As I was still enjoying holiday leave, I wasn’t going to spend the two full days at the 2011 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis being held at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast. But I was interested the set of motions on the peace process as well as political reform, so I broke my domestic sanctuary and attended the Saturday afternoon session.
The Waterfront Hall may be great for the stage, but it is a peculiar place to hold a convention — there’s little sense of intimacy. Any conversation you’re going to have will echo throughout the hall.
Nevertheless, I made my way round the various stalls. I felt for the exhibitors on the first floor, where you had to make a conscious effort to climb the stairs to see.
The Sinn Féin store (or whichever wing of the party) had a great variety of paraphernalia for purchase. I regret not finding any “Tiocfaidh Ar La” teddie bears from two years ago, but was intrigued by the Andy Warholesque framed print of Bobby Sands (there’s some post-modern analysis ripe for that item).
Back into the main stage for substantive matters, the peace process motions failed to excite me, as they were all focused on addressing the wrongs perpetrated on the nationalist community over the years. Vital, yes, but unlike the international perspective witnessed at previous ard fheises (sp?). But perhaps that was a session I missed the previous day.
The motions on political reform were significant in their scope, concerning the extension of voting rights to Irish citizens in the “Six Counties”; allowing all 18 Westminster MPs from Northern Ireland speaking rights in the Oireachtas; and the implementation of a North-South Interparliamentary Forum (as provided for in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement).
On this last item, I was involved in the tabling of a motion by the Alliance Party at the Northern Ireland Assembly, calling for its establishing. Unsurprisingly, as the vote required cross-community consent for passage, it failed due to the lack of support from any Unionist party.
I do think this is a pity, because — in a Conor Cruse O’Brien style — I’d love to see a Northern Unionist in the Southern Oireachtas reminding so-called co-patriots of the lunacy of some of their constitutional positions. Or even Alliance’s Naomi Long MP giving them a blast of her straight talking.
The debate included more nerdy aspects, such as the application of d’Hondt in some Northern Ireland local councils and the mooted abolishment of the Irish Senate.
But my ears perked up at the series of speakers arguing against a motion, that “This Ard Fheis asks that the party takes the lead in trying to achieve a consensus on ending the use of electoral posters in all future elections”, tabled by Betsy Gray Cumann, Ballinahinch, South Down.
The sole person to speak in favour of the motion said that what people really want is the face-to-face encounter with the candidate. Indeed, from a selling perspective nothing beats that. But it is physically impossible (or at least impracticable) to try to achieve that, to meet every single voter in your constituency during an election campaign.
Several speakers made the point that for the longest time, posters (and leaflets) were really the sole means to communicate with Sinn Féin voters.
A crowd pleaser was one speaker describing how awkward he felt having to take down posters in Dublin city centre before an election, causing great suspicion.
What motivated this motion was a complaint against the Southern parties for presenting so many (and so jumbo-sized) posters.
But as one speaker made the case, these parties could live without posters, taking out full-page adverts in the Irish Times and/or strategically situated billboards.
Yes, the reason this motion debate excited me because of my own election campaign experience erecting and taking down posters in Northern Ireland. It’s kind of like nuclear weapons — the world would be a better place without them, but who is going to lead the détente?
At any rate, on this day the call for poster disarmament clearly failed:
A brief photo slideshow: