Eighteen months Sinn Fein were able to go with others to the IRA with a package which we believed was an agreement for a ceasefire, and would create conditions whereby the British government would enter into full and meaningful negotiations, which they promised would be held within three months. They broke that promise, and went on to break a series of promises, and I think the resulting frustration, the sense of getting nowhere, were factors that contributed to the breakdown of the ceasefire.
We remain committed to a peace process, however difficult that is going to be. We have been attempting to encourage the British government to come on board this process, to enter into all-party negotiations, to end all preconditions. I must say that to date that we have had very limited success.
There are only two ways that wars end. Either one side has victory over the other, or negotiations break out. What we have offered very clearly, and what the IRA offered throughout the last seventeen and a half months, was negotiations. The British government’s current policy — or renewal of its old policy — of excluding Sinn Fein does not move the process forward.
By all effective barometers, a majority of working-class people on the island of Ireland, and indeed in Britain, wish to see all-party talks. That pressure has got to be brought to bear on those who prevent those talks, whether it is the Conservative Party government in Britain or the Unionist parties here. That message has to be brought home.
The only way forward is through negotiations, and those negotiations should already have happened, but let’s all work for them to take place.
Negotiations could produce a number of things which would be of mutual benefit to all sections of our community. We need demilitarisation. We need an end to legislation which is politically repressive. We need the question of prisoners to be addressed; we need the question of policing to be addressed.
These are things which are perhaps limited, but at least there is some common ground. They can create an atmosphere where the more complicated and the more difficult questions can begin to be looked at. Everything should be on the table — both the Sinn Fein position, and that of the British Government, and others. We still, of course, believe that unification is the most effective long-term solution to the conflict, but we need to create an environment where people who are not Republicans and not nationalists can feel that they can at least have some allegiance to the structures that can be formed. That’s more difficult, but it has to be addressed.
Joe Austin is a spokesperson for Sinn Fein in Belfast.