Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis this weekend in Belfast #ardfheis … kicking off party conference season

Update – Sinn Féin launched the clár (agenda/timetable) for the Belfast Ard Fheis this morning. Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill and Belfast Lord Mayor Niall Ó Donnghaile spoke briefly afterwards about the conference coming north, the value of bringing in external guests to speak (including Rev David Latimer – see below), an overview of some of the themes that will be covered in the motions. I also asked whether the issue of Sinn Féin supporting an Irish Presidential candidate would be resolved this weekend … the video’s just a tad overexposed!

The party are expecting around 2,000 attendees – which would make it their largest conference to date.

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After a break of 18 months due to a whole series of election, Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis will escape its normal RDS venue and open on Friday afternoon in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.

A sign language interpreter suddenly appeared at the start of Gerry Adams' closing speechOn Saturday evening, while DUP councillors will be waving Union Jacks during Rule Britannia at Proms in the Park in Bangor, the Sinn Féin faithful will be packed into the Waterfront to hear Gerry Adams’ speech at the close of the conference.

There’s normally a surge of delegates and Dublin press in the RDS hall in the half hour leading up to Adams’ speech. It will be interesting how the dynamic changes with the move to Belfast.

Delegates from across Ireland will no doubt celebrate the party’s successes: 14 TDs (including party president Gerry Adams) elected to the Dáil (an increase of 9), 29 MLAs elected to Northern Ireland Assembly (up 1), and 138 councillors elected to the 26 Northern Ireland councils (up 12).

September 28 is the last day for nominations for the Irish Presidential election that will be held on October 27. It is still – just quite – possible that Sinn Féin will field a candidate (in conjunction with other smaller parties). If that is the case, the candidate may well soak up air time and publicity like a sponge at the Ard Fheis. Update – However due to the RTE reporting restrictions during the election period, it’s likely to remain the elephant in the room and it might not be possible to make an announcement during Gerry Adams’ speech on Saturday night (never mind time to convene the right people to make a decision). Expect some kind of announcement early next week.

The Sunday Times reported on 4 September that some senior party figures including party president Gerry Adams and former Dail leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin are “thought not to favour fielding a candidate”. Perhaps they’re thinking about the €750,000 to run an “effective campaign” that they would surely lose. That’s a lot of Sinn Fein ballot tickets (which are being distributed for sale at the moment).

However, Aengus Ó Snodaigh – chief whip in the Dail – is in support and told the paper:

I think holding the presidency is a most important position, although it is not a political position. It would be a very important message to send out across the world, how Ireland has changed since the Good Friday agreement, if Sinn Fein was contesting and put up somebody of calibre.

While reckoning that a candidate should be “somebody who held an elected position now or previously”, Ó Caoláin voiced the perception that neither Martin McGuinness nor Gerry Adams “could afford to leave their leadership positions at the moment”. The Sunday Times reported that Paul Donnelly (expected to be SF’s by-election candidate in Dublin West) was in favour of McGuinness, Michelle Gildernew or Mary Lou McDonald, while Dessie Ellie (Dublin North West TD) tipped “a candidate from Northern Ireland”. But since this is Sinn Féin and not the UUP we’re talking about, if the party leader/president doesn’t want it, it’s unlikely to happen.

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott spoke at a number of party conferences last year. Given Martin McGuinness’ very public criticism of the PSNI arrests in July in relation to the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr, it seems unlikely that Sinn Féin will have issued an invitation.

Rev David LatimerHowever, the keynote speaker on Friday night will be Rev David Latimer, minister of First Derry Presbyterian Church. (In a recent post I described his spontaneous visit to the dissident protest camp at Free Derry Corner.) Speaking to the News Letter, he explained:

I see this as an opportunity to build friendships across a religious divide. People are the common denominator. Of course there is no magic wand to wave over us. There is a past there that we will not forget. But as the Queen said on her recent visit to Ireland, ‘We can bow to the past, but we should not be bound by it’.

It was obvious from the last Ard Fheis that Sin Fein’s conference is easily the best organised (of the parties active in the north). Attention to detail, keeping to time, nothing left to chance, and few surprises from the stage.

