20 January 2005 Edition
An Céad - Towards a United Ireland
The Round Room of the Mansion House was packed to the gills on Friday evening last as a year of celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of Sinn Féin was inaugurated.
Among the guests were members of the diplomatic community and former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, but the bulk of those present were the people who make up the backbone of Sinn Féin, our political activists young and old, inspired by the vision of the new Republic and motivated by the words and actions of the party leadership.
There was an air of confidence about the place. The party has been going from strength to strength in recent years, a far cry from 1991, before the Peace Process kicked in, when Sinn Féin was prevented from using the Mansion House for its Ard Fheis. Today, the famous old building would be far too small to accommodate the party's annual conference.
The Mansion House was a most appropriate venue, the historic site where the first Dáil met in January 1919. The occasion was also historic, pointed out Caitríona Ruane, chair of the SF100/Céad Bliain organising committee. She called on "all of Ireland to join with us in our celebrations".
The year ahead, she said, as she launched the programme of events for 12 months of activity, will focus on educating and informing as many people as possible about Sinn Féin and encouraging people to take part in the project to build a united Ireland of equals.
Traditional music had opened the evening's events. Then, a collage of images of various aspects of the struggle for Irish freedom and prominent republican activists faded in and out across the big screen as a succession of speakers came to the stage, recalling the words of famous republicans like James Connolly, Roger Casement and Máire Drumm, or the idealistic pledges of the Democratic Programme of 1919.
The chair of the evening's celebration, Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald, then introduced the party president, Gerry Adams, to set the scene for the Céad Bliain year. Here, we carry his address.
"I want to launch An Céad by commending and thanking all of you and all our friends and comrades across this island, and around the world for your great commitment, idealism and contribution to our struggle.
Lá Breithe shona do gach duine agaibh.
What is this year about?
It is about education and debate.
It is about the re-popularising of republicanism.
It is about learning the lessons of a century of struggle.
It's also about taking pride in what we are about and what we have achieved.
But most important of all this year is about Sinn Féin taking more decisive steps forward toward our goal of a united, free and independent Ireland.
Predictably enough the year begins with Sinn Féin once again under attack.
Can any one here remember a time, any time, when the usual suspects weren't lined up against us.
The political establishment was at it 100 years ago. The media establishment was at it 100 years ago.
If those who founded Sinn Féin were alive today and watching recent events they would conclude that the more things change the more some things remain the same.
For example; the very first editorial in the Irish Independent after the 1916 Rising was entitled "Criminal Madness". It said:
"No terms of denunciation that pen could indite would be too strong to apply to those responsible for the insane and criminal rising of last week."
As James Connolly lay wounded in hospital, the same paper declared: "Let the worst of the ringleaders be singled out and dealt with as they deserve."
But for tonight let us ignore the begrudgers.
Tonight is about our agenda - no one else's.
So let us look to our vision of the future - the vision of a free Ireland, united in peace and justice, "the achieveable vision".
Over the past century Sinn Féin has been an idea, a name, a federation of political societies, a national independence movement, a republican campaigning organisation.
And, in 2005, the only all-Ireland political party and the fastest growing party in the country.
The words Sinn Féin have been described as "the title deeds of a revolution".
And as we reflect on a century of Sinn Féin we should reflect on the meaning of those words.
When the idea of Sinn Féin was conceived Ireland was awakening from the nightmare of the 19th century.
There was the Great Hunger, the millions forced to emigrate and the land war.
But even in the midst of these horrors some dared to dream of a different Ireland - a free Ireland.
The tragic fate of Parnell had shown the limits of a so-called constitutional nationalism that depended on the good will of British political parties or British governments to grant as concessions the inalienable rights of the Irish people.
The most important principle of Sinn Féin was self-reliance. Only the people of this island can secure our liberation and mould our society to suit our unique heritage, our character, our economic needs and our place in the wider world.
And that is still true today.
