13 May 1999 Edition
Anger clear during debate on Agreement
By Seán Mac Brádaigh
I did not spend several good years of my life on the run for allegedly procuring weapons just to see them handed over to the British. We were prepared to bite the bullet, not give it away.
- - Gerry McGeough
The anger and frustrarion among republicans after a year without political progress was clear in contributions from delegates during the debate on the Good Friday Agreement on Sunday afternoon.
The contrast with the hope and expectation of last year's Ard Fheis could not have been starker. Speaker after speaker outlined how Sinn Féin had made huge concessions by changing its constitution, opting to participate in a Six County Assemby and calling for a Yes vote in the referendums which would see the removal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution.
Several speakers pointed out that they had massive personal reservations about these moves but had gone along with them for the sake of overall political progress. Their generosity, they said, had been spurned over the past year.
Far from the Good Friday Agreement being a republican one-way street, it is fast becoming a Unionist cul-de-sac. - Dessie Ellis
- Dessie Ellis
Proposing the section of the Clár on Towards a Lasting Peace, Sinn Féin's EU candidate for Munster Martin Ferris said that for years republicans were told that there was another way of dealing with the injustice of partition and British rule in the Six Counties rather than the use of armed struggle. ``We were told that the only requirement for political progress to be made was for the IRA to call a ceasefire.
``Well the IRA did that not once but twice. And what has happened? In practice very little. Yes the prisoners are getting out and we welcome that. But they are returning home to exactly the same conditions that led to their imprisonment in the first place.''
Seconding this section of the political report Martin McGuinness said: ``The message we want to send from this Ard Fheis is that republicans are sick of waiting. It is now time for the dithering to end. Tony Blair has a key role to play. In electoral terms he is the most secure British Prime Minister this century and in all certainty he will be in that position for at least the next eight years. Now is the time for him to utilise that clear authority. Last week's talks must be reconvened immediately.''
He said Sinn Féin would go back into negotiations confident that there is a way through under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. ``We have kept our word. We now expect others to keep theirs.''
Assembly member for West Tyrone Barry McElduff said the propaganda campaign for the decommissioning of IRA weapons, in isolation from the delivery of the Good Friday Agreement, is really about saying to republicans that ``what we've struggled for, the methods by which republicans have struggled, is in some way wrong, illegitimate or unjust. This we cannot concede.''
To thunderous applause, former political prisoner and delegate for the O Cadhain/Tone Cumann in Dublin's Trinity College, Gerry McGeough, declared: ``I did not spend several good years of my life on the run for allegedly procuring weapons just to see them handed over to the British.'' He added that republicans had been prepared to `bite the bullet' not give it away.
Assembly member for Mid-Ulster Francie Molloy said the two governments should not take republican patience and discipline as a sign of weakness: ``We have had lulls before. They thought they had us beaten before. Let me remind them that we are not going back to second-class citizenship or political isolation. They must bear the consequences of failure. If they think they can just go ahead without us, we will make the Six Counties ungovernable.''
Former republican hunger-striker and Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin's Finglas ward in the local elections Dessie Ellis said: ``Far from the Good Friday Agreement being a republican one-way street, it is fast becoming a Unionist cul-de-sac, and now Bertie Ahern is assisting the unionists in building a road block at the other end.''
Paul Donnelly, Sinn Féin candidate for Mulhuddart in West Dublin, said that at the previous year's Ard Fheis he had spoken against acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement but he had accepted the democratic decision of his party. He said the two governments should likewise have accepted the democratic decision of the Irish people and implemented the Agreement. ``What I want to know is, how long do we wait before we say `enough is enough'?''.
Mitchel opens Ard Fheis
``This weekend's Ard Fheis takes place at a time of great uncertainty and no little cynicism,'' said party chairperson and Six-County EU election candidate Mitchel McLaughlin as he opened Sinn Fein's last Ard Fheis before the millennium.
McLaughlin, reflecting the unease that republicans are feeling with the lack of progress in the peace process, stated: ``The most pressing issue for Sinn Féin and the one which preoccupies the party's daily work is the peace process''.
And although he addressed the tragic events of the last year, which saw the Omagh bomb and its multiple deaths and the ongoing loyalist campaign of violence against nationalists, including the killing of Rosemary Nelson and the siege of the Garvaghy Road, McLaughlin said that the challenge for us all is that ``unionists and nationalists work together in the search for peace.
``The last year was a challenging time for republicans but we positively set about the task of making our contribution to shaping the new political conditions promised by the Good Friday Agreement. It is worth remembering that republicans took great risks when they endorsed the Agreement, when they voted to end abstentionism to a northern Assembly, to support the referenda and accepted changes in relation to Articles 2&3. We took those risks and we accepted the pain because of our commitment to the peace process and because we were determined to deliver on the obligations we had entered into the Good Friday Agreement. We have delivered `big time'.''
Shaping the Future
The following is an edited version of Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams' presidential address to the party's 1999 Ard Fheis.
I speak to you today at Sinn Féin's last Ard Fheis in the 20th Century, a century which, as it draws to a close, has seen Irish republicans advance our goal of an independent and free Ireland.
It has been a difficult year for us, but in these tasks there is no room for despondency or complacency. That is why the oldest political party on this island is also the youngest - in its spirit and very membership. Idealism is not dead in Ireland while Sinn Féin lives.
Building political strength
Republicans can also look back on the last year with some degree of satisfaction. We have built our political strength on both sides of the border.
Last year's Ard Fheisanna saw us making huge changes to our constitution and taking enormously difficult but important decisions in respect of the Good Friday Agreement. We also celebrated the election of Caoimghin O Caoláin as a TD. This followed the election of two MPs and our strongest electoral mandate for decades in the North. Since then, our party has scaled new heights with the election of 18 Assembly members on an increased vote.
Next month, fresh opportunities will arise to confirm and increase that growth. Sinn Féin's election campaign is up and running. We believe the local government elections will signal the emergence of Sinn Féin as a major radical force in Irish politics.
