When in doubt, make it up
BY FERN LANE
yone expecting a sombre mood at this year's Ard Fheis after the political disasters inflicted on the peace process by Messrs Trimble and Mandelson would have been either pleasantly surprised or bitterly disappointed, depending on their point of view, at the - all things considered - optimism about the future on show. After all, it is not as though old-fashioned unionist intransigence indulged by a British Secretary of State constitutes an entirely unexpected turn of events, even if hopes that this government may be different had been briefly raised before being dashed. Thus, despite the collapsing of the Assembly, there seemed to be a collective resolution in evidence that change is coming anyway and will not be stopped; and that despite the best hopes of those in the security services and unionist `No' camp, grass-roots activists know where the fault for the current mess lies, which isn't with the Sinn Féin leadership.
Many of the foreign visitors were also surprised at the mood; several commented on the difference between this year's conference and that of two years ago. Then, anxiety and uncertainty about the consequences of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement resounded around the conference hall.
As a result of the lack of acrimony, journalists, particularly the English ones, struggled to find something controversial to write about. One even labeled Gerry McGeough's contribution on Saturday afternoon as, and I quote, ``inflammatory''. You would be forgiven in thinking that he had urged delegates to spill onto the streets and storm the citadel, but those present will recall that Gerry's speech, although delivered with some style and great passion, was actually a demand that, er, street signs be in Gaelic and - this must have been the inflammatory bit - spelled correctly.
But then the activities of the press at events such as this are always good entertainment value. For example, on Saturday morning, no sooner had I got my blue visitor's badge pinned on than a pleasant young woman from The Sunday Times approached and asked me, as a delegate, to complete a survey on Sinn Féin policy, the results of which were to be published the next day. I explained, pointing at my badge, that I was not a delegate, to which she replied ``Can you do it anyway?''. Intrigued by this novel way of surveying delegates by asking non-delegates to complete the survey, I conducted my own survey of the survey which revealed that she had also made a similar request to four visiting academics, a party of lost Dutch tourists, 12 members of the international press corps, two members of The Sunday Times survey team (including herself) and a bloke walking his dog.
Sure enough, the next day the newspaper claimed, with great authority, that a ``survey of Sinn Féin delegates'' had revealed untrammeled enthusiasm for entering into a coalition government with the boys and girls from Fianna Fáil. Had they bothered to attend the debate on the question on Sunday afternoon, they would had heard a different story.
Mind you, this gem faded into insignificance next the paper's main headline, which shouted: ``Adams says the IRA may go back to war.'' Having sat through the entirety of the presidential speech the day before, I was rather taken aback, since I was quite certain I had not heard him saying anything like this. I thought that perhaps I had dozed off momentarily and missed the crucial sentence, but after I had searched and failed to find anybody at all who had actually heard him say it either, I concluded that The Sunday Times, like the results of their ``survey'', must have resorted, in their increasing desperation for a negative story, to what is technically known as Making It Up.