“Sinn Fein opposed to any extension of Stormont talks ahead of Monday’s deadline – ‘We will bury our friend tomorrow and move directly from his graveside to do our utmost to get Assembly restored’
Speaking in Newry on the eve of Martin McGuinness’s funeral, the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has been talking the talk of ultimatums. Lest anyone thinks Sinn Fein has been distracted this week, he disabuses them of the idea that the immediate period of mourning for Martin McGuinness would require an extension of the time limit for the interparty talks. Instead he is harnessing respect for McGuinness’s political legacy at the precise moment of the funeral to put moral pressure on the other parties and the governments to reach an agreement by Monday, or Sinn Fein may pull out of the talks and call for another election as the existing law requires.
He emphasises repeatedly the line, that “this was about an implementation process not a negotiation or re-negotiation” and therefore should need no extra time. Here he will have in mind his “equality” agenda of an Irish Language Act, the release of funds denied to the Lord Chief Justice for inquests particularly into controversial killings carried out by the Army, settling on a definition of victims without discriminating between former security forces and the former IRA, and legislating at Westminster for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. These are all measures which have been opposed by the DUP. Sinn Fein may also have called for a reinstatement of the Maze peace centre but this has not been confirmed.
The main item of “failure” by the UK government he refers to is about lifting the restriction on grounds of national security on the British government-pledge to cooperate fully with investigations into actions by state servants during the Troubles, notably on collusion.
Adams demands that if the British side do not agree, the Irish government should arraign them at the UN for a breach of the international agreement that is the GFA.
Brexit is the big new pressure point of recent years. Adams rebukes the Irish government for failing to press the British to back special status within the EU for Northern Ireland – all useful pressure in the political ferment south of the border too. Special status has already been rejected by the British government and it is hard to see how it could be reinstated.
The initial “red lines” apart from Arlene Foster’s position seemed perfectly negotiable. Forcing a deadline by Monday for the comprehensive list would appear to change everything.
Adams insists that failure to call another election would be a breach of the St Andrew’s Agreement which abolished the power of the secretary of state to suspend the institutions. This is technically true but Westminster could repeal that part of the Act. Monday need not be the final deadline. And Westminster has further choices.
Professor Rick Wilford has advised me that Direct Rule would require the resuscitation of the 2000 Suspension Act. There is an alternative, perhaps by way of an amendment to the St Andrews Act, enabling the Secretary of State to extend the negotiating period beyond 3 weeks, but that would still require Direct Rule while the talks ensued. It recalls the period between Feb and May 2000, when the then SoS, Peter Mandelson finalised the first devolved budget for Northern Ireland. The question for Monday is, if an agreement is not reached, will secretary of state James Brokenshire stick rigidly to the line that Westminster is not contemplating a return to direct rule? Or will he swallow his own words and call Gerry Adams’ bluff? Although Adams does not accept Brokenshire’s impartiality as talks convenor, the British minister’s inflexibility so far over keeping to a talks deadline is grist to Adams’ mill. Will the Irish government go along with with any decision Downing St insists is exclusively a British responsibility?
Lengthy extracts from Adams’ speech follow.
There cannot be continuous negotiation and re-negotiation of agreements already made. So Sinn Féin is opposed to any extension of Monday’s deadline.”
If an agreement is not reached to restore the power-sharing Executive by Monday then Secretary of State James Brokenshire will be obliged by law to call another Assembly election.
“There is only a very short time to form the Executive for the northern Assembly. So far there is no agreement to do this. Sinn Féin has made it clear that there can be no return to the status quo.
“Led by Michelle O’Neill our negotiating team has been in daily dialogue with all of the parties and the two governments. There is clearly a desire among the majority of the parties for a step change in how business is done in the political institutions. There is also a consensus on the need for better and transparent good governance on behalf of all of the people and for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
“It is possible for agreement to be reached in the coming days. I and others spent this afternoon at Stormont trying to find a resolution to the outstanding issues.
“From our point of view this is about an implementation process. There cannot be continuous negotiation and re-negotiation of agreements already made. So Sinn Féin is opposed to any extension of Monday’s deadline or a return to British Direct Rule.
“In 2006 the British and Irish governments agreed in a joint statement that the restoration of the political institutions would see the British government’s power to suspend the Assembly lapse for good.
“They also agreed, if the Executive was not formed, to begin detailed work on British-Irish partnership arrangements to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is actively developed across its structures and functions.
“While the governments have not developed the British Irish partnership arrangements envisaged if the Executive was not formed at that time, the British government’s power to suspend the Assembly is gone. Of course this legislation could be reintroduced at any time but this would be a very serious act of bad faith, which the Irish Government would be compelled to oppose. We look to the Taoiseach to make that clear.
“As Martin McGuinness said in his letter of resignation; ‘Successive British governments have undermined the process of change by refusing to honour agreements, refusing to resolve the issues of the past, while imposing austerity and Brexit against the wishes and best interests of people here’.
“The Irish government is the co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday and subsequent Agreements. The Taoiseach needs to make it clear by deed as well as word that the government will implement in full its obligations and hold the British government to account for its obligations, internationally if need be.”
“Next week the Tories will trigger article 50. The DUP position on Brexit, like the position of the English Tories, is entirely wrong and will have huge consequences for the people of the North, and especially the border communities. It is already clear that Brexit will mean a hard border, will cost jobs, and have a devastating impact on our agricultural and agri-foods sectors.
“That is why Sinn Féin opposed Brexit and that is why we developed our proposal ‘The Case for the North to achieve Designated Special Status within the EU’ and went on a major diplomatic offensive to build support for it. The position of Special Status is now supported by Fianna Fáil and Labour in Leinster House and by the majority of parties and MLAs in the Assembly.
“There is an urgent imperative for all parties and independents who share this view to form a coalition. Regardless of any other issue Sinn Féin is totally committed to this approach. We will support all of the sectors who will be disadvantaged by this unfair refusal by the Tories in London to accept the democratic will of the people of this part of Ireland and across the island.
“So, we will bury our friend Martin McGuinness tomorrow and move directly from his graveside to urgently do our utmost to get the Executive and the Assembly restored and working. The election pointed the way forward. Unionist rule failed and ended. Direct Rule failed and ended. Martin McGuinness made it clear that the way forward is through respect, equality, and integrity. Sinn Féin’s approach is not about majorities and minorities, it is about rights for all.”
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London