Speech by Gerry Adams to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 29 March 2003
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Text of a speech by Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin, to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, Dublin, 29 March 2003.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh gach duine atá anseo inniu, na hoifigigh, an ceannaireacht, na baill uilig agus chomh maith leis sin ár gcairde ón tír seo agus thar lear. Tá súil agam go bhfuil sibh ag baint sult agus fiúntas as an chaint agus dióspoireacht thar an deireadh seachtaine.
This is a very unique gathering. This is the Ard Fheis of the only all-Ireland political party on this island.
No where was this more in evidence than the sight of republicans, from all over Ireland, working together since our last Ard Fheis to achieve the incredible breakthrough in the Leinster House elections.
I want to welcome the new group of Sinn Fein TDs who joined Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin on the benches of Leinster House. We have very good parliamentarians; innovative challenging and effective representatives who have given a voice to those whom the political establishment north and south turn their backs on and those who want a different Ireland, an Ireland of equals. The work of the TDs and their team since 2002 shows that our party is a force to be reckoned with. But there is much more to be done by all of us. That includes increasing the size of our team and sending republican women into the chamber at Leinster House to keep the other politicans right.
Sinn Fein - Building an Ireland of EqualsLast year the absence of a clear or credible alternative government, the collapse and the defection of a significant section of the Fine Gael vote to Fianna Fail and the lavish promises made by the coalition partners, ensured the re-election of the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat government. But it was a very different story afterwards. Never have people become so disillusioned, so disappointed and so enraged by a government so quickly by a new government. Little wonder!
Before the general election the people were told that there would be no cutbacks. But even before polling day the cutbacks were prepared. Before the election the people were promised that hospital waiting lists would end within two years. But after the election this wasn't even included in the programme for government. Before the election there was a promise to extend medical cards to a further 200,000 citizens. But after the election that promise was broken and instead of medical cards we got increased hospital and medicine charges. Before the election there were promises to put right the appalling state of many of our schools. Especially small national schools in rural areas. But after the election they cut the school building programme. Is this the type of society we want? A society where wealth flows as never before yet a quarter of our children and a fifth of our adults are in households with less than half the average income, where we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any industrial state outside of the USA.
What kind of economy is it where even people earning above the average industrial wage cannot afford a decent home? Where the local housing authority lists grow longer by the day. There is a crisis in housing but it is not a crisis for property speculators, developers and landlords. They've never had it so good!
So, we are not about getting elected for the sake of it. We have work to do. We are for empowering citizens. We cannot lose our campaigning edge. We are people in struggle. We are activists for change. We are about building an alternative to the kind of government which can preside for two terms over one of the wealthiest economies in the European Union, yet fail to provide ordinary citizens with decent public services, in health, in education, transport and housing. We are about transforming an economy where the income of the wealthiest ten percent is thirteen times that of the lowest paid workers. We are for equality. That is why we are a party of change.
Sinn Fein represents the future. We don't have all the answers but we have never been better placed to make the case for national independence, social justice and equality for all. The fact that it took two referendums for the establishment here to get a Yes vote on the Nice Treaty is proof of that and I want to commend everyone who played an active part in that campaign. Despite prophesies of isolation in Europe and lies by the establishment parties, almost 40% of the electorate of this state agreed with Sinn Fein's analysis.
Our task in the decade ahead is to provide the leadership needed to challenge the status quo. Throughout rural Ireland, but particularly in the West and North-West, whole communities, and even regions are suffering underdevelopment and neglect. In the six counties 2000 people die prematurely every year because of poverty, and a quarter of households suffer deprivation. The boom of the 1990s showed that we have the resources to create a just society across the whole island but there has been no real strategic planning, no proper regional development, no rural regeneration. The last decade was one in which resources were squandered through tax give-aways to the wealthy and privileged, through corruption, and through policies and spending that failed to plan for long-term investment and development. How is this to be changed?
A political party can mobilise, organise and represent and Sinn Fein is doing all these things. But it is the people who must bring about change. Nothing can turn back the tide of change when enough people in our country decide to sweep away the old failed policies of the past.
