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Speech by Gerry Adams to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 18 April 1998
Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
Text of speech by Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin (SF), to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 18 April 1998.
"This Ard Fheis takes place against a background of great
challenges for republicans across the country. There is great
hope and concern sitting alongside each other.
The political landscape of Irish politics is changing and
republicans are at the forefront of that change.
This Ard Fheis is an obvious manifestation of that and I welcome
all of you here today.
Two hundred years ago the United Irish Movement rose against
British occupation of our country. We stand today before the
slogan which inspired that Movement. Liberty, Equality and
Fraternity. We can draw inspiration and example from the men and
women of 1798. The United Irish Movement, whose bicentennial we
celebrate this year was unique. It also had an equality agenda.
Its aims were to create a socially progressive, tolerant and
just society in Ireland. Its founders were mainly Protestants
who embraced the concept of uniting Catholic, Protestant and
Dissenter. They demanded independence from Britain and promised
equality. They swore to maintain the right and prerogative of
Ireland as an independent people. We also must fashion such a
unique movement which is open to all as the United Irish Movement
was: `who know liberty, who love it, who wish to have it and who
will have it'.
Our last Ard Fheis was a one day affair in Monaghan when we
enjoyed the hospitality of that most republican county. Since
then, the people of that constituency of Cavan and Monaghan
elected our first Sinn Fein TD, Caoimhghin O Caolain. Not to be
outdone the people of Mid Ulster elected Martin McGuinness and
for their sins West Belfast reclaimed our seat. In Kerry and in
Dublin West Martin Ferris and Jack Crowe put their claims on
seats the next time round. Sinn Fein out-polled the DUP and
became the third largest party in the six counties. Since Bobby
Sands first contested Fermanagh/South Tyrone Sinn Fein has helped
transform the political landscape in Ireland.
I want to take this opportunity of extending welcome to our
foreign visitors. A particular word of thanks to Larry Downes,
President of the Friends of Sinn Fein in the USA, and to Mairead
Keane, head of our diplomatic mission in the USA, and to Kieran
Clifford from our office in Washington. Deputy Secretary General
of the ANC, Thenjiwe Mtintso. The representative of ZANU-PF and
Minister of Home Affairs in Zimbabwe, Dumiso Dabengwa. Nobel
Peace Prize winner, Jose Ramos-Horta from East Timor, and our
good friends from the Basque country here to represent Herri
Before dealing with the main theme of this address, I want to
deal with one issue.
How many of you have heard of the Amsterdam Treaty? More
importantly how many of you, and of the general public, know
anything about this Treaty and its likely consequences for the 26
counties? In recent months we have voiced our concern that people
in the 26 counties have had very little information on this
issue. There has been almost no public debate regarding its
consequences for Irish sovereignty and neutrality.
It is crucial that this major issue is given the proper and
thorough discussion and debate that it deserves. Otherwise, the
Amsterdam Treaty which would almost certainly be ignored in the
debate around Articles 2 and 3 and Article 29.
The Amsterdam Treaty referendum could easily be put back until
the autumn by which time, with proper and equal resourcing by the
government for both the no and yes vote, citizens would have a
more informed view of its content and probable impact. There is
no legal time-limit for ratification of this Treaty and no other
EU country has ratified it.
For our part, Sinn Féin is calling for a No vote. We believe that
the Amsterdam Treaty threatens Irish sovereignty and neutrality.
It takes a big step towards the militarisation of the EU.
I have written to the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, urging him not to
hold simultaneous referenda on the Amsterdam Treaty, and Articles
2 and 3 and Article 29 on the same day.
The whole issue of changes to Articles 2 and 3 and Article 29 and
the constitutional referendum which this involves and the other
consultative referendum in the North is a direct consequence of
the recent multi-party talks.
