Sinn Féin has responded to its political critics with an extraordinary annual conference in Dublin this weekend.
In his keynote address to the conference, party president Gerry Adams challenged deeply-held republican beliefs to urge that those accused of the murder of Robert McCartney -- allegedly killed by republicans, including IRA members, at a Belfast city centre bar in January -- be brought before British Crown courts in the North of Ireland.
The party’s Ard Fheis took place at Dublin’s Royal Dublin Society arena in the midst of a barrage of political attacks on the party in the run-up to the British general election in the Six Counties and by-elections in the 26 Counties.
The presence at Mr Adams’ address yesterday of the family of Robert McCartney provoked cheers by political delegates. They unanimously backed an emergency motion, tabled by the party leadership, supporting the family in its pursuit of justice.
In the debate on the political process today, Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin unveiled a novel and revealing account of the party’s negotiating strategy in the talks.
“The objective we set ourselves with regard to the DUP has confounded many,” he said. “We had been accused of being unrealistic, of being naive, of being fooled by noises from within the DUP before and after the Assembly election in November 2003 when they publicly espoused a willingness to do a deal.
But he claimed his party was “testing the DUP’s conversion to partnership, power-sharing and inclusivity”.
However, following the rejection of an historic peace offer by the Provisional IRA, Mr McLaughlin said the DUP, with its demand for ‘humiliation’ photographs of the IRA putting their arsenal beyond use, had “signalled clearly that they were not yet prepared to leave behind the sectarianism, bigotry and intolerance that marked the political life of the northern state since partition.”
Mr McLaughlin also said that the Dublin and London governments, “in the knowledge that the DUP would fail to come across the line, tried to shift the blame onto republicans” by supporting the demand for photographs.
“And of course,” he addded, “the governments themselves then refused also to honour their part of the political package”.
The incoming general secretary called on delegates to shift their focus from the growing polarisation in the 26-County politics to upcoming elections for the Dublin and London parliaments, and on building policies and party support.
“In the coming months we have an opportunity once again to seek an increased endorsement of our strategy, to ensure that when we return to discussions, we will do so with an increased mandate.”
Controversially, Sinn Féin justice spokesman Gerry Kelly called on party delegates to brace themselves for a “new beginning” to policing in the Six Counties.
“It is not an impossible task and Republicans need to be acutely aware that this in turn will raise fundamental questions and problems for all activists.
“But we will pursue proper policing and justice with all our energy.”
Equally controversially, delegates also voted to keep the party’s coalition options open in the 26 Counties after the next General Election to the Dail in Dublin.
Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said: “Keep them all guessing. Stay in the mix. Affirm our political platform and goals and restate time and time again what others must do to measure up.”
Delegates also passed motions calling for the release of all Republican prisoners and for the Colombia 3 men, on the run from a miscarriage of justice, to be brought home.