Positive neutrality in action
Elections to the European Parliament will take place across the 32 counties. In many ways these elections are the important contest. We can make real gains and they provide a clear opportunity to amplify the republican position on the economy, on neutrality, on European policy, and on many related issues.
It is of crucial importance that we build a 32-county-wide struggle. Our country is facing two huge political problems - the North, and the whole question of the political and economic direction of the Southern state, particularly our role in Europe.
The key strategic challenge facing Irish republicanism at this time is to advance our work in the North while at the same time establishing a capability to mount a real challenge to the central political and economic line of the southern political establishment in the coming period so that we can build a real alternative - Irish unity and independence.
Here in the 26 counties, a cosy, conservative consensus has emerged among the main parties in Leinster House. For example, on neutrality Fianna Fáil has reneged on its own commitment through a U-turn on membership of the NATO-inspired and cynically named Partnership for Peace.
Sinn Féin believes that there is no role for the European Union in military and defence matters. These should be left up to the individual states. International peacekeeping should be under the auspices of the United Nations. We are totally opposed to membership of the so-called Partnership for Peace.
This party is for positive neutrality in action. We have a world view, as well as a distinctly Irish view. We make common cause with oppressed people throughout the world against economically and militarily powerful states
Our place in international affairs should be in promoting the peaceful resolutions of conflicts, for disarmament, protection of the environment and the fair distribution of the world's resources. We canot do this if we acquiesce in the creation of a European Superstate with a military wing.
Sinn Féin is a party which can be trusted to give expression to the spreading disquiet among Irish people at the perils of Partnership for Peace and the threats it may pose to the lives and safety of Irish men and women. There should also be a referendum on the subject if the government is really intent on membership.
For those who are put off by the conservatism of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, for those who are looking for a radical choice beyond an increasingly centrist and catch-all Labour, Sinn Féin is that alternative. This is especially so as Labour is inclined, not to be the vanguard of the working class, but rather with DL - the Disappearing Left - to be the mudguard of Fine Gael.
Stop the War in the Balkans
The NATO bombing of Serbia should end. Slobadon Milosevic is a gross violator of human rights, but other such violators have been supported and armed by the NATO allies, including the Indonesian regime, which is still committing genocide in East Timor, and Turkey, which ruthlessly surpresses the Kurds.
There should be a determined effort for a peaceful negotiated settlement under the auspices of the United Nations. I urge the government to call for an emergency meeting of the neutral member states of the European Union to bring forward a peaceful alternative to this war.
How sad and tragic it is, as we strive to take all British and Irish guns out of Irish politics, we are being asked to keep the nuclear bomb in European politics and to break international law by backing a war when we should be actively working to bring all war to a speedy end. By the same token it is amazing how tons of bombs dropped in the Balkans are morally and politically acceptable while the silent guns of the IRA, we are told, are a threat to peace.
All of us have been moved by the plight of the refugees. There are millions of refugees from many parts of this planet and the developed world needs to do more to help them. The Irish government needs to do more. And in so doing, the Irish people must extend a genuine céad míle fáilte. We Irish, who have suffered so much from racism, we who have sought refuge worldwide from political, economic and social upheaval in our own country, have to exorcise any trace of racism from within us.
Many people on this island, particularly young people, are cynical about politics. Who can blame them? The failure of politics led to the partition of this island and to almost 30 years of war. Even now a peace process is being resisted by those who are against the primacy of politics and who cling even yet to the old agenda. Here in this state people feel betrayed as scandal follows scandal.
It is against this background that people have caught the smell of the stench of corruption - the culture of brown envelopes - which surrounds the bigger parties. This corruption may not always entail violation of the law, but it is still morally reprehensible, because by putting money in the pocket of a politician, you put that politician in your pocket. So out there among the people, side by side with their cynicsm, there is a necessity and a desire for a wind of change which will sweep away sleaze and cronyism and restore respect in politics. People who want this change are seeking a party which is not comprised of placeseekers, gombeenism and those in search of monetary gain. Sinn Féin is that party.
The Reconquest of Ireland
Writing in 1915, James Connolly said: ``The conquest of Ireland had meant the social and political servitude of the Irish masses, and therefore the re-conquest of Ireland must mean the social as well as the political independence from servitude of every man, woman and child in Ireland.''
Sinn Féin stands for the reconquest of Ireland. Decades of emigration displaced many Irish people. Now the Celtic Tiger is bringing some of them home. But the Celtic Tiger is partitionist. It has a hard heart. The Celtic Tiger does not cherish all the children of the nation equally and the plight of the less well off, the people on the poverty line, and the conditions of the disadvantaged remains unchanged.
Empowerment of the nation should be accompanied by empowerment within the nation. We therefore welcome the proposed insertion of a section in the Constitution on local government. Furthermore, we would call for new Local Government Acts, North and South, to introduce a reformed structure of powerful regional, county and district councils.
The Good Friday Agreement
The most important political development in the past 14 months, and probably in recent modern Irish history, was the Good Friday Agreement and its endorsement in referenda by all of the people of this island. Clearly, the vast majority of people who voted Yes did so because they wanted to see a transformation of the situation in the North.
Sinn Féin decided in an historic Ard Fheis to advocate a Yes vote in the referendums. This decision caused difficulties for many of us and it was taken after weeks of intense debate which saw republicans accept that the Good Friday Document is not an end in itself, but is a transition towards a full national democracy in Ireland. For Irish republicans the struggle for full independence and sovereignty is not over.
We made substantial concessions. We did so in the context of our overall objectives, and our commitment to the peace process and because we believed that this would advance the peace process and move us towards those objectives. It is worth noting that the concessions made by us have been largely ignored by those who repeat the propaganda line that republicans have given nothing.
We committed ourselves to implementing the Agreement and we have participated in the process on that basis and in good faith. This party has honoured all our commitments. The unionist political leadership and the British government have not. The Good Friday Agreement is now in its second year. The Executive, the all-Ireland Ministerial Council, and the other all-Ireland bodies should now be functioning with full power. Instead only one institution, the Assembly, is in partial shadow formation. This is the one institution most desired by unionists and lest desired by nationalists and republicans.
