3 April 2003 Edition
Building an Ireland of Equals
Upbeat and confident
Last weekend's Sinn Féin Ard Fheis marked another watershed for republicans. It was the party's first ever annual conference to be televised live on RTE, a right won for Sinn Féin by all those who put faith in the party at the last Leinster House elections.
It was also an Ard Fheis when the party's officer board welcomed some new faces. Gerry Adams paid tribute to outgoing Ard Rúnaí Lucilita Bhreatnach and Treasurers Dessie Mackin and Joe Reilly for their work in putting the party on its strongest national footing since partition. Coming in to build on these strong foundations are Robbie Smyth as Ard Rúnaí and Margaret Adams and Treasa Quinn as Treasurers.
What people will take away from the weekend is a growing sense of a party on the move. The quality of debate was exceptional and displayed a confidence among republicans that the project is on course, that a United Ireland of Equals is within reach. Never has the party approached an election with more going for it.
Gerry Adams paid special attention in his Presidential address to the issue of gender equality within the party, acknowledging that a lot needs to be done to make the party representative of society. Gender quotas have been proven to work in increasing and sustaining women's participation in politics and a motion calling for the Ard Fheis to in future elect six men and six women to the Ard Comhairle from the floor was narrowly passed after a hotly contested debate.
But if equality and the Assembly elections featured strongly, the controversial issue of policing dominated the final day. In the end, the leadership and delegates spoke with one voice. Sinn Féin will not stop negotiating until the Good Friday Agreement version of policing becomes reality. And Sinn Féin will not take any decisions on policing without a special Ard Fheis and after wider consultation with those communities in the North directly affected by the party's decision.
But the most potent visual signal of the Ard Fheis had to be the appearance together, on live television, of the ANC and Sinn Féin, two liberation struggles, two peoples in struggle, united by comradeship and a shared vision based on justice and equality for all.
Building an Ireland of Equals
Gerry Adams Presidential Address Sinn Féin Ard Fheis 2003
We are about building an alternative to the kind of government which can preside for two terms over one of the wealthiest economies in the European Union, yet fail to provide ordinary citizens with decent public services, in health, in education, transport and housing
I would like to start by welcoming RTE to the democratic process.
This is a very unique gathering.
This is the Ard Fheis of the only all-Ireland political party on this island.
Nowhere was this more in evidence than the sight of republicans, from all over Ireland, working together since our last Ard Fheis to achieve the incredible breakthrough in the Leinster House elections.
I want to welcome the new group of Sinn Féin TDs who joined Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin on the benches of Leinster House.
We have very good parliamentarians; innovative challenging and effective representatives who have given a voice to those whom the political establishment north and south turn their backs on and those who want a different Ireland, an Ireland of equals.
The work of the TDs and their team since 2002 shows that our party is a force to be reckoned with.
But there is much more to be done by all of us. That includes increasing the size of our team and sending republican women into the chamber at Leinster House to keep the other politicans right.
Last year, the absence of a clear or credible alternative government, the collapse and the defection of a significant section of the Fine Gael vote to Fianna Fáil and the lavish promises made by the coalition partners, ensured the re-election of the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat government.
But it was a very different story afterwards. Never have people become so disillusioned, so disappointed and so enraged so quickly by a new government. Little wonder!
Before the general election, the people were told that there would be no cutbacks. But even before polling day the cutbacks were prepared.
Before the election, the people were promised that hospital waiting lists would end within two years. But after the election this wasn't even included in the programme for government.
Before the election, there was a promise to extend medical cards to a further 200,000 citizens. But after the election that promise was broken and instead of medical cards we got increased hospital and medicine charges.
Before the election, there were promises to put right the appalling state of many of our schools, especially small national schools in rural areas. But after the election they cut the school building programme.
Is this the type of society we want - a society where wealth flows as never before yet a quarter of our children and a fifth of our adults are in households with less than half the average income, where we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any industrial state outside of the USA?
What kind of economy is it where even people earning above the average industrial wage cannot afford a decent home, where the local housing authority lists grow longer by the day?
There is a crisis in housing but it is not a crisis for property speculators, developers and landlords. They've never had it so good!
So, we are not about getting elected for the sake of it. We have work to do. We are for empowering citizens.
We cannot lose our campaigning edge. We are people in struggle. We are activists for change.
We are about building an alternative to the kind of government which can preside for two terms over one of the wealthiest economies in the European Union, yet fail to provide ordinary citizens with decent public services, in health, in education, transport and housing.
We are about transforming an economy where the income of the wealthiest ten percent is thirteen times that of the lowest paid workers.
We are for equality. That is why we are a party of change.
Sinn Féin represents the future. We don't have all the answers but we have never been better placed to make the case for national independence, social justice and equality for all.
The fact that it took two referendums for the establishment here to get a Yes vote on the Nice Treaty is proof of that and I want to commend everyone who played an active part in that campaign.
Despite prophesies of isolation in Europe and lies by the establishment parties, almost 40% of the electorate of this state agreed with Sinn Féin's analysis.
A movement for change
Our task in the decade ahead is to provide the leadership needed to challenge the status quo.
Throughout rural Ireland, but particularly in the West and North West, whole communities, and even regions are suffering underdevelopment and neglect.
In the Six Counties, 2,000 people die prematurely every year because of poverty, and a quarter of households suffer deprivation.
The boom of the 1990s showed that we have the resources to create a just society across the whole island but there has been no real strategic planning, no proper regional development, no rural regeneration.
The last decade was one in which resources were squandered through tax giveaways to the wealthy and privileged, through corruption, and through policies and spending that failed to plan for long-term investment and development.
How is this to be changed?
