seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Sinn Féin Joins Northern Ireland Peace Process

Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), joins the Northern Ireland peace process on September 9, 1997 that aims to determine the future of Northern Ireland, after renouncing violence as a political tool.

The move paves the way for Sinn Féin’s first face-to-face talks with British Cabinet ministers since 1921, when the country was partitioned. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, chief negotiator Martin McGuinness and party secretary Lucilita Bhreatnach agree behind closed doors at Stormont Castle in east Belfast to abide by the guiding principles underlying the Northern Ireland all-party talks.

These principles were set up in January 1996 by former United States Senator George J. Mitchell, former Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. John de Chastelain and former Prime Minister of Finland Harri Holkeri. They are generally referred to as the “Mitchell Principles,” and require negotiators to affirm their commitment to the tenets listed below:

  • Democratic and peaceful means of resolving political issues. Total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations. The disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission.
  • Renounce for themselves and oppose any effort by others to use force or threaten to use force to influence the course or outcome of all-party negotiations.
  • Abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree.
  • Urge that “punishment” killings and beatings stop, and take effective steps to prevent such actions.

Sinn Féin pledges to honor the Mitchell Principles exactly 51 days after the IRA stopped its decades-old violent campaign against British rule of Northern Ireland. “This is a watershed. There is an expectation and understanding out there of the importance of this moment,” Adams says.

Paul Murphy, minister for political development in the province, says the Sinn Féin pledge marks a new phase in the peace process. “The significance I am sure is that we are now entering a new era … in the sense that the gun is going out of politics in Northern Ireland and that here Sinn Féin is ascribing to those principles of nonviolence, of democratic government.”

“I believe people outside these buildings, outside Stormont, are of the view that enough is enough, and that change must come,” Murphy adds. “But that change must be change which encompasses everybody’s aspirations and which will last for generations.”

The pledge to honor the Mitchell Principles means that the ten parties involved can proceed with round-table talks on the future of Northern Ireland on Monday, September 15, as planned.

However, two mainstream Protestant parties that favor continued British rule of Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the UK Unionist Party (UKUP), plan to boycott the talks. In addition, the powerful Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), is expected to decide on Saturday, September 13, whether to attend the crucial new round of negotiations.

In a statement, the Ulster Unionists call Sinn Féin’s commitment “a charade.” “The subscription of Sinn Féin to the Mitchell Principles will completely lack credibility. Actions matter much more than words,” the statement says.

The London and Dublin governments agree that sovereignty in Northern Ireland can only be changed through the ballot box. While Protestants generally are determined to remain British, most Catholics favor making Northern Ireland part of Ireland.

(From: “Sinn Fein gains access to Northern Ireland talks” on CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com, September 9, 1997)


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Trimble Rejects Power Sharing Compromise

blair-ahern-stormont-castle-1999On July 14, 1999, Ulster Unionists under David Trimble reject a compromise for the creation of a power sharing government placing the Northern Ireland peace process in grave trouble. The proposals would have seen inclusive self-government introduced in Northern Ireland on Sunday, July 18, 1999.

Early in the day the government rushes legislation through the House of Commons providing for the suspension of the Executive if the Irish Republican Army (IRA) fails to decommission all its arms by May 2000 in line with a timetable, yet to be drawn up. It refuses to accept any Ulster Unionist amendments. But within 12 hours, British Prime Minister Tony Blair signals that three new amendments will be included to tighten the so-called failsafe mechanism when the bill is debated in the House of Lords in the evening.

The first amendment makes clear that decommissioning must proceed in line with a timetable to be drawn up by General John de Chastelain. The second provides for the automatic suspension of the Executive, while the third provides for the party in default to be clearly identified.

They fail to sway Trimble, who criticises The Way Forward as a hastily concocted scheme. However, he does leave the door open for further negotiations to save the agreement. “If there was a clear watertight scheme, in which there was at the outset an unequivocal commitment to change and a process that genuinely guaranteed to deliver that change, we would have to consider whether a scruple over a period of days could be justified.”

Sinn Féin is furious with party president Gerry Adams saying, “Those who may genuinely want to deal with the issue of guns are going about it in absolutely the worst and wrong way.” The party wants the assembly to be wound up immediately, and all members’ wages to be stopped. It wants the British and Irish governments to continue to implement all aspects of the agreement which are within their control. Adams is enraged by Blair’s move to amend the failsafe legislation. His party says it will consider applying for judicial review of the amended bill, believing it to compromise the International Commission on Decommissioning and unlawfully conflict with the agreement.

Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announce on the following day that the 15-month-old and ailing Good Friday Agreement will go into a review procedure involving all the political parties and be effectively parked over the summer.

Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, resists intense government pressure as he refuses to back the British and Irish governments’ blueprint providing for a power-sharing executive the following week and IRA decommissioning in the summer. He repeats his party’s view that Sinn Féin can only join his cabinet once the IRA has started to hand over its weapons.

The outcome is a bitter personal setback for Blair. In a last-minute televised appeal to the Unionists not to “close the door’ on an agreement, he appears to acknowledge that they will have to try to find another way forward. “I believe in the end we will get an agreement on this. Whether we manage it by tomorrow morning, that is more difficult,” he says.

Trimble complains he had too little time to secure backing within his split party for The Way Forward, which the governments issued twelve days earlier after a week of intense negotiations at Stormont Castle. Blair’s handling of the affair is questioned.

Trimble’s problem with the legislative failsafe is that it punishes all parties for an IRA transgression of a decommissioning timetable, yet to be drawn up. It provides for the executive to be suspended, rather than carry on with Sinn Féin’s two ministerial posts allocated to other parties. The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which could have given Trimble cover on the issue of expulsion, declines to say whether it will vote for Sinn Féin’s expulsion, which infuriates Ulster Unionists.

Negotiations to save the Good Friday Agreement have gone through four deadlines during the year. There are fears that the latest delay might lead to Sinn Féin withdrawing its declaration on IRA arms.

(Pictured: British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern present a joint British-Irish blueprint for implementation of the Good Friday Agreement at Stormont Castle in Belfast, June 2, 1999 | Sean Gallup | Getty Images)


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Ahern & Blair Push for Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement

ahern-and-blair-1998At an informal European Union summit near Bonn on February 26, 1999, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair agree to push for implementation of the Good Friday Agreement by the March 10 deadline.

As EU delegates discuss the Union’s budget and Europe‘s farming subsidies, the two prime ministers vow to battle on with the peace deal’s outstanding problems.

“We’re very clear on what we have to do in the Good Friday agreement … we have just got to keep pushing the thing forward as well as we possibly can,” says Blair.

Both Ahern and Blair say the way forward on the outstanding deadlocked issue of paramilitary disarmament is through the official decommissioning commission. Chaired by former Canadian General John de Chastelain, the international commission is working to take arms out of the province’s political arena.

The republican party Sinn Féin insists it is fully cooperating with the commission, which is implementing the final deadline for the handover of arms in May 2000. But some Ulster Unionists oppose further peace moves because of the Irish Republican Army‘s (IRA) failure to begin disarming.

According to Ahern and Blair, the following few weeks will be a key time to try and finalise disarmament issues.

“During the month of March … we can conclude the central aspects,” says Blair.

However, in a separate development on February 26, the chairman of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin, warns that pressure on disarmament could cause irreparable damage to the fragile peace process. He adds that disarmament should not become a litmus test for progress.

“Those who are now demanding prior decommissioning before we move to setting up the executive are reneging on the Good Friday Agreement,” says McLaughlin in an interview with BBC Radio.

(From BBC News Online Network, Friday, February 26, 1999 | Pictured: Bertie Ahern with Tony Blair at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998)