Freedom from Sectarian Harassment
Other aspects of the Agreement are in abeyance also. The most obvious of these is the right to `freedom from sectarian harassment'. and the `right to freely chose ones place of residence'.This is most sharply felt by the people of Garvaghy Road. Portadown is the Alabama of these islands and the killing of Rosemary Nelson is the most savage and recent evidence of that. In the wider context hundreds of people have been forced to flee their homes because of intimidation and violence.
I welcome David Trimble's talks for all of the elected representatives for Upper Bann. The negative response of some Orange leaders and of the DUP is not unexpected.
The Irish government has a responsibility to defend the people of the Garvaghy Road. Since last July the people there have experienced over ten months of living under siege. The situation for these people has got worse since the Good Friday Agreement. Their plight is proof of how far we have to go before there is justice. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of the Garvaghy Road.
I also want to commend all those families, individuals and groups, who have campaigned on justice issues. In keeping with human rights organisations across the world, we have pressed for a number of independent and internationally based investigations and inquiries. The recent killing of Rosemary Nelson, the Robert Hamill case, and the release of Lee Clegg all demonstrate the corrupt nature of the British judicial system in the North and the unacceptability of the RUC. There is also the Pat Finucane case and the role of Brian Nelson and other British intelligence agents. People here in Dublin have suffered also as a result of collusion. Sinn Féin supports the demands of the relatives of victims of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings for a tribunal of inquiry, and I call upon the Irish government to set this up.
We have pressed the British government and the Irish government on all these issues at every opportunity and we will continue to do so.
The RUC Must Go
The British government is obliged under the Agreement to publish an `overall strategy' on demilitarisation. This should tackle among other things the dismantling of hilltop forts in South Armagh, Derry and Belfast (Divis Tower, New Lodge flats and RVH property at Broadway); the standing down of the RIR; the ending of British Army patrolling; the withdrawal of plastic bullets; action on the 140,000 licensed weapons; keeping the RUC out of sensitive areas; the closure of the interrogation centres at Castlereagh, Gough and the Strand Road. This was promised last November. We are still waiting.
While the Patten Commission was set up in June 1998 there has been no change on the ground in the behaviour and attitude of the RUC. In the 11 months since its establishment, more and more evidence has emerged exposing the RUC's brutality and sectarianism and reinforcing its unacceptability. For nationalists policing is a touchstone issue. A new police service must be established. The RUC must go.
It is also important to point out that there have been no changes to the Emergency legislation. All such laws in place before the signing of the Agreement are still in place. In fact more draconian laws have been introduced since then in both states on this island.
There is also a responsibility on the Irish government to open up institutions in this state to Irish citizens in other parts of this island. Sinn Féin has made formal representations to the all party Oireachtas Committee on Constitutional Reform to extend voting rights in Presidential elections and referendums. We also want people in the North to be given the right to representation in Leinster House.
Unionists Block Implementation of Agreement
Any sane logical view of the peace process must be that it is in crisis.
The Agreement is now over one year old. The hopes and relative confidence of many people in the North comes mostly from the continuation of the cease-fires and not from any confidence in the political process, even though there has been some obvious and welcome progress there.
Progress in the search for peace has been thwarted by those who have seen the peace process as a party political contest or war by other means. They ignore - and indeed some may even be involved in or encouraging the constant campaign of bomb attacks against nationalist homes and property - including over 120 individual attacks on Catholic families and at least six deaths since we last met here in the RDS.
These elements, including securocrats, sections of unionism North and South and parts of the British establishment refuse to recognise the significance of the IRA's role in creating and maintaining the conditions in which peace can be established. Indeed some see the IRA cessation as the `most destabalising development' in the north since partition.
Today I want to pay tribute to every generation of IRA Volunteers but I want to especially commend today's Volunteers. On this, the 12th anniversary of the killing of the eight IRA Volunteers at Loughgall, I want to pay tribute to the courage and resiliance and sacrifice of the families of IRA Volunteers and all of those families who have suffered.
I know that there is a lot of justificable anger and frustration, among republicans especially, and nationalists generally, at the refusal of the British government and the unionists to implement all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.
Our history and more importantly our own experiences teach us that thus far this century unionism has exerted a veto and it has been this veto and British policy towards Ireland which are at the core of conflict and injustice in our country. I have been challenged and confronted by this justifiable anger many times since the last Ard Fheis but particularly since the negotiations at Hillsborough. I know our party well enough to know that these doubts will not necessarily be voiced at an Ard Fheis but in private meetings and in one-to-one conversations activists have made it very clear where they stand and how they view the British and Irish governments' handling of the situation and the approach of sections of the SDLP and the unionists.
Notwithstanding this, we have a job of work to do and we should not be mesmerised by the tactical manourerings of the moment. We need to have a longer term view - a strategic view - of where we are going so that we can apply oursleves to getting there.
Recently, I said that I was prepared to stretch our constituency. Some republicans understandably asked me what that meant. It means us being far-sighted. It means us working out if and how we can move and it means most importantly doing all of this in the context and the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. And it means the governments and the other participants doing likewise.
The current negotiations cannot go on indefinitely. In Downing Street this week we urged the British government and the Irish government to set a dead-line and to bring these negotiations to a conclusion. We also urged them to reconvene Thursday's talks as quickly as possible. For our part we will be meeting with the UUP on Monday morning. We remain in regular contact with the other parties.
At the beginning of this latest round of talks we put a number of ideas, set firmly within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which we felt could break the present deadlock. Maybe they will not have this effect. Maybe this British government, despite a good start when it came into power, is not up to the historic task facing it at this time because the only way forward is through Mr. Blair asserting the primacy of the peace process, of the Good Friday Agreement, and focusing on righting the wrongs that have endured for too long as a direct consequence of British involvement in our affairs.
