7 February 2008 Edition
First-ever Cuige Uladh AGM held in Donegal
Building political power, bringing people with us
BY PEADAR WHELAN
THE inaugural AGM of the new Cuige Uladh was held in Letterkenny, County Donegal, at the weekend.
The new structure, which sees Ulster organised along its provincial border rather than the artificial British border, is set to compliment the work of the cross-border bodies that have been developed and expanded on by Sinn Féin representatives and activists over the last number of years.
It was fitting then that the formal establishment of Cuige Uladh should take place in Letterkenny, on the banks of Lough Swilly, where two of the most important events that shaped Irish history occurred.
Reflecting on these events, Councillor Pádraig Mac Lochlainnn, who opened the day’s proceedings, explained that 1607 saw the Flight of the Earls when the great Irish chieftains, O’Neill and O’Donnell, sailed from Rathmullen to the Continent and with them went the hopes of the Irish people. Their parting began the decline of Gaelic Ireland.
Then, in 1798, Wolfe Tone, who sailed to Ireland with the French armies that were to provide the military muscle for the planned rebellion of that year, was captured on Lough Swilly, taken to Buncrana and killed.
After Mac Lochlainn’s introduction, Brian Tumelty (who was later to be elected chairperson of Cuige Uladh) reported on the political developments of the past year.
He outlined, in facts and figures, the potential of the Cuige Uladh to impact on the body politic of the island as a whole. He pointed out that Cuige Uladh has 220 cumainn and up to 60 per cent of the membership of Sinn Féin.
“We are the engine driving this struggle,” he said, adding that the cuige is bringing a motion to the Ard Fheis calling for more Ulster representation on the Ard Chomhairle.
The cathaoirleach spoke about the “political rapids” that the party has negotiated in the past year. He summed it up by saying: “2007 shaped us more than we shaped it.”
There was the historic policing debate in January and the critical engagement with the District Policing Partnerships and the PSNI itself, Tumelty said.
“There have been attacks on our activists by so-called republicans who have no vision. These people targeted Briege Meehan in the days before Martin Meehan died; in the days after Martin was buried, they threatened Briege. These people aren’t fit to lace Briege Meehan’s boots!”
When he came to the podium, Declan Kearney, former chair of the cuige and present leas ard-runaí, reminded the delegates that we had just passed the 40th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, one of the major military engagements of the Vietnamese war of liberation.
While Tet saw the Vietnamese suffer heavy military loses, they inflicted a devastating political defeat on their US imperialist enemies, one from which they never recovered and which lead to their final humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam.
Kearney used the experience of the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive to draw some crucial analogies with the struggle in Ireland.
By 1968, the Vietnamese struggle had ground to a standstill. Faced with up to half a million US soldiers, the People’s Liberation Army had essentially lost the military initiative so their struggle needed a massive strategic initiative to regain momentum. As Tet, the Vietnamese new year, dawned, the revolutionary armies launched attacks across Vietnam. The Americans lost the initiative and never regained it.
“That example,” said Kearney, “reminds us that, in struggle, revolutionaries need to counter the strategies used against them by being flexible.”
Irish republicans demonstrated this flexibility over the last number of years and brought about one of the most unimaginable developments of recent times, namely the willingness of the DUP to enter government with Sinn Féin, he pointed out.
“Clearly, the tides of history are buffeting our most implacable enemies, enemies of a united Ireland, but,” he cautioned, “partition is still with us.
“The battle for unity will be won or lost in the 26 Counties. We need to understand that when we talk about the strategic battle lines having shifted south.”
The effect of the electoral setback suffered by the party in last May’s Southern general election was a topic that Kearney turned to in his address.
“Last May’s election demonstrated the strength of the political forces arraigned against us. The political establishment in the 26 Counties is out to crush our struggle so we need to get our defences in order. That means we must build our organisation across the 26 Counties.
“We need to get back the momentum in the South, we need to build the party, we need to get on with the work of campaigning around issues that make a real difference to people’s lives.
“If we don’t regain the momentum in the South, our project will be holed below the waterline.”
