13 April 2000 Edition
Onus on Blair and Mandelson to end vacuum
Gerry Adams - Presidential Address
Gerry Adams dedicated the following address to the memory of his uncle, well known republican Alfie Hannaway, who was buried on Saturday morning, 8 April, to the National Graves Association, of which Alfie was a member, for its success this year in its 50-year campaign to have the remains of Tom Williams returned and reinterred , and to the father of the ANC representative at the Ard Fheis, Baleka Mbetei, the Deputy Speaker of South Africa's National Assembly, who died while she was in Ireland.
If asked, `Where stands the Good Friday Agreement today?' most nationalists, and all republicans, would say that it's dead.
The strategy pursued by the two governments on the weapons issue, insofar as it can be described as a strategy, has failed. Like all of the other failures of the past, this failed strategy has to be set to one side
This response is hardly surprising given the two years of time-wasting and obstructionist politics by unionists, the body-blows inflicted on the process over that period, and the British government's suspension of the institutions, including the all-Ireland bodies.
I know there is some criticism of how the leadership have handled elements of the strategy. And indeed there is some questioning of the strategy itself. All of this is fair enough. In fact, I believe such ongoing dialogue and debate is an essential part of this struggle and of the work of this party.
Those republicans who dared to hope that this British government was different, though they may never admit it, are hurt that London once again caved in to unionist threats and reinstated the veto. But it is still not too late to save the Agreement
Let me also say that I appreciate immensely the great commitment shown by our activists and by the republican base in the face of frustrating and, at times, provocative actions, particularly by the British government and the unionists.
While the main focus of your dissatisfaction is with the British government, I also know that many of you are critical of the Irish government's and the SDLP's handling of some aspects of the process.
The UN estimates that if the funds to pay off debt were diverted back into health and education the lives of seven million children a year could be saved - seven million children! Just think. That is two million people more than the entire population of this island - 134,000 children a week
London's approach has created a real anger within republicanism and nationalism. There was confusion, though that should have disappeared by now. I know there is considerable frustration, and let's face up to it, there is also disappointment at the current state of the peace process.
That disappointment reflects in many ways the feelings of people, north and south of this island, and others throughout the world who support the search for a lasting peace in our country.
Peace Requires Justice
But I have to say that republicans should be the last people to be surprised by what happened here over the last two years. Who said it was going to be easy?
A republican and labour position is people-centred. It puts people first. It sees economic and political democracy and empowerment as the opposite sides of the one coin. Wherever you go on this island you will find Sinn Féin acting on this agenda
Everyone here knows that peace requires justice. Everyone here knows that this demands great changes within society, particularly, but not exclusively, in the North. Everyone here also knows, or should know, that such changes will be resisted by those who cling to the old order, the old agenda.
There is no comfort in this for the faint-hearted or the weak-willed. But then we know that people like ourselves who want to see a total transformation of society on this island cannot be faint-hearted or weak-willed.
When war was a daily fact of life or death - unlikely or unpopular as it may be to say this, many people - including perhaps some of us, took refuge in that. Depending on one's perspective, you either blamed the IRA or depended upon the IRA. These totally opposite viewpoints had one thing in common - the war was the reason or the excuse for doing nothing or for not doing as much as we could.
Rising to the Challenge
Sinn Féin's peace strategy has challenged all of that. And the peace process, which is a consequence of our strategy, has clarified issues for many people and closed down the hiding places for many others.
This party is out to transform Irish politics. We want to see the dominating and conservative forces in Irish politics replaced with real people's politics. Ultimately, the coalition we want to build is the coalition of the dispossessed, North and South, East and West, urban and rural
At a time of widespread conflict it challenged those who paid lip service to the role of peace maker. At a time of censorship, misinformation and revisionism, it challenged the opinion makers in the media and the censors. It challenged the partitionist attitudes of the government and of the Establishment political parties here in Dublin. It challenged the cosy consensus between church and state on this island. It also challenged political opinion in the North, most clearly within the unionist section of our people.
While rejectionist unionism opposed our efforts, we recognise that more progressive and modernising elements of unionism, who voted for the Good Friday Agreement, and others within civic unionism and the business community, have risen to that challenge.
And, of course, our peace strategy challenged the British government and political parties in London.
The first organisation to accept that challenge was the IRA. Its cessation in August 1994 - six years ago - created the space in which politics could grow, if others were up to the challenge.
Out of all of that came the Good Friday Agreement.
Many things have and can be said, for and against that Agreement, from the republican perspective. But I believe that one of the most compelling arguments in favour of the Agreement is that, for the first time, a British government and others were made to face up to what is wrong in the North.
Whatever happens to the Agreement, we have to understand that this is ground gained which must never be conceded.
From our perspective, the measures contained in the Agreement may not go far enough to right these wrongs. But this has to be seen as work in hand because, from the unionist perspective, these measures go too far and there has been an ongoing effort to reduce them still further or to remove them entirely.
This is what has created the current crisis
The British government made a huge mistake and miscalculation on 11 February when it endorsed the unionist view that the issue of decommissioning was a precondition on the continuation of the institutions. Whatever reason is put forward to justify this decision, this is the reality. It is also the biggest single mistake by the British Labour Party since it took power in May 1997.
It is totally contrary to the Good Friday Agreement. There is no default link between `government and guns' in the Agreement. This is also the reality.
Credit for this is sometimes given to the Sinn Féin negotiating team. Let me make it clear that we did not have to change one word in the decommissioning section of the Good Friday Agreement.
The governments knew the score. They accepted reality and they valued the cessations. This is the truth.
The Agreement took the wise course, the conflict resolution course, which saw the resolution of the arms issue as an objective of a process and not as a blockage on progress on all of the other matters.