Let me tell you what we have been telling the British government and the Irish government. We have told them that the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is the bedrock of this phase of the peace process. There can be no renegotiation of the agreement; no rewriting of the agreement by any of the parties to it and no further parking of its implementation. The various provisions of the agreement are quite clear. The multiple breaches of the agreement are well known and have threatened the entire process. This must stop.
Republicans Committed to Peace Process
I want to make it absolutely clear to the people of this island and to our many friends and allies in the U.S., in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, that Sinn Féin is totally committed to the peace process.
Is it too much to expect, for all of us as we walk forward, to ensure that the century we are leaving behind is the last century the people of this island will be in violent conflict with each other?
In recent years Sinn Féin has prioritised its work with the unionist and Protestant people. We have learned much about their perceptions of us as republicans and their views of the nationalist people. We have learned much about the state of mind that unionists are in.
It is true to say and we recognise this that they are living in a siege mentality. They believe they are under attack from many quarters, from republicans and nationalists and they cannot trust either the British or Irish governments.
Protestants and Unionists have been in Ireland for four centuries yet they feel their belonging here to be precarious. That might seem hard for republicans to understand given the experience nationalists in the six counties have had under unionist domination since partition. But if we are to be reconciled with our unionist neighbours then we must accept how they see themselves and work to change the circumstances in which they make these judgments.
At present they trust only themselves. As a consequence they are, euphemistically speaking, circling the wagons, retreating into a world of their own creation which reinforces their fears and suspicions.
We are constantly looking for ways of building bridges between us. We believe the Good Friday agreement is the foundation upon which new relationships between unionists, nationalists and republicans can be forged. It provides for new institutions, the Assembly, the Executive, the all-Ireland Council, wherein we can all work together for the good of all the people of this island. The sooner these are established the quicker we can begin the process of national reconciliation.
It is of course a source of deep frustration that unionist political leaders have yet to respect the democratic mandate of Sinn Féin and the rights of our electorate and are not prepared to embrace the provisions of the Good Friday agreement.
However let me repeat what I have said many times to unionists from this podium. Republicans have no wish to discriminate against you or to dominate you, or to marginalise you, or to drive you from this island, or to make you second class citizens in the land of your birth.
We want to go forward in agreement with you so that we can all live in peace, justice and harmony together. This means recognising each others integrity as well as listening to each other.
But at the heart of this process of national reconciliation there needs to be an acceptance that there is going to be change. The old agenda has failed. It cannot work any longer.
The Ireland of the 21st century must celebrate our diversity and all our people must go forward as equals. There can and there will be no more second class citizens.
This is a major job for all of us. But it will be particularly so for the two people chosen by the Ard Chomhairle to be our Ministers in the new institutions. If and when they are established this will be an entirely new area of struggle for us. But I believe that our nominees will do a tremendous job. They will need our full support. Please acknowledge Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún who we will be nominating as Sinn Féin Ministers.
Finally let me reassure republican activists. Sinn Féin's position is very clear. We understand our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. We have also made it clear both privately and publicly, that Sinn Féin cannot deliver the demand for IRA weapons no matter how this is presented. Sinn Féin's clear intention is to manage this phase of the process so that we emerge with real progress in the search for peace. Let me remind you all once again that the democratic and republican position will only be advanced by clear strategic thinking and by intelligent, disciplined and forward thinking activists. We are about shaping the future. That is our collective task.
Republican and Labour
Sinn Féin has come through this period not only undiminished but strengthened. We have proven ourselves adaptable without being opportunistic. In this, we have been sustained by the enthusiasm, industry and selflessness of our members and supporters.
Sinn Féin has been and will persevere in being a voice for the voiceless, a lobby for the marginalised, a champion of the forgotten, a campaigning party, while at the same time appealing to a broad range of people on the platform of all-round national democracy and social equity.
We are conscious not only of defeating discrimination and of the final ebb of empire. We also want to establish a new brother- and sisterhood across old divides and throughout this land; we want people to be proud of all the enriching traditions that Ireland has to offer; we want to see the flourishing of our culture in every facet; we want the prospect of peace and prosperity for our children.
As I said to start with, this century opened with the seeds of Sinn Féin being sown. It closes with our organisation firmly growing throughout Ireland. The next century will commence with a further expansion of Sinn Féin. There is business to be completed, the final establishment of a united, democratic, and progressive Republic of Ireland, and Sinn Féin is the party to complete it.
We want to shape the future. And we shall.
Anger at corruption, neglect and veto on change
The Putting People First section of the Ard Fheis on Saturday morning, vented the anger and frustration of republicans at the failure, thus far, of the British and Dublin governments to deliver substantive change.
Though optimistic regarding the expansion of Sinn Féin's mandate and the attraction of more and more young people to the party, Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty said that ``recent times have shown us that there are those who wish to obstruct the momentum for change''. The Ulster Unionist Party, he said, wish to ``retain a veto over change... republicans will not accept that decision''. Calling on David Trimble to implement the Good Friday Agreement, he warned that ``republicans cannot do this alone''. Doherty also said that ``some redefined document to placate those who have failed to grasp the opportunity for change'' is destined for failure.
Sinn Féin election candidates highlighted the radical reform of local government needed to empower communities and free the hands of councillors. Dublin South East Inner City representative, Daithí Doolan, said ``we have no local government''. While people believe they are exercising their franchise at elections, the sad reality was that ``elected councillors have little power to implement the wishes of their constituents''. In his own area, the lack of consultation with local representatives in relation to corporate developments has angered the community.
Seán Crowe, EU election candidate for Dublin, slammed the ``sham reform offered by successive governments. Substantial devolution of powers and finances to local government'' must happen, he said, and must happen on ``an all-Ireland basis''. This would mean that the IDA, IFA and other development bodies would be subject to local consultation. Cork Sinn Féin Councillor Cionnaith O Súilleabháin conveyed the complacency and corruption of many politicians involved in local government. ``Treat them like mushrooms - feed them and keep them in the dark,'' is a common comment he has heard. Councillor Christy Burke, from Dublin's North Inner City, contrasted distorted ``Celtic Tiger'' propaganda with the stark realities of social exclusion. ``6,500 on the Dublin Corporation Housing list, 2,500 on the Homeless list and 2,000 Senior Citizens seeking accommodation are not the traits of a just and equal society,'' he said.
