Good Friday agreement still points the way to peace
Paul Donovan reports on the Connolly Association’s recent one-day conference to mark the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. Additional reporting by Declan O’Brien
FORMER TAOISEACH Albert Reynolds called on all the parties involved in the Irish peace process to stop fighting over words and get back to the business of securing peace and reconciliation in Ireland.
“If the political will is there to finish this project then it is always possible to find the words,” said Reynolds, a keynote speaker at a one-day conference in London organised by the Connolly Association.
“Peace and reconciliation accompanied by justice is the overriding factor to put peace in place. The journey that I set out upon was a journey for justice and a journey for peace.”
Reynolds, who recalled that the republican movement had never broken its word to him and had similarly high praise for the loyalist paramilitaries, rebuked unionist politicians who have been calling for re-negotiation of the Good Friday agreement.
“I don’t think any democratic politician has the right to sell out the will of the people who voted for the peace process. You cannot talk about re-negotiation, the people gave their decision,” said Reynolds.
Reynolds said there is a fear of change particularly among the unionist politicians “but change there has to be”.
“The war is over, the people of Northern Ireland made up their minds and there is no going back to war,” said Reynolds.
Reynolds, who has now left the political arena and returned to the business world, recalled how his background had enabled him to see the importance for the economy of obtaining peace in the north.
Reynolds set two targets upon becoming taoiseach to establish peace and develop the Irish economy. “The two aims were to be interdependent on each other,” said Reynolds. The former taoiseach claimed he had a trusting relationship with former British prime minister John Major, born of the dealings the two men had in Europe. Major was very much the new kid on the block when Margaret Thatcher rapidly advanced him through the government, first as foreign secretary and then as chancellor.
It was from this time that the two men came to develop a close working relationship over the peace process later.
Reynolds paid tribute to the tight band of people involved in the 14-month build up to the Downing Street Declaration, throughout which he never once met Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness. “Once we had the ceasefire I said I would open the door and bring them into the political system,” said Reynolds.
The former taoiseach revealed that the fifth paragraph of the Downing Street Declaration was written by the loyalist paramilitaries in the Shankill Road. “Neither I nor John Major changed one word,” he said.
The process was very much one of keeping both loyalists and republicans on board while building up the confidence of both sides. In this context, decommissioning of weapons was left off the agenda as something to be dealt with later.
“I knew how to deal with the decommissioning issue and would have done later,” said Reynolds.
Reynolds also told of how president Bill Clinton wanted to repay his commitment to Irish Americans. Put more bluntly, Clinton needed to keep on board those Irish Americans who had become known as Reagan Democrats in order to get re-elected next time.
The American president initially offered to appoint a peace envoy but this was rejected by Reynolds. The Irish leader had to sell American involvement to the republicans, the mettle test for which was obtaining a US visa for Gerry Adams.
Things proved more difficult later when on the eve of the first IRA ceasefire being declared on 31 August 1994 Reynolds requested a visa for veteran IRA volunteer Joe Cahill to visit America to reassure the Irish Americans about the peace process. Reynolds recalled Clinton’s reticence claiming that he had expected a ceasefire out of the Adams visa but this had not materialised.
Reynolds underlined the trust that he shared with the republican leadership over the ceasefire issue. In order to convince Clinton, Reynolds had to read out two paragraphs of the IRA ceasefire declaration. He would not, however, do this without first checking with the republican leadership.
This involved contacting Fr Alex Reid who made contact with the IRA and got the go-ahead. Clinton then approved the visa for Cahill despite mass opposition from various US government departments.
Reynolds recalled warning Major of the danger of violence resuming just prior to the Canary Wharf bombing. Talks had been promised shortly after the ceasefire but the British government had broken its word.
Reynolds sent a note to Major via the diplomatic bag warning: “the argument is being lost in the republican movement and we are heading for a resumption of bombing.” Nothing happened and then the Canary Wharf bombing occurred. “It was amazing how quickly talks started after Canary Wharf, it really was proof that violence and bombing does pay.”
SDLP representative Alex Attwood called for recognition that the IRA had helped to bring the peace process to its present crisis and that it had a responsibility to move things forward.
