It’s a damp and overcast day in Belfast. The PSNI are cycling around the outside perimeter of the Waterfront Hall, while the Sinn Féin stewarding team patrol the other side of the fence.
A lot of Friday’s delegates are bleary eyed. Stall holders are unpacking their merchandise. The media are crowded around the four audio connections that were wired up overnight in their upstairs annex.
Downstairs in the hall, delegates have discussed transport, environment and infrastructure. They’re now into the ‘live’ section, with two minute speeches being delivered from the platform podium.
Speeches are all available online on Sinn Féin’s website. It’s an eco-conference, so paper copies are few and far between to read and scribble over!
While all the speechifying is going on, I’ve been talking to some of the stall holders and leafleters around the Waterfront.
John Teggart explained why he was running the Ballymurphy Massacre stall, selling keyrings, CDs and information about a play that sold out at the recent Feile.
Michael Dickson was selling copies of An Phoblacht (Sinn Féin’s newspaper) – which has the headline of ‘A President for All Ireland’. Editor John Hedges joined in half way through the conversation.
Stephen McCloskey was keen to stop the US using Shannon for rendition flights …
Julie Carney used her column in An Phoblacht to give southern delegates some tongue-in-cheek help with their trip to Belfast.
HARP – Belfast people think of themselves as the most oppressed people on earth. To maintain this feeling of oppression 24/7 it’s necessary to drink a particularly awful beer, bringing us to Harp. This vile concoction is popular in Belfast and republican enclaves in Dundalk that are full of Belfast people. If offered one, the polite response is to take a can as a way of showing respect to local culture and customs, before covertly disposing of it and washing your mouth out with Dettol.
PEELERS – Police offices. Members of the ‘Police Service of Northern Ireland’ (sic). In 2007, conscious of the fact that they weren’t going to be fixed by the Stoops, republicans went on the Policing Boards to give them a dig out.
ELECTED REP – There are a number of different kinds of elected representatives in the North. An MP is their equivalent of a TD. An MLA is their equivalent of of a county councillor, and what they call a councillor is about on a par with a cumann chair down here.
I’ll update throughout the day …
Sinn Féin’s bookshop is selling all manner of … stuff. Belfast Ard Fheis T-shirts, bottled water, a selection of books, (self-published) DVDs, Andy Warhol-esque framed pictures of Bobby Sands, etched glass stands featuring all the hunger strikers and branded hurley sticks.
The motions being debated in the main hall are largely uneventful. Most are targetted at ‘6 counties’ or ’26 counties’. Relatively few propose all-island solutions for a conference themed around a new 32 county republic.
Stall holders in the Waterfront Studio are underwhelmed with the number of delegates walking around to see that they have to offer. Even some of those on the level 1 concourse near the main hall are asking why they paid hundreds of pounds to be ignored. One exhibitor described the passing trade as “steady” … a steady zero. Still, some of the northern politicians were making an effort to stop at each table, pose for photographs and offer valuable lobby time.
Where Is My Public Servant (wimps.tv) had a 16th birthday card and cake on their table as part of their campaign to lower the voting age to 16. I spoke to Karen.
At the next table, Princes Trust NI (don’t mention the regal crown in their logo!) were happy to talk about the education and employment opportunities they were offering young people.
I also caught up with Ciaran Arthurs from Advice NI who was lobbying delegates and politicians about Rights4Seniors.net – a website that promotes the rights of older people.
Eamonn Mallie caught up with some mid-afternoon tweeting.
In the hour before Gerry Adams took to the platform for his presidential address – ‘presidential’ in two senses – new delegates steadily arrived at the Waterfront, filling up the seats. Barry McElduff provided the warm-up act, reheating some old dependable material.
Adams arrived on stage to a standing ovation.
You can listen to Adams’ full speech below.
Belfast has a proud republican history. This is the city where the united Irish men and women first committed themselves to ending the connection with Britain … This is the city where James Connolly organised the working men and women, and particularly the women against sweat shop exploitation …
So it’s a big deal for Belfast republicans that the Ard Fheis is assembled here. And it’s a big deal for me as a Belfast citizen who has been elected by the people of Louth to be with you.
In the mid 1960s when I joined Sinn Féin it was a banned organisation. I was arrested for the first time in Belfast city centre when I was 17 or 18 for selling the party newspaper.
Adams’ named each of the hunger strikers, saying “they are our role models”.
