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Gerry Adams: Ireland’s failure to plan for unity referendum ‘indefensible’

Sharp exchanges between former Sinn Féin leader and Fine Gael senator Emer Currie at Oireachtas Committee

Gerry Adams repeated Sinn Féin calls for a citizens' assembly on constitutional change. Photograph: PA

Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has criticised the Government for what he said was a failure to prepare for a referendum on Irish unity, describing it is as “indefensible and incredibly short-sighted”.

Speaking at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Adams also blamed the DUP and British government for the fact that the powersharing institutions in Northern Ireland are still not functioning.

The former Louth TD told the committee that “no Irish government has ever produced a strategy to build a new and inclusive Ireland and give effect to Irish unity”.

“The absence of Irish Government planning is indefensible and incredibly short-sighted. There is no excuse for this,” he said.

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Mr Adams said what was needed was “the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, including setting a date and planning for the referendum on the future”.

“This requires inclusive discussions about the future to ensure that not only do citizens take informed decisions but that the new Ireland which emerges when the union ends is one in which everyone is valued and social and economic rights are upheld,” he said.

Mr Adams repeated the call from Sinn Féin for the establishment of a citizens’ assembly or series of such assemblies to discuss the process of constitutional change.

“This makes sense. Very few countries get a chance to begin anew. Ireland, North and South, has that chance. Political parties which have enjoyed being in power in this state since partition don’t wish to give up that power,” he said. “That’s why our outgoing Taoiseach Micheál Martin refuses to establish a citizens’ assembly to plan the future – an inclusive, citizens-centred, rights-based society of equals.”

Speaking about the Good Friday agreement, Mr Adams said it was “probably the most important political agreement of our time”.

“When it was agreed George Mitchel told myself and Martin McGuinness that that was the easy bit,” he said. “The hard part was going to be implementing it, he said. And he was right. The twists and turns from April 10th, 1998 to now have been many.”

Mr Adams said: “Currently the institutions are not in place due to the intransigence of the DUP, the machinations of successive Tory governments and unionist efforts to force the EU and Irish Government to scrap the protocol.

“However, despite these difficulties the success of the agreement is that there are many people alive today because of it. It brought an end to almost three decades of war.”

He told the committee that “those who still seek to use violence or threaten the use of violence represent the past. So do the securocrats who manipulate the groups involved. They should end their actions and go away.”

Mr Adams also said that the Conservative government in the UK has “no real investment in the Good Friday agreement”.

“In fact, its policy is to emasculate the human rights elements of the agreement,” he said.

“The dialogue between John Hume and myself was probably the clearest example of this developing alternative strategy. It certainly generated enormous public attention, most of it negative, as the establishment in Britain and Ireland pushed back against any new approach.

“John Hume was pilloried and vilified and condemned by governments and most of the political parties, and by large sections of the media, for daring to talk to me.”

There were sharp exchanges when Fine Gael senator Emer Currie said she found aspects of Mr Adam’s contribution to the committee to be “an outstanding work of revisionism”.

“I think to describe the actions of the IRA between 1972 and 1988 as some sort of parallel route to peace and justice, that to me is wild. You say it is all about democracy ... but the people of Ireland, year after year, time after time, rejected the IRA. For me it is important to say that this is your version of history but for others it is not a true reflection of our history.”

She said when it comes to the British state and the wrongdoings of the British security forces, there are “grave questions to be asked” but she also asked about questions that may be posed of those in control of IRA militias.

Mr Adams said “everybody has a right to truth”.

Ms Currie asked him if he believed that those in control of the IRA “should answer for their conduct”.

“The IRA is gone,” he said, “but everybody who has the ability to give answers should do so. There needs to be a mechanism in place to allow that to happen.”

Ms Currie said Mr Adams had not addressed “the hurt caused in the Troubles”.

Mr Adams said if the committee wanted to bring him back for another hearing he could answer further, and said he was there to answer questions about the Good Friday agreement.

He said he was “not trying to dodge the issue” but said he had “addressed the issue publicly” on other occasions.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times