24 April 1997 Edition
Hope and expectation
Gerry Adams tells Ard Fheis to imagine a future of equality and freedom through negotiations
It is not in the national interest that Unionists remain trapped inside a siege mentality. We must make every effort to ensure that the northern protestant and unionist section of our people are not forced to occupy that political space we wish to escape from.
Had I asked you 5 years ago to imagine the changes which have happened elsewhere in the world, you would have scoffed at me. If I had outlined developments here in Ireland, the potential which had been created, the expectation and hope; what would you have said?
What do you say now? The expectation was dashed but the hope has not been crushed. But now, looking back we can see what is possible. We can see what can happen and we can see that we have made it happen. And more importantly, we have created the hope and the expectation that much more will happen in the time ahead of us. Why? Because we never give up. We have kept the light of hope alive.
Even as they vilified us and demonised us and repressed us, we never gave up. Instead of giving up we challenged them. We sued for peace. We tried to make friends of our enemies. And we did so with confidence and commitment. And even now, despite all the messing and bad faith engagement, despite the provocative actions of our opponents and enemies, even now we remain committed to our peace project. We face forward, determined to play a positive and principled role in building a new peace process and a new Ireland.
The Westminster elections on 1 May are a watershed moment in our history which must be seized. We must send a clear message to the new London government and to the Unionist leadership.
The forces ranged against us are powerful but despite their power they have failed to defeat our struggle. They have failed to defeat our struggle because they fail to comprehend that the first step of liberation is in the human mind. Bobby Sands explained it well in one of the darkest moments of our struggle: ``If they aren't able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won't break you''. That is why centuries of British rule in Ireland has failed to subdue the struggle for independence and freedom. That is why they have failed to break us.
This reality, the reality of British rule in Ireland, means that the IRA remains a potent force in this situation with volunteers like Diarmuid O'Neill who was gunned down in London, prepared to unselfishishly pit themselves against British rule in our country. That is the stark reality of the situation. But it does not have to be forever so.
The cessation of military operations announced by the IRA in August 1994 did not occur because the IRA had succumbed to threats, demands, or preconditions. Meaningful dialogue, force of argument, and openness to the historic possibilities that this course of action might create were the key factors in the IRA's decision.
When John Major decided to scupper the peace process he had the active assistance of the Unionist party at Westminster. But we are undaunted. Heath, Thatcher, Major - British Prime Ministers come and go as we face them down and prepare for freedom day.
Ian Paisley and David Trimble do not give progressive leadership. Their every word betrays a veiled contempt for, and an utter lack of faith in the ability of their supporters to come to terms with a new situation. In 1985 Ian Paisley stood on a `Smash Sinn Fein' ticket at the local government elections in the north. He posed with his sledgehammer, that symbol of loyalist death squads and our councillors and our families paid with their lives to represent our electorate.
DUP councillors blew their whistles and squealed their wee heads off in Belfast City Council and other Unionists took to chaining themselves to office furniture in Derry City Council. But despite it all we persisted and eventually the Unionist campaign petered out. It did so because their electorate wanted real council representation.
Today the Unionist leaders say they will not sit down with Sinn Fein but today there are no empty seats in the Council Chambers in the north. So Sinn Fein cannot be denied access to all-party negotiations because of this threat from the Unionist leadership. If the Unionists do walk out they know the door will not be locked behind them. If they walk out they know they will have to walk back in again.
Peace is the issue here. When the British announce publicly that there can be no negotiations without yet another precondition, they merely echo the Unionist position on Sinn Fein's entrance to all-party talks. They used the Unionists as an excuse. They encourage Unionist inertia. These exclusionist attitudes cannot create peace.
For Irish republicans the aim has never been the victory of one section of our people over another but a new union of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. It is not a pseudo peace - pax Britannica - but a real peace built on a solid democratic foundation and a future of justice and equality.
Our task as republicans is to be agents of change; it is to build equality and partnership, and to empower change within our society. It is to change minds and attitudes and to rebuild relationships between the people of this island and with our nearest neighbour, Britain.