This presidential address will not take the traditional form of
previous ones. Instead I will be reporting back to you on the
phase of negotiations which have just ended and I will be
inviting Martin, McGuinness our chief negotiator, to join me
On Good Friday, when these talks concluded in their last plenary
session, I spelt out the Sinn Fein position. I made it clear
that the presence of the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the British
Prime Minister had created a focus which broke the stalemate. I
said that ``This focus could have brought even greater forward
movement and in the months ahead it can deliver further
I outlined our view that British policy in Ireland has manifestly
failed, that partition has failed, and that the days of unionist
rule are gone forever. I made it clear that there can be no
going back to the failed policies and structures of the past, to
the domination of a one-party unionist state supported by the
When the vote was taken I did not vote and Sinn Féin has yet to
make a decision on this document. I had previously made it clear
that our negotiating team would report back to the Ard Chomhairle
which would assess the document in the context of our peace
strategy and that we would approach this development in a
That report was given to the Ard Chomhairle at meetings yesterday
and last Tuesday. The Ard Chomhairle agreed that a report should
be given to this Ard Fheis. They also agreed that a motion to
adjourn the Ard Fheis be put to you all. The idea is that we
discuss all of this but we are not going to be bounced into
decisions at this critical juncture for our struggle. Today and
tomorrow we will have a collective and preliminary discussion.
Then, as you agreed this morning, we will adjourn this Ard Fheis
and reconvene within the next few weeks to decide a definite
position on how we face into the next phase of this struggle and
of our view of this paper and to discuss any direction which the
Ard Chomhairle may give about the two up-coming referenda.
For now, I want to encourage you all to give your views in an
open, frank and comradely way about where you think we are, where
our struggle is, how last week's developments fit into this and
how we move from this point forward towards our goal of unity and
On Easter Sunday all of our speakers called on all republicans to
examine the document in great detail. While this is probably a
necessary exercise it is not enough to read this document on its
own, line by line or word by word. Parts of it are ambiguous and
contradictory. It needs to be examined in the context of
strategy and struggle. And in preparing for the next phase we
need also to examine the positions and strategies of our
opponents and enemies.
I have always made it clear that while our goals and principles
must not change, our strategic objectives, strategies and tactics
must be constantly reviewed and rooted in objective reality.
It is crucially important that all of us are totally involved in
making the decisions which will prepare this party to fulfil the
historic challenges which face us. As part of this review all of
us need to be open to self-criticism and self-examination.
For the benefit of the International audience who will watch and
listen and read about this Ard Fheis, this small island of
Ireland is a partitioned country of five million people.
British interference in our affairs goes back many centuries. So
does the struggle to end British involvement in our affairs. This
century began in a great convulsion of reaction to the quest for
82 years ago on this very day this city echoed to the clamour of
freedom as the men and women of 1916 declared the Republic. Now
as the century draws to a close and on the cusp of the millenium
that self same clamour echoes all around us.
In the last 30 years the struggle so far has come through a
series of phases from the civil rights days and the mass and
popular uprising of the early seventies through periods of
intense armed conflict and the prison struggles including the
hunger strikes into electoralism and the Sinn Fein peace
strategy. That struggle goes on but it could be moving once more
into another defined phase because whatever else the Good Friday
document does, it has the potential to redefine the relationship
between these islands, thus concluding one phase of our struggle
and opening up another one.
If we are to learn the lessons of the last 30 years, if we are to
have confidence in our own strength and in the achievability of
our goals, then we must continue to build our political strength
and while winning friends for our position, we must also confound
our opponents. We have argued that the movement from today's
inequality, division and conflict must be transitional. We have
argued that progress can be achieved through a rolling process
which builds a bridge into the future. In fact, in a document of
that name, I presented a case for transitional and other
arrangements into a peaceful and democratic Ireland.
It is my view that many of these ideas should underpin our
strategy in the time ahead.
Such a transitional process could provide a pragmatic route to
our ultimate goal but only if the dynamic for such change is
stronger than the resistance to it. In assessing the outcome of
last week's deliberations, and our own positions, we need to
explore whether this is a possibility.
