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22 June 2006 Edition

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Wolfe Tone Commemoration: Increased numbers reflects growth of Sinn Féin

Standing on threshold of historic change - Kelly

Republicans from all over Ireland gathered in noticeably increased numbers this year for the annual Wolfe Tone Commemoration in Bodenstown, County Kildare. The large crowds were joined by numerous marching bands. The many colourful and imaginative new banners, representing Sinn Féin Cumainn from every corner of the country, reflected the party's continued growth and increasing geographical spread. A colour party of republican former Prisoners of War led the parade from the village of Sallins.

Ceremonies at Bodenstown Churchyard were chaired by former An Phoblacht journalist and Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin Mid West Joanne Spain, while the main address was delivered by Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle member and MLA for North Belfast Gerry Kelly.

Kelly was arrested for IRA activities in England in 1974 and received two life sentences plus 20 years. With the other republican prisoners he immediately commenced a hunger-strike for repatriation to jails in Ireland.

He was violently force-fed 170 times during his hunger-strike before the British conceded repatriation and he was transferred to Long Kesh.

Kelly made several attempts to escape from Long Kesh in 1977 and 1982.

In 1983, together with 37 others republican prisoners, he escaped, in Europe's largest prison break-out since the Second World War.

In 1986 Kelly and Brendan MacFarlane were arrested in Holland and extradited and re-imprisoned in Long Kesh until 1989. After his release he participated in the peace process as part of Sinn Féin's negotiation team.

Below is a slightly edited version of Gerry Kelly's oration.

In commemorating and celebrating the bravery of Wolfe Tone and our fallen comrades since then, I want to pay tribute to the volunteers and leadership of the IRA today because they have shown outstanding valour and vision on and off the battlefield. They have played the most pivotal role in this phase of the struggle and I commend their initiatives, patience, discipline and tenacity.

If courage were the yardstick of success then the British would be long gone.

Indeed individual and collective courage have been the mainstay of this long struggle. It was the courage shown by the leadership of Óglaigh na hÉireann in calling a cessation of military operations in 1994 which was the catalyst for not only the overall peace process but for the ongoing development of the republican strategy which has brought us so far.

Since we last gathered here in 2005 the Irish Republican Army announced that it has formally ended its armed campaign. This was a courageous and truly historic step to advance the cause of peace and the cause of Irish freedom.

Although this is the first time I've been on the platform at Bodenstown, I have spoken at the gravesides of many fallen comrades so let me repeat what I have consistently stated, I don't know what Wolfe Tone would think of our present day strategy and tactics or indeed what James Connolly or Bobby Sands or Mairéad Farrell or Sheena Campbell or other friends who were killed during the present phase of struggle might say.

I do know that we all agree with Tone's words, still relevant two hundred and more years after his death:

To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government,

To break the connection with England,

The never failing source of all our political evils,

And to assert the independence of my country-

These were my objects.

To unite the whole people of Ireland,

To abolish the memory of all past dissensions,

And to substitute the common name of Irishman

In place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter-

These were my means.

We strive for that same independence and unity. I do know that those who are left behind, those who survive must take up the mantle and do the best we can in the era that we live in. We must lead, strategise and use tactics suitable and workable to the 21st century. That is the onerous task our fallen comrades leave to us.

There are turning points in a nation's history that change the course of that nation's people. 1798 was such a point, the 1916 rising was such an event as was the Hunger Strike of 1981. Despite the profound difficulties for many republicans the IRA statement of 28 July, 2005 is another such event. The IRA has provided a golden opportunity to advance a new era in our long struggle. It is crucial that this opportunity be grasped by republicans and opponents alike.

In the coming weeks there will be renewed efforts to advance the peace process. Republicans had taken hugely important decisions. It is time for others to respond in like manner. The challenge is there not just for the DUP but more importantly for the British and Irish governments.

· Former An Phoblacht journalist and Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin Mid West Joanne Spain and Ard Chomhairle member and MLA for North Belfast Gerry Kelly.

The inescapable question for the DUP is whether they are prepared to join with the rest of us in sharing power. If they refuse then it is the two governments that must jointly implement all other elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Unionism must be shown that power sharing is much more preferable than British ministers implementing policies over their heads.

Sinn Féin has become the largest nationalist party in the North. We became the third largest party in Ireland. We are the only all-Ireland party. We have the capability of achieving a united Ireland and we must continue constantly building the capacity to achieve that goal.

We will only do that by leading with courage and imagination, by taking initiatives and above all by hard work. More and more people in Ireland North and South are joining us and looking to us for leadership. It has meant activists changing and adapting their role in our struggle.

Sinn Féin is not going to stand by and allow human rights, equality, ending discrimination, the rights of Irish language speakers, the achievement of an acceptable policing or other rights, to be subject to a unionist veto. Let's also remember POWs still incarcerated. There are people on the run. They all should be free to be with their families.

Let us also here today pledge our ongoing support for the families of those killed across this island through the British State policy of collusion over many decades. Their refusal to accept the lies and cover-up of the British State is an inspiration for the rest of us, and more importantly is a clear reminder for the British government that this issue will not go away.

One of the most encouraging aspects of this phase of our struggle has been the numbers of young people attracted to our party. A new generation of activists are taking their place in the struggle and we must ensure that place is secured. We are the only political party, which is experiencing such growth, and it is a sign that young men and women see this party as a vehicle for change for a new generation.