But the ink was barely dry on the Agreement when the British Prime Minister stepped outside of this framework and produced his side letter for the Ulster Unionist Party. From then on this issue was treated as an issue of tactical political management.
It ceased to be an objective of a peace process. Instead it became a precondition dogging the process. This reduced the Good Friday Agreement to something less than the people voted for. It also subverted the electoral mandates of genuinely committed pro-Agreement parties. The value of the vote and the implementation process was, and is now, subject to unionist terms. From that point on, the current vacuum was a crisis waiting to happen.
That's the flaw which the British government introduced into the Good Friday Agreement.
Tackling the Arms Issue
This is what has subverted all of Sinn Féin's efforts to resolve this issue.
All these efforts were based on our view that the purpose of any peace process must be for opponents or enemies to see each other's point of view and to find a compromise, an agreement, an accord which accommodates the difficulties that exist.
On a number of occasions we went far beyond our obligations under the terms of the Agreement as we tried to resolve this issue.
Some might think this was a mistake. I disagree. And furthermore, let me make it absolutely clear here today that this Sinn Féin leadership will continue to support efforts to resolve the arms issue.
We remain wedded to our objective of taking all of the guns out of Irish politics. This is a collective responsibility and there is no special onus on our party to do this above and beyond the responsibilities of every other party in this process.
We will continue to do our best but if a British government, with all of its military firepower and muscle, could not get an IRA surrender in 30 years of war, then unionist leaders or British ministers cannot expect a Sinn Féin leadership to do it for them.
British Strategy has Failed
That is not the way to build lasting peace on this island. It is not the way to build a new, inclusive political dispensation.
Had the Agreement been implemented as agreed, I am quite sure that a way of resolving the weapons issue would have been found by now because politics would have worked.
Instead, the opposite has been the case and the entire process of change and the rights of citizens has been made conditional on unionist approval. Worse still, it has been made conditional on those unionists who have clearly set their face against change and against the Good Friday Agreement.
The responsibility for this rests squarely with the British government. There is no way that a workable solution to the current crisis can be found unless Mr Blair and Mr Mandelson come to terms with this.
The strategy pursued by the two governments on the weapons issue, insofar as it can be described as a strategy, has failed.
It has failed to resolve the issue itself. It has failed to win the confidence of unionism. It has moved outside the Good Friday Agreement. It has alienated republicanism. It has brought the entire process to the current impasse with the British government in breach of the Agreement.
Like all of the other failures of the past, this failed strategy has to be set to one side.
The question Mr Mandelson has to answer is: Where is the peace process to go from here? Is everything to be thrown away?
These are questions that all the parties to the Good Friday Agreement - and especially the British Government - must ponder on.
There is a vacuum. There is the possibility that all of the good work of recent years could be frittered away. Worse still, there could be a slide back to conflict. This has to be prevented.
The priority at this critical point in the peace process must be to get the institutions back in place as soon as possible.
The two governments must also urgently co-operate to implement all the outstanding aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. The reality is that we are still awaiting delivery of the:
Equality Agenda; A New Policing Service; Justice Matters; Human Rights; Cultural Rights; and Demilitarisation.
Saving the Good Friday Agreement
I said earlier that republicans are disappointed and confused by the suspension of the institutions. It is my view that this confusion is a direct consequence of the unfulfilled hope shared by the vast majority of people on this island that this British government actually showed signs that it was prepared to keep to the commitments which it made in the Good Friday Agreement.
In my view, those republicans who dared to hope that this British government was different, though they may never admit it, are hurt that London once again caved in to unionist threats and reinstated the veto.
But it is still not too late to save the Good Friday Agreement.
The biggest problem facing the Agreement arises from the British government's attitude to it.
Not only is London in breach of its commitments but there is also no tactical or strategic merit in its approach. Apart from everything else, the institutions were working and they were popular. And let me give full credit to all our Assembly team, to the Sinn Féin chairs and deputy chairs of the various committees. and to our two ministers, the Minister for Health, Bairbre de Brún, and the Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness.
In the most difficult circumstances they behaved with great courage, honesty, impartiality and magnanimity. They were a credit to this party and showed that Sinn Féin is indeed ready for government.
Maybe that is the real problem.
It is an indictment of British rule in Ireland that since partition we have endured 50 years of one-party rule under the old unionist regime, 30 years of war, and eight weeks of inclusive institutions.
The British government's suspension of the institutions is illegal and unilateral.
For a British government with such an unprecedented majority to behave in such a way is an unmitigated disaster and an enormous setback for the peace processs.
If the decline of the Good Friday Agreement is to be reversed before it becomes terminal then Mr Blair must steer his government and the process out of the current wobble.
He must act to save the peace process.
He must order the reinstatement of the institutions.
A Message for Unionism
I also have a very clear message for the unionists.
We in Sinn Féin remain prepared to and have proven our ability to work within shared structures with your representatives, and we remain willing to develop a shared and agreed future for all the people of this island.
We know that, by its very nature, this historic task cannot be completed unless unionism has ownership of it. And I have acknowledged and I appreciate the huge challenge and the difficulties that this presents.
The way ahead for unionists and the rest of the people of this island is to walk forward together, to jointly carry the burden of our history.
That way the weight will not be as heavy. That way we can chart a course for the future. That way we can secure a shared future for everyone, especially our young people.
Sinn Féin has not given up on the unionists. Bypassing the unionists is not an option for us. Our option is for dialogue and engagement.
But those unionists who have set their faces against progress need to reflect that while change can be delayed it cannot be prevented except in one circumstance - and that is if those of us who want change are prepared to give up. Let me make it absolutely clear that we are not prepared to give up. The days of second-class citizenship are over.
Let me make it clear that we will continue to be relentless in campaigning and working, agitating and struggling for change. It would be a lot easier for everyone if the unionists would join with us in managing this change, and I personally believe that this is the best way forward.