Barry McElduff - photo originally taken by Sinn Fein's official photographerDuring the periods on Saturday when BBC/RTE broadcast live from the conference, expect to see an orchestrated sequence of pre-scripted short punchy speeches that given from the platform during. Northern politicians will be on stage while RTE are interviewing party bigwigs, and southern ones will appear behind the podium while the heavy hitters move across to the BBC’s studio. Ministers in the NI Executive will all get their turn, along with as diverse (yet youthful) a range of speakers as can be mustered.

Last year’s NI party conferences were dominated by the economy: none was complete without an economic panel (often sitting on sofas). Without serious elections in sight, it will be interesting to see what other themes emerge from the ard fheis, and what resolutions cumainn propose.

Technical problems meant that the party’s planned webcast from the RDS failed. This year, they’re hoping for more success. Fingers crossed for the Waterfront’s wifi! And a hashtag of #ardfheis if you’re following proceedings on Twitter.

For anyone trying to figure out when other party conferences are happening – perhaps helpful for some of the organisers! – here’s my working list of party conference dates (accurate at time of posting):

  • Friday 9, Saturday 10 September, Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, Belfast Waterfront
  • Saturday 15 October (probably just morning), PUP conference, probably Stormont Hotel
  • Saturday 22 October, UUP conference, Armagh City Hotel
  • Saturday 29 October (10am-4.30pm), Workers Party conference, Grosvenor Hall, Belfast
  • Saturday 29 October, Green Party NI conference, tba
  • Friday 5, Saturday 6, Sunday 7 November, SDLP conference and leadership election result, Shaws Bridge Ramada Hotel
  • as yet undecided, TUV conference, normally well outside Belfast
  • Friday 25, Saturday 26 November, DUP conference, La Mon Hotel
  • as yet undecided, éirígí Ard Fheis, as yet undecided
  • Saturday 21 April 2012, Alliance conference, La Mon Hotel (thankfully not back in the mobile data dead-zone of Templepatrick!)

(Feel free to email me if you’re from any of the smaller parties and want to share your conference dates.)

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  • oracle

    Are Coco-Cola sponsoring the event this year or is it still rich landlords

  • Drumlins Rock

    STOP PRESS* Sinn Fein to announce Barry McIlduff as presidential candidate !

    well you never know….

    going back to ancient history, but did SF & the DUP not oppose the building of the Waterfront Hall all those years ago? The Coalition might be older than we think.

  • Turgon

    I mentioned Mr. Latimer’s fondness for publicity on Alan’s thread about him going to see the dissident camp. It seems his fondness for publicity is increasing. Maybe this is a non too subtle attempt to raise his profile to try to become moderator one of the years it is a “liberals turn”?

    Maybe he could try spending more time ministering to the needs of his congregation especially those still left on the city side in Londonderry. Then again that would attract so much less publicity.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Turgon, with the General Assembly due to meet in Londonderry for the year of culture 2013 there is already calls for a “local voice” that year, wonder who the rumoured name could be…

  • Turgon

    DR,
    Maybe we should write a letter of compalint to the Clerk of the General assembly. It would be completely irrelevant to hthe clerk’s role and he would have absolutely no authority to comment but that did not stop him when the Parades Commission complained about Mervyn Gibson.

  • michael-mcivor

    After a good number of election results and the peace process moving along this should be a good Ard Fheis-
    with the main topic of worry being- is the waterfront hall big enough to hold this event-

  • Drumlins Rock

    it should be Michael, the wind is certainly with them atm. the presidential farce will be a stupid distraction however and I can’t see it doing the party much good overall. Apart from that the trickey bit is going to be not appearing too triumpalist or too establishment, my advice would be play it serious, no stunts to grab the headlines.

    Turgon, I was livid when I read about it, not the Presbyterian way to do things to say the least.

  • Michael – the Waterfront auditorium seats around 2000 – the number depends a little on its exact configuration. This morning, Mary Lou was confident that they’d get 2000 delegates and make it a record ard fheis.

  • Drumlins Rock

    PS. Rev Latimer would probably hold the nominal rank of either a Major or Colonel in the British Army, that has to be another first for Sinn Fein!

