by Theo Russell
SINN Féin delegates from all over Ireland met in Dublin on 17th –19th
February to prepare for a new round of negotiations which will decide
the fate of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), imminent elections in
northern and southern Ireland, and to debate the complex issues thrown
up by the peace process.
Gerry Adams reminded delegates in his presidential address that the
background to last year’s Ard Fheis was a political impasse threatening
to send the peace process into freefall.
Since then the IRA has completed de-commissioning, the Robert McCartney
murder and Northern Bank robbery are no longer live issues, and the
British government has restored the salaries and facilities of Sinn Féin
MPs at Westminster.
Sinn Féin has successfully driven the peace process forward, despite
interference from British ministers, the machinations of British
intelligence and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Special
Branch, the abdication of commitments by the Dublin government, and the
intransigence of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
But the party has no illusions about the prospects for finally
implementing the GFA, and is adopting a tough stance. In his report on
the talks chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said: "We are entering a
critical phase of our peace strategy. The future of the Good Friday
Agreement is on the line."
This time, however, Sinn Féin is quite prepared to see it fall. But that
does no mean a return to conflict. McGuinness quoted delegate Declan
Kearney, who said that even if the GFA collapsed, "Its substance has
been secured as the minimal threshold for anything that might replace or
Far from seeking to hold on to the Northern Ireland assembly and
executive at any cost, Sinn Féin is pressing Northern Ireland Secretary
Peter Hain to call the DUP’s bluff by setting a six week deadline for
If no deal is reached then Sinn Féin wants London and Dublin to
implement the provisions of the GFA, even without DUP participation,
which is technically possible. Otherwise, the assembly should be
scrapped and the salaries of MLAs withdrawn, effectively ending the
DUP’s veto over the peace process.
In the unlikely event of a deal being done, Sinn Féin hopes to see the
assembly and executive restored, the complete demilitarisation of the
north, the transference of policing and justice powers, the repeal of
repressive legislation, the release of the remaining republican
prisoners, and a solution to the issue of "OTRs" – republicans still "on
Sinn Féin is also demanding the repeal of legislation allowing the
Northern Ireland Secretary to suspend the political institutions, and
changes to legislation to prevent the abuses of procedures employed by
the DUP to disrupt the work of the and executive.
There are also attempts to restore the GFA bodies on a watered-down
basis. The DUP want a phased return of the institutions, starting with a
"toytown assembly" but no Executive.
The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has
proposed restoring the assembly, but with British-appointed and
unelected commissioners in place of executive ministers.
Both proposals would mean re-negotiating the GFA, something Sinn Féin
is implacably opposed to. Sinn Féin is confident that even if the GFA
falls the party will strengthen its democratic mandate throughout
Ireland, and that eventually even the DUP will have to embrace change.
One ongoing problem is the Independent Monitoring Commission; a body
set up by London and Dublin outside the terms of the GFA. The IMC has
consistently attempted to discredit Sinn Féin by questioning the
integrity of the IRA’s actions.
When the British government stripped Sinn Fein MPs of £400,000 in
parliamentary allowances in March last year it was at the recommendation
of the IMC, which claimed the IRA had been behind the Northern Bank
The IMC has also sought to undermine the Independent international
Commission on Decommissioning, the official body overseeing the
disarming of the Northern Ireland paramilitaries headed by Canadian
general Jean de Chastelain, by appearing to give an alternative
"official" version of events.
At the Ard Fheis Martin McGuinness demolished the IMC’s credibility,
reporting that it had failed to clarify allegations of IRA involvement
in incidents in July and August last year.
"It is my view that the incidents in question did not even happen," he
said. "In one particular bizarre line they report six unreported
assaults – just think about that for a minute – they say they considered
six unreported assaults!"
McGuinness made it clear that "unless the issue of the IMC is
addressed, this latest round of political discussions will run aground.