A political party can mobilise, organise and represent and Sinn Féin is doing all these things. But it is the people who must bring about change.
Nothing can turn back the tide of change when enough people in our country decide to sweep away the old failed policies of the past.
Sinn Féin is nothing without the people.
We are nothing without the support we enjoy the length and breadth of Ireland and among our friends and exiles overseas.
Peace Process in crisis
22 years ago, Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers were dying in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. They were the target of Margaret Thatcher's intransigence. But Thatcher's efforts to defeat republicanism failed.
The legacy of Bobby Sands and his comrades is the continued success, determination and growth of our struggle.
We are arguing for the Good Friday Agreement vision of policing to become a reality. The people we represent are law abiding. They have a right to be policed by public servants who act on their behalf
And that my friends, all other things to one side, is what has brought about this crisis in the peace process.
The British and the Irish establishment's version of the peace process did not allow for the growth of Sinn Féin. Our party was to be perhaps a significant but nonetheless small, incohesive element in an anaemic political system in the North.
But it hasn't turned out like that. The Good Friday Agreement has been correctly seen as an instrument of change, real change in real ways in peoples lives. For that reason nationalists and republicans and thoughtful unionists support it. For that reason rejectionist unionists and the British establishment oppose it.
They understand that the Good Friday Agreement is essentially about establishing a level playing field.
They fear that the achievement of equality of treatment, and the emergence of a new inclusive society in Ireland, will leave much of Irish or Ulster Unionism without any rational basis and erode the very reason for the existence of the union and the British jurisdiction in Ireland.
Unionist leaders know this. So do British unionists, those in the British establishment and the London government. That is why it is so difficult to get them to implement the changes that constitute the Good Friday Agreement.
The British government is a pro-union government and its tactical management of the process has exacerbated the crisis within unionism and encouraged the rejectionists. But the rights and entitlements of citizens, regardless of creed, colour, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability or political opinion, is non-negotiable. The legacy of discrimination and inequality experienced by nationalists in the north is neither a perception or a propaganda position. It is a stark reality borne out yet again by the latest unemployment statistics where unemployment levels among Catholic males is twice that of their Protestant counter-parts.
Rectifying this requires a concentration of resources and other measures of intervention to end the cycle of inequality and eradicate the poverty trap.
Ten years a long time in politics
Sinn Féin is now the largest nationalist party in the North.
Far from being outshone by others, our Ministers in the Executive were efficient, modernising, reforming Ministers.
Our Assembly team was effective, not only in the chamber but also across all the committees, and in their constituencies. And as we have seen the growth of Sinn Féin hasn't been confined to the Six Counties. We are recognised as a campaigning party and Sinn Féin is seen by an increasing section of the electorate to be the engine of the peace process.
Ten years ago it was all very different.
Ten years ago there was no peace process.
Ten years ago this party was a demonised organisation in transition sowing the seeds of our peace strategy to a censored media, pioneering delicate and difficult talks in a society which was polarised by the relentless cycle of ongoing injustice and violence.
Ten years ago we were told that peace was impossible in Ireland and that Irish unity was a pipe dream.
Ten years is a long time in politics. Despite the many ups and downs we have seen what is possible. Across the North, life is better for the vast majority of people.
In saying that I am very conscious of families who have been bereaved, particularly as a result of sectarianism. I am also mindful of the family of a young IRA volunteer, Keith Rogers, who was killed in unprecedented circumstances earlier this month.
I am very conscious that for some people conditions have become worse. Our representatives stand shoulder to shoulder with them.
We know the real terror faced by beleagured families and communities in interface areas in Belfast, in Larne, in South Antrim and elsewhere. And we extend solidarity to them.
All of which brings us to the current difficulties.
Depending on your viewpoint, the crisis has been caused by unionism, or by Irish republicans or by the British government or by the Irish government or by the accumulation of factors involving or allegedly involving all of these elements.
I am not going to engage in the blame game in this speech and I want to acknowledge in a very clear way that the difficulties within unionism have been severely exacerbated by the ongoing focus on alleged IRA activities.
And of course, on the republican and nationalist side there is anger, frustration and annoyance because there is little focus on the ongoing activities of unionist paramilitaries or the actions of the British forces.
Should we give up hope in the process? No. But we have to face up to the reality that the British government holds the survival of David Trimble and the ascendancy of the UUP within unionism as priority objectives.
This might be a fair enough tactical approach if the dynamic was not being drained out of the process; if Mr Trimble was fighting his corner and promoting the Agreement; and if the changes for which the British government has direct responsibility were proceeding regardless. But this is not the case.
And where stands the Irish government in all of this? The Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty between the Irish and British governments. They have a joint and co-equal responsibility for its implementation. The British government has no right to act unilaterally and it needs to be told this again and again.
In particular, Irish citizens, victimised and targeted by sectarian violence, have a right to expect effective political protection from the government in Dublin. And all sections of the electorate have the right to expect that the Irish government will uphold their rights in the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, instead of stepping outside that agreement to bring in sanctions.
A new beginning to policing?
Tomorrow, our Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness will give a more detailed report on the current negotiations, but for now I want to make a few specific remarks on the highly sensitive and emotive issue of policing in the North.
Let me state clearly that no decision to support the current policing proposition has been considered by the outgoing Ard Chomhairle. Such a decision will only be taken by a specially convened Ard Fheis. And we are not yet in a position to contemplate convening this. If we do so, it is my intention that a position paper would go to all levels of the party for discussion - that is the party membership as a whole, and that there would be a comprehensive debate leading up to a special Ard Fheis.
