In a brief press conference before the Sinn Féin ard fheis began in the sun-soaked Convention Centre Dublin on Friday evening, party president and TD Gerry Adams said that he was “well satisfied” with the party’s performance in the Irish election. He said that he would give the other parties “the grace of another short while” to conclude negotiations before he would start to call for a fresh election. He added that his experience of talks teaches him that a deadline needs to be set “to focus the minds of negiators”. It was a topic Mary Lou McDonald returned to in her speech.
Sinn Féin chairperson Declan Kearney remarks to the few hundred delegates centred around reconciliation and he began by looking back to 2015:
Ten weeks before last year’s Ard Fheis the Stormont House Agreement was signed. I said then that if fully implemented it could be a catalyst for reconciliation. In subsequent months the North descended into a very serious political crisis. Thankfully political stability has since been restored with the establishment of the Fresh Start Agreement. But many challenges exist …
A major impediment to progress is the impasse on dealing with the past due to the British Government’s veto on maximum information disclosure. Its refusal to do so, or engage seriously with Sinn Féin’s proposals to resolve this impasse confirms for me that powerful sections of the British State have decided there should be no progress on dealing with the past.
And that position comrades is unacceptable to Sinn Féin and victims’ families and representatives. The British government should lift its veto and allow the mechanisms agreed for dealing with the past to begin working. This Party is absolutely committed to ensuring our society’s legacy of suffering and pain is addressed, and a process of reconciliation and healing is established.
There has been much suffering on all sides and we must begin to heal those hurts and divisions because the politics of hatred and resentment will only serve to imprison our society in the past.
So, there is a choice to be made between reconciliation, or engaging in endless recrimination. Republicans have made our decision. Reconciliation must be this society’s future.
Republicans have stretched and challenged ourselves to develop the Peace Process. And we have done so in pursuit of reconciliation and healing. But now it is time that others began to do the same.
You see, reconciliation is the right thing to do, but it is not a one way street. Just like the Peace Process, reconciliation is inevitable. But the question is whether we want it to be achieved sooner, or later. It has to be a collective, shared and inclusive process. It requires partnership, and a willingness to take risks.
That was exemplified last year in the deeply historic and symbolic meeting between the leadership of Sinn Féin and Prince Charles, against the backdrop of his own personal pilgrimage to remember his uncle killed by the IRA. That particular meeting powerfully underlined the importance of leadership in taking forward reconciliation.
Just as a few extremists have always been hostile to the Peace Process, some state and political interests did not want that meeting to occur, or for the symbolism of its message to be seen or heard. They were – and they are – wrong. Because there is a bigger picture.
He spoke of public and private dialogue:
Those of us who share a strategic vision for the Peace Process must reach out to each other and encourage an inclusive national conversation on reconciliation. That is, an authentic public discourse on reconciliation between republicans and unionists; green and orange; Irish and British; and, those of no tradition, or faith.
The private dialogues which Sinn Féin and others have diligently pursued over many years, on the way forward, now need translated into actions.
It is time for the silent majority to challenge itself, and be heard. It’s time for the Prophetic voices to start speaking out, for civic leadership to take public responsibility. And it also long past time, for all political and governmental leaderships to step up to the mark.
A broad based coalition for reconciliation could generate the momentum which would open a new phase of the Peace Process. The symbolic words, gestures and actions now have to be built upon. Reconciliation has to be moved from being an aspiration to become a concrete reality in peoples’ lives.
He commented Sinn Féin’s new policy document “Towards an Agreed and Reconciled Future” [not yet available online] to the delegates. [Ed – so hot off the press that one delegate later noted that it’s late inclusion in the conference packs meant it was produced to late to be considered by the ard fheis.]
The policy was “a substantive contribution to designing a road map towards making reconciliation the new phase of our peace process”.
In a move that sounded familiar from speeches at previous Alliance party conferences [Ed – a good idea is a good idea no matter who suggests it first] the Sinn Féin chairperson said that the party “wants reconciliation placed at the heart of government in the North and across Ireland”.
The new northern Executive, Assembly, and North-South Ministerial Council have leadership roles in advancing reconciliation. We as a party will be seeking a clear reconciliation focus from all government departments, public bodies and local councils.
All major policy decisions should be reconciliation proofed against equality, anti-sectarian, and good relations benchmarks. That approach should become central to all aspects of public policy in the North. Reconciliation should also shape the policy framework from which legislation is drafted and brought forward to tackle and eradicate sectarianism.
