There was a buzz around the Belfast Waterfront as Sinn Féin delegates, exhibitors and media wandered around the long corridors between the food stalls and the conference hall. The early morning showers didn’t seem to dampen enthusiasm as the delegates listened to nearly 30 speakers from across the island and beyond during the two hours of ‘live’ lunchtime coverage on RTE.
David and I gave a quick rundown on the Friday night speeches and looked forward to Saturday’s business in a ‘Slugger Live’ experiment on Facebook.
Former party president Gerry Adams was in attendance but was keeping a low profile, often spotted sitting beside Tom Hartley in the hall listening to the debates.
The political showdown of Sinn Féin’s ard fheis was predicted to come during the Saturday afternoon Standing With Women debate that would see two different ways of dealing with party policy on abortion.
- Motion 93 allowed for abortion when a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk, and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, as well as allowing abortion without specific indication through a GP-led service for a limited gestational period. And Sinn Féin legislators would have to act in line with the view of the Ard Chomhairle.
- Motion 95 instead recognised that abortion remains a deeply divisive issue both within Sinn Féin and in wider society, and agreed that all Sinn Féin members should be allows to articulate and vote on the issue of abortion according to their own conscience.
TDs spoke from the podium supporting the need for a single party position. Other delegates spoke about the need for elected representatives to obey the party. Relying on freedom of conscience is a cop out for a political party, a temporary sticking plaster that often unravels to reveal an infected sore.
Why are SFers so opposed to conscience I hear you ask?
Party delegates view the debate as happening within the Ard Fheis, argue your view and then accept the will of the room. Party will is the priority, it should be stuck to. #sfaf18
— David McCann (@dmcbfs) June 16, 2018
At one point, nearly fifty people stood in a queue to get on stage to give speeches.
Not everything about the debate was rational. One young delegate from North Antrim claimed that Fine Gael don’t trust women because they haven’t had a female leader.
[Ed – he might be smarter than the blog’s author given that Margaret Buckley became Sinn Féin’s first female president back in 1937!] Mary Lou McDonald became Sinn Féin’s first female leader in …. oh, yes, last year!
In the end, while there were strong and emotional speeches – and protesters corralled behind metal barriers outside the Waterfront – there was an overwhelming rejection of freedom of conscience debate and support for Sinn Féin’s revised position. Similar motions have been rejected at ard fheiseanna over the last decade, many before the party policy began to shift to better reflect voters views, and last year realigned in advance of the recent referendum.
Mary Lou McDonald took to the stage to deliver her 26 minute speech. The last few leader’s speeches have been accompanied by questions of whether Gerry Adams would be announcing the end of his reign at the top of the party. This year the speech had nothing hanging over it, other than the huge wall hangings outside the Waterfront.
McDonald described the city of Belfast as hopeful, exciting and pioneering.
“We meet here in the city of Belfast where for centuries history has been made and remade. A city that has boasted industrial might, that has endured poverty, exclusion and discrimination. A city that bears the scars of conflict and division and that today carries the promise of full equality, of fraternity and liberty. A city that never lost its sense of community or its sense of humour. The cradle of the United Irishmen; Home to the great Mary Ann McCracken, to Winifred Carney, to Bobby Sands, to Gerry Adams.”
On a changing Ireland …
“We are living through times of great change. The old certainties are gone. The perpetual Unionist majority in the North is no more. The two and a half party system in the South has been consigned to history. Leadership is shifting to a new generation. And we have the opportunity to reclaim Ireland for all our people, in all of our diversity and difference.
“Nelson Mandela once said, ‘It always seems impossible, until it is done’. Well nothing is impossible, no ambition too high for our new Ireland. Realising our potential – ‘getting it done’ – well that responsibility is in our hands. What we do today will make Ireland better tomorrow. Building an open society, accountable government, a modern progressive economy is work for today. For the new Ireland isn’t some far off aspiration, some unattainable dream. Its foundations must be laid in the here and now.”
“Brexit has put the issue of the border and partition at the centre of the political agenda. We are now challenged, all of us, right across Ireland to work in common cause to protect Irish interests, north and south. And this challenge is as real for Unionism as it is for Republicans and Nationalists.
“Treading water, fingers crossed and hoping for the best is not a strategy at this time. Propping up a Tory government that glories in wilful ignorance, and indifference to Ireland is not the way forward.
