14 May 1998 Edition
The struggle continues
With a confidence and a unity which defied and dismayed their political opponents, Sinn Féin took a huge step forward in their struggle last Sunday.
At a reconvened Ard Fheis in Dublin's RDS the party voted by an overwhelming majority to change their constitution to allow successful candidates to take their seats in any new Assembly in the Six Counties. Sinn Féin will now take the struggle into the new political structures.
Gerry Adams, in his closing address to the Ard Fheis, put foward his analysis of this development:
``We are forever moving foward and like every other party, and including the two governments, we are moving into uncharted territory. It is our responsibility to liberate that territory. Like you, I have concerns and apprehensions about the future. But I am confident of our growing strength. I am encouraged at our growing ability to devise new strategies and I am uplifted by our commitment to press ahead come what may.''
The Ard Fheis was electrified by the arrival of the Balcombe Street Four who have served over 23 years in English prisons. They entered to RDS to a tumultous welcome which lasted for ten minutes of foot-stamping, applause, cheers and tears.
Focused and imaginative debate
Ned Kelly reports on the historic debate
In the end, after five hours of debate, the support for change was overwhelming. Of 350 voting delegates, 331 voted to alter the party constitution and allow Sinn Fein to participate in the elected institutions on the island of Ireland - to sit in a new six county assembly. But the call remained, ``stay focused, stay imaginative and stay united''.
The day started with Cavan/Monaghan TD Caoimhghín O Caoláin confirming the need for a 32-county party committed to dynamic change and equality that guaranteed rights for all nationalists in the 32-counties. Moving emergency motion 16, he said it was imperative that nationalists in the Six Counties could send representatives to Dublin and that an important rights issue would be to allow those in the Six Counties to participate fully in referenda and presidential elections in the south.
Winding up the debate, Martin McGuinness said, ``the sense of life and vibrancy in the hall reflected the mood of republican people''. Weighing up the opportunities and the disadvantages, McGuinness said, ``unionism's problems are 100-fold [ours] because its time as a dominating force is finished.'' The chief negotiator said, ``they don't want us in an assembly. Our people do. It is up to us to drive the agenda on - unification, our primary objective, equality, the RUC, the prisoners.''
In between, republicans from across the spectrum opened the debate up. Daisy Mules from Derry said the document was no settlement but represented an opportunity and that despite conceding territory in the proposed changes to Articles 2 and 3, ``our nationalist rights remain the same.''
Meanwhile Aine NicGabhann, Dublin, expressed the ``great difficulties'' that the Dublin membership had with the Good Friday document and favoured retaining Articles 2 and 3.
Kaniah Ni Chiosoig, representing Sinn Fein Youth, said that a nation or state was defined by the ``land it occupies''. And changing Articles 2 and 3 ``left citizens in the 26 counties landless'' while the Six Counties became ``an indisputable part of Britain''.
Six County Saoirse chairperson, Martin Meehan asked what the Articles had ever done for nationalists in the Six Counties. ``When we were being burned out of Cupar Street and Bombay Street in 1969...it was a piece of paper and it meant nothing.''
Jim Gibney (Ard Chomhairle) said the struggle had ``started on the streets, then gone into the prisons and emerged wiser and stronger. It had absorbed the suffering and the pain, and gone into the councils and carried the banner into Stormont.'' Saying that it was not commitment but philosophy that was being tested, he said change represented the ``surest route to achieve the freedom of this country''. We need to ``forge a new relationship between Catholic, Protestant and dissenter''.
Don O'Leary from Cork argued that a call for a No/No vote in the referendums didn't represent an attack on the leadership but an attack on the Good Friday document. Expressing the feeling that unionist consent equalled a unionist veto with a unionist majority in only 2 of 32 counties. Calling the North/South and intergovernmental strands a farce he said, ``no does not have to be negative, we can reject and go back to negotiation''.
There was also a feeling from some Southern delegates, including Chris McManus, that a No campaign in the 26 Counties would represent an opportunity for Sinn Fein to provide nationalist leadership in the 26-counties and make serious inroads into the disaffected Fianna Fail electoral base.