The background to the Agreement was the IRA cessation of August
1994. The republican objective was to genuinely explore the
possibilities of a just settlement. The IRA initiative was
abused by those politicians resisting change and by securocrats
who cannot accept the fact that the IRA is intact, strong and
undefeatable. Nor could they contemplate a resurgent nationalist
community asserting its rights, because the existence of the
northern state was founded, first, on the denial of the right of
the Irish people to independence and, second, on the denial of
fundamental civil, national and democratic rights to Irish
nationalists in the North. Their obstructionist approach led to
the breakdown of the first IRA cessation.
It should not be necessary to stress that these people are still
in positions of power in the British establishment and still
working to a unionist and militarist agenda.
There is no big secret about republican strategy, just as there
is no big secret about British government and unionist strategy.
They want to maintain the union and we will always want to end it
in order to push for our objective - Irish reunification and
The talks process has not settled centuries of British
interference in Ireland. Major issues remain unresolved. As
Irish republicans we believe that Britain's involvement in our
country has been disastrous for us and for them also. We were
bequeathed conflict and death, we were bequeathed division.
Britain has never had any right to be in Ireland. Britain will
never have any right to be in Ireland. But the British
government can play a positive role before leaving by trying to
redress some of its wrongs and by helping to create the
conditions for a peaceful transition to a just settlement.
We knew from the outset that other parties, had already
subscribed to a unionist veto described euphemistically as
`consent'. We disagree with that position. The reason we cannot
subscribe to a unionist veto is quite simple. That veto led to
partition and to great suffering by nationalists under Stormont.
It was a great historical wrong which allowed a national minority
to veto progress by the Irish nation. That veto, and the
pandering to that veto, has fed unionist intransigence to this
day. It did so at the talks. It continues to feed intransigence
and to delay a just settlement. Significantly, that veto has
also been the pretext for continued British involvement in
Republicans seek agreement between the people of this island as a
way of resolving this conflict. That means winning unionists, or
at least a sufficient number of unionists, over to the goal of a
United Ireland. Is that possible? Have we confidence in our
republican analysis, in our arguments and in our vision of the
future? Of course, how quickly we can do that depends on
nationalism and republicanism building on the limited political
consensus which has marked recent events.
But consent has to be a two way street. We have not heard much
about the principle of nationalist consent. Nationalists have
had to struggle long and hard for our rights and we republicans
have been in the vanguard of that struggle and will remain in the
vanguard of that struggle throughout the challenging period
before us. I shall not prejudge the outcome of the crucial
debate that is ahead of Sinn Féin but I say this. United we can
do whatever we like. We can continue to confound our critics.
We will be imaginative and courageous, open and honest, and will
never lose sight of our objective of a United Ireland. And we
will continue to make advances.
Much has been said about the Agreement. It has been interpreted
this way and that. It is up to us collectively to decide how we
approach it. On the one hand it upholds the unionist veto over
the constitutional position 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.
So while the Agreement is not a settlement, it is a basis for
advancement. It heralds a change in the status quo. And it
could become a transitional stage towards reunification but only
if all those who express an interest in that objective,
especially the powerful and influential, move beyond rhetoric to
build a real, dynamic for national democratic change.
But they must move beyond rhetoric. It was never and it will
never be enough to say the nationalist nightmare has ended. And
we, who are in the vanguard of this struggle, those risen people
throughout this island and abroad are the guarantors of that.
So Sinn Fein will subscribe to what we view as positive in the
Agreement, to those aspects which contribute to moving us towards
our overall objectives, and it is you, the activists, who with
the leadership, shall decide on that.
Some of our critics will say: `You cant do that! You have to buy
into it, all or nothing!' But they are wrong.
We can do and we will do whatever we are mandated to do.
