8 January 2009 Edition
To be nation builders - Sinn Féin's challenge in the time ahead
Interview: Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams
IN his 2009 New Year message, Sinn Féin President GERRY ADAMS said 2008 had been a significant year with further progress made in bedding down the all-Ireland political institutions including governmental institutions in the North.
He said it is important to see further progress on this and other issues in the year ahead and that Sinn Féin is determined to ensure that commitments given in the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements are implemented.
He also said that the Irish Government has failed to produce a coherent strategy to deal with the severe impact on the economy of the credit crunch and the global economic crisis. And as we prepare to mark the 90th anniversary of First Dáil he spoke of the republican commitment to the ideas and objectives of a sovereign democratic, united Irish republic.
Here, in his first interview of 2009, talking to An Phoblacht Editor SEÁN Mac BRÁDAIGH, Gerry Adams elaborates on these and other national and international issues.
AS Ireland enters 2009 in very difficult times nationally and globally, ordinary people are worried about the future. Asked about his analysis of the way forward Gerry Adams says:
“Well, the first thing to say is this is not the 1980s. It is possible to get the economy right. We have a highly educated workforce. We have confident, skilled people out there. There is huge potential to develop an all-Ireland economy. What is lacking has been a constant and that is an absence of leadership. Sinn Féin has commended the working people who created the wealth we have witnessed in recent years and have been equally forthright in our criticism of a government that squandered that wealth.
“There was a lack of leadership during the boom time. There was no proper utilisation of resources or proper investment in infrastructure, education or health. It’s as if we had won the lotto, went on the tear and then woke up one morning broke. The government was entirely and absolutely irresponsible.
“The leadership required is unlikely to come from the present government. It doesn’t appear to know what to do.
“What’s needed is a focus on job creation, for example in school building programmes and infrastructure for a new export strategy. We need an approach in which the economy serves society, serves the people.
There is no sense of a plan, a strategy emanating from Government Buildings. The Taoiseach is certainly not giving people hope.
On the significance of Irish voters rejection of the Lisbon Treaty and the Irish Government’s decision to run another referendum on the issue Adams says, “No democrat can have any problem with a government bringing forward a different treaty for the approval of the electorate. So, Sinn Féin has no issue about a second referendum. We do have a very profound issue with the same Treaty being run twice. The decision by the electorate is one that has to be respected. The difficulty for democrats is that the government received a mandate it didn’t want and which it has no intention of fulfilling. The spin in the beginning of the Lisbon Treaty campaign was that this was a wonderful Treaty and that it was to the great credit of the new Taoiseach Brian Cowen that he had managed to pull off such a coup. Then the man confounded everybody by saying he hadn’t even read it. Other government ministers said there was no need to read it.
“The significance of the vote was that faced with a united ‘Yes’ position from all the establishment parties, from most sections of the media, and from sections of the farming, trade union and business sectors, the people thought their way through it and the treaty was defeated. There is now an onus on the government to bring forward a new treaty which they say they have negotiated, to do that in plenty of time and to make it widely available.
“When the government has brought forward its proposals, Sinn Féin will do exactly what we did with the original treaty, that is, to study it very closely, be positive and to make a decision based on Irish and European interests.
“Without doubt Ireland’s place is at the centre of the European Union, the question is what type of European Union? We want one that serves the citizens of that union. The Southern electorate has made clear what type of EU they want”
On the unfolding situation in Gaza the Sinn Féin President said that what was happening was “absolutely shameful”. “The military offensive by the Israeli Government is timed in my view to coincide with Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the USA. The Israeli Government is trying to set the agenda for US policy on the Middle East. Sinn Féin has consistently taken issue with US policy on the Middle East. The international community has a responsibility to ensure that a peace settlement is put in place. For a long time there has been a process without peace. The current military onslaught also has to be seen in the context of a two-year embargo on Gaza and other unacceptable actions.
“Clearly the Irish Government has a responsibility to articulate these concerns but that’s not enough. The government needs to be working with others of like mind to bring about a consensus for a peace settlement. That requires an end to all military actions in that region but action by the government should not be conditional on a full cessation.
Adams said that the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America was “a history-making event”.
“For the USA to have a black President is good for everyone and one can just imagine the delight of all those people who struggled for civil rights in the USA when the news came that Obama was elected. So, I think it’s a particularly significant and welcome development. I wish the President Elect well. I read his book Dreams from my Father, and he has had a very unique and unusual upbringing. Very much an outsider, and more global in his experiences than others in that position. So, we wish him well. We hope that his administration does the right things.
On the huge effort over the past few years on getting the work of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement back on track and on the political priorities for the party in the coming months he said:
“No one should underestimate the amount of effort involved in getting the DUP to accept that the Executive has to be run on the basis of equality and partnership. The recent breakthrough on that issue and on the process to transfer policing and justice powers from London – there is ongoing work needed on all of those matters. There is a huge challenge facing those of us who want to see an end to inequality in the education of children. The Minister for Education Caitríona Ruane is being hampered by elements who want to retain the old system. The 11+ has gone and in the most radical reform of the education system in the North ever undertaken our party is pledged to bring in a first class education for every child.
“We’re also concerned to give a legislative basis to the rights of Irish speakers. Acht Na Gaeilge is a very modest requirement.