Supporting the motion, Gerry McHugh (Fermanagh) said the negotiations had achieved an important objective in dividing unionism and separating them from the British. Cathy Mackle (Coalisland) said it was ``just the first step on the road'' towards a British withdrawal and that a ``No vote today would please the British government and the unionists. When did we ever do anything to please them?'' she asked.
Developing the debate, Martina Anderson, paroled from Maghaberry Prison, said, ``our participation in the assembly will enhance our struggle. We cannot allow the gains made by Sinn Féin to be squandered by parties such as the SDLP.''
Dodie McGuinness (Ard Chomhairle) plainly spelt out that ``we must fight for the disbandment of the RUC, the promotion of our language and equality. The SDLP, DUP and UUP will not do this. We should not be shackled. We must be allowed to develop and grow. We must not isolate ourselves.''
Likewise, Sean Brady (Ard Chomhairle) also condemned the ``old, failed'' UUP-SDLP consensus. He said, ``if we stay out, where will we be? Out on the margins. Who will push our agenda?'' Eoghain MacCormaic (Ard Chomhairle) asked people not to get bogged down in the detail of the Good Friday document. He called on republicans ``not to put the strategy into the document but to put the document into our strategy.''
Padraig Wilson, the OC of the H Block POWs, who was also released on parole, put the current decisions into context. Using the prison struggle analogy, he said, ``cohesion is pivotal. At each juncture, in a new situation of our design, we have created the dynamic for change, this must be developed. Our struggle is not yet over. There is a lengthy road ahead.''
Stormont negotiator Gerry Kelly said that in order to move Sinn Fein's objectives of British withdrawal and a 32 County socialist republic forward, ``we must increase our strength. To do this, we must open up as many fronts as possible.'' Describing all phases of the struggle as ``cumulative'', Kelly said, ``we have continually taken the initiative. At this time, we must get as many rebels as possible among our opponents.''
Anne Speed (Ard Chomhairle) said it was important to ``use the momentum we have created'', and that although the Orange Order and David Trimble had refused to talk this ``must and will change''.
Joe Cahill, calling for support for the leadership said, seeing the reception given to the POWs, still ``full of fire, venom and determination'' had given him ``a massive boost''. Recalling his time on death row in 1942, Cahill said, ``now represents the greatest opportunity to achieve the ideals for which our dead died'' and that it broke his heart when other republicans disputed this. To a standing ovation, he said, ``Tá ár lá linn. Anois.''
Poignantly, it was one of the many Sinn Féin Youth delegates, Niall O Murchu from Belfast, who summed up the arguments for using the document to move the republican struggle forward. He said, ``since the beginning, `no return to Stormont' and `no return to one party rule' have been key slogans. If we vote No to changing our constitution, the SDLP will do nothing to upset the status quo. Social and economic regeneration will be placed on the back burner. The language will remain unfunded, equality will be rhetoric and the unionists will set the agenda. The RUC will remain.''
Saying there was only one guarantee that this wouldn't happen, O Murchu said that Sinn Fein was the ``one agent of change'' against ``partition, militarisation, inequality and injustice.'' He called on republicans to endorse the leadership, calling ``self-imposed isolation'' no option. He asked the leadership to work from inside and ``take their assembly and turn it into our assembly.''
Describing the moment when the `Balcombe Street Heroes' walked into Sunday's Ard Fheis at the RDS An Phoblacht's Peadar Whelan says their entry was not a display of triumphalism but a celebration of the victory of four Republican prisoners of war who endured some of the worst excesses of the British prison system during their 23 years of imprisonment.
As I stood outside the front door of the RDS on Sunday awaiting the arrival of Hugh Doherty, Harry Duggan, Joe O'Connell and Eddie Butler, dubbed the Balcombe Street gang by the British establishment, I was standing among a welcoming party of Gerry Kelly, Martin Ferris and Pat Doherty for whom the moment was so sweet. It was to be the first time Pat was to see his brother outside of prison walls in over 23 years.