``Mothers and children are referred to hospitals which are dickensian and substandard''. Much of the reason for the land and housing shortage, Burke explained, was the selling of Dublin lands to private developers by Fianna Fáil, in 1985. Most people now ``know the reason why private developers got these lands''. Now, more than ever, ``unscrupulous landlords'' implement the ``maximum rent increases'' in his area. This, Burke had no doubt, must end sooner rather than later.
Connaught/Ulster EU candidate Seán Mac Manus was typically frank about the lack of concern for the regions: ``Unfortunately it appears to me that the government of this state do not know where Sligo is'', and the same goes for Leitrim, Roscommon, Galway, Mayo and surrounding counties. They are, he said, ``a new area beyond the Pale''. If this situation of rural degeneration continues, he said, ``it will no longer be to hell or to Connaught, but to hell out of Connaught.''
Putting People First
Saturday afternoon opened with Putting People First. It was a poorly attended debate; the chair calling for delegates to return from the dining area, and with some hesitation as to whether there would be a proposer speaking for the motions (1-18) on the Clár. A piddling three speakers formed the queue - when the debate opened the first speaker was brief, the second speaker, Cathal Ó Murchú spoke bi-lingually and criticised the `serious problem of scandals in this state' while the third speaker, Chris Mc Manus cited the £400 000 written off for Haughey, and the £200 000 written off for Fitzgerald, wondering how many others had been granted favours. Mc Manus demanded that the government `publish the names of all politicians who benefited from the tax amnesty'.
The queue was gone, but a rustle from the front of the hall brought Connaught Ulster Euro candidate Sean Mac Manus to the podium tochallenge the `small core of politicians from all parties' who have devalued politics in Ireland. He described how he had recently proposed a motion in Sligo Council calling for the establishment of a Junior Council, and advanced the notion of a succession of these councils to bring confidence back into the political system. Irish people have caught on to how rotten politics in this state is, he argued, and `if some of those who brought politics down have to spend time in less luxurious surroundings, then so be it'. Mac Manus praised the selfless approach of Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD, who's donation of more than £20 000 per year from his salary to party funds made the papers this week. ``Its time to root pout the waster and put in real people'' was the Mac Manus advice to the voters in the coming elections.
The motion was put, and passed, by a slightly larger audience than had been there at the start.
The next section opened immediately, and it was famine to feast. A worried chair began by attempting to put a limit on the numbers joining the queue, proceeded to limit the length of time each speaker would have, and finished by dropping a guillotine on the debate after a mere seven speakers, promising to re-open the debate on Sunday morning.
Gerry Magee opened the debate by denying the maxim that sport and politics don't mix. Suddenly we were on a tour of Ancient Greece, with the occasional fast forward to the Donegal Celtic / RUC affair, to the RUC `marketing strategy' of sporting clubs, and to the good people of New York knocking the RUC boxing team out. The chair tutted, Gerry finished up and was followed by Maria cahill, Ógra Shinn Féin, who told us that the most important rún on this years Clár, was Motion 40, seeking Sinn Féin support for the suffrage of sixteen year olds.
Michael Mac Giolla Gunna, Cathaoirleach of Roinn an Chultúir, spoke on the solitary Rún faoin Ghaeilge, tacking the underhand use of Fair Employment legislation which is now being used against Irish language signage, anothe Ógra Shinn Féin speaker supported Rún 40, while John Clarke, a candidate in this years local government elections in Ballina, proved the adage that all politics is local when he told the Ard Fheis that wheelchair using passengers on the Ballina Dublin train are confined to the luggage compartment, and demanded full access for those with disabilities.
The chair was looking anxious. harried steering committee members patrolled the queue, keeping latecomers out, asking prospective speakers to make ther points briefly. Mitchel Mc Laughlin made the cut, and talked of continuing re-organisation and as he sped off, Jackie Donnelly sped on to congratulate the efforts of past and present APRN staff, and suddenly it was over. The debate was postponed without being put to a vote until Sunday; the crowd in the queue returned to their seats to vote through a timely motion to make an Honorary Vice President of Joe Cahill.
Its a positive sign when you have so many contributors that you don't know what to do with them.
Women in Ireland
By Ned Kelly
In the most debated session of the Ard Fheis the updated Sinn Féin policy document `Women in Ireland' was ratified, but Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor Marie Moore pointed out with anger, that unless the men in the party start to look at how they treat women the document will not be worth the paper it is written on.
The wide-ranging document, with recommendations on combating the legal inequalities of women's rights; women and poverty; women and education; women and employment; the upsurge and inadequate response to violence against women; women and reproduction, including a commitment to an internal debate on women's reproductive rights and consolidating the involvement of women in politics, was endorsed by the Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams, who, quoting Mairéad Farrell, said, there can be ``no national liberation without the liberation of women''.
Adams also expressed his disappointment that the Ard Fheis only elected one woman onto the Ard Chomhairle.
Sinn Féin Assembly member Michelle Gildernew, introducing the document, said, the role of women like Farrell, Maura Drumm and Sheena Campbell along with all the women ``who had died for Ireland'' must be recognised. The role of the women who manage the party, who expand the electoral strategy with their energy and commitment, including those in Ogra Shinn Féin, was underlined by Anne Speed.
The impact of violence against women was highlighted by a number of speakers and Martin Ferris underlined that the real causes of violence against women were rooted in society's attitudes towards women and attempts to control them.
Mitchel McLaughlin also spoke in support of the document.
The overall message from the debate at the Ard Fheis was that the onus for addressing not only the violence towards women but the battle for equality lay with republican men. And there was the clear call for all republican men to honestly examine their own treatment of their mothers, wives and partners, daughters and friends. Marie Moore also called for men to challenge the behaviour of male friends and family who colluded in the undermining and undervaluing women.