But I also believe that the British government cannot pass the buck on this issue or make this opportunity for peace conditional on the whims of rejectionist unionism or British securocrats.
London has to face up to its responsibilities.
A Hierarchy of Victims
One of the open wounds within nationalist and republican communities is the real sense that there is a hierarchy of victims. Those at the lowest tier are the victims of state terrorism, or of collusion between the state terrorists and their allies within loyalism.
If we are to have a real healing process then those most in need of healing, the victims' families, must have ownership of it. There also has to be recognition that no section of our people has a monopoly on suffering but that every section has a responsibility to provide and to work for a solution.
This is an equality issue as important as any other.
The refusal by some to accept this is is at the core of the current difficulties. It is little wonder that there is a scarcity of ideas from the British government and the unionist parties about how to resolve problems when they feel no responsibility for causing these problems.
Not only have the British government refused to accept responsibility for these victims of their actions, but successive British governments, including this one, have actively engaged in a cover-up of the activities of their forces.
There is no other way of describing the refusal of the London government to come to terms with this issue.
For example, I have raised many cases with both Tony Blair and the present and the former British Secretaries of State. These include the high-profile cases of Rosemary Nelson, Pat Finucane and Robert Hamill.
I have also given them files on the case of the British Intelligence agent, Brian Nelson.
I have raised the cases of the 400 victims who have died as a direct result of killings by British crown forces and I have received no satisfactory answer to any of my representations.
This refusal to deal with these cases has to be challenged. Many people here welcomed the recent very public proclamation by the Irish government that there was state collusion in the killing of Pat Finucane and that Pat's killing was only one of many such cases.
It is understandable that victims' families expect the Irish government to go much further than this. The British government has to be faced with its responsibility to address these matters in an honest and forthright fashion.
I want to commend the relatives of those killed on Bloody Sunday and their supporters who successfully campaigned for the scrapping of Widgery and for a new inquiry. I also want to pay tribute to those families of victims of shoot-to-kill actions by the British state forces who this week took their cases to Strasbourg.
There are many, many more families who have stories to tell.
If we are to have a lasting peace there can be no restrictions imposed on fact, on truth, on grief, or sense of loss. There has to be an acceptance of the equivalence of grief. There can be no grief more worthy than any other.
People struggle for two reasons: either because they perceive it to be in their self-interest or because they are motivated by a big idea.
For us, Irish republicanism is the big idea! We also believe it is in the self-interest of the majority of the people of this island.
What is republicanism? In its essence it proclaims, defends and asserts the core principle that the people are sovereign. In Ireland today the people are not sovereign.
We are not sovereign because of the partition of this island and the involvement of the British government in our affairs. Even those leading partitionists who described the Good Friday Agreement, endorsed in referendum North and South as the exercise of self-determination by the Irish people, have had to skulk away from that propaganda assertion.
Sinn Féin took a more measured view. It is clear now who was right, given the way the British government ignored the votes of the people of this island.
Ireland voted and Britain vetoed.
So self-determination for the people of this island has yet to be achieved.
This means not only winning independence from Britain but asserting our sovereignty in terms of the promotion of an independent foreign policy and positive Irish neutrality.
It means keeping this state out of the NATO camp.
It is deplorable that the government here failed to honour a Fianna Fáil election pledge to hold a referendum on membership of NATO's so-called `Partnership for Peace'.
I welcome the draft Bill co-sponsored by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin to write neutrality into the 1937 Constitution in an effort to prevent Dublin governments from exceeding their authority and bringing this state into military alliances against the will of the people.
An Inclusive Citizenship
I also want to totally repudiate the hostile and racist attitude being shown to asylum seekers.
The republican concept of citizenship has always been inclusive.
It includes all who share this island, whether their ancestors lived here for thousands of years, whether they came in as part of the Plantations, or whether they have just come recently to make a life in our country.
Today there are people from many countries seeking asylum here. There are also economic migrants looking for work. Our own history encompasses the experience of both. We know the pain of exile whether forced by political, social or economic circumstances. We also have experienced discrimination, hostility and racism.
We have resisted such treatment when we were the victims. The people of Ireland must reject and resist such treatment of others.
Cancel Foreign Debt
This party has also long supported the demand for the cancellation of foreign debt and we commend the work of Jubilee 2000, which is seeking to achieve this in this jubilee year.
The time for the cancellation of developing countries' debt is long overdue. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund cannot continue to act without accountability to the people their programmes affect.
After disasters - many caused by the environmental policies of richer countries - the international media focuses in on the plight of the victims. The most recent example of this was in Mozambique, where many thousands were killed by some of the most devastating floods in recent memory and many more thousands were left homeless.
What was not deemed so newsworthy, however, was that while the people of Mozambique were clinging to trees and roof-tops just to stay alive, their government was being forced to send $1.4 million a week to its debtors in the G7.
After `Hurricane Mitch' hit Central America, Honduras and Nicaragua were spending over half their government's revenue on debt repayments.
This week we have learned that 16 million people again face starvation in the Horn of Africa. Thirty-seven African countries owe a total of $354 billion.
The UN estimates that if the funds to pay off debt were diverted back into health and education the lives of seven million children a year could be saved - seven million children! Just think. That is two million people more than the entire population of this island - 134,000 children a week.
We have raised this issue with the US, Irish, and British governments; and our party will continue to support the demand for debt cancellation.
Poverty and Corruption
The social and economic problems here in Ireland are but a shadow of the great poverty, inequalities and distress experienced by other nations.
But they are no less real for those who have no jobs, for the elderly, for the sick, for lone parents, the disabled, for the travelling community, for working-class neighbourhoods emasculated by the scourge of drugs, for all who face hardship and obstacles to securing a decent quality of life.
In the 26 Counties, in the midst of plenty, there is great poverty, inequality and disadvantage. The North faces similar social and economic disadvantage with the additional burden of sectarian and political discrimination and unionist elitism.
But in addition, the economy, social policy, health policy, education and all other aspects of society in the Six Counties are controlled by London. The short-lived institutions did not have enough time to dent the decades of mismanagement by transient British ministers.
The Celtic Tiger is partitionist. It has clearly benefited many, many people in this state and Sinn Féin welcomes that. But for many others the Celtic Tiger does not exist. This is indeed the best of times and the worst of times.
While being preached at by business and political leaders about the need for pay restraint, those working people who pay their taxes, who obey the laws of the land, who do not wield political power or have the means to amass wealth, have watched one scandal unfold after another.
We have experienced abuses of the planning processes. We have witnessed improper payments to politicians and massive tax evasion by big business, politicians and the banking system. We have seen illegal off-shore bank accounts and the systematic siphoning off of funds out of the country, and banks stealing from their own customers. And we are expected to believe that no one knew.
There is clearly one law for the rich and another law for the rest of us.
One of the dangers about all of this is that Irish society at this stage in its evolution could be redefined into a less caring and a more selfish form of `mé féinism', with cynicism about politics replacing idealism and materialism replacing compassion and a sense of public service.
In my view this does not represent the feelings, and the views and aspirations of the vast majority of our people. So what is to be done about all of this?
The heart of the question is whether all Irish people are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities and a share in the wealth of the nation. Sinn Féin's task is to make sure they do.
Republican and Labour
Our policies can best be summarised by what I have called the republican and labour position.
At its most basic level, this means that republicans see the individual and the community we belong to as the core building blocks of society.
Market-led ideology sees society as being constituted of the businesses that make up the economy.
The market-led approach cedes power and rights to big business while, at the same time, disempowering people and their communities. It is a sad indictment that businesses in the Irish economy have more protection under the law than the ordinary people.
In the republican society, the rights of individuals must not only be guaranteed but actively promoted. A republican and labour position is people-centred. It puts people first. It sees economic and political democracy and empowerment as the opposite sides of the one coin. Wherever you go on this island you will find Sinn Féin acting on this agenda in our local communities, in environmental lobby groups, in local development projects.
Our analysis is a long-standing one. It is for a new Ireland. A different Ireland. An Ireland which will cherish all the children of the nation equally.
In the 1970s, we predicted that the European Union would erode Irish sovereignty and that the farming community would fall victim to Common Agricultural Policies. We were right.
Sinn Féin was among the first organisations to call for the closure of Sellafield. Our views were dismissed. Now it is accepted that Sellafield is rotten to its nuclear core. We were right on that one also. Sellafield needs to close. And it needs to close now.
We warned about the scourge of drugs. Sadly and regrettably, we were right on that one as well.
Our argument for remedial and rehabilitation programmes needs to be acted on.
We want the chance to implement our policies on social reform and economic democracy, as well as women's' rights, cultural development, children's rights, environmental protection, civil liberties, administrative reform, sovereignty and unity.
None of this is achievable unless those who share this vision are part of the struggle to make it a reality. This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face. To broaden and widen this struggle, to empower people to form alliances, to network, to become a catalyst for change. We are in a prime position to do so.
Sinn Féin is the fastest-growing political party on this island.
We are also the only all-Ireland party. And tomorrow our increasing political strength will be manifest as we seriously debate resolutions regarding the approach of this party to the possibility of coalition in the wake of the next general election in the 26 Counties.
Speculation about a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition has been widespread in the media. This is a novel experience for our party and it has provoked a great deal of internal debate. It is important to set out some basic points on this very important issue for the future of Sinn Féin.
First of all, I want to challenge the assumption that we in Sinn Féin are only waiting to win the right number of Leinster House seats and the correct parliamentary arithmetic before heading straight into a coalition government with Fianna Fáil. That is news to me.
Some pundits are speculating whether Fianna Fáil will go into coalition with Sinn Féin. As I told the Taoiseach recently, the real question is whether Sinn Féin would go into coalition with Fianna Fáil.
Secondly, there is an assumption abroad that our only consideration in such a scenario would be the peace process.
Let me emphasise this: Sinn Féin is not, and never has, been a one-issue party. We approach the question of coalition informed by the principles on which our party is based, by the policies adopted by Ard Fheiseanna such as this, and by the experience of our elected representatives and our activists.
Delegates may decide to completely rule out any coalition. Or they may decide that this party will not enter any coalition unless mandated by a special delegate conference.
I will argue for the latter position which is being put forward by the Ard Chomhairle.
Because we need to take every opportunity to inform the electorate of our positions, and to get our political opponents to come to terms with the principles of our party and the policies which we would seek to have implemented. These range from advancing the peace process, to Irish neutrality, from housing and health to education and the welfare of the disadvantaged in Irish society.
Sharing the wealth and creating real change in our country as opposed to creating careers would be the Sinn Féin priority in that political context as in all others.
More fundamental still is the point that this party, small though we are at present, is out to transform Irish politics. We want to see the dominating and conservative forces in Irish politics replaced with real people's politics. Ultimately, the coalition we want to build is the coalition of the dispossessed, North and South, East and West, urban and rural.
We want, in the words of James Connolly, ``a regenerated Ireland - an Ireland reconquered for its common people''. Are we up to this task?
A Party on the Move
Before we meet again in Ard Fheis, we could be contesting elections on both parts of this island. It is our duty to ensure that we consolidate and continue to build our electoral strength. We must work to modernise our party by building on the progress we have made.
I have consistently said that Sinn Féin gets the vote that we deserve. The next elections could be a watershed moment for us. We must seize that moment.
