Location West Tyrone Constituency Association meeting in Omagh
Date Sunday 22nd January 2012
Name Dr Alasdair McDonnell MP, MLA, Assembly
Tel 028 9024 2474
There is an important job ahead for this constituency council and for every member of the SDLP, and most of the heavy lifting has to be done this year. It will have to be done by us, because there is no one else to do it. Our mission – because it is no less – is to save the Good Friday Agreement.
Now you will be told that the Agreement doesn’t need saving by us or anyone else, that it is in good shape under new management. You will be told that all has changed, that we are on a new chapter and there is no going back. And you will be told that the sight of Peter and Martin smiling together into the one camera is all the proof that is needed that our future is bright. But it is not so.
We built the Good Friday Agreement on the twin pillars of peace and reconciliation. First, obviously, you stop the dirty war. Then you get together to tackle the ultimate cause of conflict, the deep division that runs through almost every aspect of society and community across the north.
It is easy for the war-makers to get a reputation as peace-makers – all they have to do is stop killing people. But if you don’t tackle the causes, who can guarantee that conflict will not come back again, in this generation or the next?
The Good Friday Agreement will soon be 14 years old and it is time we took stock, time we took a realistic look at what we all got out of it and more importantly, what we can expect to get out of it in the future. The Agreement states very clearly that peace must lead to reconciliation. It states : “....we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust …” and “…we will endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement …”
It could not be clearer – the parties which control our devolved institutions have a clear and specified duty to mend our divisions, to work actively for reconciliation. I have to tell you that Sinn Fein and the DUP have completely failed to deliver anything on reconciliation, and worse still, they have absolutely no intention of delivering.
There is one very simple measure of their failure. At the time of the first ceasefire in 1994 there were just nine so-called Peace Walls. Now there are more than 50.
Now we would be critical of the policies of the DUP and Sinn Fein, separately or together, on a wide raft of issues, but let me be very clear that reconciliation is not just another issue, not just another bone of contention or political football. No, certainly not for the SDLP. We did not suddenly discover our interest in reconciliation in 1998 when we were negotiating the Agreement. It goes right back to our origins, to who we were, who we are now and who we must be in the future. In fact, our belief in the need for reconciliation is our distinctive feature, or as the marketing people might say, our Unique Selling Proposition.
The SDLP has always been different. Most of the political parties on the island of Ireland had their origins in one or other side of the conflict which led to the partition of this country. We, on the other hand, were formed with the purpose of ending that conflict for ever. I want to read a sentence from our first policy document, 'Towards a New Ireland' issued in 1972:
"Any proposals which are put forward as a solution to the present difficulties of the Northern of Ireland must be proposals which will provide permanent peace, and stability so that the people of Ireland of all traditions, can come together on a basis of harmony and justice, ending for all time the unjust domination of any one Irish tradition by another. They must be proposals which are put forward without taking into account any sectional or party advantage and which are arrived at by a genuine analysis of the constitutional and institutional difficulties which have led to the present situation."
There you have it – our reconciliation manifesto from day one. That is the job that needs doing and is not getting done. And now we are running out of time. We need to get back on the reconciliation track of the Agreement very soon or we could become unstuck as we start into a decade of potentially divisive commemorations with no reconciliation structures to prevent extremists hijacking them.
Since the two-party regime took over control of our devolved institutions in 2007, absolutely no progress has been made on any reconciliation front. Victims were left in the wilderness as Peter and Martin pulled strokes with four Victims Commissioners, since reduced to three but still with no real powers or backup structures. The whole issue of dealing with the past is simply being kicked down the road around the nearest convenient bend. But it is worse than that, worse than doing nothing. They have actually done harm by turning the clock back. The Direct Rulers left behind the outlines of a reconciliation policy known as the Shared Future document. The DUP and Sinn Fein demolished it and under pressure to do something, produced their so-called Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy. This has been ridiculed and condemned by every shade of opinion with the faintest interest in reconciliation because it doesn’t live up to any of the words in its title.
Their CSI document lays bare the thinking of these two parties. It is a barren landscape of two communities formally at peace, but still living in their trenches along the lines of a sullen ceasefire. It is a blueprint for permanent separation and ultimately for the single-community politics on which these two parties have profited handsomely in electoral terms.
