With no election imminent, there was less of a campaigning atmosphere, and the well signposted announcement about the party president’s future plans [spoiler: Gerry Adams is stepping down as party president and won’t contest next Dáil election] was of little concern to delegates. Differing opinions were expressed during debates, not least during the session which looked at the nine motions and various amendments on abortion.
Sinn Féin is clearly a party in good health. Other parties operating in Northern Ireland would give their eye teeth for such a spread of ages and gender balance in their activists. Posters around the RDS venue encouraged members to follow Gerry Adams on Snapchat and draw their activists onto new social platforms. The Adams brand is one of the strongest in the party’s arsenal and over the next months they will need to learn to rely on other symbols.
While Gerry Adams speech was always going to be the key half hour of the weekend – and no one was likely to break out in chants of “10 more years” – there was plenty of business to get through before his widely anticipated announcement.
An hour into business, RDS Hall 4 was unusually busy on the Friday night for Michelle O’Neill’s speech. In the end, the political stasis strongly limited what she could say. She recommitted the party to “continue to play our part to make every effort to find a political solution to the political breakdown”, and avoided laying the blame solely at the door of the DUP.
“I want to lead Sinn Féin back into a new Executive, which represents genuine equal partnership Government … However, despite our best endeavours the discussions were unsuccessful. In large part this was pre-determined by the Conservative party’s pact with the DUP to keep them in government.”
Red lines were present but not painted on particularly thick.
“If the DUP or anyone else wish to exercise political power in Government in the North of Ireland now or in the future, then the cost is to embrace a rights-based society and equal partnership government, which works for everyone. This would pave the way for the Executive to be restored.”
You can watch back most of Friday evening’s business online.
Saturday morning began with a slew of motions about infrastructure and regional and rural development. Michelle Gildernew took issue with the poor broadband west of the Bann and west of the Shannon and criticised plans to centralise Electoral Office NI offices. Speaker after speaker rose to express their frustration at the delay in (re)building the North-South electricity interconnector, which they wanted to be routed underground rather than by pylon.
RTE broadcast two hours of live speeches from the conference between 11am and 1pm. Thirty two speakers were lined up in this rapid fire session, and all but five or six got to step up on stage to take their moment in the bright lights.
The first ard fheis standing ovation was not for deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, but for Catalonian MEP Jordi Solé who spoke passionately (and at length) about the situation in his corner of Spain. You can listen back to a selection of the speeches in the two clips below.
In the middle of the ‘live session’ ten speakers addressed delegates in Irish. Simultaneous translation was available. Many spoke out in favour of enhancing the status and protection of the Irish language. As well as reiterating that the British government’s “clear commitments at St Andrews” Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile reminded delegates that the Irish language “belongs to everybody, it is not a threat to anybody”. He explained that Irish could “help everyone build a multi-lingual society” though he doubted the DUP would want to know. Former junior minister Megan Fearon is learning Irish – it’s Sinn Féin policy (though perhaps not always adhered to) that elected representatives without fluent Irish should attend lessons – delivered her first major speech in Irish, speaking fluently as she congratulated former culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín on the success of the Líofa campaign.
After years of senior figures within the party downplaying any divergence of opinion within the membership which had seen sporadic attempts by local cumainn to move motions calling for freedom of conscience on the issue, the debate was finally fully exposed in an hour long slot.
Francie Molloy MP questioned whether the party were conscious of the opinion around abortion “on the ground” (in his case, his voters in Mid Ulster) while Peadar Tóibín TD pleaded for “some flexibility” in the party’s abortion policy to reflect that many members joined under a previous policy.
The contributions were at times impassioned but always remained respectful. Ultimately two motions (148 and 149) that would have allowed Sinn Féin members and elected representatives “be allowed to articulate and vote on the issue of abortion according to their conscience” failed to gather more than a minority of support.