We will not be caged in, psyched out, intimidated, cajoled,
patronised or bought off. We have our eye on the prize. The prize
As everyone knows there was a two week period of intensive
multi-party negotiations which started on Monday 30 March. Our
party had argued for that type of intensive, concentrated and
focussed dialogue. In fact, you will recall it was we who first
asked for a timeframe for the negotiations. In the absence of
any other dynamic, in our view such a timeframe could act as a
catalyst. In the run up to this date, and following our
expulsion from the talks, we had a series of meetings with the
British and Irish governments and with President Clinton and his
officials in the White House.
Our concerns as we approached this intensive period were that the
two governments had yet to agree on many of the substantive
issues and David Trimble had, and has yet to bring himself to
recognising the legitimacy of our mandate. We raised all of
these concerns in our different engagements. In the absence of
agreement between the governments we feared that the British
government would go down to the wire on some issues and that the
Irish government would be forced to negotiate up which is always
more difficult than negotiating down. We were also concerned
that the officials at the British end, mostly the same ones who
handled this issue during John Major's term, would, once again,
take up a unionist line. In both cases our fears were justified.
In the first day or so it became obvious that Senator Mitchell,
who played a thoroughly commendable role, had no paper to
deliver. I went to see Bertie Ahern in Dublin. After a very
thorough meeting I left assured that he was focussed on all the
issues and that his engagements with the British Prime Minister
which were due to start later that week would concentrate on the
For us the substantive issues were those which we believed needed
to be tackled as part of our effort to bring an end to British
jurisdiction in our country and those other matters which are
central to a conflict resolution process and the equality agenda.
As it transpired, Mr Ahern and Mr Blair made progress. Their
officials were then left to put words to the political positions
their leaders had agreed.
Meanwhile back at the Talks venue, the Unionists were still
blocking and impeding progress. We warned that they would
increase this hard-balling and negative stance and that its aim
was to prevent the tabling of any paper which was not to their
satisfaction. Mr Trimble had a series of meetings with Mr Blair
and that week passed without a paper being tabled at the talks.
On Sunday, Lucilita, Bairbre, Caoimhghin, Rita OHare and myself
met with the Irish government. Bertie Ahern's mother took
seriously ill that day and despite this he saw ourselves and
other parties. In fact he left our meeting to go to the hospital
and regrettably Julia Ahern died in the early hours of the
following morning. My own mother died suddenly in 1992. She was
rushed to the hospital with a stroke. I did not visit her for
fear of jeopardising others. I have yet to recover from her
death. Colette's mother died 3 years ago. She has yet to recover.
So we know how Bertie feels. He had to conduct business as usual.
I would like to extend condolences of this Ard Fheis to the Ahern
At midnight on Monday the paper was eventually tabled. Our talks
team were ready and waiting and I want to take this opportunity
to commend all of them. We had at least a score of people
working non stop during this period. They included our front
team of negotiators, the back-up people who drafted and provided
the arguments, the publicity people, the secretariat which
monopolised three word-processors and at least 5 lap-tops and the
security people who were on constant call. We also had the
active support of a number of lawyers and senior counsel. They
all deserve our heartiest congratulations.
I now want to call upon Martin McGuinness to take us through the
twists and turns of the situation from Tuesday until Friday and
to give his assessment to you.
[The address by Sinn Féin's Chief Negotiator
Martin McGuinness followed here]
Before following on from Martin's remarks I want to pay tribute
to our friends from abroad. We regularly pay tribute to our
friends in the USA and to President Clinton. The international
dimension of this struggle has been an expanding one. On
Thursday, I received a call from the United Nations Secretary
General, Kofi Annan, and we had a brief discussion about the
situation here. We also received a wide range of greetings from
throughout the world and if I may single out one person who has
been a stalwart ally I want to pay tribute to President Nelson
Martin has painted out a sense of what happened and of what has
to be done. But of course none of the recent developments or the
potential of the current situation would be possible if the IRA
had not shown the great courage in taking the initiative for
peace in August 1994.
