CAIN Web Service
Speech by Gerry Adams to Reconvened Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 10 May 1998
Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
Text of speech by Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin (SF), to the
reconvened Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, Sunday 10 May 1998.
"Fifteen years ago when I became party president of this organisation
it was not long after the hunger strikes in Armagh Women Prison
and in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. It was never my ambition to
represent you in this position or to stay for so long. Indeed
my commitment was from one to three years. Having said that, and
although I have been known to complain the odd time at the trials
and tribulations of this office, let me tell you that I consider
it an honour to be a member of this party and to be a part of
There have been many changes in the fortunes of Sinn Fein especially
over the last ten years. This generation of Irish republicans
have never retreated from the tough decisions, nor have we been
rushed into making rash or hasty judgements. Together, collectively,
we analyse, we assess, we examine options, as Sean MacManus says
`we cogitate' until finally, and democratically, we move forward
Sinn Féin's Peace Strategy
Sinn Féin realise the need for strategies and tactics which
can advance our struggle for freedom and justice. We understand
that our strategies and tactics need to be constantly reviewed
and reassessed in light of changing political developments and
of our growing power and influence. Our political goals require
the development of a process which is evolutionary and transitional,
which moves through phases, building our political strength, until
Irish independence is achieved.
Our peace strategy has transformed the Irish political landscape
over the past 5 years. It contains the dynamic which led to the
Irish peace initiative and to the cessation of military operations
by the IRA in August 1994.
It was Sinn Féin which put British constitutionality and
sovereignty on the agenda; it was our party which placed equality,
partition, injustice and national and democratic rights at the
top of the agenda in Ireland, Britain and internationally.
Building Democratic Alliances
In February 1994 I pointed out in my Presidential address to the
Ard Fheis that ``Irish republicans, by ourselves, simply do not
possess the political strength'' to bring about Irish unity.
A critical part of our strategy to ``politically engage our political
opponents and enemies alike'' meant seeking allies to build alliances.
That is why I sought meetings with John Hume. That is why we entered
into dialogue with the government in Dublin. That is why we developed
our relations with Irish America.
The vast majority of people in Ireland want peace. Peace demands
justice. Nationalists, including those with reservations about
the outcome of the talks process, want to exhaust every possibility
of achieving peace. They wish to see their representatives concentrating
their efforts to bring about a just and lasting settlement.
All experience to date shows that a shared understanding and common
positions between nationalists on the most advanced positions
possible is needed to further the democratic demand. An absence
of such common positions is detrimental to the national position.
I would like to take this opportunity to speak to the Protestant
people in the six counties and say to you that we in Sinn Féin
remember with pride that our republicanism grows from the separatist
roots of the mainly Presbyterian United Irishmen. Sinn Fein is
not a Catholic party. We uphold the right to civil and religious
liberty for all and we want to see the emancipation of Catholics,
Protestants and Dissenters.
I am conscious of the difficulties faced by unionists. Let me
try to assure you and your leaders that Sinn Fein comes to these
latest developments and that we face the future seeking a good
faith and a genuine engagement with you.
When we call for the end of the British presence in Ireland we
do not mean our unionist neighbours. You have as much right to
a full and equal life on this island as any other section of our
I have a word of advice for the British Government and more particularly
the British establishment.
Any judgement by nationalists and republicans on the Good Friday
document will be determined by whether it can produce justice
and how quickly it positively affects the day to day lives of
citizens. How quickly will the prisoners be released? When will
the RUC be replaced by an acceptable policing service? How will
the British government process the constitutional changes which
they have agreed? Is this truely a transitional, a rolling process?
Will the British and Irish governments pro-actively pursue the
establishment and development of all-Ireland bodies? When will
the British Army, and especially the RIR be taken off the streets?
How quickly will the equality agenda take effect? How will the
mechanisms of change be managed ? How deep rooted will it be?
Will orange marches be pushed through nationalist areas this year?
There is a huge responsibility on the Irish government to develop
strategies which remove the divisions on this island and which
advance a process to replace British rule.
It is clear that the referendums do not constitute the exercise
of national self-determination. Self-determination is universally
accepted to mean a nations right to exercise the political freedom
to determine its own social, economic, and cultural development
without external influence and without partial or total disruption
of the national unity or territorial integrity. These criteria
are not observed in Ireland. British government involvement in
our country is in contravention of the established international
norms which create and sustain conditions to the establishment
of internal peace, democracy, justice, stability and national
It is also clear from our debate here today there are elements
in both referendums that present difficulties for some republicans
and nationalists. In my view these difficulties trouble a wider
section of national opinion than we represent. Let me seek to
give assurances to these people. While Sinn Féin has made
it clear that we are not opposed to changes in the Irish constitution
we do accept that there is real and justified concern at the changes
in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution.
Sinn Féin opposes changes that would dilute the definition
of the territory of the nation, weaken the imperative to unity
or dilute the citizenship rights in the north and incorporate
the `consent' clause. We do not accept the legitimacy of the six
county statelet. And we never will.
