15 April 2010 Edition
Use election to strengthen republican mandate for equality and unity
Gerry Adams speaks in Derry’s Guild Hall
In the first of a series of public meetings across the Six Counties in the course of the Westminster General Election campaign, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams addressed hundreds of people in Derry’s Guild Hall on Tuesday 13 April. He launched a scathing and detailed attack on the dire leadership and double standards of the SDLP and urged people to further strengthen the Sinn Féin mandate. We carry here an edited version of Gerry Adams’s speech.
"Sinn Féin held the first of these Town Hall meetings just before the Special Ard Fheis on Policing in 2007. We have held them each year since. Sinn Féin is the only party which consciously holds a democratic public dialogue with citizens. These meetings are an important opportunity for Sinn Féin to report back to you on the work that has taken place in the previous year, to listen to your views and to set out some of the work that lies ahead.
I am pleased to be here in Derry this evening for the first of the series of the Town Hall meetings for 2010. Derry holds a special place in the hearts of Belfast republicans. The stand taken in the late 1960’s by citizens in this city against discrimination and injustice, and for civil rights, was an inspiration. Duke Street and the Battle of the Bogside are just two of the events in that period which remain strong in our memories. Those were exceptional times – unprecedented times – and then, and in the years since, many ordinary people made extraordinary sacrifices and displayed great courage in pursuit of equality and justice and freedom and Irish unity.
Yesterday we had another significant step forward with the appointment by the Assembly of a Minister of Justice. Taken with agreement at Hillsborough several months ago and the transfer of powers on policing and justice, all of this marks further important progress as a result of the peace process.
Earlier this week I wrote to SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie inviting her to meet with me to discuss co-operation between our parties in the upcoming General Election. I proposed that the agenda should include the need to co-operate in specific constituencies to ensure as far as possible that unionism does not increase its share of Westminster seats. It was my intention to propose that Sinn Féin would stand aside in South Belfast in return for the SDLP standing aside in Fermanagh South Tyrone.
In a letter today Margaret Ritchie rejected the approach by Sinn Féin to maximise nationalist representation. This confused, narrow minded, ill-judged position has marked the SDLP stance in recent times. Their approach has been dictated not by what is good for nationalists or for the peace process, but by their antipathy towards Sinn Féin. If the Shinners are for it – the SDLP have to be against it. And they make the most outrageous claims in order to bolster a shallow and largely ineffectual political record of achievement.
Remember Seamus Mallon’s description of the Good Friday Agreement as Sunningdale for slow learners? He obviously hoped that it was so far in the past that no one would remember the truth. The fact is that Sinn Féin’s involvement in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations secured significantly more progress in the areas of policing and justice; demilitarisation and arms; discrimination and sectarianism; equality and human rights; the Irish language; and constitutional and political matters.
One revealing fact: equality is referenced 21 times in the Good Friday Agreement with processes and policies to advance it. Equality didn’t rate a single mention in the Sunningdale Agreement! Then the SDLP abandoned its pretence at being a nationalist party and became a ‘post nationalist party.’ When it realised how deeply unpopular that was it tried to recast itself as a United Ireland party! In the mid 80’s, while it was involved in campaigning against the MacBride Principles of Fair Employment in the USA, the SDLP was bogusly claiming that discrimination had ended and that equality for all citizens was “now a reality”. At the same time the SDLP accused the people of West Belfast of being ‘savages’ and also denied for many years the existence of collusion.
Almost 10 years ago in 2001 the SDLP gave up on trying to create a new effective policing dispensation. It accepted the Mandelson policing legislation; said there would be no more new legislation, and joined the Policing Board. Sinn Féin said No. It wasn’t good enough. We kept negotiating, and demanding more and better legislation. And over the following years, Sinn Féin delivered new policing and criminal justice legislation – including overturning the ban on former political prisoners being on policing boards; gaining increased powers for the Police Ombudsman; gaining increased powers for the Policing Board; cementing community policing as a core function of the PSNI; and securing a new judicial composition more reflective of this society.
The SDLP failed to learn the lessons and continued to fail. In September 2003, the SDLP published its party policy on British ‘national security’ in Ireland stating: ‘We have no difficulty, however, with a continuing MI5 role.’ In March 2004, the SDLP voted in favour of continued emergency powers including systems using Public Interest Immunity Certificates – notorious British gagging orders. In November 2005, the SDLP voted in favour of 28-day detention without trial – a re-run of the old Special Powers Act. In February 2006, the SDLP supported compulsory registration of Irish citizens on a British ‘national identity register’ – a database for the spooks.
In March 2006, Mark Durkan personally told the House of Commons that ‘there would be some issues of national security on which it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State rather than the devolved authorities, to receive reports’ – thereby supporting British primacy on MI5. In June 2006, the SDLP agreed that ‘it is essential that adequate provision for non-jury trials for appropriate offences in Northern is maintained’ – in other words, Diplock Courts.