In the last elections our vote increased in every constituency, in every part of this island.
Until recently, most of our good election news has been in Ulster. In the Six Counties, Mitchel McLaughlin came extraordinarily close to taking a seat in Europe when he received 117,643 votes. Now the four main parties in the North are divided by only 4 percentage points.
In this state, Cavan and Monaghan have long been the pace setters. But now the Sinn Féin vote is on the rise through Connacht, Munster and Leinster. Our vote increased everywhere in these provinces with breakthroughs in Dublin as well as in rural areas.
Seán Crowe, Seán MacManus, Arthur Morgan and Martin Ferris almost trebled the Sinn Féin vote in last year's European election and now we stand at 6.3 per cent.
We are still a small party but we are a party on the move.
The test for this generation of republicans is how we modernise our ideology to meet the needs and conditions of our time. The tens of thousands of Irish people who voted Sinn Féin, and the many others who demand a lasting peace, and who expressed that desire when they voted YES for the Good Friday Agreement, are watching our deliberations intently.
How we respond, what strategies and tactics we apply, what leadership we demonstrate, and what inspiration we provide will determine our success or failure.
Is Sinn Féin equal to these challenges? I believe we are. I believe we have the ability, the imagination, and the wisdom to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves. I believe we can succeed.
It won't be easy. The change we seek is profound. There are no magic solutions. No easy options for activists like us. An awful lot of people are depending on us in the short-term to get things right in terms of the peace process. In my view, the future very much depends on this.
Despite our frustration, anger and annoyance, the search for peace will continue to make great demands on us. It's not fair but that's the way it is.
So we need to have great resilience, tenacity and a commitment to hard work.
Hunger Strikers Remembered
None of this is about forgetting the past. It is about learning from the past. For example, this year marks the anniversary of the first hunger strikes. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the hunger strikes of 1981. We also remember Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg, who died on hunger strike in England in 1974 and 1976.
Earlier this year, Barry McElduff suggested that the 20th anniversary of the hunger strikes be marked by the establishment of 1981 committees. I want to commend that idea.
I want to see all of those people from the prisoners' families, former hunger strikers, former blanket men, women in Armagh, Relatives Action Committee activists and supporters, Smash H-Block/Armagh Committees and everyone who played any part in that epic struggle, coming together nationwide and abroad not just to remember the hunger strikes but to talk, to discuss, to debate and to learn the lessons of that period and to build them into further advances for the freedom struggle.
For those of us who survived that period it is a matter of wonderment that almost 20 years have passed since then. It's as if it was yesterday when the prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh women's prison stood against the intransigence of Margaret Thatcher and her cohorts.
Today Thatcher is remembered as an extreme right-wing friend of Pinochet while the memory of Bobby Sands and his comrades is revered throughout the freedom-loving world.
Let us recall the names of:
Bobby Sands MP
Kieran Doherty TD
Let us rededicate ourselves to their idealism, their unselfishness and their dedication. Let us take a deep breath. Let us refocus and re-energise ourselves.
Freedom will not come easily. Those with power or the symbols and perceptions of power will not relinquish that power easily. All history teaches us that. We will only get as much freedom as we can take.
But all history also teaches us that the determined movement of people, organised and relentlessly demanding their rights, wears down the old order. That is what we have to do.
Putting it up to Trimble
As is traditional, the 94th Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was opened by ther party's national chairperson, Assembly member Mitchel McLaughlin.
He direceted his comments to ``those unionists who also wish the Peace Process to succeed''.
``David Trimble has spoken recently of being prepared to try again, but he has indicated that he needs certainty. Well, David, a number of certainties must by now be obvious to you.
``The first certainty is that your approach to the issue of IRA disarmament has been a consistent failure over the past couple of years. It is certain to be so in the future if you persist in that futile strategy. You must surely by now recognise that for yourself.
``There is a second certainty, David: the changes in our society have continued anyway despite the stalling and the procrastination. This will continue to happen whether or not the Executive is reestablished, or whether or not the Assembly itself exists. Indeed, political change will continue and will lead inexorably to constitutional change also.
``It would be best for all of our people if the mandated parties accepted responsibility for the management of that process of change. That is what our people voted for. Peaceful transition, equality and mutual respect for all sections of our community.
``It is time David, to end the `War of Words' between us. It is time to commence the `Battle of Ideas' within the agreed political structures and all-Ireland bodies.
``Despite our common frustration and anger at continued political failure, the reality is, that if you, David Trimble, turn up on Monday morning, prepared to make the agreed political institutions work, then we will have the Executive back in charge and a fully functional Assembly by the afternoon. The pro-Agreement parties are ready and willing. Remember that Peter Mandelson claimed that these political institutions could be reinstated just as quickly as they were torn down.
``Any objective observer would recognise that the short-lived Executive had provided conclusive proof that unionists, nationalists and republicans could work together. All of these parties have proven their ability to work within agreed political structures - we simply should have been given (and given ourselves) the necessary time to deal with those very serious issues that had not yet been satisfactorily resolved.
``We should all now resolve to build on the silence of the guns by returning to those structures and to demonstrate that politics can work, and that this is the alternative to politically motivated violence. And we should do so in the absence of arbitrarily imposed deadlines, threats to walk away, or letters of resignation (whether post-dated or not!).
``If David Trimble gives leadership to progressive unionism, they will respond by demonstrating increased support for him. republicans and nationalists will also respond with good faith and a renewed confidence that conflict resolution and peaceful political development will flow naturally from the clear demonstration that politics works.
``It really is over to you, David.''
``Activists, show leadership!''
The address by Baleka Mbetei of the African National Congress (AFC), Deputy Speaker of South Africa's National Assembly, was one of the most attended sessions of the Ard Fheis. She spoke of the parallels between the anti-Aparteid and republican struggles.