As I have said earlier, all experience to date shows that a shared
understanding and common positions between nationalists, republicans
and democrats on the most advanced positions possible is needed
to bring about national change. But while seeking at all times
to advance such a consensus let me tell you that I understand
fully why some nationalists or republicans will not vote yes or
will abstain entirely from voting in the referendums. That is
your right and this leadership will not be pressing anyone to
do anything against your beliefs. It is enough and a great tribute
to your vision and commitment that you voted yes to the continuation
of our strategy. We have advanced our struggle here today. That
is our business. What you do in the polling booth is your business.
It is important that we all realise that the peace process is
not concluded. The Good Friday document is another staging post
on the road to a peace settlement.
It also provides a benchmark against which British government
and Irish government actions in the coming months can be measured.
It is a significant challenge to unionism. It is also a challenge
Changing British Policy
The British government is the central player in all of this. It
is British policy which has underpined unionist intransigence,
domination, inequality and injustice. British policy in support
of the Union, as well as the unionist veto, has been at the root
of the conflict here. A key republican objective is to change
British policy. That is why one of the most significant developments
during the last phase of negotiations was the fact that the British
government moved unionism further than the unionists wanted to
I can understand why the British do not want to unsettle the unionists
any more at this time but the logic of the proposed changes must
be that the British government must move to encourage and facilitate
progress toward Irish unity.
Today we decided collectively how we will approach the Good Friday
paper. On the one hand it upholds the unionist veto over the constitutional
status of the north, and, on the other hand it reduces the British
territorial claim to that one hinge while it compels unionists
to accept key and fundamental changes involving all-Ireland dimensions
to everyday life.
Our negotiating team went into the talks to get the Government
of Ireland Act repealed. We succeeded in that. We also secured
the inclusion of a clause in the new British constitutional legislation
which states that the new act ``shall have effect notwithstanding
any previous enactment''. This includes the Act of Union and the
Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. There is now no indefinite
commitment, no raft of Parliamentary Acts to back up an absolute
claim. This is a long way from being as British as Finchley. But
British rule has not ended. Neither has partition. That is why
our struggle continues.
Because the Act we want to see is the Act which ends the union.
We haven't get that yet. But we will. That is the reality.
An Historic Decision
Todays decision that successful Sinn Fein candidates should participate
in the assembly in the north is a historic one. It must be underpined
by a strategy wedded to mobilisations, campaigning, street activism
and the international dimension. Caoimhghin O Caoláin has
set a high standard for all our representatives and we need more
constituencies like his throughout the twenty six counties represented
by Sinn Fein deputies. The work in the north will assist this
but our party is the only national one in Ireland and we have
to build our political strength everywhere on this island if we
are to secure the national advances we require.
So the struggle has to be where the activist is and it has to
be social and economic, as well as political. It has to be about
ending poverty, about building an economic democracy, about treating
all the children of the nation equally, as well as about ending
The Assembly elections will give us the opportunity to renew and
to increase our mandate. The preparatory work must start now.
Building Our Political Strength
I also want to call for a truly national effort in this crucially
important election for Sinn Fein. Increased political strengths
in the election will ensure republican representation in the North/South
Council and enhance the effort to expand the all-Ireland structures.
So those who will be elected to represent us face huge challenges.
I hope I am wrong but I do not believe that the status quo can
be changed without putting ourselves in danger. This party has
already paid a very high price for our mandate. Last weeks bomb
attack on Brendan Curran's home is a reminder of that. Twenty
of our members have been killed and scores of our activists have
been injured. Family members too have been killed. So when we
uphold the republican position we do so mindful of all the dangers.
As I have said before we are doers and we are not distracted by
the naysyers and begrudgers or intimidated by the task before
us or by our opponents and enemies.
No amount of messing, of refusals to accept the Sinn Féin
mandate or the rights of our electorate will deter us. The efforts
to resurrect the issue of decommissioning as a means of undermining
the rights of voters or this party is a nonsense.
The IRA has made it clear that it will not surrender its weapons.
So have all the other armed groups including the British forces.
Sinn Fein is not an armed group. We are not the IRA. We want to
see all the guns taken out of Irish politics and we will continue
to work for that. We go into this next phase of struggle armed
only with whatever mandate we receive, armed only with our political
ideas and our vision of the future.
This has been a good Ard Fheis. We are forever moving forward
and like every other party , and including the two governments
we are moving into uncharted territory. It is our responsibility
to liberate that territory. Like you I have concerns and apprehensions
about the future. But I am confident of our growing strength.
I am encouraged at our growing ability to devise new strategies
and I am uplifted by our commitment to press ahead come what may.
This is the day that James Connolly was executed here in this
city eighty two years ago. It is a good day for us to recommit
ourselves to our republican ideals and the struggles which lie
ahead of us. In one of my first presidential addresses I quoted
from Connolly's Sinn Fein and Socialism. He wrote;
"Sinn Fein. That is a good name for the new Irish movement of
which we hear so much nowadays. Sinn Féin, or in English,
It is a good name and a good motto.''
And so it is.
Today is an important day for us. In many ways an historic day.
But it is not as important as tomorrow, or the next day, or the
day after that with all of the cchallenges which they will bring.
Today we cleared the way for the future. Tomorrow we start to
build the future. The future is freedom. Together let us build
a bridge to freedom."