And from the beginning Sinn Féin extended a hand of friendship to unionists, while always asserting that the end of the Union was in the interests of all the people of this island.
It was a time of renewal and rebirth in Ireland. Sinn Féin was the political expression of that dram, that blossomed in Conradh na Gaeilge, Cumann Lúhchleas Gael, the Trade Union movement, the Co-Operative movement, the development of Irish industries and agriculture, Inghínne na hÉireann and the movement for Women's Suffrage, Irish Women's Workers Union of Ireland.
From the beginning women were centrally involved in this organisation.
It was a woman, Máire de Buitléir, who first proposed the name Sinn Féin for the new political movement.
Constance Markievicz, Minister for Labour in the First Dáil, was one of the first women Cabinet ministers in the world.
Margaret Buckley was President of Sinn Féin from 1937 to 1950.
But too often women have been the workers in the background, the often invisible foundation of this party and this struggle. We have made progress in redressing the balance but much more needs to be done and one of our key aims in this centenary year must be to increase the number of women in Sinn Féin and the number of women in positions of leadership, including more republican women standing for elected office in winnable seats across this island.
Gan Conradh na Gaeilge ní bheadh Sinn Féin ann. Mar a dúirt Pádraig MacPiarais, nuair a bunaíodh Conradh na Gaeilge cuireadh tús le réabhlóid na hÉireann. Thug Gluaiseacht na Gaeilge féin-mheas ar ais do mhuintir na hÉireann. Ón tús bhí slánú na Gaeilge mar chuspóir ag Sinn Féin. Ba chóir dúinn deis na bliana seo a úsáid chun obair ár bpairtí ar son na Gaeilge a mhéadú, chun an pairtí féin a Ghaelú chomh fada agus is féidir agus chun plé le pobal na Gaeilge conas is féidir linn uile dul ar aghaidh sa chéad nua seo go dtí náisiún dá-theangach.
The first objective in the first Constitution of Sinn Féin was simply stated as "the re-establishment of the independence of Ireland".
Political events soon required a clearer definition of what that independence would mean.
The political pendulum had swung towards constitutional nationalism. Irish hopes rested once more on the goodwill of a British political party.
The Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster reduced the national demand for freedom to the polite request for limited Home Rule within the British Empire. But even this was not conceded as the British Government acted, as always, first and last, in its own interest.
It was Tory England, in alliance with Irish Unionism, that brought the gun into Irish politics in the 20th century - not republicans, not the Irish Volunteers, not Sinn Féin. With the Tory-Unionist gun came the concept of Partition.
And so the political pendulum swung back towards that element in Irish politics which, since the days of the United Irishmen, had always demanded national sovereignty and an Irish Republic.
There were many republicans involved in the formation of Sinn Féin. They played a pivotal role in founding the Irish Volunteers.
Many of them actively supported the workers in the Great 1913 Lockout in Dublin.
This was a great period of debate, of exchanges of ideas as leaders and thinkers and activists, dreamers all, met and influenced each other.
It was the time when the tributaries of separatism, anti-sectarianism, feminism, cultural revival, socialism and the physical force tradition flowed into the river of Irish republicanism.
The Proclamation - 'a promise to every Irish citizen'
The result was the 1916 Rising and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the founding document of modern Irish Republicanism and a charter of liberty with international as well as national importance.
The great phrases of that document resonate around this hall 80 years after the First Dáil met here.
"The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty"; "equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens"; "cherishing all the children of the nation equally". Its anti-sectarianism is evident in the words; "oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past". And at a time when women in most countries did not have the vote, the government of this new republic will be "elected by the suffrages of all her men and women".
These are not just clever words or empty rhetoric. This was the dream taking shape.
These are great words - great ideas - which it is our task, our responsibility, to see implemented.
These words are a promise to every Irish citizen that she and he can share in the dignity of human kind, as equals with equal opportunity. That we can enjoy freedom, educate our children, provide for our families, and not exploit our neighbours.