In 1998 we are at a high point where Sinn Fein and republicanism
is a pivotal and growing force in Irish politics. We need to be
confident about our own strength. We need to build our struggle
right across this island so that the reconquest of Ireland is
realised in all of its social, economic and cultural
manifestations as well as in the political field. Our task must
be to articulate and develop the core republican positions in a
way which is reasonable and attractive to the broad mass of the
Irish people. This cannot be a northern struggle with the south
tagged on. It has to be a truely national struggle. That is
Unionist nervousness should not blind us to the enormity of our
task and to what has to be done in the time ahead. Last year in
my address to you I stressed the need for republicans to be
concerned about what was happening inside unionism. I told you
then and I want to tell you again, `we must make every effort to
ensure that northern protestants and unionists are not forced to
occupy that political space we wish to escape from'.
Today, more than ever, we need to hear the many voices of
unionism. We need to know what is going on inside their section
of our people.
I am aware that the political circumstances that have unfolded
over this past seven days have left a deep sense of uncertainty
among many unionists. Northern Unionists are now having to deal
with a range of political issues which surface in the form of raw
emotions. I know the difficulty they are having in dealing with
such emotions. I appreciate the intensity of their feelings and
recognise how much they matter to those who feel the hurt and
We who carry so much pain must not allow our hurt make us
insensitive to the hurt and pain of the unionists. We must make
it clear that we have no wish to dominate them in the way we were
dominated in the past. I also appreciate that for many
republicans this journey of reconciliation with the unionists is
difficult, but surely the depth of our republican vision is its
capacity to lift us above our more negative feelings. Our vision
compels us to build a bridge into the hearts and minds of those
who we once described as our enemy.
Looking into Unionism today I see confusion and fear. Many in
that community believe that ahead of them lies a rushing
political humiliation. Many believe they are being moved into a
position of second class citizenship where they will be robbed of
their identity. They fear they are being forced into a political
space which was previously occupied by nationalists and
These perceptions have become magnified since April 10. I would
therefore like to take this opportunity to spell out to the
northern protestant and unionist community the core political
values that lie at the centre of our wish to engage with you.
Republicans have no wish to discriminate against you; to dominate you; to marginalise you; to drive you from this island;
to make you second class citizens in the land of your birth.
Now let me spell out the core political values that lie at the centre of our relationship with you.
There is a common need: to recognise the integrity of the other; to be at peace with each other; to understand the way we have hurt one another; to listen to one another; to be patient with one another; to find our common ground; to celebrate our difference as diversity. And as equals.
Today the Ulster Unionist Party is meeting. They are worried.
Divided. Concerned. Change is never easy. The politics of
change are volatile but unionists and republicans must deal with
the politics of change. I understand the difficulties facing
David Trimble. I feel that he has compounded some of his
difficulties by refusing so far to embrace with generosity the
breadth of change which is needed. Change must be managed. That
is difficult for everyone, for you, for me, for Mr Trimble. The
anchor of change has to be dialogue. In his heart of hearts Mr
Trimble knows that. He also knows that the real significance of
last week's events for unionism was that the Ulster Unionist
Party was moved further than it wanted to go. But if Unionists
are to play a positive role in the shared responsibility which
must shape a shared future for everyone on this island, unionism
will have to move even further into modern times.
David Trimble says that in his opinion the union is much safer
under the Agreement than it was before. But he knows the truth
is that the union has been severely weakened. That is the
So while I am conscious of Mr Trimble's difficulties and ready to
engage directly with him I must also remind him that the
challenge for him is to join in managing and planning the future
along with the rest of us.
It is my view that this will happen. But only when there is no
alternative. That is why the role of the British Prime Minister
is so crucial. Up to this point British policy in support of the
Union, as well as the unionist veto, have been at the root of the
conflict here. That is why the focus of all democratic opinion
must be on securing changes in British policy and removing the
Yesterday, I spoke to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. 10 Downing
Street also phoned 44 Parnell Square and I spoke to the British
Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who I will be meeting again on 27
April. I took the opportunity to impress upon him once again
that the British responsibility in Ireland is to right wrongs. I
also conveyed to him complaints that I have received of British
military and RUC harassment in Belfast, South Armagh and Tyrone.