Sinn Fein is nothing without the people. We are nothing without the support we enjoy the length and breadth of Ireland and among our friends and exiles overseas. 22 years ago Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers were dying in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. They were the target of Margaret Thatcher's intransigence. But Thatcher's efforts to defeat republicanism failed. The legacy of Bobby Sands and his comrades is the continued success, determination and growth of our struggle. Across the island of Ireland we are building the demand for equality, justice and freedom. And that my friends, all other things to one side, is what has brought us to this crisis in the peace process.
The British and the Irish establishment's version of the peace process did not allow for the growth of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein was to be perhaps a significant but nonetheless small, incohesive element in an anaemic political system in the north. But it hasn't turned out like that. The Good Friday Agreement has been correctly seen as an instrument of change, real change in real ways in peoples lives. For that reason nationalists and republicans and thoughtful unionists support it. For that reason rejectionist unionists and the British establishment oppose it. They understand that the Good Friday Agreement is essentially about establishing a level playing field.
They fear that the achievement of equality of treatment, and the emergence of a new inclusive society in Ireland, will leave much of Irish or Ulster Unionism without any rational basis and erode the very reason for the existence of the union and the British jurisdiction in Ireland. Unionist leaders know this. So do British unionists, those in the British establishment and the London government. That is why it is so difficult to get them to implement the changes that constitute the Good Friday Agreement.
The British government is a pro-union government and its tactical management of the process has exacerbated the crisis within unionism and encouraged the rejectionists. But the rights and entitlements of citizens, regardless of creed, colour, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability or political opinion, is non-negotiable. The legacy of discrimination and inequality experienced by nationalists in the north is neither a perception or a propaganda position. It is a stark reality borne out yet again by the latest unemployment statistics where unemployment levels among catholic males is twice that of their protestant counter-parts. Rectifying this requires a concentration of resources and other measures of intervention to end the cycle of inequality and eradicate the poverty trap.
Ten Years is a long Time in Politics
Sinn Fein is now the largest nationalist party in the north. Far from being outshone by others our Ministers in the Executive were efficient, modernising, reforming Ministers. Our Assembly team was effective, not only in the chamber but also across all the committees, and in their constituencies. And as we have seen the growth of Sinn Fein hasn't been confined to the six counties. We are recognised as a campaigning party and Sinn Fein is seen by an increasing section of the electorate to be the engine of the peace process.
Ten years ago it was all very different. Ten years ago there was no peace process. Ten years ago this party was a demonised organisation in transition sowing the seeds of our peace strategy to a censored media, pioneering delicate and difficult talks in a society which was polarised by the relentless cycle of ongoing injustice and violence. Ten years ago we were told that peace was impossible in Ireland and that Irish unity was a pipe dream. Ten years is a long time in politics.
Despite the many ups and downs we have seen what is possible. Across the north life is better for the vast majority of people. In saying that I am very conscious of families who have been bereaved, particularly as a result of sectarianism. I am also mindful of the family of a young IRA volunteer Keith Rogers who was killed in unprecedented circumstances earlier this month.
I am very conscious that for some people conditions have become worse. Our representatives stand shoulder to shoulder with them. We know the real terror faced by beleagured families and communities in interface areas in Belfast, in Larne, in South Antrim and elsewhere. And we extend solidarity to them.
All of which brings us to the current difficulties. Depending on your viewpoint the crisis has been caused by unionism, or by Irish republicans or by the British government or by the Irish government or by the accumulation of factors involving or allegedly involving all of these elements. I am not going to engage in the blame game in this speech and I want to acknowledge in a very clear way that the difficulties within unionism have been severely exacerbated by the ongoing focus on alleged IRA activities. And of course, on the republican and nationalist side there is anger, frustration and annoyance because there is little focus on the ongoing activities of unionist paramilitaries or the actions of the British forces. Should we give up hope in the process? No.