Irish Republicans are prepared to do business, now, with the British government and with the unionists, without preconditions, without qualification, without delay. We are prepared to meet, to discuss and to reach agreement, to come to a democratic accommodation with unionism. But we are not prepared to pander to bigotry or the out-dated concepts of Orange supremacy and Unionist domination. We are not prepared to tolerate triumphalism and sectarianism. We will not be reconciled to the burning of churches and schools, to the denial of civil or religious liberties.
I want to speak directly to the Unionists. Some Unionists say that we do not comprehend or appreciate the effects of the last 25 years on them. We do. Or at least some of us do. Or we are trying to and we are also trying to reach out because we who have suffered do understand your sense of hurt. When Irish republicans talk about British interference and the British presence we do not mean the Unionist section of our people. We want to make peace with unionists, to work with Unionists so that when we collectively reach the end of our journey we will be able to accommodate and celebrate our diversity as equals.
And today, through an ongoing dialogue with members of the northern protestant and unionist community we are trying to develop a much better understanding of the political analysis that represent the bed-rock of their thinking.
Many important insights have emerged from this dialogue which will help us to see unionism in its totality and which gives us a sense of what is going on inside the unionist section of our people.
The erosion of their political power base since the late 1960s, their belief that they have given a lot and received nothing, their deep mistrust of the British and their perception of an all-powerful nationalist agenda are the elements of a deepening crisis within the unionist section of our people.
`Not an Inch', `What we have we hold' and `No surrender' are more than ever the anchors of the unionist leadership's political philosophy. On the surface David Trimble and Ian Paisley seem unable and unwilling to move away from its `top dog mentality'. In reality they are paralysed by the idea of real talks, honest talks, with them actually negotiating. They are afraid that this means them negotiating themselves out of existence. They are afraid of change.
Republicans need to be concerned about what is happening inside unionism. It is not in the national interest that Unionists remain trapped inside a siege mentality.
We must make every effort to ensure that the northern protestant and unionist section of our people are not forced to occupy that political space we wish to escape from. If being marginalised, abandoned and disempowered was bad for us, then it is bad for the unionists.
Giving up on the unionists is not an option for Sinn Fein. By-passing the unionists is not an option for us. Our option is for dialogue and engagement.
Republicans recognise that there will be no peace in Ireland if unionists are not a part of shaping that peace. Therefore our heartfelt wish is for a Unionism that is capable of shaping its future inside a negotiating process based upon equality. Our wish is to reach an accommodation with unionism.
This will not be easy. The road ahead will be difficult and dangerous and risky for all of us but working together I am convinced we can succeed. It is my conviction that we will have a peace settlement. If we are resilient, if we dig deep, we can overcome all obstacles.
When republicans speak of change we want change through this entire island. A resistance to change is not confined to the unionists or the British. Throughout this state also there are partitionists for whom Ireland is 26 Counties. For the partitionists, the censors, the revisionists, nationalists of the Six Counties are outside the pale. But the republican peace strategy, the Irish Peace Initiative, the IRA cessation and the entire peace process was a major set-back for those forces. The nay-sayers had to acknowledge the strength of Irish opinion at home and abroad, and the support for an inclusive peace settlement, for the end of the partitionist status quo and the need for political and constitutional change.
Then to their own surprise some of those who had been most negative about my dialogue with John Hume and about the Irish Peace Initiative and the IRA cessation, found themselves in government in the middle of the peace process. ``A bit of a shock,'' as John Bruton said. At the time we acknowledged that it was difficult for him to address the new situation and we commended efforts to create progress in the face of British government intransigence.
We were flexible and open minded. We kept every commitment we made and we did so in good faith. Mr Bruton knows this. But we refused to lower our expectations. We refused to be caged in or conditioned.
Whatever shade of government emerges from the general election in the 26 counties Sinn Féin will endeavour to work with it to rebuild the peace process. That is our pledge given here today. But that government must respect the mandate which our voters give us. No one in government buildings in Dublin should expect us to collude in our own exclusion or in undermining the rights of our electorate.
Mr Bruton has called upon the people not to vote for Sinn Fein. But when they ignore him then he, or whoever succeeds him as Taoiseach, must respect and uphold the rights of that section of our people. Nil aon slí eile ann.