The moment of their first embrace almost overflowed as Pat fought back his tears. It was a precious moment.
That the four men received a ten minute standing ovation from the packed audience was testament to their courage and fortitude. They had endured so much in the past years yet survived, ``unbowed and unbroken'', as Hugh Doc said from the stage as he was being embraced by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
The surge of emotion that swept through the hall came not from any inherent desire to rub peoples' noses in it in the way that we understand Orange triumphalism - to present the welcome in such terms is mischievous.
``There wasn't a dry eye in the house,'' an activist of many years and himself an ex-POW who served time in England said and he was right.
One young woman peered through open fingers as tears from disbelieving and startled eyes rolled down her cheeks. Not one person that could stand remained seated. The usually composed and orderly Ard Comhairle were propelled into ecstatic disarray as the party's leadership embraced the four men.
The sore hands of an applause that lasted several minutes yielded, only to raise aloft as the cheering continued. Even the characteristically eloquent Gerry Adams was so moved that he seemed unable to articulate the emotions from the packed hall. Hugh Doherty and Joe Cahill's joint clasped hands rose to salute the standing audience who responded with a rhythmic stamping of feet and clapping of hands that shook the floorboards of the RDS Library Hall. Hugh Doherty's ``unbowed and unbroken'' was the phrase that defined not only the prisoners' courage and tenacity, but indeed the determination and optimism that gripped the room.
In our long history of occupation, Ireland's martyred dead and those men and women who have spent many years in prison have always held a special place in the hearts of republicans. That the POWs endured so much as the British tried to break their spirit yet triumphed is something to celebrate.
Our prisoners have carried the politics of this struggle through many dark days and it is fitting they are given that recognition. Also, it is a recognition of their political development and the importance of their views that it was important their views be heard on Sunday.
As Geraldine Ferrity OC of the women POWs in Maghaberry said when asking the Ard Fheis to support the leadership, ``We have not taken the decision lightly. It is a unified decision''.
That unity and cohesion was exemplified in the contributions from Padraic Wilson and Mick O'Brien the OCs of Long Kesh and Portlaoise respectively, who represent the views of hundreds of our POWs.
Describing how the POWs ``met the system head on', and defeated it Wilson told the delegates they shouldn't be afraid to take risks.
Afterwards Hugh Doherty spoke to me and explained how elated he and the other prisoners were at the reception they received when they arrived in Portlaoise. ``It was good to be back in Ireland'', he said.
``We must go forward together'', stressed Doherty, ``no one can beat us but ourselves''.
And expressing his support for the leadership Hugh said he was ``happy with the direction we are going in''.
He thanked everyone throughout the length and breadth of Ireland and abroad for their support. ``They brought us through'', he said then called for everyone to ``be strong - the future is ours''.
Martina Anderson who is serving life and who was paroled from Maghaberry, spoke to me. Clearly overwhelmed by the occasion she said, ``it is momentous, I am glad to be part of this''.
Martina added that the women were giving ``full and unqualified support to the leadership and in the direction they're taking us. While we are aware of the risks ahead we believe there is the potential for progress''.
All activists called to election effort
There was a strong call at the Ard Fheis for Sinn Féin activists from throughout Ireland to help in the upcoming Assembly elections.
Caoimhghín O Caoláin TD said:
``It is going to be a national effort by Sinn Féin and on behalf of the Ard Chomhairle I urge activists from all 32 Counties to get involved. We are poised to present our greatest electoral challenge yet to all our opponents but it will require a massive effort. Together we can make this our best election yet.''
On future elections he said: ``Next year in the 26 Counties local elections in 1999 must be a top priority for our membership. On the firm foundation of local government successes we can build for Leinster House elections. I look forward to taking my place on a team of Sinn Féin TDs. Take it from me that the Big House in Kildare Street is an institution which badly needs to be woken up and shaken up and we are the ones to do it.
``From this Ard Fheis let us put the SDLP, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and the rest on notice that the radical republican alternative to their decades of failure is on the rise and growing stronger - and that alternative is Sinn Féin.''