But we have to face up to the reality that the British government holds the survival of David Trimble and the ascendancy of the UUP within unionism as priority objectives. This might be a fair enough tactical approach if the dynamic was not being drained out of the process; if Mr. Trimble was fighting his corner and promoting the Agreement; and if the changes for which the British government has direct responsibility were proceeding regardless. But this is not the case. And where stands the Irish government in all of this? The Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty between the Irish and British governments. They have a joint and co-equal responsibility for its implementation. The British government has no right to act unilaterally and it needs to be told this again and again.
In particular Irish citizens, victimised and targeted by sectarian violence, have a right to expect effective political protection from the government in Dublin. And all sections of the electorate have the right to expect that the Irish government will uphold their rights in the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, instead of stepping outside that agreement to bring in sanctions.
A New Beginning to Policing?
Tomorrow our Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness will give a more detailed report on the current negotiations, but for now I want to make a few specific remarks on the highly sensitive and emotive issue of policing in the north. Let me state clearly that no decision to support the current policing proposition has been considered by the outgoing Ard Chomhairle. Such a decision will only be taken by a specially convened Ard Fheis. And we are not yet in a position to contemplate convening this. If we do so, it is my intention that a position paper would go to all levels of the party for discussion - that is the party membership as a whole, and that there would be a comprehensive debate leading up to the special Ard Fheis. I also believe that there should be debate within the wider republican and nationalist community. We should make no bones about the enormity of this issue. The Irish nationalist and republican experience of policing has been one of oppression, hostility and conflict.
The RUC, the armed wing of unionism, was established as a political paramilitary force to defend partition and institutionalised sectarianism. Under direct rule it became the cutting edge of the British state in Ireland. It has left an unhealed scar on the nationalist and republican psyche. The consequence of resistance to that has also left its mark on the unionist section of the community in the north. Sinn Fein brought the demand that the RUC should be disbanded into the process of negotiations. For the first time there is the potential to radically effect the nature and role of policing in the six counties.
We have made policing, and the related issue of criminal justice, a new arena of struggle for republicans and nationalists. In that context, while building towards national independence, our objective in the interim is to depoliticise policing in the north. That means removing policing as a pillar of unionist power and preventing it from ever again being used by any section of society as an oppressive paramilitary force. In pursuing these objectives we made it clear that the Patten recommendations did not go far enough for us. That is why we have put the issue of the transfer of policing and justice powers from the British government to the Assembly, the Executive and the north-south Ministerial Council at the centre of the political agenda.
That is policing under local democratic control and accountability, to be shaped as a community service and not a tool of the securocrats. There is no reason why powers on policing and justice cannot be transferred on the same basis as other key issues such as health, education and economic development.
We have also argued for the full and immediate implementation of the Patten recommendations, not as an end in itself but as part of a process of change. This is because we believe that they could, when implemented in full, fundamentally and irreversibly change the nature, ethos and composition of policing in the north. For this reason the Brit securocrats, the unionist parties, and elements of the police itself, particularly the Special Branch, which at its core is the old RUC, have attempted to hollow out the Patten proposals. We are arguing for the Good Friday Agreement vision of policing to become a reality.
The people we represent are law abiding. They have a right to be policed by public servants who act on their behalf. Violence in their homes against the elderly, anti-social behaviour, car crime, the scourge of drugs, violence against women and against children, random violence on our streets is intolerable and unacceptable. The threat to the most vulnerable in our society from criminal elements, has to be tackled. That's why we have to get policing right.
So consequently if I am asked can I see a time when it would be appropriate for Sinn Fein to join the Policing Board, and participate fully in the policing arrangements on a democratic basis? The answer is yes. Are we at that point now? The answer is no, not yet.
We may know at the end of the current negotiations. And let me tell you that there has been substantive movement or commitments to movement on key issues by the British government. These commitments have been achieved solely by the Sinn Fein negotiating team. After Weston Park in July 2001the SDLP signed on for inadequate policing arrangements. That was a mistake. The British and Irish governments had put forward a take it or leave it package. The SDLP acquiesced to that position. It now attempts to claim the Weston Park proposals as a result of its good negotiation, even though it was Sinn Fein which was central to that process.
