Thursday, April 19, 2007

Finding common ground in the north of Ireland

by Theo Russell

CONNOR MURPHY MP, the new Sinn Féin Minister for Regional Development in the Northern Ireland Executive, was in Westminster on Tuesday night to give an update on the recent dramatic developments in the peace process.
He recounted that as the 26th March deadline for restoring the Assembly and Executive approached, the Democratic Unionist Party, whose Executive and Officer Board had already agreed to power-sharing by sizeable majorities, asked for a six-week delay to keep its members on board.
Sinn Féin said it would only accept this delay if the DUP made a strong public commitment to power-sharing. By the time Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley appeared together on 26th March, their statements and a programme of work and events for the next six weeks had been agreed.
The two parties also discussed common issues, such as water rates and the promised financial peace dividend, and the fact that both parties represented working class areas and farmers in rural areas.
They also discussed various elements who might try to undermine progress. And it was agreed to keep lines of communication open in order to react jointly to any threats.
Murphy said that the North-South Ministerial Council had already worked on enhancing the role of the All-Ireland bodies, but its work was limited while only Northern Ireland Office officials instead of elected ministers were involved.
On policing, Connor Murphy said Sinn Féin had met twice with chief constable Hugh Orde, and next month the party’s Ard Comhairle (executive) will meet to appoint five members to the PSNI Policing Committee.
Sinn Féin is urging its local communities to co-operate with the PSNI, and although some in the PSNI recognised the need to overcome the force’s negative legacy, Murphy said the process would be “very slow and difficult”.
There are many promising areas of co-operation, such as the strong lobby from education bodies, including Unionists, for Sinn Féin to see through the changes it began under the previous short-lived Executive. That post has now gone to Catriona Ruanne MP.
The leader of the Unionist farmers’ organisation has already met with new agriculture minister Michelle Gildernew and has “absolutely no problem” working with Sinn Féin.
Murphy pointed out that the huge savings on security in the north had not been transferred to civilian spending. Years of under-investment in infrastructure have left the sewage and water systems are in a dire state.
He said Britain has a responsibility to contribute towards building a modern infrastructure, including an education system to produce a highly-skilled workforce.
Asked about issues people in Britain could take up, Murphy pointed out that the British presence still remains in the north, the British government still favoured the union, and is still responsible for issues such as truth recovery and collusion.
He said that Sinn Féin wants the British government to support Irish unification and an end to Britain’s last significant colonial role.