The Ard Fheis passed a resolution calling for complete reform of the Seanad. Speaking on this issue Seán Conlon of Monaghan town said: ``The Seanad as currently constituted is a travesty of democracy and a huge waste of public money. But we argue that the simple immediate abolition of the Seanad, as others proposed, shows no consideration for the possible potential of the upper house.''
Caoimhghín O Caoláin proposed and Bairbre de Brún seconded a successful emergency motion from the Ard Chomhairle calling for national voting and representation rights for citizens in the Six Counties. O Caoláin said: ``We are urging that those elected in the Six Counties should have the right not only to attend but to participate in the proceedings of Leinster House. This is a logical and democratic proposal and we have succeeded in putting it high on the political agenda. We advocated it at the multi-party negotiations and since in discussions with the Irish government. I myself raised it in a one-on-one meeting with the Taoiseach on 22 April. It is now time for it to be followed through. The task is there for the Government and Opposition in Dublin to adopt the radical rethink which is required and then to implement this proposal.''
Debating the path to freedom
A truly historic day at the RDS in Dublin began with an intense sense of anxiety and apprehension. After all, this was the day that republicans would decide if Sinn Fein should endorse a Yes vote in the impending referenda, and whether Sinn Fein should take up seats in an assembly in the Six Counties.
Proceedings commenced with Pat Doherty. ``We always knew that the path to freedom was never going to be simple or straightforward,'' he said. ``What is essential is that we are prepared to adapt our tactical positions without ever losing sight of our ultimate objectives and without ever compromising on those issues which are a matter of principle. In doing this we must never confuse principles with tactics. Tactics are there to be adapted and to be changed when the need arises but principles are there to be achieved.''
This was followed by a section entitled `A Strong Mandate' dealing with Sinn Fein's strength, its electoral success and its massive potential for growth. The first speaker, Sean McManus, stressed the importance of increasing the efficiency of activists and structures to maximise success in the forthcoming election. He said, ``let us ensure we start work tomorrow morning. I am confident we can become the strongest nationalist party in the Six Counties.''
Matt Carthy of Sinn Fein Youth spoke in favour of the introduction of legislation to ensure that all future elections and referenda are held at weekends. He said, ``when the Dublin government insists that elections and referenda are held during the week, we see it as a direct insult to people studying away from home.''
Seven young speakers, convincingly and confidently gave compelling arguments on issues such as the disbandment of the RUC, the proposed changes to Articles 2 and 3, opposition to the unionist veto, demilitarisation and the Good Friday document.
The aspect of the document that gave most cause for concern to the young people was the inaction with regard to the RUC. Each speaker highlighted the ongoing harassment campaign directed towards Sinn Fein Youth activists. South Armagh SFY activist Deirdre Feehan explained, ``this is a deliberate attempt by the RUC to intimidate and prevent SFY from taking an active role in this struggle.'' She continued, ``we will continue to expose the hypocrisy and violence of the RUC and despite what Tony Blair says, the RUC will be disbanded.''
Kaniah Ni Chiosoig, arguing against changes to Articles 2 and 3 said, ``for the first time in our history, the Irish people are being asked to consciously choose to accept the legitimacy of Britain's claim to our land and our territorial waters.'' Colleen Gildernew spoke of SFY's opposition to the unionist veto ``in all its forms''.
``As republicans, we do not believe that a national minority has the right to direct the course of a nation,'' Gildernew said, ``SFY calls on all republicans to challenge that veto in every aspect of their lives. At every opportunity, to use every avenue to ensure that our consent is required at every level in every aspect of our lives.''
Conor O Cearnaigh called for the immediate demilitarisation of the Six Counties and stated that it was essential for lasting peace. O Cearnaigh pledged SFY's support for the farmers and residents associations and condemned the increase in military activity, particularly in South Armagh and North Belfast.
Matt Carthy and Eoin O Broin dealt with the overall concerns of SFY with the Good Friday document. Speaking of prisoners and the RUC, Carthy stated, ``these and numerous other discrepancies make our members very uncomfortable with this document.'' However, he also stressed the need for the movement to stay united.
O Broin, in essence, stated that the document and the proposed institutions opened up the possibility for change. He continued, ``however, all republicans need to realise that we are the only guarantee of change.'' He explained that people should be asking if the document copper fastened partition but also ``how do we make sure that it undermines partition''. O Broin concluded by saying that ``walking away from the fight changes nothing. It is time to engage our energies in confronting our opponents''.
Tomorrow we start to build the future
Address by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams at Sunday's Ard Fheis
Today's decision that successful Sinn Fein candidates should participate in the assembly in the north is a historic one. It must be underpinned by a strategy wedded to mobilisations, campaigning, street activism and the international dimension
Sinn Féin realises the need for strategies and tactics which can advance our struggle for freedom and justice. We understand that our strategies and tactics need to be constantly reviewed and reassessed in light of changing political developments and of our growing power and influence. Our political goals require the development of a process which is evolutionary and transitional, which moves through phases, building our political strength, until Irish independence is achieved.
Our peace strategy has transformed the Irish political landscape over the past 5 years. It contains the dynamic which led to the Irish peace initiative and to the cessation of military operations by the IRA in August 1994.
It was Sinn Féin which put British constitutionality and sovereignty on the agenda; it was our party which placed equality, partition, injustice and national and democratic rights at the top of the agenda in Ireland, Britain and internationally.
Building Democratic Alliances
In February 1994 I pointed out in my Presidential address to the Ard Fheis that ``Irish republicans, by ourselves, simply do not possess the political strength'' to bring about Irish unity.
A critical part of our strategy to ``politically engage our political opponents and enemies alike'' meant seeking allies to build alliances. That is why I sought meetings with John Hume. That is why we entered into dialogue with the government in Dublin. That is why we developed our relations with Irish America.
The vast majority of people in Ireland want peace. Peace demands justice. Nationalists, including those with reservations about the outcome of the talks process, want to exhaust every possibility of achieving peace. They wish to see their representatives concentrating their efforts to bring about a just and lasting settlement.
All experience to date shows that a shared understanding and common positions between nationalists on the most advanced positions possible is needed to further the democratic demand. An absence of such common positions is detrimental to the national position.
I would like to take this opportunity to speak to the Protestant people in the six counties and say to you that we in Sinn Féin remember with pride that our republicanism grows from the separatist roots of the mainly Presbyterian United Irishmen. Sinn Fein is not a Catholic party. We uphold the right to civil and religious liberty for all and we want to see the emancipation of Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters.
I am conscious of the difficulties faced by unionists. Let me try to assure you and your leaders that Sinn Fein comes to these latest developments and that we face the future seeking a good faith and a genuine engagement with you.
When we call for the end of the British presence in Ireland we do not mean our unionist neighbours. You have as much right to a full and equal life on this island as any other section of our people.
I have a word of advice for the British Government and more particularly the British establishment.
Any judgement by nationalists and republicans on the Good Friday document will be determined by whether it can produce justice and how quickly it positively affects the day to day lives of citizens. How quickly will the prisoners be released? When will the RUC be replaced by an acceptable policing service? How will the British government process the constitutional changes which they have agreed? Is this truly a transitional, a rolling process? Will the British and Irish governments pro-actively pursue the establishment and development of all-Ireland bodies? When will the British Army, and especially the RIR be taken off the streets? How quickly will the equality agenda take effect? How will the mechanisms of change be managed ? How deep rooted will it be? Will Orange marches be pushed through nationalist areas this year?
There is a huge responsibility on the Irish government to develop strategies which remove the divisions on this island and which advance a process to replace British rule.
No amount of messing, of refusals to accept the Sinn Féin mandate or the rights of our electorate will deter us. The efforts to resurrect the issue of decommissioning as a means of undermining the rights of voters or this party is a nonsense.
It is clear that the referendums do not constitute the exercise of national self-determination. Self-determination is universally accepted to mean a nation's right to exercise the political freedom to determine its own social, economic, and cultural development without external influence and without partial or total disruption of the national unity or territorial integrity. These criteria are not observed in Ireland. British government involvement in our country is in contravention of the established international norms which create and sustain conditions to the establishment of internal peace, democracy, justice, stability and national freedom.
It is also clear from our debate here today there are elements in both referendums that present difficulties for some republicans and nationalists. In my view these difficulties trouble a wider section of national opinion than we represent. Let me seek to give assurances to these people. While Sinn Féin has made it clear that we are not opposed to changes in the Irish constitution we do accept that there is real and justified concern at the changes in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution.
Sinn Féin opposes changes that would dilute the definition of the territory of the nation, weaken the imperative to unity or dilute the citizenship rights in the north and incorporate the `consent' clause. We do not accept the legitimacy of the six county statelet. And we never will.
As I have said earlier, all experience to date shows that a shared understanding and common positions between nationalists, republicans and democrats on the most advanced positions possible is needed to bring about national change. But while seeking at all times to advance such a consensus let me tell you that I understand fully why some nationalists or republicans will not vote yes or will abstain entirely from voting in the referendums. That is your right and this leadership will not be pressing anyone to do anything against your beliefs. It is enough and a great tribute to your vision and commitment that you voted yes to the continuation of our strategy. We have advanced our struggle here today. That is our business. What you do in the polling booth is your business.
It is important that we all realise that the peace process is not concluded. The Good Friday document is another staging post on the road to a peace settlement.
It also provides a benchmark against which British government and Irish government actions in the coming months can be measured. It is a significant challenge to unionism. It is also a challenge for us.
Changing British Policy
The British government is the central player in all of this. It is British policy which has underpinned unionist intransigence, domination, inequality and injustice. British policy in support of the Union, as well as the unionist veto, has been at the root of the conflict here. A key republican objective is to change British policy. That is why one of the most significant developments during the last phase of negotiations was the fact that the British government moved unionism further than the unionists wanted to go.
I can understand why the British do not want to unsettle the unionists any more at this time but the logic of the proposed changes must be that the British government must move to encourage and facilitate progress toward Irish unity.
Today we decided collectively how we will approach the Good Friday paper. On the one hand it upholds the unionist veto over the constitutional status of the north, and, on the other hand it reduces the British territorial claim to that one hinge while it compels unionists to accept key and fundamental changes involving all-Ireland dimensions to everyday life.
Our negotiating team went into the talks to get the Government of Ireland Act repealed. We succeeded in that. We also secured the inclusion of a clause in the new British constitutional legislation which states that the new act ``shall have effect notwithstanding any previous enactment''. This includes the Act of Union and the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973.
There is now no indefinite commitment, no raft of Parliamentary Acts to back up an absolute claim. This is a long way from being as British as Finchley. But British rule has not ended. Neither has partition. That is why our struggle continues.
Because the Act we want to see is the Act which ends the union. We haven't got that yet. But we will. That is the reality.
An Historic Decision
Today's decision that successful Sinn Fein candidates should participate in the assembly in the north is a historic one. It must be underpinned by a strategy wedded to mobilisations, campaigning, street activism and the international dimension. Caoimhghin O Caoláin has set a high standard for all our representatives and we need more constituencies like his throughout the twenty six counties represented by Sinn Fein deputies. The work in the north will assist this but our party is the only national one in Ireland and we have to build our political strength everywhere on this island if we are to secure the national advances we require.
So the struggle has to be where the activist is and it has to be social and economic, as well as political. It has to be about ending poverty, about building an economic democracy, about treating all the children of the nation equally, as well as about ending British rule.
The Assembly elections will give us the opportunity to renew and to increase our mandate. The preparatory work must start now.
Building Our Political Strength
I also want to call for a truly national effort in this crucially important election for Sinn Fein. Increased political strengths in the election will ensure republican representation in the North/South Council and enhance the effort to expand the all-Ireland structures.
So those who will be elected to represent us face huge challenges. I hope I am wrong but I do not believe that the status quo can be changed without putting ourselves in danger. This party has already paid a very high price for our mandate. Last week's bomb attack on Brendan Curran's home is a reminder of that. Twenty of our members have been killed and scores of our activists have been injured. Family members too have been killed. So when we uphold the republican position we do so mindful of all the dangers. As I have said before we are doers and we are not distracted by the naysyers and begrudgers or intimidated by the task before us or by our opponents and enemies.
No amount of messing, of refusals to accept the Sinn Féin mandate or the rights of our electorate will deter us. The efforts to resurrect the issue of decommissioning as a means of undermining the rights of voters or this party is a nonsense.
The IRA has made it clear that it will not surrender its weapons. So have all the other armed groups including the British forces. Sinn Fein is not an armed group. We are not the IRA. We want to see all the guns taken out of Irish politics and we will continue to work for that. We go into this next phase of struggle armed only with whatever mandate we receive, armed only with our political ideas and our vision of the future.
This has been a good Ard Fheis. We are forever moving forward and like every other party , and including the two governments we are moving into uncharted territory. It is our responsibility to liberate that territory. Like you I have concerns and apprehensions about the future.
But I am confident of our growing strength. I am encouraged at our growing ability to devise new strategies and I am uplifted by our commitment to press ahead come what may.
This is the day that James Connolly was executed here in this city eighty two years ago. It is a good day for us to recommit ourselves to our republican ideals and the struggles which lie ahead of us. In one of my first presidential addresses I quoted from Connolly's Sinn Fein and Socialism. He wrote:
``Sinn Fein. That is a good name for the new Irish movement of which we hear so much nowadays. Sinn Féin, or in English, `Ourselves'.
It is a good name and a good motto.''
And so it is.
Today is an important day for us. In many ways an historic day. But it is not as important as tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that with all of the challenges which they will bring.
Today we cleared the way for the future. Tomorrow we start to build the future. The future is freedom. Together let us build a bridge to freedom.
Facing the future in confidence and unity
SEAN BRADY analyses the step forward taken by the SF Ard Fheis
Republican strategy is now based more on increasing political strength, confronting opponents head-on, bringing as many people into the struggle as possible, and the conviction that the republican argument is powerful and unanswerable, than in defensive strategies based on abstention, ideological purity and the confusion of tactic for principle which has dogged the modern republican movement for several decades
Sinn Féin's 1998 Ard Fheis was undoubtedly one of the most historic in the development of the party. It marked a watershed not only in the history of the republican movement but in modern Irish history itself.
The issue of Sinn Féin's attitude to a Six County assembly and the approach to be adopted towards the two forthcoming referenda were obviously what dominated proceedings.
What this Ard Fheis demonstrated was the continuing flexibility of this generation of republican activists when faced with hard decisions. The truly revolutionary nature of the republican movement has been highlighted in recent years by the adaptation of its strategy and tactics to fit the objective conditions at any particular phase in the struggle. And more often than not those very objective conditions have been shaped by the actions and strategy of Sinn Féin itself.
Sinn Féin has, since 1994, engaged in a political offensive, one of such intensity, and pursued with such relentless determination, that it has reshaped the political landscape North and South.
The first thing this offensive did was to disarm those elements in the 26 County political, media and intellectual establishments who sought to keep Sinn Féin and its analysis outside the pale.
The second thing it did was to force constitutional nationalism into formulating constructive proposals for moving the political situation in the North forward. This in turn forced the British government to concentrate again on Ireland and to accept that the status quo had to change. In turn this has driven a wedge between different sections of unionism and faced unionist political leaders with a choice between eternal resistance to political change of any description or one of engaging with the realities of the situation and entering serious negotiations with Irish nationalism.
It was in the context of these developments and in continuing pursuit of that strategy that Sinn Féin delegates at the reconvened Ard Fheis came to discuss the important resolutions proposing attendance, for the first time in the party's history, in a Six County Assembly and that the party support a Yes vote in both referenda.