I also believe that there should be debate within the wider republican and nationalist community. We should make no bones about the enormity of this issue. The Irish nationalist and republican experience of policing has been one of oppression, hostility and conflict. The RUC, the armed wing of unionism, was established as a political paramilitary force to defend partition and institutionalised sectarianism. Under direct rule it became the cutting edge of the British state in Ireland. It has left an unhealed scar on the nationalist and republican psyche. The consequence of resistance to that has also left its mark on the unionist section of the community in the North.
Sinn Féin brought the demand that the RUC should be disbanded into the process of negotiations. For the first time there is the potential to radically effect the nature and role of policing in the Six Counties.
We have made policing, and the related issue of criminal justice, a new arena of struggle for republicans and nationalists. In that context, while building towards national independence, our objective in the interim is to depoliticise policing in the North. That means removing policing as a pillar of unionist power and preventing it from ever again being used by any section of society as an oppressive paramilitary force.
In pursuing these objectives, we made it clear that the Patten recommendations did not go far enough for us. That is why we have put the issue of the transfer of policing and justice powers from the British government to the Assembly, the Executive and the North-South Ministerial Council at the centre of the political agenda.
That is, policing under local democratic control and accountability, to be shaped as a community service and not a tool of the securocrats. There is no reason why powers on policing and justice cannot be transferred on the same basis as other key issues such as health, education and economic development.
We have also argued for the full and immediate implementation of the Patten recommendations, not as an end in itself but as part of a process of change. This is because we believe that they could, when implemented in full, fundamentally and irreversibly change the nature, ethos and composition of policing in the North. For this reason, the Brit securocrats, the unionist parties, and elements of the police itself, particularly the Special Branch, which at its core is the old RUC, have attempted to hollow out the Patten proposals.
We are arguing for the Good Friday Agreement vision of policing to become a reality. The people we represent are law abiding. They have a right to be policed by public servants who act on their behalf.
Violence in their homes against the elderly, anti-social behaviour, car crime, the scourge of drugs, violence against women and against children, random violence on our streets is intolerable and unacceptable. The threat to the most vulnerable in our society from criminal elements, has to be tackled. That's why we have to get policing right.
So consequently, if I am asked, can I see a time when it would be appropriate for Sinn Féin to join the Policing Board, and participate fully in the policing arrangements on a democratic basis? The answer is yes.
Are we at that point now? The answer is no, not yet.
We may know at the end of the current negotiations. And let me tell you that there has been substantive movement or commitments to movement on key issues by the British government.
These commitments have been achieved solely by the Sinn Féin negotiating team.
After Weston Park in July 2001, the SDLP signed on for inadequate policing arrangements. That was a mistake. The British and Irish governments had put forward a take it or leave it package. The SDLP acquiesced to that position. It now attempts to claim the Weston Park proposals as a result of its good negotiation, even though it was Sinn Féin which was central to that process.
The difference between us and the SDLP on this issue, and the Irish government for that matter as well, is that when we collectively failed to achieve the necessary progress they gave up. We did not. We continued working.
The broad nationalist consensus was broken on this issue. It was left to Sinn Féin to carry forward the demand for an end to politically partisan policing and for an accountable, representative, human rights-based, and civic police service.
The results of some of that work can be seen in the amendments to legislation going through the British Parliament at this time. Other elements of it will become public if the British keep to their commitments in the time ahead.
But far from wanting a fight with the SDLP or others on this issue, I want to see a consensus re-established on the policing issue as well as on all the other outstanding aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.
Negotiations a work in progress
The reality is that the northern state remains in its ethos and symbols a unionist state. This is reflected in all of its agencies and institutions, with the exception of the democratic institutions, which of course are now suspended - yet again.
The implementation of the Good Friday Agreement means that all the symbols, the ethos, institutions and agencies of the northern state will have to be representative and reflective of all citizens there. There has to be parity of esteem and equality of treatment.
This week, a senior Irish government source briefed sections of the media that at a meeting last Monday the Taoiseach told the Sinn Féin leadership that there is no room for further negotiations. The Taoiseach did not tell us that. Later a senior Minister was reported as warning parties of seeking a 'concession too far'.
The issues which are at the core of the Good Friday Agreement are not concessions. They are rights and entitlements. They are also not yet a reality. They are very much work in progress. And until they become a reality and until the Agreement is fully implemented Sinn Féin will continue to negotiate and campaign for this.
The British Prime Minister's speech last October in Belfast specifically acknowledged that the Good Friday Agreement has not been implemented.
Our responsibility, and the responsibility of all parties to that Agreement, must be to bring this about. There is no other way forward. All of us have to make politics work. All parties have to strive to bring closure to all these issues in ways that are realistic and achievable. All of the parties, and this includes both governments, have to make peace, to build justice.
While I believe that the majority of unionists want to embrace change, it is clear that their political leaders do not want the Good Friday Agreement to be implemented. That seems to be the Ulster Unionist Party's current position. Ian Paisley has always been clear about this. It appears that the demands of unionism are insatiable. They are also not deliverable.
Not unless the two governments tear up the Good Friday Agreement.
Not unless people in the South allow them to do this.
Not unless nationalists and republicans in the North decide to accept less than our very basic entitlements.
We have no intention of doing that.
The old days are over. The days of second class citizenship are finished.
So the challenge for Mr Blair is quite profound. He and the Taoiseach have made an exceptional contribution to the search for peace.
He understands as well as I do that this is a process and that all of us need to see beyond the difficulties of the moment.
His task in the short term has to be to continue the process of peacemaking.
The Good Friday Agreement remains the only show in town.
This party doesn't need to be told that. But rejectionist unionists do. So too does the British system.
I believe Mr Blair should also see that Britain's strategic interests are best served by the democratic resolution of the long-standing quarrel between the people of these two islands.