In so far as the DUP and Sinn Fein think at all about the possibility of sharing the future they do so from within their limited mind-sets. For Sinn Fein their starting point is their so-called equality agenda, which is often just code for a one-for-you, one-for-me division of the spoils, and of course it is very important not to mention the war. For the DUP the key term is good relations, where the starting-point emerges from their vision of an all-pervasive, default-setting Britishness where the importance of flags and emblems is given precedence over the creation of a progressive future for this and subsequent generations.
We in the SDLP look much further and deeper. For us reconciliation is both a process and an objective. It goes much further than equality, which is after all a static threshold objective – two completely equal people might never co-operate with each other. But it also must go much further than good relations because it will inevitably have to challenge existing institutions, to demand and promote change.
Let me make it clear that reconciliation is not just about being nice to each other – but it is very much about being honest with each other. Some of the things that are most offensive on each side are in fact deeply dishonest.
It is dishonest for Sinn Fein to claim that a lack of civil rights drove the Provos to their campaign of violence, when in fact they opposed the civil rights movement.
It is dishonest of some in the DUP and elsewhere in of unionism to claim there was no lack of civil rights, that there was no gerrymandering and discrimination.
It is dishonest to keep the sectarian pot boiling across the North just to reel in a few extra green or orange votes. It is dishonest to deliberately promote sectarian behaviour for party political gain.
For us a true process of reconciliation would lead to a re-examination of the very core of our identities as nationalists and unionists, and in particular the way that they were solidified in the upheavals that led to partition in 1921. This is where the honesty is needed, because any honest appraisal must agree that partition was good for nobody.
We know what it did to foster inward-focussed, narrow-minded, militaristic nationalism. But look also at what it did to destroy the self-confident all-Ireland Unionism of Edward Carson and replace it with a sectarian regime in the north.
The Good Friday Agreement established the Principle of Consent – Ireland can only be united on the basis of a majority vote in the north. Now that there is clear reassurance for unionists that there are no circumstances in which they can simply be over-run, the time has come when we not only can look honestly and calmly at issues arising from our history, but when we must do so. We should now look honestly and calmly at partition and call it by its proper name, which is a constitutional, political, economic and religious disaster for everyone on this island. It is not divisive to say so. We must be honest and we must not be afraid. This is the way of reconciliation.
So now as we head into to 2012 we must ask ourselves – how stands the Good Friday Agreement? On the plus side we have stability, but we have little else, and stability without progress constantly teeters on the edge of paralysis. Stability is underlined by the Programme for Government, which outlines 76 intentions of the Sinn Fein-DUP regime over the coming years. But paralysis is underlined by the reality that it took more than six months to produce such a flimsy document and hardly any of the promises are measurable in any meaningful sense.
We have to accept some of the blame for this situation – you and me, the SDLP and the wider public. We were told that we had at all costs to get the DUP and Sinn Fein inside the tent and we went along with it. We were of course badly advised by the two governments, which told us all would be well if we could just help bring Sinn Fein and the DUP over the line. What they did not tell us even though they knew it, is that Sinn Fein and the DUP were going to gut the Agreement, were going to give us peace and stability but absolutely no progress and no reconciliation.
In our name, the governments traded progress for stability, reconciliation for peace. We must now face up to the fact that under current management the Good Friday Agreement is being stalled. Let me be clear on this point - we are not going backwards to violence. The peace is stable and not even the dissidents could rock it now. But it is not moving us forward as a united community. The two–party regime is utterly incapable of managing our economy and will just implement Tory cuts as our people slide into poverty.
Yet there is hope here at the beginning of 2012. There is a hunger out there for reconciliation and deepening awareness that it will not come down from the Executive. It is our job to shout it from the rooftops that there must be reconciliation; that the people of Ireland did not vote overwhelmingly in 1998 for peace alone, but rather for reconciliation too; that the parties which control the Executive, however much they got away with a disgraceful rewrite at St Andrews, are still signed up to the duty of reconciliation as stated in the original Agreement. It is part of the deal and they must deliver.