By Martin Spain
The Ard Fheis debate on the environment took place on Sunday morning, a period of the Ard Fheis when the main hall usually takes a particularly long time to fill up, a phenomenon attributable to the traditional Saturday night festivities.
Speakers addressed motions on such topics as genetically modified foods, transport, mobile phone masts, waste management, and the closure of Sellafield. Monaghan UDC candidate Seán Conlon called on his party to support the demand for a five-year moratorium on the planting of all genetically engineered crops and field trials of such crops in Ireland. He said the Dublin government did not seem ``to appreciate the profound nature of this issue''. Cavan County Council candidate Charlie Boylan demanded a major increase in Dublin government funding for the state's non-national roads network, citing in particular ``the long and bitter experience'' of the people of Cavan.
The session was stolen, however, by Louth delegate Alan Mullen. In one of the most charged and relevant speeches made over the weekend, Alan spoke of his determination to see an end to Sellafield nuclear reprocessing centre. Mullen was introduced by Louth European election candidate Arthur Morgan, who informed delegates that Alan has been given just eight weeks to live before he succumbs to cancer. Mullen himself explained that he was dying of a form of the disease that usually should not affect him until he was in his 70s. He also pointed out that his illness should be seen in the context of the Louth area, which has a 30 percent higher cancer rate than the rest of the country, a phenomenon which he attributes to Sellafield. He spoke of the Dublin government's inaction on this issue and of his hopes for a future for his two children which did not include ongoing pollution and danger from Sellafield.
Alan's evident courage and passion drew a sustained and loud bout of applause from what was at that stage a packed auditorium.
The health debate
In a poorly debated session of the Ard Fheis, Sinn Féin Fermanagh Assembly member Gerry McHugh, said, it was time to make health and the access to services the ``No.1 priority''.
Calling for increased cross border co-operation, McHugh told the Ard Fheis that it could bring considerable savings which could be translated into a better health service and ultimately better health for people. He added that in rural areas there were many associated issues to health service access, including the appalling state of the roads.
Dublin local election candidate Daithí Doolan said: ``You can judge a state by how it treats its citizens.''. He added that with hospital closures, proper health services must be established for all people, as part of an investment in people, as opposed to reducing the services available for poorer communities.
Critical engagement with the EU
By Caítlin Doherty
``It is no longer whether we are for or against Europe or whether we should retain our membership or campaign to withdraw, but one of moving the debate to asking what kind of future Europe we want''. These few lines from the Ard Chomhairle EU motion sums up the Sinn Féin radical shift of policy towards the institution.
The EU is, according to the motion, ``a key terrain for political struggle and one which we can use to advance our republican aims of national democracy and economic and social justice''. Its lack of democracy and accountability, the inequalities, failures of the CAP and the free market policies remain issues on the priority list.
With the elections drawing closer, the party's EU candidates spoke passionately about Euro affairs. Six Couhnty candidate Mitchel McLaughlin said that the EU in many respects dominates and dictates policy issues in domestic terms: ``For us the EU is vital to advance republican aims. Sinn Féin's policy of opposition to colonialism in any form will be carried through.''
Arthur Morgan, candidate for Leinster said: ``The EU influences our lives to such a degree that it is simply no longer an option to say I disagree with it and therefore won't engage with it. Critical engagement can begin to influence the direction that Europe takes.'' He also stressed the negative aspects of Europe and slammed the WEU European security framework.
Connaught/Ulster candidate Seán Mac Manus said that in the light of the growing influence of the EU, it was a duty of republicans to voice clearly and loudly what kind of Europe they wanted. He said that the decision to ``engage critically'' with the EU was based on pragmatism. ``Our vision of Europe should be an extension of our vision of a free Ireland. It must be a place whose economic and social trust is towards inclusion rather than exclusion.''
Appeal to end NATO bombings
By Caítlin Doherty
With debates raging in Ireland on NATO bombings and the possible participation of Ireland in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, the International Affairs and Neutrality session was one of the highlights of the ard fheis.
Mairéad Keane, head of Sinn Féin international affairs opened the session with a call for NATO to end the bombings in the Balkans and called on the delegates to support an Ard Chomhairle emergency motion to be accepted.
Her appeal was vibrant. ``It is without a doubt that the bombing campaign is politically, ethically and morally without justification.'' She added that while NATO, described as the ``world's policeman'', has accepted to explain its bombing campaign by trying to avert humanitarian disaster in Kosovo, the actual plight of refugees has worsened daily.
The attempts by the government to join the NATO so-called Partnership for Peace (PfP) program and abandon its neutrality was also slammed. A motion demanding that a national referendum to counter moves by the present government to push Ireland's entry into PfP by October 1999 was passed.
The ard fheis also called upon the Ard Chomhairle to effect a policy of reaching out to members of ethnic communities, such as refugees.
One of the most passionate speeches was made by Gerry McGeough from Tyrone, who heartfully called on Sinn Féin to vigorously oppose any debate on suggestions that the 26 Counties should enter the British Commonwealth.
``What we should be doing is turning the debate away from the 26 Counties joining the British Commonwealth to getting the Six Counties out of the British Commonwealth. Once we achieve that, get Britain out of Ireland once and for all.''
The ard fheis also called for the release of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose trial opens at the end of the month.
The session concluded with welcome and well received solidarity contributions from Khiphusizi Joe Jele, African National Congress representative and Ambassador to the UN and Joseph Allen from the PLO. Jele spoke of efforts of Sinn Féin's leadership and the current peace process.
Describing the Good Friday Agreement as a ``legitimate basis and an appropriate framework for progess in the peace process, Jele also stressed that it was crucial that all stakeholders stick to the Agreement and desist from engaging in maneouvres and conditionalities that are designed to block the Agreement.'' Esther Agirre of Herri Batasuna also addressed delegates later in the day.
These were but three of many overseas visitors who graciously made time to attend the ard fheis.
