Lord Mayor, Councillor Deirdre Hargey welcomed Sinn Féin ard fheis delegates to the city of Belfast: “a diverse city emerging from a history of division and conflict.”
“The conflict is over but divisions remain amidst a growing diversity of people and cultures. As mayor I am mindful that I represent all of the people of this city. Let me also take this opportunity to reassure the unionist people, in particular, that I am mayor for them as well and I will endeavour to represent their interests, as well as the interests of those gathered here tonight. My office in the City Hall is open to the unionist people and representatives. It is open to the many ethnic communities who live in this city. It is open to the Travelling community and to the LGBT community … You are all welcome in the mayor’s office.”
Party vice president Michelle O’Neill was next to the Belfast Waterfront podium.
On the state of the party:
“We are a party on the move. We’re bringing people and generations together from all backgrounds in common cause. We are fortunate to have a wealth of experience from representatives and activists who over many years have helped build the party to where we are today. So a huge welcome to all of you this evening.
“I want to in particular welcome the families of our patriot dead to this year’s Ard Fhéis. You’re very much welcome.
“There is a place for everyone in the Sinn Féin movement. We’re a modern, progressive, Republican Party who stands with the people in defending and advancing Irish national interests. And Sinn Féin stands ready.
“We stand ready to be in government North and South; to assert and deliver rights for all; to continue the fight against Brexit; to oppose austerity at every turn; to deliver high quality public services; to take on the vested interests and put an end to cronyism and making Government accountable to the people and the law; to deliver real prosperity, encourage entrepreneurship, decent jobs, and fair pay for a fair day’s work!”
Yet it’s clear from the news this week that lots of Northern Ireland politicians have opinions on the failure of public services, but they have little leverage to improve them given their inability to form an Executive …
“Sinn Féin stands with women. The recent repeal result was for all women. For the forgotten women of the mother and baby homes. For the women that were being failed in crisis. For the mothers who were forced to give their babies up against their will.
“It was a vote for compassion. It was a vote to say loud and clear: women will never be left behind again. Womens’ position has improved in Irish society; glass ceilings have been shattered but there is still plenty to do. We need to now close the gender pay gap; we need to bring new laws to provide access to healthcare North and South; we need to live free from violence; we need to provide affordable childcare, end economic inequality and bring more women into public life and politics.
“And surely you agree it is time for a woman Taoiseach to lead the next Government. And surely you know that woman is Mary Lou McDonald.”
On Brexit and the DUP who are “living in a fool’s paradise”:
“You join this movement at a truly defining period in Irish political history, not least in the context of Brexit. Brexit represents the greatest economic threat to the island of Ireland in a generation. And I fully respect the right of the British people to leave the EU and I wish them well.
“However, I am absolutely opposed to the British Government dragging us out of the EU against our will. Sinn Féin wants the whole of Ireland to remain within the EU just like the people voted.
“We have influenced and made our case to the EU27 in the Dáil and the European Parliament. We will continue to make our voices heard and to build a progressive coalition around our national interest.
“Myself and the leaders of the SDLP, Alliance and Greens presented two joint statement in recent weeks where we made clear that: human rights and equality provisions must be protected; we cannot withstand exclusion from the single market or customs union; that we need to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts; that the backstop agreed by both the British Government and the EU27 is the bottom line in order to safeguard our political and economic stability now and for the future.
“The four party leaders speak for the majority of people in the north. The DUP do not speak for the majority of the people of the North. They are putting their self-serving pact with the Tory party at Westminster before the people’s interests here.
They’re living in a fool’s paradise. They are blindly propping up Theresa May who is preoccupied with negotiating with her own cabinet rather than with the EU. Britain is divided. But Ireland is united. We will not be collateral damage as a result of the reckless Tory/DUP Brexit agenda. There will be no border in Ireland. Sin é!”
On peace and reconciliation:
“In April we marked the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. This gave us all time and space to reflect on how far we have come, and reminded us that nothing can be taken for granted. And despite our ongoing political challenges, the island of Ireland has been transformed as a result of the peace process.
“The Good Friday Agreement is the centrepiece of a more prosperous, peaceful society. The agreement defines new relationships on this island and between our islands.
“And yesterday evening myself and Mary Lou met with Prince Charles in the rebel county of Cork where we talked about the necessary work of reconciliation. Much Pain and hurt has been caused over the years to many people. And we must attempt to heal that pain, to recognise each other’s loss and to find ways to trust each other.
“We must build bridges that we all can cross. We must rid our society of sectarianism. We must choose to live together. We must choose to continue to build on the reconciliation work of Martin McGuinness over many years and we will do so because it is the right thing to do.
“So instead of refighting battles of the past, we all – unionists and nationalists – need to have the humility to accept that we have conflicting narratives, conflicting histories and conflicting allegiances.
“We must reach a sustainable compromise through dialogue and agreement. Create a future where everyone feels they belong, where our culture and identity is respected, where we recognise each other’s right to express being Irish, British both, or indeed neither.”
On the failed talks process:
“The abandonment of those principles by both the British Government and the DUP has led to a situation in the last 18 months where the people of the North have had no Government. That’s not acceptable. It is not tolerable. It is not good enough.
“No Assembly and no Executive is the price of the Tory/DUP pact.