So the challenge for Mr Blair is to shape his own system, his own agencies, to make this process work, and in so doing to accept that the leaderships of political unionism will not journey along the Good Friday Agreement process if they can avoid that.
But like people everywhere, they will respond to the conditions in which they live. I therefore retain a confidence that if unionism is liberated, like the rest of us, from the conditions of the past, they will rise to the challenge.
Our strategy is about bringing an end to physical force republicanism, by creating an alternative way to achieve democratic and republican objectives
There can be no escape from the reality that the conditions in which we will all have to live are those defined by the Good Friday Agreement. Until the unionists know that for a certainty, they will resist that Agreement.
This is a hugely traumatic process for them. In their hearts many unionists know that the game is up. It isn't over. But it is up. And whether the majority of unionists ever had any real advantage from the old agenda depends on how you define the word advantage.
Let us be clear that social conditions which cause concern in republican and nationalist communities across this island also exist in loyalist and unionist communities in the North. There are conditions of serious and severe social alienation in loyalist areas which lead to genuine feelings of isolation. The causes of these conditions are many - not least the fact that for years there has been social deprivation in protestant working class areas. In fact, the Protestant working class in many ways has been abandoned.
We want to see the standard of living of all sections of the community raised through meaningful employment, and the provision of social amenities, places of recreation and better housing. Addressing poverty and deprivation by targeting social need is a universal concept that should not be bounded by political allegiance or religious belief.
There is little merit in governments offering financial support to any section as a short-term sweetener. A prolonged and consistent policy that will remove social grievances and reduce alienation is essential. And we have been arguing for this consistently. Including in the current negotiations with both governments.
Let the message go out from us here today, to loyalist and unionist working class areas - we understand what is happening to you and we know such problems must be addressed.
Irish republicans do not want anyone to go into the space that nationalists and republicans in the North are vacating. We want to close that space down. We do not want anyone to be treated the way we were.
An end to all armed groups
Sinn Féin has worked to have the Good Friday Agreement implemented, not only because that is our obligation, not only because that is the right thing, but also because this fits into a strategy of creating an alternative to war and a means of sustaining and anchoring the peace process.
Many may argue that we have an imperfect peace. But let's be realistic about this; it is a lot better than what is happening in other parts of the world at this time, and it's a lot better than what was happening in this country over a long time.
Our strategy, and Mr Trimble knows this, is about bringing an end to physical force republicanism, by creating an alternative way to achieve democratic and republican objectives.
It wasn't us who promoted the issue of arms decommissioning as a precondition on an Agreement but it was us, and others, who moved so that the IRA came to do the unthinkable: to not only work with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning but also to put arms beyond use under its auspices at a time when unionist paramilitaries were on a killing spree, when sectarian orange marches were being forced into Catholic neighbourhoods and when the British Army was remilitarising.
It wasn't us who came up with another demand once progress on the arms issue was being made. Sinn Féin is not the IRA but we have used our influence, as every party to the Agreement is obliged to, in order to advance the objectives of the Agreement.
This party is not accountable for the IRA and I will not accept that we or our electorate can be punished or sanctioned for alleged IRA behaviour but I do have to say that I believe that the IRA is serious and genuine about its support for a peace process.
I speak for this party and we are completely committed to peaceful and democratic means.
As an Irish republican, as a citizen of Ireland, I want to see an end to British rule in this country yesterday. The Good Friday Agreement is a big personal and political compromise for me.
I want to see a united Ireland by 7pm this evening. But I am realistic enough to know that this is unlikely, for today anyway. But it will happen. And I will continue to work, and this party will continue to work, until it does.
Because I know it will be achieved through a process - not by way of ultimatums from me or any other Irish person.
I want to see an end to all of the armed groups on this island. That has to be the aim of every thinking republican. Does anyone think that the IRA is ever going to respond positively to ultimatums from the British government, or David Trimble?
But does the logic of the peace process move us in that direction? The answer is yes.
And who can influence this the most? The British government - the unionists - the Irish government and us as well, of course. In the days and weeks ahead all of us; the British government - the unionists - Sinn Féin - the Irish government, have decisions to make. Those decisions could decide whether the peace process takes a great leap forward or whether it continues at the frustrating and begrudging pace that has marked its progress thus far.
So can I envisage a future without the IRA? The answer is obvious. The answer is Yes.
This party is opposed to the war in Iraq. If big powers want to declare war it should be war against third world poverty
Iraq war is wrong
Sinn Féin is about making peace, about working with others to make this a reality for everyone. There is no other way forward. And that stands true not only in our country but across this planet. Humanity deserves justice. Human beings can live together in harmony.
This party is opposed to the war in Iraq.
If big powers want to declare war it should be war against third world poverty. The cost of any one of the bombers being used in Iraq would wipe out the debt of any of the countries that are crucified by this injustice.
The UN estimates that if funds being used to pay off debt were diverted into health and education the lives of seven million children a year could be saved. That is 134,000 children a week. Saving them would be right. The war in Iraq is wrong.
Prepare for re-unification
May I at this juncture point to the positive, inclusive and magnanimous policies which are underpinning the term in office of Belfast's first Sinn Féin Mayor Councillor Alex Maskey. Alex is leading by example. In many ways his work is not only an effort to build a bridge out of the past. He is building a bridge into the future.
There are very few unionists who would put their hand on their hearts today and say with conviction that Irish unity will never happen. That being the case it is incumbent on all of us to prepare for this and to lead by example - to build bridges. This particularly applies to the two governments.
The message should be - prepare for re-unification.
The majority of people in this state want this. Four of the six counties in the North already vote for those parties who would claim to be pro-united Ireland, as do the majority of people in Belfast. And the numbers voting for pro-united Ireland parties in the other two counties is growing by the day.
