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20 November 2008 Edition

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Remembering the Past: Gerry Adams elected president of Sinn Féin


THE Ard Fheis of 1983 marked a significant stage in the political development of Sinn Féin. The historic gathering came in the wake of the campaign in support of the H-Block and Armagh prisoners, the epic Hunger Strikes, the intervention of prisoner candidates, North and South, in 1981 and Sinn Féin’s electoral rise in the Six Counties in 1982 and 1983.
The party’s performance in the October 1982 Assembly elections – when five republicans were elected to the body set up by British direct ruler Jim Prior – caused alarm to the SDLP and their supporters in the Establishment parties in the 26 Counties. Sinn Féin’s lead in boycotting the Assembly was followed by the SDLP for fear of losing further support to republicans. The Fine Gael/Labour Government, led by Garret FitzGerald, set up the New Ireland Forum in Dublin mainly as a platform for the SDLP.
In June 1983, the political establishment in Ireland and Britain was rocked by the election of Sinn Féin Vice-President Gerry Adams as MP for his native west Belfast. For long a leading republican activist, Adams advocated the deeper politicisation and popularisation of the republican struggle and the building of Sinn Féin across the 32 Counties.
The British Tory government of Margaret Thatcher was also concerned at the rise of Sinn Féin. In the week before the Ard Fheis in November 1983, Prior told Tory MPs that Ireland could become a “Cuba off Britain’s west coast”. He said he feared Sinn Féin could overtake the SDLP electorally and “we must do all we can to strengthen constitutional nationalism”.
When the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis gathered in the Mansion House in Dublin on 12 and 13 November, it was set to elect a new leadership. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh had been president since 1970 and he announced that he would not be seeking re-election. He said the four-province federal Ireland plan, of which he had been a strong advocate, had been rejected at the 1982 Ard Fheis and his approach on other issues, including electoral strategy, had been rejected by the Ard Chomhairle.

In his address, the new party president, Gerry Adams, dismissed media claims of a ‘Northern takeover’ and said:
“We are not a Northern, nor a Southern party – we are an Irish republican party organised throughout Ireland.”
The main theme of his speech was the need for republicans to break out of political isolation and “get among the people in the basic ways which the people accept”. In line with this approach, the Ard Fheis voted to contest European Parliament elections with the intention of taking seats if they were won. This followed the expansion of party electoral strategy the previous year.
The Ard Fheis coincided with a by-election campaign for the Dáil seat of Dublin Central, which was contested by Sinn Féin candidate Christy Burke, turning in a creditable performance. There was further controversy after the Ard Fheis, and discomfort for Fianna Fáil leaders in particular, when Gerry Adams was confirmed as the main speaker at the annual Kilmichael commemoration in west Cork.
Gerry Adams was elected president of Sinn Féin at the Ard Fheis of November 1983, 25 years ago.

MR PRESIDENT: Ruairí Ó Brádaigh congratulates Gerry Adams on his election as president of Sinn Féin 

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