McGUINNESS REACHES OUT TO UNIONISTS
The opening of Sinn Fein's Ard Fheis [annual conference] on
Friday night has seen an effort by the party to reach out to
unionists who are seeking political progress by the party's
Mid-Ulster MP Martin McGuinness.
Mr McGuinness described the 198 Good Friday Agreement as "an
historic compromise between Irish nationalism and Irish Unionism.
As such it can only work with the willing participation of both
This year's Ard Fheis is the first conference by the party to
receive live coverage from Irish television, something which has
been accorded to the other political parties since the first
years of television broadcasting in Ireland.
Sinn Fein General Secretary Lucilita Bhreatnach, in opening the
Ard Fheis, pointed out that this had come about less than 10
years since the lifting of th censorship laws of Section 31
"under which Sinn Fein was to be neither seen nor heard on RTE,
or any other Irish broadcaster". It was part of the "concerted
effort by the Dublin and London governments to marginalise Irish
republicanism," Bhreatneach said.
Martin McGuinness, the former Minister for Education, helped set
the tone by making a plea for peace to pro-Agreement Unionist
political leaders, who he said must recognise the value of the
current process for the people they represent.
"And, I include in this, members and leaders of the DUP, some of
whose Ministers carried out their duties with admirable
efficiency and dedication."
Figures published on Thursday have shown strong unionist support
for the office of the Police Ombudsman. The Ombudsman's, which
provides some accountability for the PSNI police, was denounced
as a sop to nationalists when unveiled as part of the Good Fridy
Agreement five years ago.
Mr McGuinness did not specifically refer to the survey, but said
he believed that the Agreement was "changing unionist attitudes,
"I believe Unionist leaders see the benefit in the exercise of
actual political power for the first time in decades, as opposed
to the sterility of years of wielding the negative political
power of an undemocratic veto, blocking any political progress."
Mr McGuinness praised the British Prime Minister Tony Blair for
the "serious tone" with which he declared that there would be
renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement.
He said unionists "must know there will not be a better
opportunity or any better deal available". There were those in
Ian Paisley's DUP who could see this "as clearly as anyone".
And he predicted that the DUP would eventually find itself in a
position where it would deal with republicans in relation to
moulding a secure political future.
"I urge unionist leaders to do the necessary now. Accept the
Agreement that you negotiated in all its parts, take ownership of
it and sell its benefits to your electorate. The Agreement can
secure all our futures."
Debates are being held on a wide range of issues including the
peace process in the North, education, health, justice, community
and language issues.
Ms Bhreatnach said these debates, together with the election of
the party leadership, would set the tone for the next twelve
months for the party.
She pointed to the different expressions of the party's growing
political and electoral strength.
"The last 18 months have shown how effective Sinn Fein can be in
government, in elections and on the streets. The hard work and
dedication of the thousands of our party activists and supporters
across the nation continues to reap dividends."
The party's objectives, the dream of a united Ireland, was closer
than ever, she said.
"It is this generation of republicans that will see Bobby Sands
referred to as the rising of the Moon, Eiri na Gealaigh, and it
is people like you who will bring it about."
NEGOTIATIONS FAR FROM OVER
The Ard Fheis comes as negotiations continue in the peace
process, but with time dwindling ahead of an Easter deadline for
a comprehensive deal on the full and final implementation of the
Good Friday Agreement.
Despite significant progress in the last few weeks of
negotiations, Sinn Fein has insisted that there is still no
closure on key issues, including demilitarisation, policing and
criminal justice reform.
The party has also insisted that the existing proposal for
sanctions against any party deemed in breach of its commitment to
exclusively peaceful means remains a potential deal-breaker.
Despite claims by the Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie
Ahern that a British-Irish document has been finalised, meetings
between Sinn Fein and senior British officials have continued in
a further attempt to close gaps on policing, justice and other
A commitment by the British government to devolve powers of
policing and justice powers to the Belfast Assembly and a similar
'in principle' commitment of the Ulster Unionist leader, David
Trimble, has boosted the possibility of Sinn Fein holding a
policing and/or justice ministry in the North's power-sharing
administration. Such a development would represent a significant
breakthrough for the rights of nationalists in the Six Counties.
On the issue of sanctions, Sinn Fein has said it has no problems
with structures to ensure all parties are compliant with the Good
Friday Agreement, but is implacably opposed to anything that goes
outside the Good Friday Agreement."
On Wednesday, Sinn Fein Dail leader Caoimghin O Caolain put the
issue of sanctions to Bertie Ahern, saying that they would be
"turned into further obstacles to progress".
O Caolain asked the Taoiseach if he agreed there are already
adequate safeguards and sanctions built into the Good Friday
Agreement to help ensure all parties fulfil their obligations.
"I take that view because he does not seem to agree that the
elaborate new structures of sanctions - which my party and I view
as being constructed outside the Agreement - are contained in his
current positions and that of Mr Blair. Does the Taoiseach
recognise this is far from helpful and that these new sanctions
will be turned into further obstacles to progress?" asked O
The Sinn Fein TD said there was ongoing concern about the
commitment of the Ulster Unionist Party, in particular David
Trimble, to the future stability of the institutions. Assurances
were needed that a new Assembly will not be subjected to the same
"topsy-turvy approach" as the last one.
Ahern responded that he was satisfied the mechanism will be in
compliance with the Good Friday Agreement and will be applicable
to all the political parties and said that its underlying aim is
to provide stability.