  • iluvni

    Maybe they’ll all look out toward Magennis’ Bar from the luxury of the Waterfront concourse…

  • DR – run of the mill Chaplains or Padres would be nominally the rank of Captain

  • Kevsterino

    DR, what exactly is it that Reverend Latimer is doing that is so unPresbyterian or nonPresbyterian or antiPresbyterian or whatever?

  • Turgon

    Kevsterino,
    I cannot speak for DR but I think he meant the episode where the Clerk of the General Assembly criticised Rev. Mervyn Gibson’s comments. The clerk of the assembly had absolutely no authority, power or mandate to do so: as such it was unPresbyterian. Incidentally the moderator of the General Assembly would not have had the authority, power or mandate to do such a thing either.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    DR – run of the mill Chaplains or Padres would be nominally the rank of Captain

    Alan, I believe Latimer is a Chaplain to the Forces 3rd Class, which gives him the rank of Major. He could have been promoted to 2nd Class though, which would give him the rank of Lt Col.

  • Scáth, DR – I’ll bow to your superior military knowledge … it’ll be a good opening question if I bump into him on Friday.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Alan, I made a presumption, and look forwards to your clarification! but I thought it unlikely he would be 3rd class considering his length of service and involvement in “active service”.

    Sorry Kev, was refering to the Clerks letter in my unPresbyterian remark, Padre Latimer is another issue, I agree with much of what Turgon says, I am never keen on media courting clergy. I sincerely hope he does not allow his name to go forwards for moderator in the near future. A presbyterian moderator should be like the Irish President, cut ribbons, make bland speeches and give everyone a pat on the back, only in extreme circumstances taking a lead.

    Which brings us back to SF at the waterfront, is this thread getting side tracked a sign of the coverage to come?

  • DR – the presidency and whether SF back a candidate could be a constant sidetrack all weekend. What I picked up this morning was that it is quite likely now that SF will – after all – back a candidate. RTE reporting restrictions during the election period would prevent Gerry Adams making an announcement during his Saturday evening speech. So it is more likely SF would make some kind of announcement early next week to settle the will-they/won’t-they question once and for all.

  • Kevsterino

    DR,
    I would imagine the job of a Presbyterian Moderator is to moderate those Presbyterians who wish for it. I can’t say I’ve known many of them seeking moderation. I can’t imagine why anyone would want the job, let alone seek it out. As for Rev. Latimer, I would think he would want it the least of all as he seems fond of marching to his own drummer. Were he the Moderator, he would lose much room to move.

  • Turgon

    Kevsterino,
    I am afraid that your last post shows your complete lack of understanding. The “Presbyterian Moderator” role does not actually exist: it is a media invention / misunderstanding. The role is Moderator of the General Assembly. The only job the moderator really has is to preside at the meetings of the General Assembly for one week each year: that is all. The moderator also usually ends up doing ceremonial things and opens churches and church halls etc. but that is not really their role.

    It is the lack of any formal position which makes many moderators extremely reticent about having a high media profile.

    On the other hand a moderator who wants a media profile can abuse their position to obtain that. The media are quite quick to latch onto someone they can (incorrectly) identify as the leader of the Presbyterian Church when in actual fact absolutely no such position exists. The moderator has exactly the same position and importance as any random elder in any congregation. Remember a mnister is absolutely not more important than any other elder in the church.

    On the subject of Latimer not wanting the role as he is fond of marching to his own drum: again you are quite incorrect. Norman Hamilton took part in a series of events such as going to see the Bloody Sunday families and Gerry Adams which were marching to his own drum so to speak. He had not sought permission from the Presbyterian Church precisely because he did not need to for the reason that he was not attending in any official capacity. That is simply not the moderator’s role.

    Hamilton and indeed all moderators who are interested in publicity tend to omit to say that they are not representing the church when they do “solo runs” yet if challenged by Presbyterians they tend to explain their actions by pointing out that it is in “a personal capacity”.

    Since they have no official role but are misidentified by the media and many outside the Presbyterian Church as being leader of the church such moderators are not in any way restricted in their “room to move” to use your phrase.