“Allowing the Tories to dodge, equivocate and engage in fantasy non-solutions to the Irish question is certainly not the answer. If the architects of Brexit still can’t agree what Brexit looks like, well that’s their problem. It will not become Ireland’s problem.
“So the Tories need to know that. The DUP needs to know that. And the upcoming European Summit is crunch time. If the British government don’t have a credible, acceptable proposal; if they cannot demonstrate how they would avoid a hard border, protect the Good Friday Agreement and citizens’ rights; then the Irish government must call them out.
“There can be no question of progressing to the next phase of these negotiations in the absence of an answer to the Irish question. And this my friends is one test that our government cannot fail.”
On a new Ireland …
“Our core objective is the reunification of Ireland. The mechanism for achieving this is set out in the Good Friday Agreement, an agreement that is now twenty years old. The work to achieve it must be driven by us in Sinn Féin and beyond, people who passionately believe that all of our lives can be better in a new Ireland.
“The new Ireland that we seek honours each citizen equally, respects identity and culture, is rooted in civil and human rights, respects all religious beliefs and none, but does not impose the theology of any church.
“Our new Ireland generates wealth and shares wealth; it’s driven by opportunity, ambition and sustainability; it’s defined by decency and compassion; it respects privacy and celebrates community. Our new Ireland allows us all to live in harmony under the one free sky in the place that we call home.
“And this new Ireland must be a home for Unionists. We need to understand that. We need to find ways to talk about the future. We need to find ways to reconcile the past. And these aren’t easy things to do. Because people suffered, were hurt, endured pain, and inflicted pain. We can’t make that go away but we can say sorry to each other. And I believe it is important that we do.
“As the leader of Sinn Féin, I pledge that we will never forget. That we will work tirelessly to ensure that we never return to the dark days of conflict. To every family that seeks truth, that still waits, decades on, for an inquest into the death of their loved one, I promise that we will stand with you.
“We will stand with the family of Pat Finucane and with everyone who seeks truth and justice. And we will respect the rights of every section of our people to remember and honour their dead.
“There is much to be done to address the legacy of the past. For a start, the funding for legacy inquests must be released without any further delay. The foot dragging by the British government is outrageous, it’s unacceptable and it must end.”
“Sinn Féin has worked in government in the north for a decade, in very challenging circumstances and with a most unlikely partner. We made it work. Martin McGuinness made it work. We made it work, not because it was easy but because it was the right thing to do: in the collective, national interest.
“And let me be clear – a power-sharing Executive and Assembly in the North is still the right thing and we are up for that. Michelle O’Neill stands ready to lead our team into government.
“And for that to happen, we need partners who will legislate for the common good, not on the basis on personal prejudice or religious fundamentalism. We need partners who place respect, reconciliation, and rights above all else. Partners with a real commitment to power-sharing – to sharing power, to mutual recognition, to rights. These are the things the DUP must embrace.
“Regrettably, the DUP remain in a fixed, negative space, more interested in facilitating the Tory Brexit than protecting the rights and livelihoods of people in the North. And so the two governments must act now to deliver on marriage equality, the legacy of the past and to deliver Acht na Gaeilge.
“Seo í Bliain na Gaeilge. Ba cheart agus ba chóir go n-éisteofar le glór phobal na Gaeilge – ar fud an oileáin. Tá an Ghaeilge ann dóibh siúd ar mhaith leo a labhairt, ach is le gach duine í. Ó thaobh Sinn Féin, táimid tiomanta don dúshlán a thug an pobal dúinn anuraidh a shárú – sin chun Acht na Gaeilge a bhaint amach. Agus bainfimid amach é a chairde. Bígí cinnte faoi sin. Acht Gaeilge anois!
[The voice of the Irish-speaking community should be heard throughout the island. Irish is … for everyone. We are committed to the challenge … to achieve the Irish Language Act … Be sure about that. Irish language now!]
“People in the North cannot wait while the DUP play political games and go into hiding at Westminster. So the two governments must act to convene the Intergovernmental Conference without further delay. Because unionism cannot and unionism will not hold back the tide of change and equality.”
McDonald countered the “noise” of Sinn Féin’s competitors in the South who “vie with one another to come up with the best reason to keep us out.”
“We are already a party of government. I want to lead this party into a progressive government in the south. I want to do that from a position of strength, a strength derived from the support of the people. After the next election, Sinn Féin will talk to all political parties and the independents.
