and UDA in issuing a joint call to action for loyalists to oppose the Parades Commission’s determination and describing the all-party talks as ‘fruitless’.

The unionist leaderships urged loyalists to respond peacefully and lawfully but given that their decision is in direct opposition to a lawful decision by the Parades Commission, it is questionable how much weight will be given to this by those loyalist elements that have been periodically involved in serious street disturbances in the last two years.

Many will also question their sincerity in appealing for calm in light of the claim in their joint statement that ‘having seen republican threats of violence being rewarded the conclusion is swiftly drawn that violence pays.’

It is also important to note that there are more loyalist and orange parades taking place each year than ever before. In 2005 there were 2120 marches in the north. By last year that had more than  doubled to 4,637. Two thirds of these are loyalist parades. Claims that objections by a handful of nationalist areas to orange parades going through their communities is an attack on the Orange is clearly a nonsense.

The decision by the unionist leaderships today is evidence of their failure to stand firm against the demands of the Orange Order, the UVF and UDA in north Belfast. This is about these groups playing the Orange Card and using the threat of political instability to achieve their demands.

This is unacceptable. The status quo is not tenable. Sinn Féin will resist all efforts by unionist leaders to roll back the Good Friday Agreement.

This morning’s move by the unionist leaders was not entirely unexpected. We warned the British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Labour Leader ED Miliband that unionist intransigence was threatening the political process.

Why would unionists engage positively in dialogue when David Cameron has not been fully engaged with the peace process in the last four years. Yesterday’s meeting with David Cameron was our first such meeting since he came to power in 2010. This is deplorable and is clear evidence of the British government’s failure thus far to properly engage with the process of change in the north. David Cameron, like other Conservative leaders before him, has leaned heavily in the direction of political unionism and away from the inclusive approach of the Good Friday Agreement.

This has contributed to the political process facing a succession of crises. But the situation has deteriorated even further in recent months as a consequence of the DUP’s unwillingness to participate positively within the political institutions and the Good Friday and other Agreements. Like David Trimble before them the DUP engagement has been tactical and aimed at serving their own party political agenda rather than the needs of the Good Friday Agreement.

They have bought into the architecture of the Agreement because they have no choice. But they have not bought into the substance. As Martin McGuinness has noted ‘We are in government with unionists because we want to be. They are in government with us because they have to be.’

In other words they have bought into the political institutions in terms of elections, salaries, and status but not into the need for real partnership government, the effective development of north-south co-operation, equality, mutual respect and parity of esteem. The DUPs participation within the institutions has been marked by blocking and stalling important initiatives; including equality measures in the education sector and collapsing the Programme for Government commitment on the Maze Long Kesh site.

Instead of applying themselves to making the Agreement work the DUP leadership has formed a loose axis with the Ulster Unionist Party, the TUV, the UVF and elements of the UDA and the Orange Order to obstruct progress.

None of this is unusual. From the first day after the Good Friday Agreement was achieved the UUP – then the larger unionist party – behaved in much the same way. It took a significant effort on the part of the British Labour government in the days leading up to the Good Friday Agreement referendum in May 1998 to persuade David Trimble to adopt a positive attitude. At one point it looked like the referendum would be lost.

Ivan Lewis, Mary Lou McDonald, Ed Miliband, Gerry Adams and Michelle Gildernew
Tony Blair visited the north three times, gave numerous interviews and Labour party people from Britain worked behind the scenes to focus the UUP on winning the hearts and minds of unionist voters. Trimble sold the Agreement and the referendum was passed comfortably.

But every negotiation since then has taken the same path. While Sinn Féin and others have played our part in creating the conditions for agreement it is a fact that without a pro-active British government encouraging the UUP and then the DUP there would have been no progress.

Thus far the Cameron government has chosen to endorse DUP intransigence and support the unionist narrative of the conflict. London failed to back the Haass compromise proposals on parades, flags and symbols, and contending with the past; it unilaterally broke the Weston Park commitment on resolving the issue of OTRs, and has not implemented key elements of the Good Friday Agreement.

Recently, David Cameron has begun to indicate an awareness that the process is in difficulty. But this morning’s action by the unionist leaders has significantly ratcheted up the crisis in the political process.

The intense period of negotiations that the political leaders in the north had agreed to hold and which began only last night are now ended. The unionists have left the stage. That’s their decision.

Yesterday we told Mr. Cameron that making progress requires a positive engagement by the Irish and British governments on issues which are their direct responsibility. The governments cannot deplore the lack of progress in the process unless they act to fulfil their obligations. Without that unionism will do as little as possible.

Sinn Féin will resist all efforts by unionist leaders to roll back the Good Friday Agreement. The British and Irish governments must also stand resolute for the Good Friday Agreement. They need to be champions for progress, for positive change and for the Agreement.

As co-equal guarantors of the Agreement the two governments must ensure continuing progress and this has to include implementing agreements already made that are their sole responsibility.


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