An early contribution from deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald certainly set the direction of travel in the overall debate. The amended* motion 144 (supported by Ard Chomhairle) was successful, supporting “the need for the availability of abortion where a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk, and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and in the cases [of] rape or sexual abuse”.
This change of policy could neither be described as a U-turn nor a full-scale liberalisation. However, it is a move away from the opportunistic conservatism that perhaps encouraged southern membership growth but now needs to be realigned to reflect modern voter sensibilities. The latest shift will not be the last, may incite vocal opposition by a minority over coming days and weeks, and will no doubt return to the pages of the clár at future ard fhfheiseanna.
*Before being amended, motion 144 read “… at serious risk or in grave danger, and in cases …”.
After a break the evening programme began with a tasteful tribute to the life of Martin McGuinness through photographs, music and words. There was sustained applause when his “proud” membership of the IRA was mentioned and Foyle MP Elisha McCallion explained that the former deputy First Minister had been “a brave man, a gentle man, a giant, a hero, my inspiration and a proud Derry man”. But the music and his poetry was allowed to do most of the talking.
During the session on motions around “Towards a New and United Ireland”, the party’s national chairperson Declan Kearney MP Sinn Féin National Chairperson and South Antrim MLA Declan Kearney has said a step change in attitudes within unionism is needed to tackle sectarianism.
Speaking at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Dublin, Declan Kearney addressed sectarianism saying that while “the push back from political unionism against democratic change goes to the core of the existing crisis” he admitted that “sectarianism is not a one way street: it exists within nationalism”.
“The message from this Ard Fheis is that you cannot claim to be a republican in the United Irish and 1916 tradition, if you do not oppose all forms of sectarianism.”
“Sinn Féin has proposed that robust anti-sectarianism measures be agreed during all recent negotiations. The DUP and others in political unionism are opposed to that approach. It is unacceptable that unionist politicians acquiesce in, or encourage sectarian mind-sets or behaviour.
“Sinn Féin wants sectarianism to be defined as hate crime in legislation. We believe all politicians and civic leaders must take the lead in its eradication. That is key to unlocking the way forward to a shared, reconciled society, and new phase of the peace process.”
Gerry Adams’ speech was tightly controlled and not distributed until immediately after he stepped down from behind the podium. It was devoid of the fumbles that often pepper his delivery. In front of the capacity 2,500 crowd packed into the RDS hall, he seemed at ease and comfortable, nearly embarrassed at the big build-up and ecstatic applause that preceded his address.
After expressing solidarity with comrades in other regions he turned to the death of Martin McGuinness and the past.
“Tá mo chuid cainte anocht ar son mo chara agus mo chomrádaí, agus ár gceannaire, Martin McGuinness agus do Bernie agus a clann atá linn anseo. We miss Martin. We miss all those comrades who died in the last year. And in the decades of conflict before that. Spreagann siad muid go dtí an lá seo lena aisling.
“I was first elected Uachtarán Shinn Féin in 1983. The war in the North was raging but the hunger strikes two years before and the deaths of Bobby Sands and his nine comrades, had dramatically altered the political landscape.
“Bobby’s election in Fermanagh South Tyrone, Kieran Doherty’s in Cavan-Monaghan, Paddy Agnew in Louth, and anti-H-Block/Armagh candidates elsewhere brought us into a new phase of struggle. Republicans had been at the heart of a culture of resistance – correctly standing strong against the brutality of the British state.”
‘Change’ was a frequently used word in the speech.
“Our leadership set about transforming that into a culture of change. In my first Ard Fheis speech as Uachtarán I said that we needed an all-island struggle. I warned against Sinn Féin activists standing on the side-lines; ‘separate from and isolated from the people.’ That imperative holds true today.
“I told the 1983 Ard Fheis, that: ‘Sinn Féin’s policies are not just pleasant aims for some future hoped for united Ireland but are tough practical policies which can give leadership now and provide results.’