“In those discussions we will stand on the side of ordinary people. We will stand for the people that government has forgotten, disregarded, left behind. We will stand on the side of inclusion, accountability, and modern government. We will stand for shared prosperity and decent work. We will stand for a new, united Ireland.
“And we will see then if it is possible to agree a programme for government on that basis. That is the objective. Good government. Delivering for the people. To those who are on an agenda to exclude us, I invite them to wake up and smell the coffee. To realise that Irish political life is no longer dictated by them, it is no longer their way or the highway. We are here, we are equal. Our democratic mandate and more importantly the people who vote for Sinn Féin will be respected.
“It is not for Leo Varadkar or Micheál Martin to decide whether or not we enter government. That decision will be made in the first instance by the people. And at the election the people are in charge, and we will ask them to back us, to give us the opportunity, to give us the chance to make big changes.”
McDonald spoke about policies on health, housing and shared prosperity, with promises to fix the health service and “the scandal of people lying on hospital trolleys. She paid tribute to “women and families who were misled, failed, who were subjected to a cover up by the HSE and Cervical Check.”
“Many people believe that in Ireland no-one in authority is ever held to account. And they’ve good reason for thinking this. But I want to make it clear that we will hold people to account, that we will not tolerate the HSE, or any other agency of the state, playing games with people’s lives.”
After criticising Eoghan Murphy TD – the fourth Housing Minister since Fine Gael came to power – McDonald went on to say that “the housing emergency is a whole of government issue. The buck stops with Leo Varadkar. His government has failed. Failed to house our citizens. Failed to tackle crisis rents. Failed to get a grip of homelessness.”
“A government with Sinn Féin would take the responsibility that the Taoiseach refuses to take. I know that for many, home ownership has become a pipe dream. This can only be addressed by an ambitious affordable housing programmes. So Sinn Féin will build social housing and we’ll build communities too. We’ll end the distress of renters by introducing real rent certainty and security of tenure. Sinn Féin in government will also work so that no child calls a hotel room ‘home’. Because we are Irish republicans and we believe that housing is a right.”
She spoke about prosperity and promised to “deliver for those who struggle to make ends meet, despite getting up early and working hard every day.”
“If business is to succeed we have to invest in our people, our services and in our infrastructure. And there is no doubt that a decade of under investment, cutbacks and austerity has left deep scars. So now is the time to build the schools, hospitals and communications network necessary for a modern Ireland.
“And part of this must be the state taking ownership of the rollout of essential broadband infrastructure. And this means – finally – getting rural broadband done and getting it right.”
On the Eighth Amendment …
“The Eighth Amendment has been repealed. This Ard Fheis has voted to decide party policy and we now move forward together, united in our determination to see the necessary legislation passed without delay. That is our duty to all the women of Ireland.
“Change is coming and there’s nothing to fear in that change. And let me say this loud and clear – the North is next. No woman will be left behind. Every woman who calls this island home must have access to compassionate medical care at home. And in the new Ireland we are building women will have their place and their space.”
With the speech overrunning, a section was dropped and the party president skipped ahead to the conclusion.
“Fifty years ago people took a stand for civil rights. People challenged, defied and faced down discrimination. We salute them today. Republicans have never sat around waiting.
Republicans get things done. Not only do we dream of a better, modern, and united Ireland; we are building it today. There is a place for everybody on this journey. There is an equal place for everybody in a new Ireland.
“Ireland is no longer simply orange and green. Ireland is a rainbow of identities and cultures.
A place where diversity and difference can be embraced. Ireland is changing. A new and better Ireland is emerging.
“To those who are impatient for equality and progress I say, this is your time. This is your home. This is your Ireland. Sinn Féin is your party. Let us seize the day. Together, let us build a new and united Ireland.
“Go raibh maith agaibh, a chairde. Up the Republic. An Phoblacht Abú.”
There were as many in the hall for the abortion debate as for the presidential address. Unlike the last evening of the 2011 ard fheis in the Waterfront, supporters weren’t bussed in to fill the seats.
In an ard fheis without shock announcements, the rhetoric was consistent and controlled. Themes of reconciliation, confident plans for government, rebuking the DUP and fighting for women’s rights were common across different speeches.
Sinn Féin’s new leadership cemented their position this weekend. After the national anthem, strains of Eurythmics’ “Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves” could be heard above the sustained standing ovations as Michelle O’Neill joined her party president on stage. While Gerry Adams popped up for a hug, the new brooms had swept the stage and made it their own.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.