“We set out to restore the executive on the basis of equality, of rights and of respect. In February we reached an agreement that created the conditions for the Executive to be reestablished. However The DUP walked away.
“The issues which require resolution are not going away. And all roads will lead back to the negotiating table. In the meantime there can be no justifiable excuse for refusing to afford citizens here their civil, social and cultural rights. Whether that be Irish language rights; access to Coroners inquests; equal marriage rights; or women’s right to healthcare. Fifty years after the civil rights campaign, rights will not be denied.
“There is a clear requirement under the Good Friday Agreement on the part of both Governments, to ensure the equivalent standards of protection of rights which exist in all other parts of these islands and must be delivered here too.
“Over recent months I have met with all sections of society, with the business community, trade unions including the CBI and Chamber of Commerce, local industry leaders and IntertradeIreland. They all want the local institutions to deliver economic progress, and so do I. For a successful, competitive economy, we need a skilled workforce. We need a new economic society. But we also need political certainty and stability. None of this can be delivered if the institutions cannot command the confidence of the people. It’s not an either/or situation. We need both.
“And so the message from this Ard Fhéis to both Governments is loud and clear: you must convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference without delay, and determine how you as joint stewards of the peace process will remove the obstacles to power-sharing. Mary Lou and I will be in London on Wednesday and this is the message which we will be delivering directly to Theresa May.”
As the speech drew to a close, Sinn Féin’s northern leader turned her focus to Irish unity.
“The Good Friday Agreement provides a peaceful democratic pathway to Irish Unity. The issue of Irish Unity has taken on a new dynamic because of Brexit. Demographics are changing and so too is the political landscape. This cannot be ignored. I think Peter Robinson’s recent remarks at Queens University acknowledge this.
“The Good Friday Agreement gives the people the opportunity and choice to decide our future together. How we live together. How we work together. And how we share this island together. The political momentum on change is moving in this direction.
“Sinn Féin wants a New Ireland, a fairer Ireland, and a united Ireland. But we don’t own the debate. I have absolutely no doubt that there are many, many within the unionist community who look at Brexit with the same fear and the same trepidation as nationalists and republicans.
“A Unity Referendum is coming and we need to be prepared for it. There is no contradiction in declaring and delivering on our firm commitment to power sharing with unionism and a functioning Assembly whilst also initiating a mature and inclusive debate about new political arrangements which serve all of us who share this island better.
“Similarly, there is no contradiction whatsoever in unionism working the existing constitutional arrangements while taking its rightful place in the conversation about what a New Ireland would look like.
“This is a defining period in our history. The opportunities for real change are within our grasp. It is a time to hear all voices within this debate. We must continue our journey of dialogue, of listening, of sharing ideas, because in the New Ireland there can only be a victory for us all.
“It is our task to persuade people why it’s in their economic, cultural and political interests to share power, not only at Stormont, but on an All-Ireland basis together. To assure people that all identities will be protected. That there will be guaranteed rights and entitlements for all in the new Ireland. As republicans we are about transforming and uniting our country for everyone, not ourselves alone. So let’s push ourselves, challenge ourselves, be confident in ourselves. Let’s lead the change, let’s bring people with us, let’s shape our future together.
“As Margaret Mead said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world’. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. Comrades, we are that group of people.”
Conor Murphy also spoke on Friday evening.
Sinn Féin’s national chairperson and MLA for South Antrim Declan Kearney spoke about last year’s failed political agreement.
“[The DUP] blinked and they walked away from the challenge of leadership. Their failed leadership has deepened the overall crisis. It is no longer sustainable to delay or to deny citizen’s rights, especially faced with the catastrophe of Brexit.
“The DUP’s crisis of leadership and relationship with the Tories is increasingly defining the North as a backwater for rights. Civic Unionism is being denied leadership by the DUP, and also access to a rights-based society. Those currently in charge of the DUP prefer communal and political division. But the darkest hour is always just before the dawn.”
In a section that was possibly trying to stir up internal rebellion within the DUP, Declan Kearney suggested: “The DUP is not monolithic. This is a time for constructive engagement, leadership and big, big ideas.”
“Sinn Féin believes that we should have an inclusive discussion about the future and put all of our collective aspirations and apprehensions about that future on the table. We as a party are committed to finding the compromises and the accommodations required to create a new, agreed Ireland. A new Ireland that guarantees civil and religious liberties and rights for all citizens regardless of creed, culture, class, ethnicity, politics, gender or sexual orientation.”
“Orange culture, the unionist tradition, and British identity are part of our shared history and experience. And yes, they should be absolutely integral in the fabric of a new agreed Ireland. And Sinn Féin, from this ard fheis, will commit to guaranteeing their protection. That will be challenging, but as Nelson Mandela often said: ‘it always seems impossible until it’s done’.”
Saturday’s agenda will cover motions on local government, electoral reform, transport, climate change, housing, public services, rural Ireland, Brexit and international solidarity. However the business will be overshadowed by the 75 minutes dedicated to “Standing With Women” during which a number of motions will be debated to shape the party policy on abortion.
Party President Mary Lou McDonald is due to close the ard fheis at 8.30pm, and her address will be broadcast live on BBC Two NI and RTE.
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.