“I reiterated our goals – the unity of the people and the end of partition. This had to, and has to, include our unionist neighbours, who, I told the Ard Fheis, have every right to a full and equal involvement in the shaping of the future of this island.’
“I contended then, as I do today, that the economy should serve the people – not the other way round. That struggle for equality and fairness continues. And Sinn Féin is now in the leadership of that battle.
“Twenty years ago Caoimhghín O Caoláin was our sole Teachta Dála. Fear maith Caoimhghín agus do bhean iontach Briege. Now we have 23 TDs; 7 Seanadóirí; four MEPs representing all parts of this island; 27 MLAs, 7 MPs, and over 250 Councillors. Today, over half a million people vote for Sinn Féin.
“The perpetual unionist majority built into the gerrymandered northern state is gone. Ba mhaith liom sibh uilig a thréaslú as cuidiú chun seo a bhaint amach.
“If I was asked to measure the successes of Sinn Féin I would say judge us on the changes we bring about. That is what Sinn Féin is – the republican party for positive change and equality for the people.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was compared with Margaret Thatcher.
“Who here remembers, Margaret Thatcher? For many of my generation she will be forever linked with the hunger strikes. But she was more than that. Her right wing conservative government increased poverty and destroyed lives. Thatcherism was for tax breaks for big business and the elites. Thatcher was against workers’ rights – against public services.
“Recognise the similarities?
“Thatcher is gone but her legacy lives on in our Taoiseach. His republic is limited to 26 counties and extends only to those who get up early to go to the gym, on the way to a highly paid job, with big expenses and a gold plated pension. Good luck to them.
“But Sinn Féin makes no apologies for also standing with those who get up early to commute into cities where they cannot afford to live. We stand with those who get up early to drop their children to school or the child minder, if they can get childcare.
“We stand with those who care for sick friends, neighbours or family. For those living in rural Ireland without proper services and opportunities. We stand with those unable to work. Sinn Féin stands with citizens who work long hours for low pay. Or struggle to pay health costs.
“Taoiseach Varadkar’s republic of opportunity is a mé féin republic. A contradiction. How can Micheál Martin say he is for an Ireland for all when he is propping up a government for the few? Their conservative mé féinism is a million miles away from the vision of the 1916 Proclamation.
“A genuine republic would not allow over three thousand children to be homeless. It would not allow patients, many of them elderly, some of them vulnerable children, to be left lying on hospital trolleys. Or the six hundred thousand people on growing hospital waiting lists. A genuine republic would support citizens with intellectual or physical disabilities, and their families. A genuine Republic would not tolerate disadvantage and inequality. Or corruption and scandals.”
In a speech that was dominated by retrospection (before turning to a new future), Adams summed up Sinn Féin values.
“Sinn Féin has a different set of core values. We believe in rights. We believe in freedom. We believe in equality and solidarity. Sinn Féin believes that society must be shaped so that all citizens can achieve their full potential. That includes citizens in rural Ireland. Our party makes no apologies for supporting public services, including a genuine public health service across this island. We believe in everyone’s right to a home.
“We also want to extend the vote in Presidential elections to the north and the diaspora. Sinn Féin fully supports the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Women and their doctors need legal protections. Women deserve and are entitled to be trusted and respected.”
“Brexit is the single greatest threat to the Irish people in generations. That is why Sinn Féin opposed it in the referendum and why we have consistently called for Special Status for the North within the EU. I commend our spokespersons on the issue and especially our team of MEPs who unlike the Irish government have shown real leadership. The government has only recently wakened up to the reality that Brexit on British government terms is not acceptable. It will be disastrous for Irish business and farming in every part of this island. It will destroy the rights of Irish citizens in the north. It is not compatible with the Good Friday Agreement.
“Leo Varadkar needs to stand up for the interests of all the people of the island. He has a veto. He must use it. He needs to be more like Michael Collins and less like Hugh Grant.”
“The Executive collapsed 10 months ago when Martin McGuinness resigned following allegations from within the DUP of corruption by the DUP. Since March, Sinn Féin, led by Michelle O’Neill, has been working hard to restore the political institutions.