Indeed over the Easter period a number of our negotiating team
were victims once again of this harassment. In my view Mr Blair
understands that he must bring changes urgently on the ground and
in these areas which have suffered most from the blight of
British militarism and the British presence.
His is the biggest responsibility because he must face up to
righting the wrongs, which are the historical and contemporary
legacy of Britain's involvement in our affairs.
When Irish republicans talk about British interference and the
British presence we do not mean the unionist people. They are an
important and valued part of our society. We want to make peace
with the unionists, to work with you, to accommodate and
celebrate our diversity as equals.
One of the big challenges facing us in the time ahead is how we
deal with the new structures which are being proposed. This must
be part of our evaluation. Irish republicans have an emotional
and an understandable political as well as a constitutional block
to participation in a Stormont parliament. If that abstentionist
policy underpins our contest in the Assembly elections then the
seats in the cross border bodies, which have the power to make
and implement policy on an all Ireland basis, and which would
rightly belong to our electorate, could be allocated to other
parties. We need to ask ourselves if this serves our struggle.
If it does, fair enough. It if does not then we have a duty to
look at alternatives based upon a coherent republican strategy.
We cannot and we will not recognise as legitimate the six county
statelet. And we can and we will continue to reject partition and
British rule. That is our credo.
We cannot stand still. The struggle must be developed. We need
to keep making advances, creating a new political culture. A
culture of change. To bring an end to the status quo.
Nationalists and republicans living in the north are not some
ethnic minority living in a foreign state. We are Irish people
living in our own country. Our rights are not concessions that
is the gift of unionism of the British government to give or
Northern nationalists willingly and consciously share in the
sovereignty of the Irish people. This needs to be given
recognition and accommodated at this time as part of the forward
momentum of a transitional process. Accordingly we have
advocated that Irish citizens in the north be entitled to return
representatives to the Dail and to participate as fully as
possible in the political life of the nation. We have also
proposed that Irish citizens in the north be entitled to vote in
presidential elections and relevant referenda. I welcome the
Taoiseach's referral of this matter to the Commission on
Constitutional Review and urge that the processing of this be
expedited. I would also invite individuals and organisations and
other political parties throughout Ireland to actively
demonstrate their support for these proposals.
The Irish government have a responsibility to develop the
citizenship right of those in the north to its fullest extent.
Ireland is Ireland. The Irish people are the nation and the
national territory is all 32 counties, our islands and
territorial seas. No section of the Irish nation can have a veto
on the political destiny of the whole nation. The Irish nation
has never voluntarily recognised the claim of the British
government to sovereignty over any part of Ireland. Antrim,
Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone are Irish counties.
Nothing can change that. And nothing ever will.
That is why we have to keep building our struggle and building
our political strength.
Because it is by building that strength that we will build the
capacity to move both the British government and the unionists.
Our interest is not merely in new structures. We have no
interest in jobs for the boys or the girls. We are not place
seekers. We will not be found fumbling in the greasy till adding
halfpence to the pence. Our interest is in freedom and in winning
maximum changes in every aspect of our lives.
All political prisoners must be released. We will not rest until
they are at home with their loved ones.
There will be many difficult times ahead. We must cast off
delusions and suspicions and rise to the challenges before us.
Irish republicans have demonstrated time and time again our
capacity to overcome adversity and advance our struggle for
freedom and justice against enormous odds.
It is not enough to sloganise. We are not verbalised republicans
or rhetorical revolutionaries. We are deadly serious about
turning the division of 1798 and 1916 into a reality. I believe
this generation of Irish republicans will do just that.
It will not be easy. The last few months have seen many killings.
Last night another man died. So there are mighty challenges if we
are to remove the causes of conflict from our country. But we
will persist mindful that while we seek to make peace the orange
state is lining up to do battle.
So let us have our discussions here today and tomorrow. Let us
come back here to take our decisions collectively and in unity.
And let us have freedom."