19 February 2004 Edition
Sinn Féin's Force for Change - First National Conference of Elected Representatives
As Sinn Féin launches into another year of elections, the party's elected representatives from across Ireland gathered in Navan last weekend for a well-attended first national conference of the National Elected Representative Forum.
The purpose, as Francie Molloy outlined in his report on the workings of this forum, was to co-ordinate the various strands of our elected representation of 170 councillors, TDs, MLAs and MPs, so strengthen "the very powerful force it is, across the island — a force for change".
The key work of the conference was to discuss and agree common guidelines for elected representatives to structure their relationship with the party, unite their approach on council practices and underline common standpoints, especially in relation to such major issues as the commitment undertaken by all councillors to oppose racism and evolve together a common position in relation to waste management and waste charges across the country.
Conor Murphy MLA, in a regional review of the Assembly elections, spoke of how the new voter registration requirements had disenfranchised at least a quarter of a million people, primarily affecting nationalists and people living in disadvantaged areas. "If the British Government doesn't get the electoral result it wants, then it sets about getting the electorate it wants," he said.
"The legislation is a patent act of electoral fraud, a concerted effort by the British to thwart the Sinn Féin vote. For example, in our area of Newry/Armagh around 5,000 voters were left off the register. 95% of first-time voters were not coming onto the register. We have to continue the voter registration work with double the energy in the run up to the EU election and possible further election to the Assembly."
"There is wealth in this room which needs to be shared. We are the only all-Ireland councillors' body: we need to see everything we do as part of the All-Ireland agenda. We need a planned approach to make our pressure felt on issues of equality, representation, to reflect the growing strength of our party, and we need to build links between councils North and South," said Francie Molloy.
Joe Reilly, who has chaired the forum during its ten-month existence, and who organised the conference, talked of the work done over this period, by himself, Matt Carthy and Francie Molloy, who brought the forum together. "Coherence was our first priority, and structuring elected reps into the party. We need to redefine the role of the forum's representatives on the Ard Chomhairle of the party, that they represent the forum and not just themselves."
EU — there is an alternative
Party Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin ended the conference with an important address, where he talked first of the importance of the EU election, referring to the meeting between the Big Three member states, France, Germany and England, to the exclusion of other EU member states in Berlin this week. "Bertie Ahern has already commented that he has no concerns about this event," he said.
"In 2001, 53% of the electorate in this state opposed the Nice Treaty, and in 2002 38% voted no. People voted no because they are concerned about how the EU is developing. There is disenchantment with the EU's structures and policies.
"But the EU does not have to continue in its present direction. There is a credible alternative. Sinn Féin wants a Europe where decisions are taken from the ground up and where national governments are in full control of the decision-making process."
Challenge to DUP
"We are in politics," he said, "to convince people of the benefits that would accrue to all the people of Ireland in the exercise of national self-determination. In that vein, I challenge the unionists and particularly the DUP, now that it has donned the mantle of leadership in unionism, to abandon the crutch of preconditions and enter into direct unconditional discussions with Sinn Féin.
"For years, you have been denouncing the British Government as treacherous and dishonest. So why use the British Government as a conduit to convey your position to Sinn Féin? I say to you, if the DUP believes that remaining in the Union with Britain in a constant state of dependency presents the best option, then convince those of us that a have a different perspective of your argument. If you are confident in your analysis, then let the debate begin."
He referred to the DUP's three 'options' and said: "The third option in their own inimitable way is a recognition by the DUP that power-sharing government is the only way forward. This option is, I believe, a shift and it brings the DUP into the ballpark of the Good Friday Agreement politics. They're in the ballpark — now let them become players."
Mitchel also talked of the urgent need to address the massive issue of registration and the unacceptability of the disenfranchisement of the electorate. "It is nothing short of a modernised form of gerrymandering," he said.
Vital to expose collusion
He also touched on the key campaign issue of collusion: "It is vital that we continue to support the campaign to expose the British Government's refusal to cooperate with investigations that could lead to the exposure of the British state agencies in colluding in the murder of Irish citizens. Dismantling the apparatus of collusion is a central component to resolving the conflict. It is vital that the increase in British Army activity that we've recently observed, and the behaviour of the PSNI, still wedded to the malign political agenda of the Special Branch, be recorded and does not go unchallenged, either locally or centrally."
State of the Peace Process
On the Peace Process, Mitchel McLaughlin pointed out that there is an obvious resistance within unionism, on the part of Ulster Unionists and the DUP, to the process of political, social and constitutional change. He added that this is also present within the British establishment.
"There is a job of work to be done to convince the British Government to become persuaders of Irish re-unification: to build the argument for unity as the best guarantee of Unionist rights, democratic, social and cultural," he said. "The British Government needs to ask if its failure to implement the Equality and Human Rights commitments has contributed to a hope within unionism that the Agreement can be destroyed?"
He ended the conference on an upbeat note, telling the Sinn Féin elected representatives that there is a tremendous wellspring of goodwill in the country generally towards the party and its politics. "We must tap into it. There is a willing electorate keen to hear our message and it is up to the people in this room