The difference between us and the SDLP on this issue, and the Irish government for that matter as well, is that when we collectively failed to achieve the necessary progress they gave up. We did not. We continued working. The broad nationalist consensus was broken on this issue. It was left to Sinn Fein to carry forward the demand for an end to politically partisan policing and for an accountable, representative, human rights based, and civic police service.
The results of some of that work can be seen in the amendments to legislation going through the British Parliament at this time. Other elements of it will become public if the British keep to their commitments in the time ahead.
But far from wanting a fight with the SDLP or others on this issue I want to see a consensus re-established on the policing issue as well as on all the other outstanding aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. The reality is that the northern state remains in its ethos and symbols a unionist state. This is reflected in all of its agencies and institutions, with the exception of the democratic institutions, which of course are now suspended - yet again.
The implementation of the Good Friday Agreement means that all the symbols, the ethos, institutions and agencies of the northern state will have to be representative and reflective of all citizens there. There has to be parity of esteem and equality of treatment. This week a senior Irish government source briefed sections of the media that at a meeting last Monday the Taoiseach told the Sinn Fein leadership that there is no room for further negotiations. The Taoiseach did not tell us that. Later a senior Minister was reported as warning parties of seeking a 'concession too far'. The issues which are at the core of the Good Friday Agreement are not concessions. They are rights and entitlements. They are also not yet a reality. They are very much work in progress. And until they become a reality and until the Agreement is fully implemented Sinn Fein will continue to negotiate and campaign for this.
The British Prime Minister's speech last October in Belfast specifically acknowledged that the Good Friday Agreement has not been implemented. Our responsibility, and the responsibility of all parties to that agreement, must be to bring this about. There is no other way forward. All of us have to make politics work. All parties have to strive to bring closure to all these issues in ways which are realistic and achievable. All of the parties, and this includes both governments, have to make peace, to build justice.
While I believe that the majority of unionists want to embrace change it is clear that their political leaders do not want the Good Friday Agreement to be implemented. That seems to be the Ulster Unionist Party's current position. Ian Paisley has always been clear about this. It appears that the demands of unionism are insatiable. They are also not deliverable. Not unless the two governments tear up the Good Friday Agreement. Not unless people in the south allow them to do this. Not unless nationalists and republicans in the north decide to accept less than our very basic entitlements. We have no intention of doing that.
Lig dúinn bheith soiléir faoi rud amháin, 'sé sin go gcaithfidh gach duine comhionannas córa agus comhionannas deise a fháil.
The old days are over. The days of second class citizenship are finished. So the challenge for Mr. Blair is quite profound. He and the Taoiseach have made an exceptional contribution to the search for peace. He understands as well as I do that this is a process and that all of us need to see beyond the difficulties of the moment. His task in the short term has to be to continue the process of peacemaking. The Good Friday Agreement remains the only show in town. This party doesn't need to be told that. But rejectionist unionists do. So too does the British system.
I believe Mr. Blair should also see that Britain's strategic interest are best served by the democratic resolution of the long-standing quarrel between the people of these two islands. So the challenge for Mr. Blair is to shape his own system, his own agencies, to make this process work, and in so doing to accept that the leaderships of political unionism will not journey along the Good Friday Agreement process if they can avoid that. But like people everywhere they will respond to the conditions in which they live. I therefore retain a confidence that if unionism is liberated, like the rest of us, from the conditions of the past, they will rise to the challenge.
There can be no escape from the reality that the conditions in which we will all have to live are those defined by the Good Friday Agreement. Until the unionists know that for a certainty they will resist that Agreement. This is a hugely traumatic process for them. In their hearts many unionists know that the game is up. It isn't over. But it is up. And whether the majority of unionists ever had any real advantage from the old agenda depends on how you define the word advantage.