Her address, unfortunately, came at an difficult time for her personally, as Mbetei's father had passed away only a few hours before the beginning of the conference.
She spoke of the efforts her party was making through the institutions of government for the reconstruction and the development of South Africa after decades and centuries of destruction.
Going on to talk about the unionist and British obstructionist policies, she said that the ``people of Ireland are the best judges of the situation'' but added that experiences could be shared.
``A negotiating process is one of the most difficult things, especially when there have been so many victims. It calls on a lot from everybody and one must hope for the best,'' she said.
Mbetei stressed the fact that negotiations can be difficult times for activists who are kept in the dark about the details of what is actually being discussed. ``You have to put your trust in your leadership and give them your confidence in a way that enables them to hold the strongest position at the negotiating table,'' she said. She added that unity was of utmost importance and was the basis of any successful negotiation in terms of an overall struggle.
Her most important message was to Sinn Féin grassroots activists. ``People must refrain from seeing individuals or a group of individuals that are elected into positions as the leadership,'' she warned. ``They share the responsibility of asking themselves what each and every member can do for the movement. They must ask themselves what role they have to play and remember that history calls upon them to lead and play a very important role.
``All I am saying is that every individual who is present at this conference has a responsibility to see themselves as a leader and has a role to play to ensure that the future is bright for the children of Ireland.''
Coalition requires decommissioning - Ó Caoláin
BY MICHAEL PIERSE
The final section of the Árd Fheis, themed `Increasing Political Strength' saw debate on development of youth policy, the abolition of QUANGOs, Sinn Féin taking offices in Westminster, the promotion of An Phoblacht and, most contentiously, motioins regarding Sinn Féin's possible entry into coalition government in the 26 Counties.
We would require decommissioning of the partitionist mindsets. Decommissioning of the conservative politics which have led to a two-tier unequal society. Decommissioning of the consensus that has destroyed Irish neutrality
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD
Mary Nelis, representing the Pól Kinsella Cumann in Derry, said that Quasi Unelected Autonomous Non Governmental Organisations (QUANGOs for short) are an obstacle to democracy.
``These QUANGOs have a massive impact on our lives,'' she explained. ``The place is coming down with councils, boards and commissions - all unaccountable, all unelected.'' Despite the rhetoric from the SDLP and unionists about ``democracy'', Nelis noted, ``we all know that those who talk about it the most practice it the least''.
Matt Carthy, National Organiser of Ógra Shinn Féin, spoke on a motion calling for further resources, financial and otherwise, to ensure the best future development of ÓSF: ``Now, for the first time, Sinn Féin has a youth wing with the potential to be, and I believe it will be, the largest amongst any of the parties on the island.'' John Paul Swayne of the UCD MacDonagh/Farrell Sinn Féin Cumann added that Sinn Féin ``has to enhance the party's profile in third level institutions''.
``Earlier today you clapped when delegates drew your attention to that fact'', Daisy Mules from the Patrick Pearse Cumann in Derry said of the response of the hall when the failure to elect any women to the Árd Comhairle was criticised. ``Yet it is you who failed to elect a woman to this party's Ard Chomhairle''. Mules was supporting Motion 183, which was later passed by the Ard Fheis, calling for the establishment of a commission aimed at increasing female representation on the Ard Chomhairle. This commission is now mandated to establish a minimum number of elected women members for future Ard Fheiseanna.
The debate on entering coalition was heated, even though, as Gerry Adams pointed out late in the debate, not one speaker ventured to propose the idea of coalition with other political parties in Leinster House. ``Our vote increased because people see us as a fresh alternative to Labour, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael'', Sligo's Chris McManus said. ``An undermining of this will lessen our prospects of attaining seats in Leinster House. We must ensure that our republicanism is not diluted by coalition with a larger political party.''
Mark Daly from Tallaght in Dublin was less enthusiastic about making such a direct statement on the prospects of a Sinn Féin coalition and urged delegates ``not to pre-empt things that we do not already know''. Jim Gibney, supporting the Ard Chomhairle emergency motion recommending that Sinn Féin would not enter any coalition arrangement unless a special delegate conference decided otherwise, came the closest to actually broaching the perceived benefits of coalition entry when he said: ``To bring about change you need political power. Do we achieve political power by working from the inside or from the opposition benches?''
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD, also supporting the Ard Chomhairle motion, was in no doubt as to the answer to this question. ``The option least palatable to me is entry into coalition with either of the right-wing parties that have dominated politics on this island for many years. I'm certainly not in the business of giving relief to any of the other political parties in this state.'' While there had been much questioning of whether Fianna Fáil would enter coalition with Sinn Féin whilst the IRA remain fully armed, Ó Caoláin said, he would require some decommissioning from any prospective coalition partners:
``If the electorate of the 26 Counties places us in a position of strength which may require other parties to negotiate with us, then it is my belief that we should take up that challenge. And what would we require of those parties?
``We would require decommissioning. Decommissioning of the partitionist mindset which still persists among them. Decommissioning of the conservative politics which has helped to create our two-tier unequal society. Decommissioning of the consensus between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to abandon Irish neutrality.
``Can they deliver?
``Let us test them and let us place our sound policies before the people in the most effective manner possible. And let the debate on our attitude to coalition continue. Coalition is only one of a number of possible options after a general election. The adoption of the Ard Chomhairle motion allows the debate on all those options to continue in Sinn Féin.''
The Ard Chomhairle motion was passed with a strong mandate from delegates.
Martin Spain, Editor of An Phoblacht, spoke briefly of the future prospects of the paper and the need for party members to promote sales. While the paper currently sells 20,000 copies every week, there is massive room for expansion and a clear gap in the market for a radical and honest voice, he said. He thanked the Ard Chomhairle for the increased attention and resources devoted to the paper and asked that this be reciprocated by party members on the ground.