In this election Sinn Féin is the only party of the left standing on an independent platform. We represent that tradition in Irish politics which may be described as the republican left, the legacy of Pearse and Connolly and Mellows.
For us the struggle is where the people are and where the activist should be. It is our collective responsibility to succeed, to continue our journey, to get others to join us.
Sinn Fein is fighting three elections this year and in this state there is a real prospect of a seat for Caoimhghín O Caoláin in Cavan/Monaghan. This chance of a breakthrough and strong votes for our party in the another 14 constituencies from Dublin to Donegal, from Louth to Sligo, from Kerry to Cork can be a milestone in the development of republican politics.
So let us go out there and make that breakthrough.
There are some who say the British government is neutral. Whatever about its strategic or economic interest, John Major has made it clear that he is a defender of the Union. This policy and the Unionist veto are at the core of the conflict. The aim of democratic opinion must be to seek a change in British policy towards Ireland and an end to the Unionist veto. Negotiations are an area of struggle for Irish republicans.
Our task must be to make change irreversible. Some time ago, in a spirit of generosity and in an effort to create a space in which progress could be made I made it clear, in the context of proper all-party talks and in a situation in which all the other parties sign up to the Mitchell Report, that Sinn Fein will do so also.
We ask no more than is accorded to any other party, open and honest dialogue, everyone at the table, everything on the table and no Unionist veto. For us there is no room for failure. We need to be persistent and pragmatic because we have a confidence in ourselves and in the future and because we know that what has gone before has failed all of us.
This is especially true of the relationship between Irish republicans and the British. A new government is about to be elected in London. That new British government knows precisely what is required and knows just as precisely our position on the issues of concern to it. Let the British government face up to its responsibilities. Let it and Sinn Fein face up to each other on our own terms. Let each of us put behind us the failures of the past, the lack of confidence, the distrust. We can do business, we can find agreement if political leaders and especially governments are prepared to take risks and if political will exists on all sides. A lasting peace is the prize.
The Westminster elections on 1 May are a watershed moment in our history which must be seized. We must send a clear message to the new London government and to the Unionist leadership. Voters have the chance to vote once again for Sinn Fein. I am confident that they will do so with great heart. Despite all the negative campaigning by our opponents our voters know that their vote is a vote for freedom and justice and peace in Ireland and for an end to all violence. They know that we will never let them down and we know that they will never let us down.
So we have a job of work to do in the days ahead. We must elect Sinn Fein MPs to put the republican analysis. We must help to create a new opportunity for peace.
We can do it. You can do it. We are going to do it.
We are going forward together into the next century. We are going forward to a new future as equals.
This is an edited version of Gerry Adams's address to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis
Impassioned speeches on drugs issue
MICHEAL MacDONNCHA on the debates at the Ard Fheis
The work of Sinn Féin on the drugs issue was reflected in the most lively debate of the one-day Ard Fheis. The party adopted a new drugs policy document entitled Empowering the Communities and the speakers' contributions made clear that this is exactly what communites have been attempting to do for themselves.
Dublin North East candidate Larry O'Toole said responsibility for the heroin epidemic cannot be dodged by politicians of successive governments who failed to respond to the demands of people in Dublin who took to the streets in the early `80s. The result was many hundreds of deaths, and in the past year people have taken to the streets again. ``We are proud of our work with these communites and we commend their stand,'' said O'Toole.
Both Martina Kenna, Dublin South Central candidate, and Daithi Doolan of the Máiréad Farrell cumann told of personal experiences of heroin addicts desperately seeking treatment which was not available. In one case suicide was the result, in another an addict was brutalised by gardai. Kenna said they had been ``betrayed by the health system''.
Sean Crowe, Dublin South West candidate told of the pernicious role of the Garda Special Branch in targetting anti-drugs activists for harassment. He called for the ``depoliticisiation of the police''.