Let us be clear that social conditions which cause concern in republican and nationalist communities across this island also exist in loyalist and unionist communities in the north. There are conditions of serious and severe social alienation in loyalist areas which lead to genuine feelings of isolation. The causes of these conditions are many - not least the fact that for years there has been social deprivation in protestant working class areas. In fact the protestant working class in many ways has been abandoned. We want to see the standard of living of all sections of the community raised through meaningful employment, and the provision of social amenities, places of recreation and better housing. Addressing poverty and deprivation by targeting social need is a universal concept which should not be bounded by political allegiance or religious belief.
There is little merit in governments offering financial support to any section as a short term sweetner. A prolonged and consistent policy which will remove social grievances and reduce alienation is essential. And we have been arguing for this consistently. Including in the current negotiations with both governments. Let the message go out from us here today, to loyalist and unionist working class areas - we understand what is happening to you and we know such problems must be addressed. Irish republicans do not want anyone to go into the space that nationalists and republicans in the north are vacating. We want to close that space down. We do not want anyone to be treated the way we were.
Sinn Fein has worked to have the Good Friday Agreement implemented, not only because that is our obligation, not only because that is the right thing, but also because this fits into a strategy of creating an alternative to war and a means of sustaining and anchoring the peace process. Many may argue that we have an imperfect peace. But let's be realistic about this, it is a lot better than what is happening in other parts of the world at this time, and it's a lot better than what was happening in this country over a long time.
Our strategy, and Mr. Trimble knows this, is about bringing an end to physical force republicanism, by creating an alternative way to achieve democratic and republican objectives. It wasn't us who promoted the issue of arms decommissioning as a precondition on an Agreement but it was us, and others, who moved so that the IRA came to do the unthinkable. To not only work with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning but also to put arms beyond use under its auspices at a time when unionist paramilitaries were on a killing spree, when sectarian orange marches were being forced into Catholic neighbourhoods and when the British Army was remilitarising.
It wasn't us who came up with another demand once progress on the arms issue was being made. Sinn Fein is not the IRA but we have used our influence, as every party to the Agreement is obliged to, in order to advance the objectives of the Agreement. This party is not accountable for the IRA and I will not accept that we or our electorate can be punished or sanctioned for alleged IRA behaviour but I do have to say that I believe that the IRA is serious and genuine about its support for a peace process.
I speak for this party and we are completely committed to peaceful and democratic means. As an Irish republican, as a citizen of Ireland, I want to see an end to British rule in this country yesterday. The Good Friday Agreement is a big personal and political compromise for me. I want to see a united Ireland by 7pm this evening. But I am realistic enough to know that this is unlikely, for today anyway. But it will happen. And I will continue to work, and this party will continue to work, until it does. Because I know it will be achieved through a process - not by way of ultimatums from me or any other Irish person.
I want to see an end to all of the armed groups on this island. That has to be the aim of every thinking republican. Does anyone think that the IRA is ever going to respond positively to ultimatums from the British government, or David Trimble? But does the logic of the peace process move us in that direction? The answer is yes. And who can influence this the most?
The British government - the unionists - the Irish government and us as well of course. In the days and weeks ahead all of us; the British government - the unionists - Sinn Fein - the Irish government, have decisions to make. Those decisions could decide whether the peace process takes a great leap forward or whether it continues at the frustrating and begrudging pace that has marked its progress thus far.
So can I envisage a future without the IRA? The answer is obvious. The answer is Yes. Sinn Fein is about making peace. About working with others to make this a reality for everyone. There is no other way forward.
And that stands true not only in our country but across this planet. Humanity deserves justice. Human beings can live together in harmony. This party is opposed to the war in Iraq. If big powers want to declare war it should be war against third world poverty. The cost of any one of the bombers being used in Iraq would wipe out the debt of any of the countries which are crucified by this injustice.
The UN estimates that if funds being used to pay off debt were diverted into health and education the lives of seven million children a year could be saved. That is 134,000 children a week. The war in Iraq is wrong.
May I at this juncture point to the positive, inclusive and magnanimous policies which are underpinning the term in office of Belfast's first Sinn Fein Mayor Councillor Alex Maskey. Alex is leading by example. In many ways his work is not only an effort to build a bridge out of the past. He is building a bridge into the future.