It is, therefore, incumbent on the two governments to have in place plans and mechanisms to ensure a smooth transition when the time arrives.
I am not pointing out these facts in order to frighten or further destabalise unionism but because I believe that many unionists also recognise the change that is taking place.
Their fears must be addressed in a comprehensive manner, which will secure assurances and guarantees to satisfy misgivings. We have a responsibility to reassure unionists and to guarantee their rights in concrete terms.
Unionists should not ignore the fact that they represent 20 per cent of the population of this island. Their potential is greater in an Irish state which wants their vital and essential contribution, than it is as two per cent of a British state which has consistently demonstrated no real interest in them, except when it serves their own interest.
Sinn Féin is calling for:
Northern representation in Southern political institutions.
Voting rights in Presidential elections for Irish citizens in the North.
The publication of a Green Paper on Irish unity by the Irish government.
A broad campaign alongside other political parties, community groups, trade unions, and other sections of society in creating an Alliance for Irish Unity.
The expansion of the island-wide approach in key policy areas, including the economy, health, agriculture, employment and tourism.
The establishment of the all-Ireland inter-Parliamentary Forum.
The establishment of the all-Ireland Civic Forum.
Equality is the most important word in the Irish republican dictionary. That includes gender equality. We have a lot to do within Sinn Féin to make our party representative of society.
We have incorporated guidelines and directives to enhance the process to have more women candidates elected and we will be increasing the number of women candidates in winnable seats for the upcoming Assembly elections in the North.
We also have to increase our representation of women at all levels within the party and at all levels of political representation.
This party needs to continue with radical and political change to facilitate this. That includes male members moving over in order to empower women comrades. It means recruiting more women into our ranks.
I do not want to be a member of a party that is not conscious of this. Remember the majority of people in Ireland today are female.
There is a big challenge facing us also on the issue of the Irish Language. This year's Slógadh was an outstanding success. Our language is a national resource. It is part of our natural wealth.
Behind the arguments about funding, and rights, and resources and equality for the Irish language, and Irish speakers, there is a fundamental fact that we must never lose sight of - the Irish language belongs to the people of Ireland, all of the people, irrespective of class, or creed or background.
It has to be our priority to relearn our own language. We have to be part of language planning which puts Irish back in the mouths of the people.
Earlier today, I paid tribute to senior people who are moving into new positions as part of the regeneration of our party. I am very pleased to see Joe Cahill is here with us today as tenacious and determined as ever, and not thinking of anything except the grand slam and not thinking of going anywhere except on the canvas trail on the upcoming Assembly election.
These elections give the electorate yet another opportunity to re-invest in the peace process and in the republican vision. Despite the shredding of the electoral register this contest gives Sinn Féin the opportunity to increase our political strength and to continue to build for the future.
What sort of future can it be?
Imagine an Ireland in which there is no more war - no more conflict, an Ireland in which the guns and bombs are silent forever, an Ireland in which the words of hate are silent - forever.
Imagine the people of this island free from division, foreign occupation, injustice and conflict.
Imagine the five million people of our small island applying our collective energy, our intelligence, our wisdom to produce the wealth to improve the quality of life for all our people.
Imagine an Ireland using that wealth to tackle poverty, to build homes, to educate, to protect the environment, to heal the sick, to help the weak, the aged, all the children of the nation.
George Bernard Shaw once said, 'Some people see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never were and ask why not.'
This party is determined to rebuild the political process and to keep the peace process intact.
We are living through a time of great hope, great risk and great opportunity.
No one ever said that any of this was going to be easy.
Freedom never comes easily. All history teaches us that.
But history also teaches us that the determined movement of people organised, and resolutely demanding their rights will win through. That is what we have to do. That is what we will do.
There is no way back. There is only one way - and that is forward.
Negotiating for democratic rights
Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator reports to ArdFheis
BY FERN LANE
Suspension is untenable. It has to go and we are confident that, as a result of our endeavours, it will go
On Sunday, Sinn Fein Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinnessí reported to the Ard Fheis on the current negotiations with the British government over the impasse on the Good Friday Agreement. He told delegates that he wanted to take the opportunity to outline the party's approach to these negotiations in order to give members a sense of where things stood at present. "I think it is important to say something of the context within which this particular phase of negotiations has arisen," he said.
"When the British government suspended the political institutions on 14 October, he said, they were "acting at the behest of the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party and were in clear breach of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The UUP, if you remember, signalled as far back as March of last year their intention to bring about the collapse of the institutions.
"Later in October the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, came to Belfast and admitted that his government had not fulfilled their obligations with respect to the Agreement. He went on to call on all parties to the Agreement to engage in what he described as 'acts of completion'."
In contrast, he continued, Sinn Féin's approach "has been the same approach we have brought to previous phases of negotiations - consistent and persistent. While others were attempting to reduce the focus on resolving the current difficulties to a single item agenda, we have been pressing both governments to produce a comprehensive implementation plan to address all the broad range of issues required to bring about the full implementation of the Agreement."
Some weeks after the suspension of the institutions, the governments finally convened all-party talks. In advance, Sinn Féin set out for all the parties its view on all the issues that needed to be addressed. These included: the political institutions and the democratic rights of all sections of the electorate, equality and human rights, victims of the conflict, Irish language issues, the use of flags and emblems for public purposes, the issue of arms, demilitarisation, policing and justice and the transfer of powers on policing and justice, and prisoners.
"Once it became clear that discussions would in fact deal with the broader range of issues rather than the single item agenda," explained Martin McGuinness, "the UUP withdrew from these discussions."