RUC must go
Speaking during the session dealing with justice and equality, Sinn Féin Assembly member for Upper Bann Dara O'Hagan made an emotional speech in which she paid tribute to her friend Rosemary Nelson who was killed in a loyalist bomb attack in Lurgan earlier in the year.
``Rosemary's death left a gap in my life'', said O'Hagan.
O'Hagan stated that the events of the past year in the Portadown area, including the Nelson killing, were indicative of the lack of both justice and equality in the North.
She spoke after an opening address made by the party's spokesperson on Justice, Bairbre de Brún, who asked the ard fheis to ``look at what kind of police service we want and at the ways in which we can ensure that people get the kind of policing they deserve'' rather than just focus on what will happen to the RUC.
Ultimately, she said, Sinn Féin wants an all-Ireland police service and, ``we made that clear during the negotiations that lead to the Good Friday Agreement and we reiterated this in our submission to the Patten Commission''.
Sinn Féin believes that a policing service needs to be representative of the community it serves, accountable to the community and to the law, routinely unarmed, and fair, efficient and impartial explained de Brún.
Concluding her contribution, de Brún reiterated: ``It is said that we must leave the mistakes of the past behind us. The RUC is clearly one of these. Sinn Féin will continue to campaign for the disbandment of the RUC and its replacement with a police service which has the allegiance, the trust and the confidence of all our people.''
Prisoners back Sinn Féin
Republican prisoner Patrick Kelly addressed the Sinn Féin ard fheis on behalf of his fellow prisoners in Portlaoise prison. The prisoners were strongly supportive of Sinn Féin's peace strategy but had some tough words for the Dublin government:
``There are currently 20 sentenced POWs left in Portlaoise. Fifteen have been repatriated from England and five have been convicted in a juryless Irish court. While we are delighted with the release of comrades including the Easter release of Hugh Doherty, Joe O'Connell, Eddie Butler, Liam Quinn and Harry Duggan, who incidentally have actually spent a combined total of 114 years inside English prisons, we are concerned about the publicity surrounding such releases because it tends to obscure the extent to which the Irish government is deliberately operating a go slow policy in releasing republicans.''
``A year after the signing of the Agreement not a single review of sentence has taken place for any of the remaining 20 POWs in Portlaoise and not one POW has been given a release date.
We believe that this policy is motivated in part by a desire to use POWs as barter in negotiations with Sinn Féin. This disheartens us on two counts. First, that this government would go back on their word to be ``imaginative and generous'' regarding the release of prisoners. Secondly, that they would so little understand republican psychology as to imagine republicans would allow us to be used as pawns or that we would countenance such a tactic ourselves.
``The position as it stands today is that the Irish government refuses to recognise five POWs in Portlaoise as qualifying prisoners, even though these five men clearly fall within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. We as POWs pose the question? What is the difference between the British Home Office exerting pressure on the Northern Ireland Office to halt the release of certain POWs in the six counties, and the Garda Representative Association exerting pressure on the Irish government to stop the release of certain POW's here? The difference is the NIO refused to sucumb to such pressure whereas the Irish government, it would seem, buckled under such pressure, in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement. Shame!''
In the tea room
By Laura Friel
Tommy from Castlebar
``As I was driving myself down to the Ard Fheis, I thought to myself, `We can't expect this year's conference to be exciting. Last year was historic and this year, well, the peace process has been stalled.' But I was wrong; there's a real buzz here. Everyone is gearing up for the local elections, and for once we have the space to reflect on what Europe really means for us. The conference was relaxed and confident. In Castlebar, the peace process has brought many more people into the frame. Sinn Féin is enjoying a warmer reception and people are really engaging with our political project. On the doorsteps, decommissioning is a non-issue: people can see that the IRA's ceasefire is holding and that's enough. I think there are growing opportunities for Sinn Féin to build a strong party in the South. Fianna Fáil are in crisis. There's space there now, more than ever.''
Paul from Lisburn
``There's a sense of maturity about the Ard Fheis this year.''
Maureen from Navan
``I only understand conflict. When I became involved it was within the context of the war. I'm not against the peace process; I just find it difficult to evaluate. I don't know how to judge it. All my life I've watched the news. Now I put on the news and it's as if there's no news. When there was a successful IRA operation, it felt as if you were hitting back. You don't get a sense of that now. It's a different phase of the struggle - that's how I see it. We need to develop different ways of understanding it. We need to go with it, but it's hard to adapt. In Navan, there's more of an acceptance of Sinn Féin, but it's superficial. Scratch deep enough and there's hostility. I guess there's a kind of grudging respect for us. We held on to something we believed in. For me, well, I look around and see the faces of so many of our prisoners, some of them imprisoned for over 20 years, and the fact that they're still here is good enough for me.''
Tom from Belfast
``There's a sense that the party has arrived.''
Jackie from mid Monaghan
``I think the Ard Fheis is very upbeat this year. I came here thinking it might be a bit of a downer with the crisis in the peace process at the moment. But it's clear that Sinn Féin's activists are determined that nothing is going to hold us down. We `re on target with all our candidates in Monaghan. The peace process has definitely broadened Sinn Féin's appeal. You can see it clearly on the doorsteps. The peace process matters to people and they're looking towards Sinn Féin as guarantors. Everyone wants to know if we think it will succeed. Decommissioning is not an issue. People recognised that, despite all the provocation, Sinn Féin has not walked away from the Agreement. They admire us for that. We've persisted and now we're determined to move the process forward.''
Marie from Kerry
``I'm disgusted that only one woman has been elected onto the Ard Chomairle.''
Rosena from North Belfast
``I'm just glad to be here again. It's a great crowd: old faces, new faces, loads of friends. I've seen people here I haven't seen for 20 years. Gerry was very professional and confident in the delivery of his speech. Sinn Fein has come a long way, that's clear. It's difficult when you've just got out jail. The movement has been very supportive with the practicalities, but every newly released prisoner will face changes in their personal life which are difficult to deal with. I went into jail a mother of seven children, the centre of their lives and needs. I came out and they're all grown up. They're not my daughters as much as someone else's wives and mothers. It makes you feel you're standing on the periphery of their lives. We all suddenly have to renegotiate our relationships - all at once with no time for them to evolve. It's difficult. I guess the peace process has been difficult for some republicans, once in the thick of it, now feeling on the periphery. But it's great to see the party in such great shape. Some changes are clearly for the better.''