The leas ard-runaí brought his address full circle by saying: “Tet required a beach-head in North Vietnam. Ulster has to be the beachhead from which we launch our offensive into the South.”
‘Using the Systems’ was the topic that Leo Green addressed as he outlined the work that our elected representatives are involved in, both in Leinster House and Stormont.
Green was very specific when he said:
“Our strategies are all about agendas for change. Essentially, we are about shaping and building conditions for change. Our objectives are about building strength to force the Brits out.
“So what we do in Stormont and in Leinster House only makes sense when we locate them in the broader struggle. We are making the British Government irrelevant and weakening partition. So it is about building political power and occupying space to exercise power.
“We are developing strategies to validate our republican and socialist agenda so all the issues we are involved in are about us occupying space. These issues, whether they are about the 11-plus transfer test, the issue of water charges or the Irish language are about Sinn Féin saying we are here to stay.”
Without a mass party, the tasks Sinn Féin has set itself will not be fulfilled. To that end Martina Anderson – selected last week at the Derry Sinn Féin AGM to fight the next Westminster election for the party – focused on the need to build that party, educate the membership and keep long-serving members involved.
Key to building the party, in Anderson’s view, is a critical engagement between Sinn Féin, its ministers, its elected representatives and the people.
“We must involve the people in our project. We are fighting for change for social justice and equality so we have to bring the people along with us.”
When he came to deliver his speech, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams echoed some of the comments of the previous speakers and called on the party to “deal with the challenges facing us”.
“We are endeavouring, to the best of our ability, in the councils, in the Assembly, in Leinster House, in Údarás na Gaeltachta, and in the European Parliament, to ensure that our representatives are pursuing the correct policies, in keeping with our manifesto commitments and our republican objectives.
“In addition, we are very aware of the need to ensure that the republican constituency and our own organisation understand what we are doing.
“And we are equally conscious of the imperative to communicate what we are doing - our vision of republicanism in the 21st Century and its relevance to everyday life - to the widest section of people and in a coherent and effective manner.”
The Sinn Féin leader emphasised that the party is not anti-business. “We are pro-business,” he stated.
“Neither are we a high-tax party although we are against the ‘super profits’ being made by multinationals and the big banks, like the obscene $31.3 billion profit announced this week by Shell.
“To tackle this, a special tax should be applied to profits over a reasonable percentage.
“Sinn Féin understands the need for a strong economy to provide the essential health and education and other services that citizens have a right to expect in the 21st Century. Building the economy is therefore a major priority for our party.
“That means developing a new working relationship between our party and those who are trying to build their businesses and economic projects, particularly in the indigenous small and medium-sized business sector and the trade union movement.
“Sinn Féin also actively supports workers’ rights, including the right to a fair wage, decent conditions of employment and the right to be part of a trade union.
“We need to work together to deliver the next generation of jobs that will drive the economy forward and sustain economic prosperity.”
Gerry Adams also set out some of the calendar of work ahead of party activists, including our party Ard Fheis in four weeks, the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, and a second run of ‘Town Hall Meetings’ that are scheduled for April.
“These events will provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the positive gains made in the last ten years, the positive work that has been done on policing and justice since last January, and to outline our Sinn Féin vision for the road ahead and the achievement of our republican goals.
“These meetings will also provide Sinn Féin with an opportunity to report on our stewardship and to explain our strategy and goals for the time ahead. Later in the year, we plan to do another series of ‘Town Hall Meetings’ throughout the South.
“This year we also celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights campaign taking to the streets. So, as in 1988 when we marked the 20th anniversary of the Civil Rights campaign, Sinn Féin is organising a series of events, including public meetings, marches, and debates to commemorate NICRA’s unique and important contribution to the last 40 years.”
Concluding, Gerry Adams said:
“We have a lot of work ahead of us, all part of the jigsaw of activities and strategies which are about building this party building our electoral support advancing our republican goals and building the future.
“To succeed we have to take the republican message of hope and change, of progress and equality, to every village and town and city to every street and parish to every corner of this island, and to every citizen.
“Today we can take great confidence from the reality that republicanism is bigger and more popular than in generations and is ready to achieve what those previous generations only dreamed of. This is our time to change the course of Irish history.”