10 March 2005 Edition
Opening address buoys Ard Fheis delegates
BY JOANNE CORCORAN
The buzz of excitement in the Ard Fheis registration hall last Friday evening was palpable. After months of listening to attacks on their party, it was clear, as Sinn Féin members picked up their delegate badges and visitor cards, that a weekend of positive messages and inspirational speeches was more than welcome.
The opening address didn't begin on time. It couldn't; old friends were still meeting each other in the canteen, exchanging greetings and news. As the evening's chair beckoned people into the hall, the seats began filling up. Chatter subsided as people took in this year's stage and watched as press photographers jostled with each other for positions under the podium, all aiming to get the best shots of the first speaker.
When Martin McGuinness took to the podium to make the opening speech of the weekend, the applause from the hall was deafening.
The Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator smiled as he looked around the hall, and when the applause died down, welcomed everybody to the 2005 Ard Fheis.
Then he got right to the point.
"The last few weeks have been very difficult," he said, adopting a more sober demeanour. "Difficult for republicans and difficult for those we represent — the republican communities who have supported and sustained the republican struggle over the years."
"These communities know," he continued, "from first hand experience why the struggle was necessary, and they know at first hand, the sacrifices that have been necessary to get us to where we are today.
"For them, what is important is not the endless debate about whether Gerry Adams and I were in the IRA. Or whether people believe us or Hugh Orde about the Northern Bank robbery.
"No. What is important to them is whether they can believe in us — believe in us when we say we are committed to true equality; believe in us when we say that we are against criminality of all kinds; believe in us when we say that our commitment to the Peace Process is total and absolute."
McGuinness said that what had pained him most about the last few weeks hadn't been the criticism of the two governments, the party's political opponents, the media or those unionists clearly delighted to have an excuse for their intransigence.
"What pains me the most is any suggestion, suspicion or indication that the IRA could be turned into a criminal gang or a tool of individual interest, or otherwise engaged in criminality," he said.
Speaking slowly and clearly, he continued: "And in that context I am both outraged and saddened at the involvement of a small number of IRA Volunteers in the brutal killing of Robert McCartney in Belfast four weeks ago."
Reiterating the sentiments of the party over the last few weeks, McGuinness said the McCartney killing was wrong and added: "We cannot allow republicanism to be diminished in this way."
But he went onto praise the speedy response of the IRA to the events, saying it was "in stark contrast to years and decades of cover up by the British Government around collusion, shoot-to-kill, torture, Bloody Sunday, the Dublin Monaghan bombings".
However, he said, there was a current crisis of confidence that could destroy the Good Friday Agreement.
But, he pointed out, republicans "are determined to find a way, however difficult and challenging, to put all conflict and violence behind us all for good, to see all weapons put beyond use; to prevent criminality; to participate in policing on the right terms; and to pursue a purely political, peaceful and democratic path to the Irish unification that every one of us wants to see".
He continued with this positive theme, speaking about this being the 100th anniversary of the party.
"This year will be about delivering the republican message to every part of the island and the purpose will be to encourage more and more people to take possession of their own destiny in order to bring to a conclusion the journey mapped out by those visionaries who founded Sinn Féin in 1905," he said.
Referring to the party's recent launch of a discussion paper calling for a Green Paper on Irish Unity, he said: "We have an historic opportunity for broad civic and political society across this island to address the core issue that has sustained conflict and division, discrimination and second-class citizenship since partition."
He called on the Irish government not to squander this opportunity and to act with foresight.
Nicola King, Anne Devereaux and Martin Ferris chat in the tea-room
McGuinness went on to discuss the challenges facing the party this year.
"We have four elections pending," he said. "Immediately after this Ard Fheis we are into the Meath by-election next Friday. Joe Reilly is our candidate and we could not have a better or more able representative of republicanism. I have no doubt that Joe will do us proud and set the pattern for strong results in the Údarás na Gaeltachta elections in the South and the Local Government and Westminster elections in the North."
Then, he said, the party had to face the mammoth and immediate task of rebuilding the Peace Process.
"We are absolutely determined that the Peace Process will not fail," he said.
"The way in which to ensure its success is through increased political strength, so each and every republican activist has a mighty task ahead in the coming months. I know that you are up to it and I know that you will all give it 100%."
Looking up from his notes, McGuinness concluded by speaking directly to the party members sitting in front of him.
"It has been a difficult time. But we are all here and we're in good heart," he said, to thunderous applause.
And then, shouting above the crowd, he finished. "This is going to be the biggest Ard Fheis the party has ever had and its message will be positive. Go and enjoy the weekend, and let it be a productive one."