Our goal is to see a united Ireland, which delivers real social and economic change. We are the only party with a strategy and policies for achieving Irish unity and independence.

We will never again accept the status of second class citizens North or South. Neither will we ever impose second class citizenship upon anyone else.

But unionists too have responsibilities and this includes the need to break with sectarian politics. The politics of domination.

However, we are mindful that for many unionists the change we have embarked upon is a terrifying prospect. Change is always difficult. When taken in the context of a conflict resolution process, change can be traumatic. And this can be made even more difficult when there are those within the British political andmilitary establishment who still want to hold onto the old ways. The effect of politcal policing demonstrates the dangers. That is where the most serious threat to the peace process comes from.

You need look no further than the pathetic accusations in some tabloid media in the last couple of weeks to see that there are no depths to which our opponents will not stoop in their futile attempts to undermine the republican struggle.

I have read some diarrheic diatribewritten over the years but the ridiculous attempt to attack the republican integrity and credentials of our comrade Martin McGuinnes is no more than clap trap.

Those who peddle such propaganda are the ones without integrity. And let's be clear that it was elements in the DUP who pushed these lies in their efforts to destabilise the peace process.

Sinn Féin wants to be in government, North and South. We want to see change in the here and now. We are about building a complete alternative to the kind of government which presides over one of the wealthiest economies in the world yet is failing to deliver.

Despite 15 years of unprecedented economic growth. 15% of our children live in constant poverty.

Patients are left for days on end on hospital trolleys.

44,000 families are on the social housing waiting list while building land around our cities is controlled by a small cartel of speculators who have friends in high places.

And to cap it all the government hands over our natural resources to multinationals like Shell and then jails a few brave Mayo men for standing up to Shell.

The people Sinn Féin represents have rights. So does everyone on this island, North and South alike. We have a vision. Our goal is an Irish unity that is inclusive, that everyone including unionists will feel welcome in, that they are a part of.

There is much work to do. But we believe that we are in the countdown to a united Ireland. We believe that together we can make great strides forward and truly transform Irish society on this island forever. Is the British government up for this? Time will tell.

Is the Irish government up for this? Let's test that. The Irish government has after all a constitutional imperative to work for a united Ireland. There are simple things the government in Dublin can do but inexplicably refuse to do. MPs elected in the 6 counties should be accorded speaking rights in the Dáil.Voting rights for Presidential elections should be extended to citizens in the six counties.

Sinn Féin is up for making this work. Our activists and supporters are up for it.

Who, except for the most vitriolic and blind anti-republican elements could doubt that the IRA is up for it. Republicans have stretched themselves repeatedly to put the process back on track.

Sinn Féin is in this process to the end. We want the British government and the Irish government and the unionists to work with us and finish the work we have all started. The length of the journey can be shortened and the ups and downs on the road can be smoothed out if we go at it collectively.

All of you here today are part of the fastest growing party in Ireland. Whether it is here in Bodenstown, or in Derry, or Upper Bann, or North Antrim or Wexford, or Dublin or Belfast, or South Armagh, or Cork it is clear that Sinn Féin is winning more and more hearts and minds right across the island. Everyday there are more and more Irish republicans. We are building our political strength.

Republicans are not chained by history. They learn from it and use it. That is why important initiatives have been taken on so many occasions. While unionists are fixated with slowing down and frustrating change republicans want more change, want to move on from the past. But there will be a need for more discipline and a well of patience by republicans. More courage is called for. Those who have set their minds against change will be more provocative. The bigots and the securocrats dream of wrecking the structure of change. They want to destroy rather than build. Their tools are bigotry, mistrust, political policing and paramilitary attacks. They should be starved of anything that feeds their frenzy.

Republicans have a better vision. I am confident that we will build on our achievements and substantially increase our political strength. We must continue to build on that strength, the stronger we are the closer our goal of a free independent, and united Ireland will come.

We face difficult challenges ahead but also there are great opportunities. We stand on the threshold of historic change. Standing on the deck of a ship heading into battle as Wolfe Tone did, is one way to experience the historical moment. Many generations before us have struggled for a united Ireland. For hundreds of years we have struggled. It is, however, our generation who have the potential of achieving that goal. All struggles are won on the accumulation of many smaller battles. Do your bit, win your battle and you will have brought the day of freedom of our country that much closer. Remember our fallen comrades were ordinary people in extradionary circumstances who rose to the challenge. There are young people here today who have that same ability. So go out and do what we do best.

Buíochas

Sinn Féin's National Commemoration Committee wishes to thank those republican ex-POWS who formed the colour party at Bodenstown; Roddy McCorley Society, Belfast who led the parade; all participating bands; those veteran republicans who travelled from the four corners of Ireland; Patrick Regan, Ian McBride and all the stewards; Mark Joyce for designing the billboards and leaflets; Oliver Hosey for erecting billboards and flags; Jim from Wexford for driving on the day; Noel and Phil for collecting and transporting the equipment; to Grace Vaughey and Sean McNally.

A special word of thanks to Nicola King and Paul Hamilton, whose assistance was invaluable; and last but not least to all who attended Bodenstown on the day.

Congratulations are extended to the Ed O'Brien Flute Band from Wexford who won the Fearghal Carraher Band Competition.

From Olive Sloan, Cathaoirleach, Coiste Chuimhneachán Náisiúnta.

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