13 October 2005 Edition
I dTreo na Poblachta
Conference: Over 240 republican activists gathered to discuss:
I dTreo na Poblachta — Towards the Republic
"A brilliant day full of lively debate and discussion yet tinged with enormous sadness." These were the words whispered to me by a comrade as we left the Ti Chullain Centre in Mullach Bán in South Armagh on Saturday 8 October.
Over 240 republican activists from all corners of the Six Counties had gathered in Ti Chullain, in the shadow of the picturesque Slieve Gullion Mountain, for a day-long conference on the future direction of the struggle, when at lunch time the sad news was broken of the untimely death of Brian Campbell.
An ex-POW and former editor of An Phoblacht, Brian was just 46 years of age when he died suddenly on Saturday. The news of Brian's death brought a sad cloud to an otherwise positive day of debate and discussion.
That positive impact was also to the fore of the participants minds as we mingled in the hall after the final address from Declan Kearney, chair of Sinn Féin's Cuige na Sé Chondae.
So what was last Saturday all about? Organised by Cuige na Sé Chondae and titled I dTreo na Poblachta — Towards the Republic, Saturday's conference was aimed at bringing together those activists, from across the Six Counties, who make up the leadership of the republican struggle throughout the Six Counties.
So although the conference was in the planning since the summer, the impact of the IRA's July initiative and the recent process of putting arms beyond use gave the conference an added impetus.
And that impetus was summed up by Declan Kearney in his closing remarks when he told the gathering that the onus was on them, as activists to "fill the space that has been opened up for us".
"We need to focus on strategy, structure and vision," said Kearney. "We are unmanageable revolutionaries who turned this place upside down. We are the most potent threat to partition on this island. There is now an historic responsibility on us, as Sinn Féin activists, to take up the challenge set down by the IRA's initiatives."
The conference opened with some welcoming remarks from the Newry/Armagh MP Conor Murphy, but it was left to the party's General Secretary Mitchel McLaughlin to set the political tone for the day's proceedings. The theme of his contribution was: Applying Republican Strategy to the Present Context.
McLaughlin detailed the party's objectives and outlined the need for activists to work towards building the party. "As a political party we must set out clearly our political objectives, the strategies that will achieve these aims and the intentions and counter strategies of our opponents."
As Declan Kearney would do later, McLaughlin zeroed in on the developments created by the IRA's initiatives. He went through the steps the party used as it's road map for negotiating the politics of the past 15 years and the change in the political terrain in the aftermath of the Hume/Adams initiative and the announcement of the IRA cessation of military operations in 1994.
He reminded the delegates that, "our strategic objectives are long standing", but that the latest IRA initiatives mean that: "Sinn Féin now has the singular responsibility to deliver on our goals of a democratic socialist republic. "The IRA is telling us we have sufficient momentum and the critical mass to move the struggle on."
McLaughlin asked if those present had, "fully assimilated the significance of this responsibility and if they were, "properly focused on the battle for hearts and minds in Irish society". He went on to say that the party's level of political strength and our growth rocked the political establishments North and South but reminded his audience that our political enemies have set themselves the strategic aim of rolling back our advances. "We must be mindful of our opponents and their determination to defeat us. Their hostility is growing in direct proportion to our success in elections North and South. We must be aware of political interventions by senior Gardaí and PSNI and other securocrats in addition to the invective of the political parties. Unionist negativity and belligerence will intensify built upon a continuing and disproportionate focus on the IRA. Loyalist violence as a means of provoking an IRA response is another real possibility."
Mclaughlin went on to acknowledge the difficulties within unionism and it's ability to deal with the rapid pace of political change that we are witnessing. "Unionism is riven with paranoia and a lack of direction. The quality of leadership given by the DUP is having a negative effect on unionism. So bearing that in mind we must challenge ourselves to find ways of opening up dialogue with unionism."
After McLaughlin's contribution the gathering broke up into workshops which provided the delegates with the opportunity to debate the General Secretary's paper.
At the plenary session it was clear, from the feedback, that delegates had used the workshops to good effect. They picked up on the themes of party building and the need for republicans to open dialogue with unionists. However, as part of the discussions, the need to open up the party to women activists was clearly a big issue. One speaker, from the floor, said the party was only paying lip service to gender equality and needed to do more to ensure women were represented at all levels of the party.
Brian Tumilty, in the second paper of the day, dealt in detail with the issue of party building. Titled Party Organisation and Structure in the mid-to-long term Tumilty's paper put the meat on the bones of ideas that had been previously raised about party building. He quoted the American political thinker Noam Chomsky on the role of the organised people: "If you go to one demonstration and then go home, that's something. But the people in power can live with that. What they can't live with is sustained pressure that keeps building, organisations that keep doing things, people that keep learning lessons from the last time and doing it better the next time."
Tumilty said that an organisation is the vehicle by which people of a like mind, purpose and intent propose to carry themselves forward to their objectives.
Provocatively he posed the following question: "If we use this definition as our starting point in working out the type of organisation that republicans require. And if we also clearly understand that we are all moving forward into unchartered waters where the IRA is no longer the cutting edge of the struggle. Where the cutting edge of the struggle is the individuals in rooms like this throughout Ireland and the political actions they will deliver. Then we have to ask ourselves are we fit for purpose?"
He directed his question at every Sinn Féin activist saying it was incumbent on them to inform themselves as to the range of strategic political objectives set by the party and the nature and shape of the organisation we need to deliver those objectives.
"To create an organisation fit for our purpose requires the creation of an entity never before seen on the island of Ireland. It requires a massive, extensive network of individuals and structures and groups both inside and outside the party, all ideologically based and building up to a republican culture that becomes unstoppable."
Driving home his point Tumilty declared: "The individual political activist, exampled by the people here today, must see themselves very much as the designers, shapers, builders and leaders of the organisation that needs to be put in place to take the struggle forward."
As per the format of the day the gathering broke up into workshops to discuss Tumilty's paper. It was clear from listening to some of that discussion that the nature of the party needed to achieve our objectives remains very much open to discussion.
The third paper of the day was presented by Bairbre de Brun — Projecting a ten-year vision. She began by asking where we might be in ten years. She said we might have Irish independence by then, but if we haven't then the question that arises is, "how far down the road will we be"?
What we need to do, she said, is take a visionary approach to nation building and as activists, use the vision of the united Ireland we want to reach out to unionists and to bring other people along with us towards our goal.
"Our main task is to appeal to young people and bring them along, let them show what they can do. After all the Hunger Strikers were young and they took on a responsibility and leadership that changed the face of Irish politics".
Importantly de Brun focused in on the need for our republican vision to consider the changes in Irish society with growing numbers of people from abroad coming to live here. We need to be actively anti-racist. She also told the gathering that our vision needs to be anti-sexist and that the development of the Irish language has to be central to our vision.
In conclusion de Brun stated that, "1916, 1981 and now 2005 where watersheds in Irish history. "We are at the core of something crucial in the development of our politics and of incredible change. We have the privilege of being party to that and that inspires me. The potential of what we can achieve inspires me and should inspire us all."
From the reaction of the many activists from across the Six Counties the event was a positive experience. It demonstrated the collective will of republicans to take our political project forward. As Brian Tumilty told those gathered: "Strong organisation is the difference between a single thread flapping around in the wind and thousands of threads all coming together to make a rope, a rope that is stretched and tested but is strong and unbreakable".
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.