    Latimer is behaving in exactly the sort of fashion the liberals who want to become moderator usually behave. As such his current actions might almost be viewed as a pitch for the job. As an irrelevant aside his picture in the News Letter today with McGuinness (at the opening of 1st Derry Presbyterian Church) has him in the old fashioned dress of a minister from the which is what many (?all) moderators wear when formally installed.

    I am sorry but the above post simply betrays your complete lack of understanding of either the actual technical nature of the Presbyterian Church and the moderator’s role and also your lack of understanding of the nuances and realities of how things happen in it.

  • carl marks

    Turgon you accuse the Rev Latimer of being a media hound yet i have only seen him mentioned in the media twice, on both occasions he seemed to be (in my understanding) carrying out his Christian duty of reaching to the other side, yet you show no such concern for Rev. Mervyn Gibson despite the fact that he appears on the telly and n the papers at every chance as a apologist for the UVF (hardly a Christian act making excuses for sectarian thugs and criminals).
    This makes me believe that your objections here are purely political and nothing to do with what you think a Christian minister should be doing.

  • Turgon

    carl marks,
    I am far from impressed by anyone being an apologist for the UVF. I have not seen him do that but my views on the UVF and PUP are well documented on this site. If Mr. Gibson has been an apologist for the UVF, I condemn it unreservedly.

    Turning to Latimer: In the recent past Latimer has been in the media with a somewhat over the top reopening of 1st Derry Presbyterian Church, meeting the dissidents and now intending to speak at the Ard Fheis.

    Actually I have no problem with ministers reaching out to all: not only the “other side” but also those in “their own” community who have little interest in or are disaffected from the church. Such events in my view should go on quietly with little or no media fanfare.

    I again use the example of an elder I know who went to see Torrens Knight when he was in gaol. He went and told him (Knight) that what he had done was utterly wrong and sinful and could not be justified in any way or by any ideology. The elder in question made no song and dance about it: I despite knowing the elder well only found out about it by accident. I would suggest that that is the sort of reaching out which is appropriate and may bear fruit in both communities.

    I well remember Cushy Glenn pointing out when Norman Hamilton went to see the Bloody Sunday families that what he should have been doing was ministering to their needs (and of course the needs of similar people from both communities in North Belfast where Hamilton is from – the McGurk’s Bar families would be near at hand for him). Instead Hamilton seemed more interested in capturing the media spotlight.

    In his current actions Latimer seems to be following very similar media grandstanding steps to Hamilton: again as both myself and Drumlin’s Rock have suggested – classic behaviour of one who wants the moderatorship next time a liberal gets it.

  • Guys – there’s a post about Rev Latimer from two weeks ago which already has a lot of this conversation on it – feel free to keep posting there.

    But unless it’s directly in relation to his invitation to the Ard Fheis, let’s stick to discussing party conferences – and in particular Sinn Fein’s – under this post!

  • keano10

    Turgon,

    Your assumptions about individuals wanting only to capture the media spotlight seem to be just that – assumptions.

    It is even more surprising that you have cited Norman Hamilton as some sort of media-seeking parasite simply because he met the Bloody Sunday families – an act which you did not approve of. It’s absurd really because Hamilton has always struck me as a nervous individual in front of the cameras and certainly not someone whose life is in anyway enriched by the coveting of media attention.

    Your conclusions are not in anyway based on fact nor are they even reasonable or fair to the individuals concerned, particularly in the case of Norman Hamilton.

  • Given their recent electoral successes the Waterfront should be buzzing this weekend, indeed with over 2000 delegates and guests in town it’ll be difficult getting into a few of the traditional haunts on the edges of the city centre. The amusing thing is that I can distinctly remember when Belfast was announced as the venue for this Ard Fheis almost two years ago a few commentators were quick to with the jibe that it was proof that SF was a Northern Ireland Party. Oh how that one has come back to bite them in the arse.

  • HeinzGuderian

    Will the McCartney Sisters be guests of honour,once again ?

  • lamhdearg

    Out by sun, 9/11, (11/9/2011) the temptation for some deranged poor soul flying back to the city airport, may have been to much.

  • son of sam

    Where has the blog on possible Sinn Fein presidential candidates gone?Presumably there is a simple answer.We wouldnt like to start any conspiracy theories!