“We want to deliver for everyone in the North on the basis of respect, tolerance and equality. The denial of these modest rights would not be tolerated in Dublin and London. And it won’t be tolerated in the North.
“The DUP’s opposition to these basic rights means there is no Executive. The British government has been complicit in this. Through her pact with the DUP, Theresa May has prioritised her own political survival.
“We met the Taoiseach this week and we will meet the British Prime Minister next week. [Tuesday] We told the Taoiseach that it is now time for the governments to act. If the Executive is to be re-established, the role of the Irish Government will be decisive. It can be neither neutral or neutered on this matter. These issues aren’t going away. The only way forward is through honouring agreements, not breaking them.
“No British government has any right to any involvement in Irish affairs. But until the British government leaves our country, the least they can do is to deliver on their obligations. And the least an Irish government can do is to insist on this. Those of us who want a United Ireland must articulate that view clearly, and in the context of the Good Friday Agreement.
“And we have to persuade our unionist neighbours to support a new and agreed Ireland in which Orange and Green can live together in prosperity and harmony. We have much in common. An agreed Ireland has to guarantee unionists their rights. The future is for the people to decide – peacefully and democratically.”
Turning to the Dáil:
“Several months ago I wrote to the leaders of the political parties and the Independents in the Oireachtas proposing the establishment of an all-party Committee on Irish unity. The Fianna Fáil leader has rejected this. So too has the Taoiseach.
“Why? Isn’t it telling that the leader of Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party and the leader of Fine Gael, the United Ireland Party are preventing the Oireachtas from discussing the future of this island?
“So, what will Sinn Féin do? Sinn Féin will bring forward a White Paper on Irish Unity. Sinn Féin will make the aim of a new agreed Ireland a primary focus of any government we are part of. Sinn Féin will campaign for a referendum on unity to be held in the next five years. Don’t let Leo or Micheál try to convince you this is not right or achievable. It is. And it will be achieved. With or without them.
“Sinn Féin will be in government in the North if and when there is agreement. We need to prepare also for being in government on republican terms in Dublin. Go cinnte, braitheann seo ar an méid Teachtaí Dála a bheidh tofa againn.
“The Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaderships, the Dublin establishment, including the Independent Media Group, don’t want Sinn Féin in government because they and their cronies have run this state for nearly 100 years in their own interests. They know we will bring an end to corruption, cronyism and gombeenism. They know a government with Sinn Féin leading it will be an accountable government.
‘If somebody is in trouble, it will help them. If somebody has fallen down, it will pick them up. Má tá duine ann gan tintáin, beidh foscadh ann dóibh. That’s the sort of government that is needed. A government of equality, decency and fairness.”
And finally Gerry Adams began to address his own future:
“I am very proud to have served Sinn Féin as Uachtarán since 1983. Of course before our time there were leaders who kept the flame alive. Ta muid buíoch daoibhse. We are also very conscious that twenty of our members were murdered during the conflict. We are indebted to them and their families.
“Last year Martin McGuinness and I said that there was a plan for change in the party leadership as part of the process of regeneration and renewal. Ten years after entering government with Ian Paisley, Martin’s intention was to step down as Deputy First Minister on May 8th.
“Then life punched us in the face.
“Martin’s illness and the ‘cash for ash’ scandal brought that date forward. Martin was a leading member of our leadership team. I have been enormously privileged to be part of an amazing and evolving collective leadership.
“It has included in times past, in hard oppressive times, and in different phases, at national level, men and women like Maire Drumm, John Joe McGirl, Joe Cahill, Rita O’Hare, Lucilita Breathnach, Mitchel McLaughlin, Danny Morrison, Pat Doherty, Martin McGuinness, Tom Hartley, Caoimhghín O Caoláin, Jim Gibney, Ted, Desi and Dawn, Sheena Campbell, Sean MacManus, Martin Ferris and many, many more.