“There are economic challenges. Aside from the global difficulties in the economy, we are hampered by the fact that we don’t have tax gathering or tax varying powers. The Minister for Finance Nigel Dodds in a recent statement to the Assembly drew attention to the fact that he had only limited economic levers to use. Again, we need to see the development of an all-Ireland economy and identify whatever other economic levers we require. The whole issue of economic sovereignty and also standing up against the British Treasury is important. The British Treasury gives a limited subvention but also tries to couple this with its own particular political ideology. So it favours privatisation, the selling off of public resources and so on.
“Aside from those very immediate issues there is the need to continue a process of reconciliation of nation-building. If I was to describe the big challenge for Sinn Féin this year and in the next decade it is for us to be nation builders. The people of this island deserve a national conversation on what type of a society, what type of future we want for this island And that isn’t just about the North and it isn’t just about unionists although they are essential parts of it. But it is about quality of life issues, universal healthcare, citizenship and having a rights-based society.
“There has been a huge focus, understandably, on the Dublin government’s attempt to rob elders of their medical cards but if you read through all the cuts that they brought in, it was always the most vulnerable that were attacked. This was evidenced by the principled resignation of the Head of the Equality Authority Niall Crowley. There are cuts to the education of Traveller children.
“Allied to this is the conditions endured by the people in inner city areas of Dublin such as O’Devenny Gardens, St Michael’s Estate, Dominic Street and Croke Villas where regeneration projects have been allowed to collapse. As we mark the 90th anniversary of the First Dáil the conditions for people in those estates is as bad as the tenements at the time that the Democratic Programme was launched.
So, what sort of Ireland do we want? What is required in the time ahead is the building of a mass movement that has the capacity to bring about an inclusive society based on equality for all citizens.”
Asked about Sinn Féin’s strategy towards a united Ireland Adams said:
“Since Partition the struggle has been about a united Ireland and there is now a greater opportunity to achieve this goal than ever before. This is evidenced by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements, by greater co-operation on issues, by the argument for an all-Ireland economy, an all-Ireland energy strategy and all-Ireland Health co-operaton along with a range of other needs.
“Sinn Féin has established a Task Force to update our strategy on the reunification of the island. We will be marking the 90th Anniversary of the First Dáil on 21 January and in the upcoming period we will be seeking to engage with as wide a range of opinion as possible. As I said earlier we need a national conversation about the type of society that best suits the Irish people. From Sinn Féin’s viewpoint that’s a united Irish society. We are looking at ways of encouraging a national conversation on that theme both here at home and throughout the Diaspora.
“We also should be mindful that we are fighting EU elections across the island – the only party to have a national focus. We will be fighting every seat to win but our objective is to retain the two seats that we hold and to build in the Local Government elections on the very strong performance that we had in 2004.
On the re-organisation of Sinn Féin throughout the country, which has been ongoing for 18 months now, the Party President said:
“For some time and for very obvious reasons Sinn Féin's main political strength has been in the North and the border counties. In recent times this was reinforced by us winning the EU seat in Dublin and by our growth in the capital as well as successes in North Kerry and other parts of the state. So, the party has for some time been trying to come to terms with the need to develop nationally. The struggle has undergone many changes in recent years. There were decades of conflict and many years of intensive political negotiations. While there has been progress in the past in Cavan/Monaghan, Louth and other areas, for the last number of years there has been a consistent, ongoing project to make Sinn Féin fit for purpose everywhere on the island. The conference held a year or so ago – Engaging Modern Ireland; the establishment of the party’s Organisational Development Units; the reorganisation of various parts of the party; and the effort to make republicanism relevant to people in their daily lives has, in my view, seen considerable progress.
“However this is a long term project. Sinn Féin as a party is in transition. A number of significant changes to the party structure and leadership are expected at this year’s Ard Fheis.
“Mary Lou McDonald will be running for Vice President, Declan Kearney for party Chairperson, Dawn Doyle for Ard Runaí and Maurice Quinlivan and Rita O’Hare as joint party Treasurers, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin will continue in his position as Dáil Group leader and Martin McGuinness as joint First Minister.
“Pat Doherty has decided not to put his name forward for the Vice President’s position. Pat has served Sinn Féin in this office over 20 years. He has been a consistent part of our leadership since the 1970s. He will continue to play a leadership role in the time ahead. I want to thank Pat for his work on the National Officer Board over the last two decades. I wish him and Mary Doc’ well.
“The Taskforce on Irish Unity was established to drive forward the united Ireland agenda. There is now a peaceful and democratic path to a United Ireland and republicans have a strategy in place to bring this about. It is the job of the taskforce to carry forward this work. Given its importance, the work of the taskforce and the implementation of its roadmap need to be headed up by senior party figures. Pat Doherty and Rita O’Hare will play a leading role in this work. Rita will also continue as Sinn Féin party representative in Washington.”
Our outgoing party Treasurers – Margaret Kelly and Treasa Quinn – are taking up senior positions in the Finance Department. I wish them well in the demanding work that lies ahead and commend them for their outstanding contributions as Treasurers.”
Inevitably these changes will spark the usual media speculation that Gerry Adams is about to retire or step down as Party President. Gerry Adams dismissed this. He said: “I have no plans to stand down. The schedule for next year is a very busy one with many challenges. We have to build the party – build a representative local and national leadership and make further progress towards our republican goal of a free, independent and united Ireland.
• Pat Doherty Sinn Féin vice-president for over 20 years