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24 January 2008 Edition

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National Elected Representatives Forum conference: Preparing for future challenges

Criona Ní Dhálaigh and Daithí Doolan

Criona Ní Dhálaigh and Daithí Doolan

Regaining the political momentum

A packed meeting saw Dublin City Councillor Daithí Doolan elected as chairperson of Sinn Féin’s National Elected Representatives Forum (NERF) in Dublin last weekend. Also elected at the AGM were Seán McPeake as vice-chair and Waterford Councillor David Cullinane as runaí. Councillor Larry O’Toole and Seán McPeake are Ard Chomhairle representatives.
This year’s AGM was important as a motion to February’s Sinn Féin Ard Fheis will involve significant change to NERF’s remit. When it was first established it was as a forum for all elected representatives. The motion recommends that NERF becomes a forum for co-ordinating the work of the party’s councillors and members of Údarás na Gaeltachta and be called the National Councillors’ Forum.  A Six-County Parliamentary Group for MPs, MEPs and MLAs and a 26-County Parliamentary Group made up of TDs, senators and MEPs would work under the direction of the Ard Chomhairle.
Last weekend’s conference also discussed a number of critically important issues such as planning and council budgets.
The conference was opened by Six-County Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who said huge opportunities have opened up for republicans with the re-establishment of the North’s Executive and the All-Ireland Ministerial Council.
In a changing economic climate it does not make sense for one small island to try and sustain two competing systems, he said. There is an opportunity for change and Sinn Féin will work to ensure that opportunity is grasped, he insisted.
McGuinness said that two of the key priorities for Sinn Féin are the devolution of policing and the building of the party across the island. The frontline of the struggle has moved south and Sinn Féin is very clear on the need to regain political momentum:
“We have a massive job of work to be getting on with. It is our job to push forward the republican struggle. We have set out the road map to Irish unity.  Now we need to deliver on it.”

Struggle for empowerment
Addressing the issue of ‘Exercising Political Power’, Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said the party is committed to real reform of local government and was to the fore in promoting the role of local government in meeting housing needs.
“Our role has been vital in resisting the push from central government to remove housing altogether from the remit of local government,” he said.
The Cavan/Monaghan TD said that the republican struggle is about empowering people.
“We want to empower people at local and at national level. We need to use all the elected forums in which we have activists to strengthen and deepen democracy and to put power back in the hands of communities. Our elected councillors are on the frontline in that struggle for empowerment.”
Martin Ferris TD addressed the conference on the issue of ‘Regaining Political Momentum’. Pointing out that Sinn Féin’s campaign against the Lisbon Treaty would be launched in the coming days, he firmly believes the referendum could be defeated. “We need to get out there and start campaigning now,” said
Ferris said that many of the communities which Sinn Féin represents are under severe pressure due to anti-social and criminal behaviour and that it is vital that the party takes the lead in local communities, on local councils and on Joint Policing Committees (JPCs) on this issue.
On the issue of Irish unity, Ferris said:
“We are a republican party.  We are involved in all of this because we want to bring about our ultimate objective of a united Ireland. A huge part of our work as elected representatives is building support so that we can make this achievable and where we can to advance the all-Ireland agenda. I want to ask people to make a special effort this Easter. Don’t just wear an Easter Lily yourself –  get others in the community to wear it. Organise a launch, a public meeting, broaden out the commemoration on Easter Sunday.  Use it as a means to get our message across and to recruit young people into our ranks.”
With less than 18 months to the next local elections, Ferris said that Sinn Féin has a huge job of work to build on the success of the 2004 local elections but he firmly believes that the party can do it. 

Rejuvenating Sinn Féin
The conference was closed by party President Gerry Adams who thanked the outgoing NERF committee, including Chairperson Joe Reilly, Vice-Chair Francie Molloy and Secretary David Cullinane. Adams also acknowledged the efforts of Olive Sloan and Rita O’Hare in putting the conference together.
Adams said that Sinn Féin is stronger today than at any time in decades and is planning for and confident of future growth. To continue to grow Sinn Féin, the party needs to be rejuvenated from the ground up.
“We need to recruit more younger people and more women into the party. And we also need to widen our political appeal by setting out our alternative policies and solutions to the challenges facing modern Ireland.
“We need to articulate our vision of republicanism in the 21st century and it’s relevance to everyday life in a coherent and effective manner.”
He said the frontline of the struggle for a united Ireland and ‘The Republic’ is in the South:
“While all of us, from whatever part of this island we come, have a hugely important role to play in advancing our republican goals – and while we must not take the progress made in the North for granted – it is here in the 26 Counties that Sinn Féin has to build momentum, has to build the party, has to move forward. And our elected representatives, in whatever forum or body they sit, are in the frontline of that fightback.”
Adams said that along with the party’s newly-established Organisational Development Unit, streamlined cúigí, a revamped Election Department, and a revamped elected reps’ forum, Sinn Féin now has the organisational tools necessary to meet the challenges facing republicanism at the start of the 21st century. 
 “In particular, the leadership role of our councillors in broadening and deepening our roots in the local community, in building Sinn Féin organisationally, and in making it relevant to people in their everyday lives, cannot be overstated or underestimated.”

Challenges ahead
Councillors have a major responsibility in helping Sinn Féin meet the big challenges ahead, including the issues of Irish reunification, building the economy to deliver strong public services, tackling climate change and related environmental issues, engaging with immigrant families coming to live in Ireland, and tackling crime, drugs and anti-social behaviour which is devastating so many communities.
Adams said that while the Good Friday Agreement was a significant achievement, the unity and independence of the people of Ireland remains a necessary and achievable objective.
“While others pay lip-service to their republicanism this party, Sinn Féin, has a detailed strategy for ending partition, for achieving the reunification of Ireland, for gaining political independence and national sovereignty.”
Republicans are embarking on the most difficult but potentially most rewarding phase of struggle. The Sinn Féin message of a new Ireland where equality is the bedrock of society is as relevant and popular today as 200 years ago, he said.
“We need to expand our base, empower our communities, build alliances and create an unstoppable dynamic that translates republicanism into a reality relevant to today’s society. You, a chairde, are the core of that dynamic.”

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