Francis from Poleglass
``I came to the Ard Fheis for the first time last year with Sinn Féin Youth. There are over 70 of us here this year. The speeches have been very interesting. When Gerry talked about Nato bombing the Serbians, and Tony Blair finding no difficulty with that but trying to portray the silent guns of the IRA as a threat to peace, that made a lot of sense to me. He was talking about hypocrisy. The best part of the Ard Fheis for me was Joe Cahill. When I think of Joe Cahill I think of all the experience he has. At 14 years of age, I'm at the other end of the scale. I think it's good that we are both pulling in the same direction. Joe Cahill has the experience of the past, but I have the responsibility for the future. Young people have a very significant part to play in this struggle. We are the people of the future.''
Gerry from Belfast
``The main thrust of the Ard Fheis has been towards the elections. It's important for Sinn Féin to maximise their vote, to get every single vote out. In the past, particularly in the Six Counties, it's been difficult for republicans to motivate themselves and see how European elections affect them. But we need a strong voice in Europe. The forthcoming elections give us the opportunity to show both nationally and internationally that republicans have a mandate and cannot be marginalised or ignored. The last time I was at the Ard Fheis was 1976. It's great to see all the young faces here today. After spending years in jail, it's great to come out and see the vibrancy of the party, the confidence and the youth. We are the radical voice of Ireland: there's no doubt about that.''
Kate from Dublin
``Everyone's overwhelmed - with the heat if not the speeches.''
Mary from England
``I'm here to represent the Troops Out Movement, so my main interest is in the national question, but I've found the debate around the broader issues inspiring. Many of the points of debate raised around local government and the environment we should be discussing in England too. Despite all the difficulties of the peace process, it's clear that the Sinn Féin leadership are working hard to keep the party on track. That's a sign of responsible leadership. I was here last year and was so impressed by the contribution of young people. That's been confirmed for me again this year. And they're not taking a back seat. They're up at the front making wonderful speeches and looking so young it makes you wonder if their mothers know that they're out. I think the most wonderful thing about being here is the tenacity of people; ordinary people living in their own communities showing the world that they're ready for government. I wish we had more of that in England.''
Steering For Ireland
BY NEIL FORDE
This year's ard fheis was particularly satisfying as there were less than three taunts of us all being `Stalinists', an all time low figure. Only one member suggested that I was obviously adhering to some intricate Trotskyist conspiracy
There's an Eagles song with the lines ``This could be heaven or this could be hell''. Don Henley must have taken time out from his Rock `n Roll god lifestyle in sunny California to spend time as a member of the Steering Committee at a Sinn Féin ard fheis.
For the past six years, the Steering Committe has been my lot. Once upon a time, in a more happy era I went to ard fheiseanna, met friends, drank coffee, beer, ate sandwiches, bought pamphlets, clárs and occasionally drifted into to a debate. All in all it was a relaxing happy amiable weekend.
The technical job description for the Steering Committee is that we keep the ard fheis running in some sense of order, making sure debates are held to time limits, that motions are voted on and that the chairs of the debates don't lose the run of themselves.
This year, one Sligo ard chomhairle member alleged that we picked him to chair difficult sessions because he was ruthless in keeping speeches short. He moaned that it was giving people a bad impression of him. As if we were capable of such deviousness.
The actual job description of the Steering Committee is the above plus the minor details that you will harass, lobby, cajole and at times order delegates, ard chomhairle members and occasionally the odd party president to fit in to the wider scheme of things on the weekend.
We want as many people to speak to motions and contribute to debates. Most years we succeed. This year's ard fheis was particularly satisfying as there were less than three taunts of us all being `Stalinists', an all time low figure. Only one member suggested that I was obviously adhering to some intricate Trotskyist conspiracy.
Many media pundits thought this year's ard fheis was ``low key''. They were wrong. There were literally hundreds of speakers on the podium over the two days.
However, that's where the work of the Steering Committee starts. It is also an annual ritual that involves giving directions to the toilets, to the canteen, the M50 and the old reliable ``Just tell me how to get back to O'Connell Street''. We regularly get asked for maps, dictionaries, phone books, pens, paper, speech translations and another stalwart request. If I leave this book can you get it signed by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and the other ones''?
Over the years I have perfected the presidential signature and since the peace process became internationalised can also do a passable Bill Clinton.
Ard Chomhairle members are a strange breed at ard fheiseanna. They never mingle alone in the speaking queue. Wherever you find one, there will always be another close by.
Another group who hunt in packs when it comes to speaking rights are the Ogra Shinn Féin delegates. Every year, the ard runaí tells us that a few Ogras will have speaking rights and won't cause any bother. Every year they descend in their hordes. It always starts with one in the queue. Then you turn your back and there are four.
The Ogras do give good speeches, which are short but always hard hitting. It seems that the only speakers who end their pronouncements these days with a `Tiocfaidh ár lá' are the under 20s and the ANC speakers. They also have developed a nice line in being ever so tolerant of older grey hairs who obviously don't understand zip.
One ritual you can almost look forward to is the annual Gerry Adams jump-in-the-queue contest. Our party president often intervenes in debates and this often means skipping the speaking queue. The contest element flows from what excuse he cobbles together for this blatant abuse of the democratic process.
Over the years we have had all possible excuses including the `important meeting', `I didn't see the queue', `the ard runaí said I had to speak now'. This year though, he surpassed himself with a ``Nelson Mandela is ringing me at 1.50pm''.
The last time an ard fheis was held in the Mansion House we were given strict instructions that the presidential speech had to start at 4.30pm because U.S. TV companies had booked satellite time.
We told chair Tom Hartley that we would end the current debate, Adams would give his speech followed by well known republican singer Cruncher who would sing Something Inside So Strong