It was another “Good Friday” in the peace process yesterday. Hillsborough Castle was the setting for the final piece of the jigsaw of devolution which saw agreement between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party on the transfer of policing and justice powers and other outstanding matters arising from the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements.
Many had thought it wouldn’t, couldn’t happen. That our respective positions were too far apart. But it did, and it was achieved primarily as a result of very intense discussions between Sinn Féin and the DUP. This is a hugely important, as well as symbolic moment. This is the political parties in the north of Ireland demonstrating our ability to negotiate a successful agreement together. It marks a new phase in the process.
The current crisis had been in progress for some time. Last year I had warned the British secretary of state that the political institutions were not sustainable in the longer term because they were not functioning on the basis of equality and partnership. Sinn Féin’s strong view was that the governments were in default of their obligations as guarantors of the Good Friday and the St Andrews agreements. London and Dublin are not facilitators. Their function is not to “close the gap between the parties”. Their duty is to uphold the agreements and hold the parties to what they had signed up to.
Ten days ago a protracted negotiation began. Sinn Féin’s focus was on getting agreement between the parties in the north. As the DUP finance minister Sammy Wilson put it, we needed a deal “made in Ulster” . But it could only be accomplished by the leaders of unionism working genuinely to secure a new beginning which would see the proper functioning of joined-up government based on equality and citizens’ rights.
The agreement that has now been reached will not only see the transfer of powers on policing and justice in April, but also by the end of the year the transfer of responsibility from London to Belfast for dealing with the issue of parades. We have also agreed a process to progress the rights of Irish language speakers, clear the backlog of executive papers and decisions which are still pending, and advance the all-Ireland aspects of the St Andrews agreement. It is a detailed and timeframed agreement.
Of course, there will be some who will rail against it. The naysayers will study the details, seeking points of criticism. But they are the minority. The vast majority want this process to work. Public opinion in recent weeks has overwhelmingly favoured a deal.
So, new and important progress has been made in consolidating the political institutions. The judgment on our success, however, will be in whether the process and the institutions deliver for citizens. As the parties negotiated, hundreds more job losses were announced in Belfast and Monkstown in County Antrim. The number of unemployed is rising; families are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. There are increasing numbers of children living in poverty, while our elderly choose between heating homes and buying food.
The reality is that for two years the executive and assembly have not been as effective as they should have been in developing strategies to tackle these problems. There is now a significant opportunity to change that. An opportunity to build a society based on respect, equality, partnership and fairness. Sinn Féin is an Irish republican party. As Martin McGuinness said yesterday, we believe in a united Ireland. And in two weeks’ time we will be hosting a conference in London to discuss this very issue.
But that doesn’t mean that Irish republicans and unionists cannot work together in the interests of those we represent. We can, and Sinn Féin is determined to make positive use of the opportunity that now exists to do that.
Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin.