22 November 2007 Edition
Conference : Line drawn under election as party focuses on regaining momentum
Sinn Féin — back on the offensive in 26 Counties
SEÁN Mac BRáDAIGH
A definitive line was drawn under last May’s general election as hundreds of Sinn Féin members from every corner of Ireland gathered for an internal conference in Dublin last Sunday. It was the culmination of months of intense discussion among the membership across the 26 Counties.
Those attending the event in the Radisson Hotel at Dublin Airport debated a strategy to further republican objectives in the run up to the EU Reform Treaty and the 26 County local and European elections in 2009. The conference was extremely upbeat and positive as activists focussed on the political battle ahead to put Sinn Féin at the mainstream of political life in the 26 Counties.
Opening the conference Gerry Adams dedicated his address to the memory of Laois republican Jim Hyland who died tragically during the week and who the Sinn Féin President described as “an indomitable republican” who had withstood the worst of the Garda Heavy Gang period in the 1970s.
On those who claimed they were going to crush Sinn Féin, Adams said that he was reminded of pronouncements made in the past such as that by Lloyd George when he said “We have murder by the throat”, of the Civil War, or the claims of anti-republican 26 County Government Minister Paddy Cooney in the 1970s. While there was little doubt that a united Ireland would be achieved, Sinn Féin was out for more than a mere extension of the 26 County political set up.
The Sinn Féin leadership was aware before the election that the party had weaknesses in the 26 Counties, that it was “not organised enough, inculcated enough or relevant enough”. The election had witnessed a pause in the momentum that was driving the party forward for the previous 10 years. What the party now needed was a consensus, strategically and politically on how to move forward again.
Adams pointed out that Ireland had changed hugely in the past ten years and that Sinn Féin needed to take this into account as it mapped a course forward.
A small clique of anti-republican journalists were engaged in a smear campaign which sought to link Sinn Féin to criminality but where republicans were active and known within their community such smear tactics had little or no effect. Big interests were being protected by and were protecting the conservative parties.
The conference was organised into two main sessions with party Chairperson and Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald chairing the morning session and Eamon Nolan chairing the afternoon debate. Workshops and two plenary sessions witnessed wide-ranging discussion and contributions by party members from various parts of the country.
Seán Hughes who heads up Sinn Féin's new organisational Development Unit addressed delegates on the role of the new structure and what it would be doing in the time ahead. Sinn Féin had held a range of meetings across the 26 Counties in the run up to last weekend’s conference and is now trying to build from the ground up.
Sinn Féin Dáil leader and Cavan/Monaghan Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD addressed the conference on the issue of ‘Regaining Momentum’. Members needed to recognise the party’s successes as well as its disappointments. The Seanad election demonstrated Sinn Féin’s ability to mobilise its electoral strength in the 26 Counties in a strategic manner.
It was important to see events in the context of a counter-offensive by the political establishment in the 26 Counties that began after Sinn Féin played a key role in defeating the first Nice referendum in 2001. It intensified after the party’s electoral successes in EU and local elections in 2004 and it culminated at the recent General Election with the loss of Seán Crowe’s seat.
A similar counter-offensive was mounted in the period 1985-1992 in the Six Counties. Following Sinn Féin electoral successes between 1981 and 1984 the British and Irish governments combined to bolster the SDLP and isolate republicans. The Hillsborough Agreement (1985) was the main vehicle for this. This culminated in 1992 with the loss of Gerry Adams’s West Belfast Westminster seat.
With increased votes in Cavan/Monaghan in 1987 and 1989 Sinn Féin’s vote dropped in 1992.
“In both these cases the Sinn Féin fight-back began the day after the election counts. Our activists regrouped. We went on to regain West Belfast and to top the poll in Cavan/Monaghan.
“We are in a far stronger position today to meet the counter-offensive and to fight back. We have more elected representatives than ever. We are more widely organised. We are represented in every democratic forum, including in Executive government in the Six Counties and in the All-Ireland Ministerial Council”, Ó Caoláin said.
He said Sinn Féin needs to go back on the offensive: “Our politics are sound. Our message is correct. We need to get that message to as many people as we can.”
United Ireland spokesperson and Kerry North TD Martin Ferris addressed the issue of ‘Strategic Alliances’. He said Fianna Fáil had a plan to crush Sinn Féin. “They have had that plan since 1932. Your presence, in such large numbers here today, shows the extent to which they have failed. But they haven’t given up”, Ferris said.
He said they would use spurious issues such as criminality and attempt to misrepresent Sinn Féin's economic policies. But, Ferris said: “We will not stop drawing breath until we achieve a united Ireland. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour will not do it.
“We don’t want a 32 County Free State. We want a republic based on equality. That’s why we have to get it right.”
He said there was a big difference between the Fianna Fáil membership and support base and the leadership structure of that party. The same applied to Fine Gael and Labour. Such people were there to be motivated behind the banner of genuine republicanism as represented by Sinn Féin.
Ferris said republicans needed to build strategic alliances for the short, medium and long term in order to achieve their objectives. He mentioned the myriad of community, farming and voluntary organisations that straddled the border as an example of the type of work that should be developed further. He said that the border should be broken down and made increasingly irrelevant.
Closing the conference, Senator Pearse Doherty said that republican ideals should and could be put into practice. It was time to “take the slogans down from the wall and make them a reality”, he said.
The experience in the Donegal constituencies where Sinn Féin had received a huge vote in the general election and where the party was poised to take two Dáil seats, and in Cavan/Monaghan, showed what could be done. With the right organisation on the ground and the necessary work put in, these successes could be repeated around the 26 Counties.
Following the day’s events, Sinn Féin members had reached a consensus and were united on the way forward politically, organisationally and strategically.
To huge applause Doherty said that Sinn Féin would not be thwarted despite the best efforts of its opponents, that it was now back on the political offensive and that republicans would win what so many had fought so hard for, over so many years.