The IMC can be summed in one word. Balderdash! It is time they were
The development of the peace process has also thrown up many difficult
decisions and challenges for Irish republicans. Gerry Adams told the Ard
Fheis: "The decisions by the IRA were undoubtedly deeply difficult for
many," and added: "There are republicans still trying to come to terms
with it many months later.
"Indeed undoubtedly there are some who believe that the IRA has made a
mistake. They are entitled to their opinion but to no more than that. No
one should harbour the notion that the republican struggle can be
advanced any further by an armed campaign.
"This leadership is firmly opposed to such a departure. I have made it
clear from the republican perspective – the war is over."
But he added: "Unfortunately, powerful elements within the British
system have both a war mentality and the resources to sustain this. For
them the peace process is war by other means."
Other issues on which doubts are still held by some republicans are a
possible coalition with other parties in the Irish Republic, and what
Adams called "the deeply problematic issue" of policing in the six
counties. Sinn Féin’s leadership were clear on both matters.
Several motions ruling out joining a future Dublin coalition
government, with parties who are rightly regarded as corrupt and
reactionary, were defeated. One motion warned that entering a coalition
would "dilute our revolutionary politics".
Gerry Adams said that if the party has the mandate and can secure a
coalition government and policies consistent with its republican
objectives: "We will look at being in government in the south. Our sole
purpose of going into government is to bring about the maximum amount of
But a delegates’ motion demanding the repeal of the Offences Against
the State Act as a pre-condition before any coalition talks was carried.
The 1939 Act set up the non-jury Special Criminal Court, which tries
terrorist cases in the republic.
Sean Crowe, TD (Dáil member) for Dublin South-West, urged delegates not
to limit the party’s options in advance of the general election, saying:
"I do not know if government is ready for me, but I am ready for
And Martin McGuinness pointed out that as education minister in a
coalition with unionists in Belfast, he had implemented the crucial
decision to abolish the eleven-plus exam, adding that to completely rule
out participation in a coalition "would be grossly irresponsible".
Ten motions opposing participation in policing in the north, some
placing conditions such as the achievement of a sovereign united Ireland
or a timetable for British withdrawal, were defeated.
Gerry Kelly, spokesperson on policing and justice, spoke for the Ard
Chomhairle (executive committee) when he said: "Whatever happens in
negotiations, key issues such as policing and justice cannot be put on
the shelf to be dusted down when we achieve a united Ireland. We must
develop further our all-Ireland vision for justice and policing."
He welcomed legislation initiated by Peter Hain committing London to
the transfer of policing and justice powers to a future administration
at Stormont, but said this on its own was not enough for Sinn Féin to
agree to joining the Northern Ireland policing board.
Among other things this would require guarantees for a genuinely
accountable policing service, and a commitment from the DUP to the
transfer of powers.
Another problem thrown up by the British is the decision to give MI5
the lead in intelligence gathering in the north from next year,
effective even after policing powers have been transferred.
Kelly said it was "unacceptable for organisation which has set itself
against policing and political change throughout the course of this
process to be given an expanded role," and said Sinn Féin would be
challenging this in the latest round of talks.
A new relationship with unionism
One of five challenges facing Sinn Féin in the next year outlined by
Gerry Adams was "developing an entirely new relationship with unionism".
He said: "There are many good people within unionism, people who care
about their community, people who want to see stability, peace and
prosperity, people in the PUP, the DUP and the UUP who have worked with
Sinn Féin in committees and at councils."
Adams said: "Partition has failed the very community it was designed to
safeguard. It has failed unionists. Unionist working class communities
are ravaged by unemployment and educational under achievement. This is
bad for everyone."
Another major issue at the Ard Fheis was the growing economic and
social divide in the Irish Republic in spite of a decade of
unprecedented growth. Adams said: "There are also – to the Irish
government’s great shame – tens of thousands living in poverty... 15 per
cent of all children live in consistent poverty, while one in four
children are at risk of poverty."