There are very few unionists who would put their hand on their hearts today and say with conviction that Irish unity will never happen. That being the case it is incumbent on all of us to prepare for this and to lead by example. To build bridges. This particularly applies to the two governments. The message should be - prepare for re-unification. The majority of people in this state want this. Four of the six counties in the north already vote for those parties who would claim to be pro-united Ireland, as do the majority of people in Belfast. And the numbers voting for pro-united Ireland parties in the other two counties is growing by the day.
It is therefore, incumbent on the two governments to have in place plans and mechanisms to ensure a smooth transition when the time arrives. I am not pointing out these facts in order to frighten or further destabalise unionism but because I believe that many unionists also recognise the change that is taking place. Their fears must be addressed in a comprehensive manner, which will secure assurances and guarantees to satisfy misgivings. We have a responsibility to reassure unionists and to guarantee their rights in concrete terms.
Unionists should not ignore the fact that they represent twenty per cent of the population of this island. Their potential is greater in an Irish state which wants their vital and essential contribution, than it is as two per cent of a British state which has consistently demonstrated no real interest in them, except when it serves their own interest.
Sinn Fein is calling for:
Equality is the most important word in the Irish republican dictionary. That includes gender equality. We have a lot to do within Sinn Fein to make our party representative of society. We have incorporated guidelines and directives to enhance the process to have more women candidates elected and we will be increasing the number of women candidates in winnable seats for the upcoming Assembly elections in the north. We also have to increase our representation of women at all levels within the party and at all levels of political representation. This party needs to continue with radical and political change to facilitate this. That includes male members moving over in order to empower women comrades. It means recruiting more women into our ranks. I do not want to be a member of a party which is not conscious of this. Remember the majority of people in Ireland today are female.
There is a big challenge facing us also on the issue of the Irish Language. This years Slogadh was an outstanding success. Our language is a national resource. It is part of our natural wealth. Behind the arguments about funding, and rights, and resources and equality for the Irish language, and Irish speakers, there is a fundamental fact that we must never lose sight of - the Irish language belongs to the people of Ireland, all of the people, irrespective of class, or creed or background. It has to be our priority to relearn our own language. We have to be part of language planning which puts Irish back in the mouths of the people. So we have lots to do. And not enough people to do it. I appeal to those who share our vision to come into this party. Or to work with us in broad alliances.
Ta na toghchain seo le teacht iontach tabhactach don phairti seo. Caithfidh achan duine a seacht ndicheall a dheanamh chun an oiread is mo suiochain a bhaint. Ta me ag ra libh anois gur seo tus an toghchain inniu.
Earlier today I paid tribute a moment ago to senior people who are moving into new positions as part of the regeneration of our party. I am very pleased to see Joe Cahill is here with us today as tenacious and determined as ever, and not thinking of anything except the grand slam and not thinking of going anywhere except on the canvas trail on the upcoming Assembly election.
These elections give the electorate yet another opportunity to re-invest in the peace process and in the republican vision. Despite the shredding of the electoral register this contest gives Sinn Fein the opportunity to increase our political strength and to continue to build for the future.
What sort of future can it be?
Imagine an Ireland in which there is no more war - no more conflict. An Ireland in which the guns and bombs are silent for ever. An Ireland in which the words of hate are silent - for ever. Imagine the people of this island free from division, foreign occupation, injustice and conflict. Imagine the five million people of our small island applying our collective energy, our intelligence, our wisdom to produce the wealth to improve the quality of life for all our people. Imagine an Ireland using that wealth to tackle poverty, to build homes, to educate, to protect the environment, to heal the sick, to help the weak, the aged, all the children of the nation.
George Bernard Shaw once said, 'Some people see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never were and ask why not.' This party is determined to rebuild the political process and to keep the peace process intact. We are living through a time of great hope, great risk and great opportunity. No one ever said that any of this was going to be easy. Freedom never comes easily. All history teaches us that.
But all history all teaches us that the determined movement of people organised, and resolutely demanding their rights will win through. That is what we have to do. That is what we will do.
There is no way back. There is only one way - and that is forward."
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