Attwood referred to the IRA importing arms from Florida, continuing targeting and training and espionage. “If you don’t acknowledge that happened then you are not living in the real political world of Irish politics,” said Attwood.
“The unionists have also played a role with their lukewarm response to the GFA and continually threatening to walk away.”
Dodi McGuiness of Sinn Féin called for the labour movement to put pressure on the government over the peace process and to shift the focus from the IRA.
“We need to look at the positive role of the republican movement in the peace process. The British government needs to make sure the elections go ahead and there is full implementation of the agreement, that is the way forward and out of the impasse,” she said
In the light of the findings of the Stevens inquiry, Labour MP Stephen Pound called for former Tory minister Douglas Hogg to “accept that he was party to the murder of Pat Finucane.”
Following a briefing from the RUC, Hogg had declared in the House of Commons that some solicitors were unduly sympathetic to the IRA cause. Shortly afterwards Finucane was murdered in his own home.
Stevens had concluded that Hogg “was compromised” by his comments. Pound echoed McGuiness’s call to keep Ireland on the political agenda. “There is an overwhelming feeling among parliamentarians that the job in Northern Ireland has been done, when there is still much that has to be done,” said Pound.
“There has been partial demilitarisation, people have a life on the streets that they couldn’t have had eight years ago. But people need to raise the profile keep the discussion going. Keep raising the issue with your MP make sure they recognise the reality. It is not over.”
Attwood was less sure than Pound as to whether Hogg had been compromised. “Douglas Hogg may or may not have been compromised but there are people above him who have been compromised,” said Attwood. “There needs to be some sort of commission to get at the truth.”
Reverend Nicholas Frayling, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, picked up on the question of truth and reconciliation. “The only way to a just and lasting settlement in Ireland is to heal the wounds between our two peoples. The process of repentance is crucial for our own sake,” he said.
He added that the missing link in the peace process was British repentance for what it has done in Ireland over the centuries. “A well known British politician said the way forward is to forgive and forget. The way toward forgiveness is not forgetting but to remember and repent,” said Frayling.
He described the problems of Ireland down the ages as “British made”. “The present dilemmas have their roots in past events,” said Frayling.
He recalled how the South African truth and reconciliation process had been “painful and cathartic” as it was brought into people’s homes every day via daily media reports.
“Many were cynical about the truth and reconciliation process but without it the likelihood of South Africa coming together would have been slight,” said Frayling. “History cannot be healed without repentance and people must be allowed to tell their story from their own perspective,” said Frayling.
“Truth and reconciliation might offer a way of working through history together. It is not without its dangers because there will be a need to look under every stone. But only in such a way can there be real change”.
Connolly Association president Willie Wallis said that people in Britain had an important role to play in influencing British political institutions and public opinion in favour of Irish unity and the ending British misrule in Ireland.
The problems in Ireland today were the legacy of imperial violence and deceit. Those who suggest that the past is no longer relevant should be reminded of the current situation.
“The government of Northern Ireland is elected in Britain; the laws and legislation that affect Northern Ireland are passed in the Westminster parliament; the economic subsidy that sustains Northern Ireland is provided by the British exchequer; the civil servants that carry out the function of governance in Northern Ireland are part of the British State; the troops that garrison Northern Ireland are British soldiers.
“Constitutionally and practically, sovereignty within the six counties resides with the British Queen in parliament. Consequently, the power to effect change in the status of the six counties resides in Britain and is this must be the key area of work for all democrats and friends of Ireland,” said Wallis
It was especially important that the British labour movement was involved, though he acknowledged the difficulties that this posed. Even so, the British trade union movement and the labour movement as a whole had a moral responsibility to be positively involved. “It’s their government that has caused the problem and it’s their government that currently misrules the six counties.”
While it would not automatically lead to the end of partition, the root cause of the conflict in Ireland, the Good Friday agreement had significantly changed the political landscape in Ireland.
“But it does attempt to address the main concerns of northern nationalists in terms of ending discrimination in employment, education and housing, ending human rights abuses and giving the Irish government greater involvement in northern affairs.
“For these reasons it represents a significant step forward in the ongoing struggle for unity and independence and, if implemented in full, can prepare the way for the ending of partition.”
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Copyright © 2003 Paul Donovan