Serious reservations regarding the party publicly supporting the Yes campaign were voiced and cogently argued throughout the day, but arguments in favour of continued abstentionism from Six County institutions were few and far between. This showed both the growing flexibility of the party when faced with unpalatable realities and the determination of its membership not to be boxed-in by the tactics and politics of its opponents.
It also showed the change in the political landscape and context and the confidence of republicans in their own political strength, since the days when mention of attendance at any such institution would have been complete anathema.
Republican strategy is now based more on increasing political strength, confronting opponents head-on, bringing as many people into the struggle as possible, and the conviction that the republican argument is powerful and unanswerable, than in defensive strategies based on abstention, ideological purity and the confusion of tactic for principle which has dogged the modern republican movement for several decades.
Republicans have decided not to rule out any tactics in the pursuit of national freedom. In doing so they have shown the increased sophistication, not only of the republican leadership but of the membership of Sinn Féin and its voters and supporters North and South.
This is not to say that many republicans do not have serious concerns about the current situation and some of these were expressed at the reconvened Ard Fheis. The reiteration several times within the Good Friday document of the unionist veto over constitutional change is something which several delegates felt should compel Sinn Féin to call for a No vote in both referenda. Others felt that the two referenda asked two different questions of both electorates and that the party should seek a Yes vote in the Six Counties and a No in the 26 as the removal of Articles Two and Three and the wording of their replacement were an obstacle to Irish unity and should be resisted at all costs.
Others felt that for strategic electoral considerations the party should explore the idea of a supporting a No vote in the 26 Counties to give political leadership to many nationalists, not just Sinn Féin supporters, who opposed vehemently any changes to Articles Two and Three.
The point was made in the course of the debate that the fact that Articles Two and Three were being scrapped in the Agreement, was down to the negotiating weakness of Fianna Fáil and the SDLP on this point and not for the want of effort by Sinn Féin who opposed any redefinition of the national territory or dilution of the constitutional imperative to unity.
The overriding sense at the Ard Fheis was one of unity. Delegate after delegate expressed the need for unity and many who disagreed with the Ard Chomhairle positions pointed out that whatever the outcome, unity of purpose was paramount in their considerations.
Such unity is more heartfelt and real than that which one would experience at the Ard Fheis of any other Irish political party. The reason being that the unity between republicans is one which has been forged through three decades of unremitting struggle and against all the odds, during which up to 20 members of Sinn Féin have been assassinated, the party itself vilified, its leadership demonised and the party machine forced to contend with daily harassment and surveillance by state forces in both jurisdictions in Ireland.
The sense of comradeship between republicans in struggle was given pointed expression with the tumultuous welcome afforded to the political prisoners who attended the Sunday Ard Fheis. Michael O'Brien (O/C Portlaoise), Pádraig Wilson (O/C Long Kesh), Geraldine Ferrity (O/C Magahberry) and the Balcombe Street Four were warmly received as comrades in struggle. The spin which the media put on the attendance of the political prisoners showed just how far removed many political commentators are from the realities of republican politics.
Despite what the media tried to tell people republican prisoners who attended the RDS conference did not `swing' the Ard Fheis nor was their presence meant to `sell' the leadership's proposals. Delegates at the Ard Fheis came from across the 32 counties mandated by local cumainn and regional Cúigí structures who had discussed all of the issues thoroughly over several weeks at meetings between themselves and with representatives of the party leadership. In particular, each area had held meetings to discuss the emergency proposals and mandated delegates accordingly. The prisoners were there as republican activists, to take part in that debate and as constituent members of the republican struggle.
The clear message from the Ard Fheis was that the republican struggle is far from over. The changes adopted at the Ard Fheis are meant to facilitate the continuation of that struggle without unnecessary restrictions. The task facing republicans is to turn the current political situation into a transition phase towards Irish unity. There are differences of opinions as to how best or how quickly that can be achieved. It will require the devising of new tactics and the further development of republican political strategy. What is clear from the Ard Fheis is that republicans face the next phase in great confidence and with complete unity of purpose.