In January 2007 Mark Durkan personally asked how Ronnie Flanagan could be regarded as a credible Chief Inspector of Constabulary. Yet back when Flanagan was Head of the notorious RUC Special Branch and later when he was RUC Chief Constable the SDLP praised him as one of those within that force who ‘want to edge forward’.
On Monday last 12 April, during the debate to agree a Minister of Justice, the SDLP attacked Sinn Féin for securing the devolution of policing and justice powers because the vote was taken under the cross-community protections of the Good Friday Agreement. Yet the SDLP voted for the very arrangements which they now rail against! In fact in May 2006, Mark Durkan told the British House of Commons that he supported “the possibility of a single [Justice] minister to be elected by cross-community support and by parallel consent” – which is exactly what the SDLP are now complaining about.
And then there is the crucial issue of leadership! What sort of leadership does the SDLP offer? In 2001 Mark Durkan told the Derry Journal that he had ‘little interest’ in succeeding John Hume as MP for Foyle. He claimed that his real interest was being involved in the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. He said: “As someone who contributed intensely to the negotiations which led to the GFA and the new institutions, it would be decidedly rich of me to commend these bodies to others yet at the same time not be wholly or solely committed to them myself.”
Eight years later the same Mark Durkan announced his decision to quit as leader of the SDLP in order to concentrate on Westminster! One part of his rationale was his belief that you can’t lead the party from Westminster. But then the truth is that this was a career move by Mark who wanted an easier life style away from the real politics of the North. And that’s fair enough and I wish him and his family well but then he really should tell the electorate that this is what he is about.
Did you know that the SDLP record of voting attendance at Westminster is so bad that were they attending school their parents would have been taken to court! They are among the worst attenders of the 646 MPs. For example: in the first year of the last British Parliament between 2005-6 the average voting/attendance for MPs was 72%. Mark Durkan was there 28.6% of the time. Alasdair McDonnell was there for 28.9% and Eddie McGrady was present only 14.6% of the time. The following year it was even worse. In 2006-7 the average attendance for MPs was 64.4%. Mark Durkan was there for 14% of the time; McDonnell 15.8% and McGrady 12.2%. Last year Mark had pulled his boot straps up – a wee bit – and with other MPs averaging a voting/attendance record of 64.1% he managed 33% – just over half. Alasdair McDonnell was on 5% – that’s right 5% – and Eddie McGrady was on 18%.
So, the lesson of these records is very clear. The SDLP MPs know how unimportant their presence at Westminster actually is. They vote with their feet and stay away for most of the time. The SDLP have in reality a semi-detached relationship with Westminster; they are the Semi Detached and Lost Party. Remember when they were going to morph into Fianna Fáil; well some of them were. Others had a Fine Gael merger in mind. Currently, they say that in the event of a hung British Parliament they will support the British Labour Party. That means the SDLP are committed to supporting the party that invaded Iraq; invaded Afghanistan; and passed the 28-day detention legislation. So for anyone thinking of voting to put the SDLP into Westminster look at the record – not the rhetoric.
What you get with the SDLP is a failure of leadership under a pledge of obedience to an English Queen. Perhaps the NIO for once had it right way back in 1976. In a secret paper now held in the British National Archive at Kew the NIO records the origins of that party and in a review of the status of parties in that year said:”The SDLP have failed to deliver. We created it and perhaps we now have to let it die.”
Back in the real world Sinn Féin has got on with the business of making politics work; of making the Peace Process work; of delivering on our commitments. Few envisaged the DUP in government with Sinn Féin, or a Derry man, Martin McGuinness holding the post of Joint First Minister with Peter Robinson. Fewer still thought that the unionists would agree the transfer of powers on policing and justice. But all of these things and much more has happened. Sinn Féin did this by making the two governments and the DUP face up to their political responsibilities. And by the end of this year there will also be the transfer of powers from London to Belfast to deal with the issue of parades. More powers moving from England to Ireland.
Outstanding issues including Irish language rights will also be delivered on and there is additional funding for the language. It is another staging post on the road to a United Ireland and it is proof that change is possible. Sinn Féin achieved all this by being bold and by being focused. And by mapping out a strategy and sticking at it until we succeed. Of course, there are still significant difficulties to be overcome.
Ireland is still partitioned. Economic recession North and South means that nearly half a million citizens are out of work. So, I believe there is no more urgent time than this to promote our republican politics of equality and respect and dignity. There is no better time to be demanding that citizens have the right to a home; to a safe environment; to good quality education and health care; and to a job. There is no better time than this to campaign for a united Ireland. That is our primary political goal. The key to building this new Ireland, democratically shaped by the people, is to start now. The key to achieving this is leadership. And Sinn Féin has that leadership. A leadership with the experience of years of struggle, and of successfully charting a way forward for the peace process. Sinn Féin demonstrated that leadership at Hillsborough in March.
Next month there will be a Westminster election. This will provide an opportunity to endorse our strategy for positive change; to build a better future for all our people but especially our young people. And to advance the goal of Irish reunification. We are determined to bring that about – to end centuries of British involvement in Ireland and to construct a republic in which citizens will be treated fairly and equitably."
The public meeting in Derry’s Guild Hall on Tuesday