Debating the republican labour alternative
BY DEIRDRE FEEHAN
Saturday's debates began with the section on Sinn Féin's republican labour vision. It included discussion on issues such as housing, health, employment, transport, the environment, rural development, child care, culture and abortion.
Belfast republicans Jim Gibney and Martin Meehan told the Ard Fheis of the need for a strong, vibrant and effective campaigning dimension to Sinn Féin's struggle. Meehan explained the importance of campaigns, which, he said, are the cutting edge of the struggle: ``Without mobilisations, we become another political party like the SDLP.''
Gibney said that Sinn Féin is a growing political party now in a new phase of struggle. He said political influence is essential, but ``it is not enough to rely on electoral forums and the media. We rely on the people. People are central to everything Sinn Féin does. It is essential that we maintain the cutting edge and campaigning edge of our party.''
Michael Pierse of the O'Malley/Russell Cumann, Dublin, spoke on the need to reaffirm Sinn Féin's commitment to the cause of a 32-county socialist republic and stated that it was essential for this to remain the core principle of all party policy. Pierse said: ``Enhancing our profile as a socialist party is the duty of all party members from top to bottom. It is the duty of leadership figures to highlight our socialist aspect more vociferously whenever the opportunity arises.
``Many Irish people are sick of establishment corruption and are tired of a political scene which is consistently `middle of the road'. There is a mood for a radical party and we must take the initiative that springs from it.''
Sinn Féin Assembly member Michelle Gildernew welcomed the 26-County government's green paper on abortion. Aanother referendum is not needed, she said, but it was now time for TDs to legislate accordingly. ``We already had a referendum, now we need legislation. There is an imperative of acting quickly on this issue. Sinn Féin needs the legislative process to further the debate.''
One speaker stated that Sinn Féin is a republican party built on respect for human life and articulated the need to preserve and value every life.
Matt Carthy, Ógra Shinn Féin National Organiser and councillor for Carrickmacross, called for a recognition of the potential youth can play in society and supported the call for the creation of more effective youth services which need the involvement of young people themselves. Another speaker referred to the vulnerable position of young people in society and supporting the call for an improvement in their environment, said prevention is a more viable method than intervention.
A campaigning party
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
Delegates spoke about many of the campaign issues in which they are involved in the struggle to share the wealth.
They spoke about a society where the poor, the unemployed, the marginalised, the dispossessed have not benefited from the huge largesse which has accrued in the economy, the injustice of parasitic landlords, the tax cheats, financial speculators, the demise of the small farmers, the failure of the government to address the problems of health, housing, transport, or to provide adequate sustainable jobs, and the need for government to address regional inequality across the country, north and south.
It was a catalogue of injustice and failures of government.
Francie Molloy led off on the need to harmonise tax rates across the country to avoid increasing dependence on and competition between north and south for multinational investment. The partitioned economy was finished, we need to build for equality.
Andy Connolly from Navan, in a powerful speech, talked of a people dispossessed in their own land, a people on an average income who cannot even afford housing, and of small farmers who will not be able to absorb the projected 20% cuts in income this year.
These points were taken up later by Dessie Ellis from Dublin, who rounded on the 26-County government for failing to address health because they refused to pay the nurses adequately, and by Larry O'Toole, who spoke to an emergency motion in support of Dublin's bus workers, who had been expected to pay for the failure of government transport policy, their policies of privatisation and the downgrading of workers in service industries.
When the ink is hardly dry on the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, busworkers had to go to strike to get a tiny increase in wages. ``Who is the prosperity for?'' Larry asked.
A major issue in the debate was waste management, which Daithí Doolan, also from Dublin, pointed out in a very strong speech was a social, economic and political issue. Owen Smith and Brian McKenna from Monaghan and Maeve Healy from Drogheda all made powerful speeches against the privatisation of waste collection and for community control of waste.
They strongly opposed attempts to pass on the costs of waste disposal to households. The Ard Fheis resolved to oppose privatisation of local authority services and committed Sinn Féin to oppose the introduction of refuse charges, a form of double taxation, in corporation and county council areas throughout the 26 Counties.
Arthur Morgan from Louth talked of the terrible level of death from cancers in County Louth, averaging an incredible 14 per month, and recalled that Alan Mullen, who the previous had called on delegates to shout the message to close Sellafield from the rooftops, had died from cancer just six weeks later.
Noel Keelan from Monaghan spoke about ground rents and deplored the fact that the Dublin government had done nothing to meet its promise to abolish them. TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin pointed out that the government had no intention whatsoever of doing anything about ground rents, and gave a commitment that Sinn Féin would introduce its own bill.
Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin from Clonakilty spoke of the scandal of the road testing charge which many people are unable to meet. People on medical cards should be exempt from car testing charges, he said.
Speaking to an emergency resolution, Mayo's Vincent Woods called on the government to reassess the extraordinary tax breaks given to Enterprise Oil for exploration of the Corrib gas and oil field.
Martin Ferris, from the Kingdom of Kerry, closed the debate. He spoke of the demise of the small farmers of the West, who had been neglected by the CAP funding. ``It has meant the end of communities in the West. By 2010, there will be only 20,000 farmers left. They will be the corporate farmers. The crisis of depopulation of the West needs to be addressed urgently.''
Justice issues raised
BY PEADAR WHELAN
Most of the focus of the Justice and Equality debate was on the situation in the North, the role of the RUC and the British government and their record on human rights.
Just days before the Ard Fheis, the British and the RUC were once again indicted by the European Court of Human Rights and will have to answer charges relating to the shoot to kill operations carried out in the Six Counties.