The current phase of negotiations began in early December last year. By 22 December, Sinn Féin had submitted a 57-page document to the two governments setting out the party's view on how these outstanding issues could be addressed.
Since January, when the current negotiations began to pick up pace, Sinn Féin had sought to achieve a plan for the full implementation of the Agreement and to counter any attempt to filter this implementation through a unionist prism.
"A particular irony in all of this," said Martin McGuinness, "is that while our approach is premised on inclusivity, equality and the democratic imperative, there are those whose sole focus has remained the exclusion of Sinn Féin from ministerial office, from government and from the political institutions.
But whilst this may be frustrating, he said, it should not be viewed as "indicative of a lack of progress". In fact, it should be seen as quite the opposite, as "the more progress we make the more intense will become the efforts of the opponents of change".
The political landscape of the North has changed forever. The degree of change that we can achieve is linked directly to our political strength
The suspension of the institutions - for the fourth occasion - by the British government has been central to the current crisis. But the party's negotiating team has "been resolute in our opposition to suspension since the British government arbitrarily took this power onto itself. However - and this is the politically important thing - it is untenable. It has to go and we are confident that, as a result of our endeavours, that it will go."
He also spoke on the issue of sanctions; like suspension, this has been introduced in breach terms of the Agreement. He wanted to make it clear, he said, that "Sinn F¥in will not be held responsible for any words or deeds other than our own.
"We demand for our electorate the same democratic rights as all other sections of the electorate. We reject all sanctions outside the terms of the Agreement."
Of the party's meetings with the UUP, he told the conference that "our objectives in these discussions are clear; republicans and nationalists need reassurance that the political institutions will not be faced with the same serial suspensions and crisis they have in the past.
"I cannot say that they have yet borne fruit other than the benefit of discussion and engagement in which there is an inherent political value. But we will persevere with that. We are a patient lot." Nevertheless, he said, progress has been made on policing on justice, on human rights, on equality, on the Irish language and on other issues.
He told the conference that, on the issue on policing, the party was building on the advances made in Weston Park 18 months ago. In respect of democratic accountability, additional commitments to new legislation and additional amendments had been secured, including;
- a requirement by the British Secretary of State to consult with the Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission on the key areas of policing objectives;
- a requirement for the same consultation process in respect of Codes of Practice over which the British Secretary of State formally had a blank cheque; and
- a commitment that the Belfast sub-groups are placed on a par with the District Policing Partnerships.
Other equally important issues are also being addressed, he explained, including the demilitarisation of PSNI and the establishment of a human rights ethos within the force.
The negotiating team has also pressed the British on issues such as the Special Branch and plastic bullets. "We have made it clear that the Special Branch abuses which took place under the cover of the Walker procedures and the force within a force created and perpetuated by lengthy or indefinite tenure of Special Branch positions can be no part of a new beginning to policing" he said.
"The British government has also agreed in principle to the transfer of power on policing and justice from the British government to the Assembly and the all-Ireland Ministerial Council. What we are seeking now is that this is firmed up in terms of specific proposals and a defined time frame."
He also outlined in some detail the expectations of the party and the progress which has been made on the issue of criminal justice - including such matters as judicial appointments, the plight of the OTRs, additional powers for the Ombudsman - on demilitarisation and on human rights.
In regard to the latter, he said: "We expect an affirmation of the principle that there is no hierarchy of victims and, most importantly, action to support that; for instance, an end to the discrimination in the funding of victims support groups."
He called on the Oireachtas to implement the recommendations to provide representation in the Oireachtas for Irish citizens in the North through their elected representatives. "It is important that all Irish citizens are encouraged and enabled to play an active role in the democratic life of the nation. The Irish government, obviously, has the primary responsibility for achieving this democratic development and we call on the government to expedite the process to do this," he said.
But, for all of this, he said, he wanted to make it clear that "despite the claims by some that the negotiations are closed, there is no deal done. And let me be equally clear, our best endeavours and energies are directed at achieving a deal.
"We do not yet have an acceptable policing service or a representative criminal justice system. We certainly do not have equality. And no one is going to give it to us. This party will have to fight for this issue every day. It cannot be left to the negotiating team no matter what commitments are made.
"This issue of equality has to be the political and campaigning thrust of this party. In other words it is work for you. We do not have functioning political institutions or the demilitarisation that the GFA promised. But we intend to continue to be an engine for change in all these areas. It was particularly disappointing to hear the Irish government assert that there should be no more negotiations on these issues. Surely their role should be to defend Irish national rights and the rights of Irish citizens North and South rather than try to set limits or boundaries on forward progress.
"And Sinn Féin, in the context of the peace process, has entrenched our strategy of negotiations to achieve these ends. We will continue to negotiate, we will continue to fulfil our political mandate to deliver radical and progressive change.
"But negotiations and negotiating strategy cannot be seen in isolation. Everyone here has key role to play. Every Sinn Féin voter has a role to play. The political landscape of the North has changed forever. The degree of change that we can achieve is linked directly to our political strength. We have an obligation to reach out to unionists and others; we have a responsibility to use our mandate wisely in the interests of a lasting peace.
"Increased political strength will allow Sinn Féin to deliver further change in the interests of all of the people of this island. In the Assembly elections, as in previous elections across this island, we collectively, as a party, have the opportunity to increase our political and negotiating strength. That is the challenge we must address as we leave this Ard Fheis."
Making the border irrelevant
Appropriately, the first debate of the weekend was on Building the All-Ireland Agenda. Chaired by Maria Doherty, the session brought forward several important resolutions, including the Ard Comhairle resolution introduced by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD.
This included the economy, health, employment, agriculture and tourism, to ensure a constructive transition to the reunification of Ireland, "not as a fusion of two existing jurisdictions but as a new state and new society that all Irish people, in their diversity, can share".