Earlier the economic framework in which this crisis occurs was referred to when the Ard Fheis adopted a resolution opposing entry into the European Monetary Union. This would take away whatever economic control the Irish people had left and was fundamentally anti-democratic, said Ann Speed. The project to create an EU superstate was akin to the Downing Street Declaration which says the Irish people have the right to self-determination but with no right to exercise it.
There was a warm welcome for Martin Molloy from the H-Blocks who brought greetings on behalf of all imprisoned republicans. Cavan-Monaghan candidate Caoimhghin O Caoláin raised the case of former long-term prisoner in England Sean Kinsella of Monaghan who was arrested last month. O Caoláin deplored the arrest and the media coverage which described Kinsella's ``recapture''. This was despite the fact that he had been living openly for months and had attended Sinn Féin's economic conference in the very hotel where the Ard Fheis was held.
``Irish - guilty. Community activist - guilty. Irish language activist - guilty. Daughter of Bernadette McAliskey - guilty. Charged with IRA activity - naturally guilty.'' This was how Martin Vernon of Dublin described the British indictment of Roisín McAliskey in a speech which urged delegates to increase their efforts to gain her release.
In a thoughtful contribution Belfast Councillor Tom Hartley reported on Sinn Féin's ongoing contact with members of the Northern Protestant and unionist community. This contact has much potential:
``The great difficulties that represent the gap between ourselves and the unionist community, if honestly confronted, can become the route to building a new relationship between us. A dialogue which uncovers the layers of hurt and pain can also reveal the personal integrity of all who engage in dialogue.''
In the same spirit Meath candidate Joe Reilly urged republicans to reclaim the legacy of the United Irishmen and prepare to mark the 200th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion next year:
``Let us use this coming year to commemorate and celebrate the anniversary of 1798 but let us also use the year to reach out, to learn, to educate ourselves about fulfilling our responsibilities of bringing Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter together in a New Ireland.''
Watching them watching us watching them
Brian Campbell keeps a keen eye on the delegates and journalists
You have to marvel at Sinn Féin. Other parties hold their Ard Fheiseanna in the most modern conference centres and pay thousands for a gee-whizz stage backdrop so they can look good on the telly. Sinn Féin has their Ard Fheis in an hotel disco and party workers make the backdrop for a few quid. And you can't tell the difference.
The Hillgrove Hotel in Monaghan was the business, particularly as it was filled with 1,000 delegates with their feet sore from canvassing.
The Ard Fheis was a pause in the election battle and it benefitted from that gossipy, expectant atmosphere that precedes polling day. The talk everywhere was of the three imminent elections - and how well the dozens of candidates looked in their Sunday best.
Around and among the talkative throngs gathered in the main hall, the tea room and the corridors, the journalists constantly circled.
They are a fascinating species to observe. Watching them is like looking at a wildlife documentary.
You can spot the top journalists. They glide through the hotel. Their eyes dart about, afraid that this may be hostile territory but at the same time constantly on the prowl. They live for the juicy morsel.
David McKittrick, Peter Taylor and Deaglán de Bréadún talk patiently to delegates, sifting and probing, digesting and regurgitating the soundbites from `senior republican sources'. Charlie Bird and Eamon Mallie are full of bouncy energy, invisible antennae humming with news and gossip. By contrast, Suzanne Breen strides with nervous defiance, never seeming to stop and talk.
The next day, the country's newspaper readers see the Ard Fheis through their eyes. Their reports speak of a low-key conference - not for them the enthusiasm generated by activists gathered in common cause.
When I pick up The Irish Times I'm not surprised to see this little twist from Suzanne Breen: ``The ardchomhairle successfully asked for motions from Derry supporting `global opposition to capitalism' to be deferred - revolutionary rhetoric doesn't go down too well in Washington.'' (For the record, the motion was deferred because it asked for support for ``the second declaration of Realidad for Humanity and against Neo-Liberalism'', which delegates had not had a chance to read.)
Of course some papers went for the low news-value approach. The Irish News led with Denis Haughey's reaction to a remark made by Martin McGuinness; the Irish Independent gave the Ard Fheis two column inches; and the Daily Telegraph focused on a couple of mentions of the IRA and said there were only 400 delegates. At least they won't be counting the Sinn Féin votes.