Gerry Kelly, speaking on behalf of the outgoing Ard Chomhairle, pointed up the fact that in the North, ``we are dealing with the corruption of the justice and the more conscious we become of this the worse the nightmare becomes''.
Kelly stressed that the British government was itself culpable in preventing justice becoming a reality in the North through its role in the killings of defence solicitors Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson.
An Ard Chomhairle motion called for the publication of the Stevens report into Pat Finucane's killing and the ICPC report into RUC threats against Rosemary Nelson. Other Ard Chomhairle motions supported demands for independent inquiries into the killing of Portadown nationalist Robert Hamill and the Metropolitan Police's killing of IRA Volunteer Diarmuid O'Neill.
A motion from Cúige Chonnacht/Ulaidh supported the demands of the Justice for the Forgotten campaign for a public, judicial inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. So far, the Dublin government has only granted a private inquiry into the bombings, which left 34 people dead.
Drugs-related issues were discussed in this section with two motions criticising the fact that both the RUC and Gardaí allow drug pushers to ply their `trade' in working class areas, without let or hindrance, and harass anti-drugs activists.
The Mairead Farrell cumann from Dublin called on the Ard Fheis to oppose, ``without reservation, the continuing rise of racism in this country''.
The motions on racism dealt not only with racism directed against asylum seekers and people of other ethnic origin but also the racism experienced by Irish Travellers.
The West Belfast Chomhairle Ceantair calling for an inquiry into the employment practices of local councils in the North stating that, ``the Ard Fheis is deeply concerned at the underrepresentation of Catholics, women, ethnic minorities and the disabled in all local councils''. Paul Butler, a member of Lisburn council, accused it ``of abuse of power'' in its underemployment of Catholics on the council's workforce.
Let's liberate the future - McGuinness
``Since last year's Ard Fheis, Bairbre and I have been doing a little bit of ministering. Yes it was only a few short weeks but it will stand us in good stead for the future. It was an important education for the party and me personally.
More than any other political decision, Peter Mandelson's collapsing of the executive and other political institutions has caused the greatest low, the worst crisis yet to effect the Irish peace process.
As ministers, Bairbre and I were working in that Executive with unionists. We were also working with them in the Assembly, on countless committees and in our departments. We led our departments at meetings with our counterparts in Dublin through the All-Ireland Ministerial Council. I also visited Washington and met with the Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
In my capacity as Education Minister, I provided money for building much needed new schools, supported integrated schools, Irish language schools, special education for children with this need, pre school nursery education and was dealing with the challenge of the 11+ exam which Sinn Féin wants to see abolished.
Those in my department, many of them from a unionist background, worked diligently, professionally and cordially with me and I with them. I could not have asked for better assistance from those around me. They knew I was a republican. I knew that they were unionists. They could have sabotaged the work of the Department. They didn't. Did their unionist world collapse? Hardly. Did it make them any less unionist because their minister was a republican? I would like to think so but I'm sure it did not.
Throughout my 74 days in office the old stereotypes on both sides were breaking down. Unionists could see that I, as a republican minister, was working for everyone equally. And yes surprise, surprise, it was working and working well. The fact that there was such broad support for the work of the institutions show what a huge blunder it was for a British minister to wipe all of this good work away and set aside the Good Friday Agreement.
Much of the hope and expectation which existed following the establishment of the institutions has eroded following this decision.
With all of the attention on the political wrangling within unionism, some people seem to have forgotten that a huge number of unionists supported the Good Friday Agreement and want to move forward.
I am proud and honoured to be associated and to have worked with people from the unionist community who want the Agreement to work and want to be part of a new political way forward. But we have to ask where is the political leadership of unionism?. The UUP negotiated the Agreement and supported it in 1998. But they have failed to give leadership since then.
Instead they have time and again surrendered the initiative given to them by the Good Friday Agreement They are seeking to re-negotiate the Agreement in order to placate unionist rejectionists who have made no bones about their desire to prevent change and have made no bones about their desire to return to the past of unionist domination. David Trimble has said that he needs clarity and certainty. Let me be clear Sinn Féin is absolutely committed to a peaceful resolution of this conflict. That is a certainty.
But this is not about decommissioning. The No unionists have made that abundantly clear themselves by inserting yet another obstacle. This is about not wanting to share power with Catholics, nationalists or republicans. These people hark back to an era of majority rule. They are living in the past and are prisoners to it. But there is NO going back to that past. If unionists are to be brought out of the time warp that they are presently in then it is up to Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson to immediately reinstate the people's institutions.
I don't want to be a prisoner of the past. I want to be a liberator of the future. That is Sinn Féin's task. We are working to build a future where we - all of us unionist, nationalist and republican - can live and work and grow together as equals in a just and peaceful Ireland. And the only way that this can happen is when politicians make politics work for the people. That is not only our right but our duty.''
Rebuilding the Peace Process
BY SEAN BRADY
Sunday afternoon saw discussion around the issue of rebuilding the peace process and related issues such as demilitarisation in the Six Counties and policing.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD pointed out that nearly two years ago Sinn Féin had agreed to change its Constitution to allow entry to the new Six-County Assembly and not oppose changes to Articles Two and Three of the 1937 Constitution.
The compromises made by republicans, however, had been spurned by unionists and disregarded by the British government. The votes of the vast majority of the electorate throughout the 32 counties were set at nought by the the British government in suspending the Good Friday Agreement institutions and the implications were just as serious for people in the 26 Counties as for those in the Six Counties.
The British government alone, acting at the behest of David Trimble, brought down the whole political edifice so carefully constructed by both governments and all the parties and endorsed by the people of Ireland in referenda on both sides of the border.
On policing, former Six County Health Minister Bairbre de Brún said the existence of repressive legislation in both states in Ireland mitigated against the development of an effective police service.
De Brún pointed out that in the last three weeks helicopter activity in South Armagh was at an all