We will seek the adoption of a dedicated national reconciliation strategy under the auspices of the North-South Ministerial Council. Both the British and Irish governments have strategic obligations to ensure that reconciliation becomes the new positive dynamic driving the Peace Process.
The Fresh Start has now become a New Start for going forward: towards new human and political relations; towards an end to sectarianism in all its toxic manifestations; towards equality, respect and parity of esteem; towards new opportunities for all of our citizens; and towards the achievement of a new, agreed, united Ireland.
Half an hour later, Martin McGuinness took to the stage.
One hundred years ago, the men and women of 1916 raised the flag of freedom in this city and they declared a new Republic of equals, a Republic that would shine amongst the nations of the world as a beacon of justice and equality where all the children of the nation could be cherished.
It was a vision which inspired a freedom struggle, not only in this country but in nations across the globe. It was the spark which would eventually engulf the British Empire. That’s how momentous the Easter Rising was and we should never forget that.
Neither should we forget that the vision of 1916 remains unfulfilled in the nation which inspired it. We don’t live in an Ireland of equals. We don’t live in an Ireland where all of the children are cherished equally. We don’t live in an Ireland which is united and free from malign foreign influence.
The deputy First Minister spoke of his pride in Sinn Féin’s record in government.
We have led the way in decentralising an entire government department to the north west, and we have directed additional funding to the most disadvantaged schools. We are revitalising the Irish language community through investment in Irish medium education and the Líofa Project. Unemployment in the north has fallen by 26,000 and levels of foreign direct investment are at an all-time high.
We have led on the progressive measures taken by the Executive, ring-fenced health spending, transformed the schools estate across the north, created 40,000 jobs as well as blocking water charges, keeping student fees affordable and protecting free prescriptions and pensioners’ travel.
We have faced these challenges head on while others walked away and we delivered. We delivered half a billion pounds to support those most in need in our society. While others called for the Assembly to be collapsed and all powers handed back to the Tories we stood up for public services. We achieved an extra 500 million pounds for our public services and another 500 million shared [between] education and integration.
He commented on smaller parties …
We achieved this despite the relentless negativity of smaller parties who opposed the Fresh Start Agreement and who, only weeks from the election, can’t tell the electorate if they want to be in the government or in the opposition. Parties which have set out endless uncosted and unfunded election promises they will never deliver. Parties, which call for joined-up government, while preparing to walk out of the Executive.
It’s long past time to move beyond this narrow, self-serving point-scoring. We need a more responsible, a more mature approach to politics in the Assembly because we know when we have worked together collectively we have made progress.
We also need to ensure that we oppose any move by the little Englander mentality towards a Brexit from the European Union as that would be a hugely retrograde step in my view. The prospect of border controls, the withdrawal of European subsidies and trade agreements would be disastrous for the socio-economic prospects of this island.
Martin McGuinness turned his comments to those causing bloodshed and the need to build a better society.
We must also continue to face down the extremes within loyalism and so-called dissident republicanism who would seek to drag us back to the dark days of the past. All they have to offer is fear, intimidation and pointless bloodshed. We have seen that in recent days and weeks with the murders of Michael McGibbon and prison officer Adrian Ismay in Belfast and the shooting of Harry Boyle in my own city of Derry.
The people who carried out these acts are waging war on our communities. But their campaign – which couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be called a military campaign – is not only futile it is absolutely without public support.
What is the purpose of these gangs? The only purpose of these gangs is to see British military occupation of areas like the Bogside, East Tyrone, West Belfast and South Armagh. They have been rejected by the people of Ireland and we will not allow them to do that.
It is the Sinn Féin national and democratic project which citizens are embracing. In increasing numbers, they are voting for us to build the peace and to promote consensus. They are voting for an agreed Ireland, an Ireland of equals. We are for ending division and I am pleased tonight that we have launched a document on reconciliation. I commend that document to all.
It’s an important step in setting out the republican vision of achieving a better and fairer society founded on tolerance and inclusivity. That means standing up against racism, standing against homophobia and standing up against sectarianism and of course delivering marriage equality to the North.
On unionist outreach:
We have a responsibility and a duty to reach out to the unionist community and to do it with a spirit of generosity. I know that some people are uneasy at times about me reaching out to others. But if we are to remain true to the spirit of the women and men of 1916 then we must continue this work. Others don’t always reciprocate but that is not a good enough reason to stop doing it.
He finished with an election call:
On May 5 let’s take another step forward and return the strongest Sinn Féin team possible to the Assembly.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.