Ó Caoláin called for immediate action by the Dublin government on the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution report, published in 2002, "which should have been implemented long ago". The report recommended that representation for people living in the Six Counties in Seanad and Presidential elections and the right of TDs and MPs to attend and speak as consultative member of the Dáil. "The days of Ian Paisley TD and David Trimble TD are soon upon us," he said.
Pat Doherty MP pinpointed the changes over a decade. "In the late '80s, the big picture was the Peace Process and there were many doubters. Now it is another phase - the big picture is the reunification of Ireland. We need now to put it up to the Dublin government to produce a Green Paper.
"Sinn Féin calls for a significant enlargement in the number of Implementation Bodies and areas of co-operation, which already, in their modest remits, provide a precedent and practical logic for the preparation of Irish unity. We want immediate and full implementation of the All-Ireland aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, with regard to the All-Ireland Parliamentary Forum and the All-Ireland Civic Forum."
Many delegates spoke in this the first debate of the Ard Fheis. Former Minister of Health, Bairbre de Brún congratulated the Dublin government on making passports available throughout the island. Francie Molloy called on Health Minister Mícheál Martin to develop an all-Ireland health policy to meet the needs of the people North and South. Mark Daly from Tallaght, Oliver Molloy from East Tyrone, and Martina Anderson, who heads up the All-Ireland Political Coordinating Committee, spoke about the need to press forward and widen the remit of the All-Ireland Implementation Bodies, to provide the organisational paths to advance All-Ireland development.
Martin McGuinness ended the session with a powerful address where he spoke of what the Good Friday Agreement has brought, both to the party and to the people of this island. "Through the experience of the Peace Process, the negotiation of the Agreement and the working of the political structures, there has emerged a more professional, confident, assured, robust and imaginative nationalist political project," he said.
"The entire peace process has brought the issue of the Six Counties to the heart of politics in this state. This is an immensely important development in political and historical terms, reversing 80 years of partition where the political establishments, North and South, had perpetuated political differences between both parts of the island."
McGuinness talked of the immense benefits the Agreement had brought to people, of how, despite the breakdowns and crises over the past five years, we had witnessed clear evidence that republicans and unionists can work together to the benefit of all the people.
"Stable political structures," he said, "could create the atmosphere that would complete the transformation of our society and an end to all armed groups, that would lead to social and economic benefits for the entire community. Such an outcome is in all our interests."
Building the All-Ireland agenda
Lucilita Bhreatnach, outgoing ard-Runaí of Sinn Féin, opened the 2003 Ard Fheis, on Friday night with an address to delegates that set the democratic all-Ireland tone of the weekend's debates and embodied the certain steps to bring forward equality within the party itself.
She paid tribute to the immense progress of the party with the emergence of Sinn Féin as the largest nationalist party, and the work of the party in the Executive, proof of Sinn Féin's ability to work constructively in government.
Bhreatnach noted the confusions that led people to believe that political strength and electoral strength were one and the same. She talked of the 150,000 people who marched in Belfast and Dublin against the war in Iraq as a demonstration of the political strength of those people who support military neutrality, and referred to the Sinn Féin TDs who had tabled a motion to enshrine neutrality in the 1937 Constitution, which the right wing parties had defeated.
Bhreatnach ended with an inspiration to "give the electorate in the forthcoming May elections that radical alternative which will bring what Bobby Sands referred to as 'the rising of the moon' yet closer.
Finishing line in sight
BY FERN LANE
The debate on the Peace Process raised a number of important themes; frustration at the lack of a pro-active approach on the part of the Irish government in relation to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement; dismay at the suspension for the fourth time of the institutions by the British government and the demand for sanctions against Sinn Féin being made by unionists; and anger, particularly on the part of the delegates from the most directly affected areas, about the slow pace - or even absence - of demilitarisation.
Pat Doherty MP told the conference: "Our negotiation team helped create the Agreement. And you have created the dynamic that has driven this entire process. But all of this is work in progress. We have not yet completed our journey. We still have some way to travel."
In contrast to Sinn Féin's vision of a peace process first outlined to the Ard Fheis some 15 years ago, he continued, "our political opponents and sections of a hostile media scorned our efforts and predicted failure. Their vision could not see beyond the daily reality of conflict and war on our streets. They could not move beyond demonising Sinn Féin.
"Many in the establishment were happier jumping on board the so called 'Peace Train' instead of working to build a real peace process and actually addressing the causes of conflict. They were blind to the impact of partition and they could not see how society on this island could be transformed and indeed needed to be transformed".
Unionism, meanwhile, had shown itself to be unable to cope with the demands of conflict resolution, retreating into a state of denial; "denying that discrimination ever existed, denying that they were part of this conflict, denying that they were responsible for inequality, supremacy and second class citizenship."
"But unionism needs to realise that human rights, equality, democracy or decent policing are not concessions. Sinn Féin won't be bartering on these issues. They are basic rights and basic entitlements and are the direct result of the outworking of the Good Friday Agreement.
"They know what the full implementation of the Agreement means. They know the result of an equality agenda. They know the result of an end to exclusion and discrimination. They know that a level playing field removes much of the rationale for the existence Unionism itself, the Union and continuing British jurisdiction on this island.
"Those are the stakes we are playing for. That is why the spooks within the British system, those who invented shoot-to-kill and those who created the unionist paramilitaries and who are still trying to defeat Irish republicanism, are trying to undermine the Agreement and the process which created it".
Also addressing the conference was Cliona O'Kane, electoral candidate for East Derry. She told delegates that the British government had reneged too often on the Good Friday Agreement, and indeed had acknowledged its failure to fulfil its own obligations. "It is time he got on with the job," she said.