The Irish people endorsed the Republic at the ballot box in 1918. Dáil Éireann was established and in this room, in this month in 1919, the Dáil declared the independence of the Republic and published its Message to the Free Nations of the World and the Democratic Programme.
Maire Comerford wrote of the atmosphere in this room that day, "never was the past so near or the present so brave or the future so full of hope".
We know what England's answer was. We are still living with the consequences of that British denial of Irish democracy, the unfinished business of Irish history.
From the high water mark of united national resistance, republicans faced a counter-revolution and long decades of struggle.
It is a source of strength and encouragement that republicans have survived undefeated in spite of all that has been thrown against us. We continued to dream.
But we did more. We emerged as the leadership of a Risen People, that Risen People referred to by Maire Drumm, our murdered vice-president, whose words we have recalled tonight.
It is not just Republican rhetoric to say that the refusal of successive British governments to recognise Irish democracy made armed conflict inevitable.
Let it not be forgotten that for decades, including all the years of the Civil Rights movement and in the most intense period of the conflict from 1969 to 1974, Sinn Féin was banned under British law in the Six Counties.
Sinn Féin was censored. Sinn Féin members, elected representatives and our families were killed.
We were banned from this building.
For generations of young nationalists and republicans there was a British Army roadblock at the bottom of every political route to change.
And here in this state the Special Branch was busy as well.
Well, those who vilified and excluded us need look no further than tonight as evidence of the failure of their strategy.
We are back in the Mansion House bigger and stronger; and better than ever.
In this hall tonight are generations of activists, generations of dreamers and do-ers, who braved the reverses and hardships, the failures and the mishaps, who refused to despair and surrender and who risked life and liberty in pursuit of our republican goals.
They are the stalwarts. Those who endured in the lean years and who guarded the flame of freedom.
In this centenary year we remember especially all those republicans who lived, worked and died for freedom. We remember them all with great pride and love.
Their absence reminds us of how much we have lost in the course of this struggle.
These were ordinary men and women who in extraordinary and difficult circumstances found the inner strength, determination and courage to stand against injustice and oppression, to demand the rights and entitlements of the Irish people.
Our task — our duty — is to make their vision — their dream — a reality.
Defining Republicanism today
That means defining and redefining our republicanism for today's world — for today's Ireland.
Republicanism today, and our dream, our vision, reflects our contemporary experience; the inspiration provided by the heroes of this phase of struggle — Maire Drumm and Bobby Sands, Eddie Fullerton and Sheena Campbell and John Davey and many others; and by our political objectives for this time.
Sinn Féin is an Irish republican party. Our strategy to achieve a united, independent Ireland marks us out from other Irish political parties.
Later this year we will be launching a campaign for the Irish Government to bring forward a Green Paper on Irish Unity.
Our primary political objectives are; an end to partition, an end to the union, the construction of a new national democracy - a new Republic - on the island of Ireland, and reconciliation between orange and green.
But we are not prepared to wait until we have achieved these goals for people to have their rights to a decent home, to a job and a decent wage, to decent public services like health and education, and a safer cleaner environment.
We also want change in the here and now.
Irish republicanism has a vision of a new society that is democratic, economically as well as politically, which is inclusive of all citizens, in which there is a redistribution of wealth for the wellbeing of the aged, for the advancement of youth, for the liberation of women and the protection of our children.
It foresees a new relationship between these islands resting upon our mutual independence and mutual respect.
From the beginning, saving the Irish language from extinction and reviving our national language was a key aim of Sinn Féin. We should use the opportunity of this year to increase our party's work on the Irish language — to Gaelicise the party itself to the greatest extent possible and to debate with the Irish language community particularly, and the English language community generally, how we can all move forward in this new century towards a truly bilingual nation.
Our republicanism is about change — fundamental, deep-rooted change.
