By Theo Russell
MARTIN McGUINNESS, deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, told friends and supporters of Sinn Féin at the House of Commons last week that “the political process and the peace process in my opinion are steadier now than at any time in the past”.
McGuinness was in London for a meeting with David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the first ministers of Scotland and Wales. He pointed out that while abstaining as Westminster MPs, the five Sinn Féin members make a point of visiting England, Scotland and Wales regularly, and meeting MPs and supporters from all parties.
He told the meeting that the message from the Westminster elections was that “politics in the north of Ireland stood firm against what was effectively an attempt return to sectarian community politics”.
In Fermanagh-South Tyrone, where three Unionist parties united behind one candidate: Michelle Guildernew, who won by just four votes, he said: “Voters had looked to the future and not the past,” and that “A section of Unionist voters felt that they couldn’t vote for someone representing the past and a Conservative government which has made its intentions on spending cuts clear.”
But, “The most important outcome was that a very clear message was sent to Jim Allister and the Traditional Unionist Voice (a rejectionist break-away from the DUP) that people were not prepared to return to the past.”
McGuinness said Allister’s campaign was damaged by his TV appearances, including one on Question Time in which “the audience effectively turned against him”.
“The Unionist community has bought into the idea that we have to work together, and it’s clear that they wanted Peter Robinson and I to carry on working together, and that the Good Friday institutions represent the best and only way to move forward,” McGuinness said.
He said it was unfortunate that DUP Peter Robinson had lost his Westminster seat, and encouraged him to continue his work as First Minister, adding: ”Relations between myself and Peter improved dramatically since the Hillsborough agreement.”
He said “Robinson had clearly showed leadership in converting his party from opposing change to supporting change,” to achieve agreement at Hillsborough in February which paved the way for the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Executive, putting the last major element of the Good Friday Agreement in place.
McGuinness welcomed the election of Sylvia Hermon, who he said she was committed to the peace process. Hermon was the UUP’s last remaining MP, but stood as an independent rather than stand under the new UUP-Tory alliance, the UCU-New Force.
McGuinness said: “This alliance has taken place against a backdrop of rumours of secret meetings and attempts to build on the concept of Unionist unity. From our point of view this was an attempt to target constituencies they felt were vulnerable, namely Fermanagh-South Tyrone and South Belfast.”
He said: “After Hillsborough and the setbacks to Unionist rejectionists, the political process and the peace process in my opinion are steadier now than at any time in the past.” He added that the British government was duty bound not to attempt to alter the Good Friday Agreement, and that this had been accepted by Cameron and Clegg.
McGuinness said: “Sinn Féin’s main focus in the Executive is to ensure that the economy is front and centre of our policies, creating jobs and raising living standards for our people, and tackling deprivation in both Unionist and republican areas.
“It’s disappointing for us that we’ve felt the effects of the recession in a society which is still emerging from conflict, and that largely due to the activities of bankers we face punitive times ahead. Our job is to protect the public sector, to protect frontline services and to protect those people who are more socially disadvantaged in society.”
He pointed to a new road from Monaghan to Donegal crossing the north of Ireland, partly financed by Dublin, and planned upgrades to the ports of Belfast and Larne as positive developments.
Rather than cut spending, he said, the British government should look at billions in uncollected taxes, and the costs of the Afghan war and Trident. “I told David Cameron and Nick Clegg that the lives of Nato and British soldiers, and countless number of Afghans were being wasted, and asked them how much was being spent on the war, but received no reply. This is an unwinnable war and money is being poured down a drain.”
He said the new Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Patterson, was prepared to create an enterprise zone in Northern Ireland and was considering reducing corporation tax to match that in the Republic of Ireland, and that an investment conference backed by President Obama would take place in Washington in the autumn.
McGuinness said Sinn Féin remained determined to continue building towards Irish unification. “The path we’re on – the institutions, the north-south and east-west (British-Irish) institutions – is the correct strategy as we move forward.”
Turning to the dissident republican groups, McGuinness said: “They had attempted to convince people in East Tyrone and Mid-Ulster not to vote, but the outcome was that people voted in large numbers and Sinn Féin’s majority went up.”
He pointed to the community outcry against the Real IRA’s execution of Kieran Doherty in Derry, and the defiance of loyalist threats by the Shankill Road community by large numbers of people attending the funeral of Bobby Moffe, as “representing a huge backlash and sending a clear message that people don’t want any more of this”.
Asked about the investigations into collusion by the British government with loyalist paramilitaries, McGuinness said: “There is “a huge challenge to overcome the legacy of actions by the RUC, RUR, British intelligence, the British Army and their collusion with loyalists.”
He recalled that in private talks at Chequers: “Tony Blair admitted that Margaret Thatcher’s approach to Northern Ireland was flawed and that she had turned a blind eye to collusion. But will he ever appear before an international inquiry and say that? Maybe we’ll get a surprise.”