But, she continued, the Dublin government also bears a great responsibility for the current problems.
Ard Chomhairle member Pat Treanor, in common with many other delegates who spoke in the debate, called on the Dublin government to be more pro-active and assertive in both its dealings with the British government and in the implementation of its own obligations. He told the conference they were "dragging their feet every single time they can." For example, he said, the Castlereagh Five qualify for release under the Good Friday Agreement, but "they had to drag the Dublin government to the High Court to prove that that was the case".
Both the British and Irish government came under severe criticism for the continuing lack of demilitarisation. Those living in the affected areas, still subjected to continuing harassment and intrusion by the crown forces, had been led by both governments to believe that demilitarisation would take place soon after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The failure of the British to live up to this particular obligation, coupled with the unwillingness of the Irish government to apply meaningful pressure on the issue, is causing intense frustration and anger.
"Over two million people voted for this agreement" one delegate pointed out, "and when they did so, I am sure they expected everyone to shoulder their fair share of the responsibility and to everything within their power to make sure it was fully implemented.
"It is not only shameful, it is undemocratic of the Irish government not to adhere to the wishes of the electorate and to force the pace of real change on this island. They should and can do much more to pressurise the British government to remove its military presence in our country and to dismantle its forces of occupation".
Mitchel McLaughlin told the conference that it was sometimes hard to remain optimistic about the peace process when one considered "the daily diet of negativity coming from some politicians and certain sections of the media". However, he said, it is important that republicans "do not allow the No camp to sap our confidence by dwelling too much on their agenda. We have our own agenda".
He said that although progress had been made during on a number of issues during the recent negotiations "we have been here before - with promises that the British government would move on certain issues only to have them renege on those commitments. Until we actually can see delivery it is no time for self-congratulation. We must not relax or relent".
The issue of weapons, he continued, was once again being used as a means to stall progress. It was notable, he said, that "those politicians most vocal on the issue of IRA weapons are virtually silent on the issue of British weapons, on demilitarisation and particularly on the weapons used regularly by unionist paramilitaries. They will continue to use every device available to undermine the Agreement because they are against change. The British government must confront that mindset and be seen to confront it.
Despite all of the blocking tactics employed by others, he said, the time was drawing nearer when the inevitable debate on an agreed united Ireland would have to take place.
"It is clear that with the advances that has made and continues to be made in the negotiations that we are edging ever closer to the point when the final debate will overtake events and create a momentum of its own.
"That will be a debate on the shape of the agreed united Ireland that we all live in. We are now in the final lap, so long as we move on with determination and keep our nerve then the finishing line is within sight".
Issues of Policing and Justice not resolved
BY AINE Ní BHRIAN
The message from Sinn Féin's Ard Fheis this past weekend is clear - there has been no change in the party's position on policing in spite of claims by the media and the British and Irish governments.
In his Presidential address at the party's largest Ard Fheis to date, Gerry Adams told the assembled delegates: "Let me state clearly that no decision to support the current policing proposition has been taken by the outgoing Ard Chomhairle.
"Such a decision will only be taken by a specially convened Ard Fheis. And we are not yet in a position to contemplate convening this.
"If we do so, it is my intention that a position paper would go to all levels of the party for discussion - that is the party membership as a whole, and that there would be a comprehensive debate leading up to a special Ard Fheis."
Adams went on to say that he believed there should also be further ongoing debate within the wider republican and nationalist community, and that Sinn Féin should make no bones about the enormity of the issue.
Debate on the issue of policing was passionate and covered a broad range of topics.
Motion 299, which called on the Ard Fheis to refuse to sit on any Policing Board or similar body while Britain has jurisdiction over the Six Counties, was struck down and likewise, motion 308, which stated that any Six-County police force was totally unacceptable. These were the only two motions in the Justice section of the Clár to be defeated.
However, many of the motions passed were specific in their demand that there be full demilitarisation under the terms of the Agreement, full implementation of the Agreement itself, and debate and discussion within Sinn Féin and the broader republican and nationalist communities about the role of future policing.
Sinn Féin's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, told the assembled delegates that talks with the two governments are continuing and refuted recent reports coming from London and Dublin.
"Despite the claims by some that the negotiations are closed, there is no deal done," McGuinness said.
He went on to outline details of the ongoing talks and said the discussions were aimed at "achieving a plan for the full implementation of the agreement and to counter any attempts to filter this implementation through a unionist prism".
"We do not have an acceptable policing service or a representative criminal justice system," McGuinness told the assembled audience. "We certainly do not have equality and no one is going to give it to us. This party will have to fight for this issue every day."
Although Sinn Féin feels the Patten recommendations do not go far enough, there was consensus among delegates that the minimum requirement for Sinn Féin to take any role whatsoever in the Policing Board would be nothing less than the full implementation of the Patten Report, and that the implementation of Patten in itself should not be taken as any guarantee that Sinn Féin would join the Policing Board.
There were also calls for public inquiries into the killings of Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson, Robert Hamill and Donegal Sinn Féin Councillor Eddie Fullerton.
The Ard Fheis also demanded comprehensive investigations into the long list of state killings and sent its support to the Castlerea Five and the Colombia Three.
Of the latter, Sean Crowe said: "I have visited the men on two occasions and will be going to see them again next week to continue to observe the trial. I will carry with them the best wishes of this Ard Fhéis and I know they appreciate the support Sinn Féin has given these men.
"I would also thank those people outside of Sinn Féin who are standing up for these men. The Colombia Three have been used as a political football by everyone from David Trimble to Pat Rabbitte. Clearly, we can only expect this government to protect the human rights of those of its citi