He said: "After 15 years of growth it is a disgrace that people are
left waiting for days on hospital trolleys, people can’t afford a home
to live in, and the transport system is gridlocked."
"This state gives taxpayers’ money to a thriving private health sector.
Those who can afford to pay avail of the best that is available in the
private system, including access to private beds in public hospitals.
Health privatisation is a reality in the 26 Counties."
Adams condemned a tax regime that allows 41 of the top 100 individual
earners in to pay less than five per cent income tax, while ordinary
working people start paying tax at 42 per cent on anything over €29,400
He said the present Fianna Fáil-People’s Democrat government was
systematically destroying agriculture and what was left of the fishing
industry. "They privatise our public highways and give their friends
permission to erect toll booth, after toll booth, after toll booth."
The latest round of investigations into corruption in the Republic, the
Mahon Tribunals, has exposed yet another scandal payments by corrupt
developers to crooked politicians. Adams contrasted the establishment
parties’ recent re-adoption of a "republican" image with the caustic
comment that "for many of these people they probably think of the GPO
(the headquarters if the 1916 Easter Rising) only as a place to buy
And he condemned the (Irish) Labour Party - originally founded by James
Connolly – for using the issue of immigration to adopt "populist
policies, which risk setting one group of workers in the existing
workforce, against another group of migrant workers".
Adams said: "Sinn Féin welcomes new communities of all nationalities to
our country. We reject racism and discrimination in any form. It is good
that many people are coming here to work. Immigrant workers are not the
problem. The problem is unscrupulous employers who exploit immigrant
workers with low pay and poor conditions."
TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh said that Irish justice minister Michael McDowell
was "hell bent on expanding and privatising the prison estate and
inflating prison spending," and planned to "turn the prison system into
a massive money-making opportunity for his profiteering buddies" by
building a "private super-prison" in north Dublin.
Sinn Féin economic policy
As an alternative to these corrupt and divisive policies, Sinn Féin has
published an All-Ireland Enterprise and Job Creation Policy setting out
the party’s objectives.
These include: the right to join unions, strike and picket; protection
of natural resources and the environment; limits to market competition;
universal public services; direct progressive taxation; and reduced
dependence on foreign investment.
The document says no attempt should be made to abolish rights to
private ownership or inheritance unless "necessitated by the common
good". It also proposes the "extending the euro throughout the whole
island as a necessary step in paving the way for reunification".
It calls for continued opposition to the EU Services Directive, which
allows private companies to undercut public service providers by
employing people on the salaries of their country of origin.
While citing the Nordic countries, with high taxes and public spending
but highly competitive economies, as a model for development, the
document also says: "We plan to build on the achievements of the most
successful socialist economies, and to learn from the mistakes of
unworkable and unsuccessful economies."
It notes that Northern Ireland "tops the list on practically every
deprivation indicator in the UK", and says: "The six county economy is
unsustainable by itself, and abnormally dependent on subsidy and the
public sector for employment," – especially on the numbers employed by
the Northern Ireland Office and Ministry of Defence.
The paper calls for a progressive reform of the tax system and
increased corporation tax in the 26 Counties from the 12.5 per cent to
17.5 per cent. In his keynote address Gerry Adams said: "Sinn Féin would
effectively tax high earners and increase taxes on capital gains,
property speculation and corporate profits."
But he warned the party: "Expect more attacks on Sinn Féin, including
totally unprincipled efforts to vilify us in the time ahead. Don’t be
distracted by this nonsense." Sinn Féin faces major decisions and a
mountain of work in the coming period, but as always the party’s morale
is high and its leadership is confident about achieving its long-term
As Adams told delegates: "Our objective is an all-Ireland parliament for
all the people of Ireland." And in the words of Martin McGuinness: "Sinn
Féin’s objective is to defend and consolidate the advances already made.
To open up new arenas of negotiations and struggle and to continue to
build the bridge to our ultimate objective – a united democratic and