“Some of them remain active today, along with many others – too many for me to acknowledge tonight. But may I say I am delighted to see many of you here, especially Councillor Joe Reilly. Many comrades have given their entire lives to our struggle. They saw beyond the hardship of the moment and embraced hope.
“That resilience, like the peace process is opposed by those who uphold the status quo. But despite them, we have prevailed.
“One of our great achievements has been, with John Hume and others to build a peace process. We have also recast Sinn Féin into an effective all-Ireland republican party, with clear policy and political objectives, and the means to achieve them through democratic and peaceful forms of struggle where none existed before. Republicanism has never been stronger. This is our time. We will grow even stronger in the future. But leadership means knowing when it is time for change. That time is now.
“I will not be standing for the Dáil in the next election. Neither will my friend and comrade Martin Ferris. I want to thank Martin, Marie and their clann for years of service to the Republic.
“This is also my last Ard Fheis as Uachtarán Shinn Féin. I will ask the incoming Ard Chomhairle to agree a date in 2018 for a special Ard Fheis to elect our next Uachtarán.
“I have always seen myself as a team player and a team builder. I have complete confidence in the leaders we elected this weekend and in the next generation of leaders. I want to thank everyone who has welcomed me into their homes and communities and who have made me part of countless campaigns, countless elections and countless negotiations. I want to especially thank the people of west Belfast, and the people of Louth, including Richard McAuley, for your unswerving support and solidarity, and your friendship.
“I firmly believe that one person can make a difference. The first step in making a difference is believing that you can be that person. One woman – one man – doing their best. That’s what it takes.
“You don’t have to do as much as Martin McGuinness did, but we all have to do our best – and we have to do it together. That is the key to our successes so far. Doing our best, moving forward, united, strong and together. Na habair é – dean é. You are the makers of the future. You are the nation builders. You are important. Never forget that.
“Finally, my thanks to Colette. I have been very lucky. We are now married forty-seven years. There have been ups and downs – the Prison Ship Maidstone, Belfast Prison, Long Kesh, the H-Blocks and years of life on the run. But love has prevailed over everything life has thrown at us. We have been blessed with Gearóid, the best son anyone could wish for, and Roisín the best daughter-in-law. With them came Drithle, Luisne, Anna and Ruadan na gar paistí is fearr sa Domhain.
“Is mó ghrá sibh uilig. Míle buíochas a chairde. An Phoblacht Abú. Leanfaidh muid ar aghaigh. Le chéile.”
Sinn Féin’s Ard Chomhairle will meet within the next two weeks and will draw up the process for selecting a new party president, a process that doesn’t currently exist in an agreed form. The timing will then be set, the process run and a special ard fheis held, most likely in the spring of 2018. Gerry Adams remains functional leader until the special ard fheis.
Of course, the president emeritus is unlikely to slip away into the background, and certainly won’t be devoting his time to a seat in the House of Lords! Gerry Adams will be expected to remain an important voice representing the past around Sinn Féin’s kitchen table.
For other parties, his departure may make it easier for them to work cooperatively with Sinn Féin: however, coalitions that could lead to a place in government in the Republic of Ireland will probably remain beyond the pale and off the table.
His departure may give Michelle O’Neill a little more elbow room to grow into the hastily-created position of ‘northern leader’. Yet his influence will still be felt.
Adams’ flimsy social media mutterings are very likely to continue. His celebrity ‘appeal’ will be called upon by the party when they need a boost or a distraction. The new leader will have a crick in their neck checking to see what he’s up to. But it was clear from the ‘live’ session speeches that the party have younger talent that could fill the presidential vacancy after next. Perhaps the new spring-time leader should be frequently checking their mirror to see how the young pretenders are shaping up. Sinn Fein’s future could be bright: but it is not guaranteed and the new leadership team will need to be surefooted during this transition.
You can watch some of Saturday afternoon’s business online.
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.