Commenting on economics:
In the north, British government policy and its continuing control of fiscal matters makes efforts to tackle the economic crisis more difficult. The cuts to the block grant is a major challenge to the Executive and Assembly.
In the south, half a million people languish on the dole. College graduates, newly qualified, join unemployed construction workers, architects and solicitors…
And Irish people don’t even have the right to make our own decisions about how to handle this crisis. Irish economic sovereignty has been handed over to the EU and the International Monetary Fund. The job losses are mounting and still Fine Gael and Labour plough ahead with the sliebhin policies of re-capitalising the banks and slashing public spending.
He further criticised Fine Gael and labour policies.
This is not fair. This is wrong. There is another way, there is a better way …
A better Ireland is possible. It must be based on the rights of citizens; on the needs of society and the primacy of community, on fairness and equality. Sinn Féin’s recovery plan would use the remaining reserves in the National Pension Reserve Fund to introduce a multi-billion euro jobs package.
Our plan invests in school and hospital buildings, in broadband roll out, in developing our agri-food sector so that we can grow our way to recovery and reduce the deficit. Tens of thousands of families are in serious mortgage distress. This cannot be left to the banks. The government must act now.
The priority must be to protect family homes. An independent distressed Mortgage Resolution Body is needed, with strong powers and a menu of options to help those in greatest need.
Anything less is unacceptable. Sinn Féin makes no bones about it. We will ask our wealthiest citizens, who will also benefit from the recovery, to contribute more. A package of wealth taxes, taxes on profits and an end to tax exemptions will bring in the revenue necessary to meet funding needs. Sinn Féin will tackle public spending where it is wasteful. But we will protect social welfare, education and public health budgets.
Sinn Féin will go after hospital consultants who are among the highest paid in the world. We will go after politicians and top civil servants’ wages and their pension lump sums. We will protect state assets and get a better deal on our natural resources. Sinn Féin will tell private bondholders that they must take the pain of their losses – that the Irish taxpayer will carry them no more. And we will tell the EU/IMF that it’s time for a new deal, a deal that takes account of what the Irish people are able and willing to go.
Having commended the work of outgoing President Mary McAleese and her husband Martin, Adams finally got around to confirming Sinn Féin’s position on running a presidential candidate.
Next month the people will elect new President of Ireland. But once again, citizens in the north will not have the right to vote. This must change. Citizens from all parts of Ireland must be able to vote in Presidential elections. Irish citizens living abroad – as is the case with many other states – should have the right to vote also. The Presidency is not a trophy for the political establishment.
Uachtarn amhain, Oilean amhain.
Across this island more and more people are loking to Sinn Féin for leadership. In my view Sinn Féin should support the nomination of a candidate to be President of Ireland.
A candidate who is capable of winning the support of progressive and nationalist opinion. And who will reflect the broad republican spirit of the Irish people at this time. The incoming Ard Chomhairle will consider this matter.
An announcement of the actual candidate is expected later next week.
Starting to wrap up …
Sinn Féin is from that democratic tradition which believes that the British government never had any right to be in Ireland; does not have any right to be in Ireland and never will have any right to be in Ireland. The best thing a British government can do 0 and will do as our strategy advances peacefully and democratically – is to leave the people of this island to manage our own affairs.
This means Republicans reaching out to unionists. This requires us and them to recognise each other’s integrity and to live in peace. We have to understand how we have hurt one another and we must listen to each other. We need to be patient and to seek to find common ground on which we can celebrate our difference as diversity. And as equals. This is a personal priority for me and a political priority for Sinn Féin …
Uniting Ireland makes economic sense; it makes political sense;p it makes common sense. We live in a wonderful country and our people are great people. I have trust in the Irish people.
Sinn Féin’s vision of a new Ireland – a New Republic for the 21st century is both pluralist and inclusive and based on equality and citizens’ rights. The new Republic must be built by Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. I believe there are many people who share our goals.
There are many people across this island who want rid of outsiders ruling us whether from London or the IMF or the EU. Many people want a real republic, a new republic.
This will require the active participation of citizens. I call on you to join Sinn Féin. There is now an entirely peaceful way to bring an end to British rule in our time. Our duty is to develop democratic ways and means to achieve Irish reunification and to unite behind the leadership and the campaigns which will bring this about.
Sinn Féin is clear about our strategy, clear about our goals, and clear about the roadmap to the future, a better future and we have the spirit and confidence to work with others to achieve this.
Gerry gets a standing ovation at the end of his speech, comparable to other party leaders like Peter Robinson.