It's about empowering people to make that change.
That means we have to be agents of change.
This is an enormous responsibility. It is a huge challenge.
Building political strength
Key to achieving this is the hard, tedious, difficult work of building political strength.
By building that strength we will build the capacity to move both the British and the Irish governments and the unionists and to influence the political agenda.
Since last year Sinn Féin took major strides forward toward achieving our goals.
Just over a year ago, in November 2003, this party became the largest pro-Agreement party in the north - a significant achievement.
Last June Sinn Féin broke the mould of Irish politics in the European elections by electing Mary Lou McDonald and Bairbre de Brún to the European Parliament and by electing Councillors right across the southern state.
The front page of the Phoblacht then summed it up - 342,000 votes, 2 MEPs, 232 Councillors, 24 MLAs, 5TDs and 4MPs.
Sinn Féin is now politically and organisationally stronger than at any time since the 1920s.
We have developed new approaches. We have taken difficult and risky decisions.
We have demonstrated time and time again a preparedness to go on the political offensive, to take initiatives and go toe to toe with our political opponents in the battle of ideas, as well as in the hard job of building workable political partnerships.
And all of these facts give some explanation why once again we are at the centre of a political storm.
Our political opponents, and even those who should be our allies in the struggle for Irish freedom and peace, fear our growing electoral strength.
It is amazing to watch the feverish efforts of parties in this part of the island rushing to claim their republican and Sinn Féin roots, while attacking and condemning us.
We have no fear of that. If Labour and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and the rest want to be republican then Sinn Féin welcomes that. The more the merrier. We have no monopoly on that.
What is a republican if not someone who strives for Irish freedom and justice and end to partition?
The success of our party — and the test for all other parties — has to be about how much change they secure and how much progress they make in improving the life of citizens and in achieving national freedom.
This generation will succeed
This is our time.
Sinn Féin has dedication and we have commitment. We have idealism. We have a dream. And we have strategies.
We also have a lot of work to do. We don't pretend to have all the answers.
We must use our mandate as a launching pad to grow an islandwide, a nationwide mass Sinn Féin movement.
Our goal is to have a Sinn Féin cumann in every electoral ward across Ireland.
We have to open our party up to women comrades and to people who will bring their own life experiences and values. I particularly want to commend Ógra Sinn Féin for their dedicated work and enormous contribution.
We also have to work in partnership with other parties, and people of a like mind, to construct an alliance for unity which will act as a catalyst for real change, a coalition for unity which brings people and parties with a similar vision of the future together.
We are the generation which will win the freedom and independence that those before us struggled hard to achieve.
We in this historic hall, and thousands more throughout this island, are carrying the honoured name of Sinn Féin into the 21st Century.
And after a century of struggle, we are preparing for success.
When will we get our United Ireland? When will Ireland have independence?
There's only one answer to that.
We will get it when our combined efforts, our combined strength, our determination make its achievement unstoppable.
We will not settle for less.
Let us continue, despite the difficulties — to reach out to unionism to build a just and lasting peace.
Let us continue with our efforts to make the peace process work.
We want to see an end to conflict on our island. We want to see the political institutions re-instituted. We want to see the Good Friday Agreement implemented.
We know as the leading nationalist party in the north and the largest pro-Agreement party, that there are huge responsibilities on us.
We are up to the task.
But we cannot achieve this alone.
So, let us join with those in other parties and none, who share our vision of a new Ireland.
Let us ask them to walk with us; to work with us; to move forward with us toward the republican and democratic goals of unity and freedom and equality.
Anyone who wants to win a struggle has to have a dream, the dream that things can be different, that they can be better.
But we are not only dreamers. We are doers.
We know we can make the difference.
So, let us leave here tonight renewed, reinvigorated, and determined to fulfill the promise of the Proclamation, and the objective for which Sinn Féin was founded — a free, independent, sovereign Ireland.
Ar aghaidh linn le chéile."