Is mor an athas ata orm chun labhairt anseo ag cruinniu cinn bliana Chuige na Se Chontae. Tagaimid le cheile mar eagras laidir aontaithe ata ag forbairt agus ag fas ar fud na tire. Taimid anseo chun pleanail don bhliain seo romhainn agus do na ceimeanna eile i dtreo ar gcuspoir - Poblacht na hEireann.
I am honoured to be asked to deliver this address to the Annual General Meeting of Cuige na Se Chontae Shinn Féin. The year since your last AGM has been a momentous one for Irish republicans, a year in which, unquestionably, our struggle has advanced.
It is easy to lose sight of it now, but the 5th of May 2005 will, in time to come, be remembered as one of the most significant dates in the history of Sinn Féin. On that date Sinn Féin achieved its largest ever vote in a Westminster election in the Six Counties and elected five Republican Teachtai Dala - Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Michelle Gildernew, Conor Murphy and Pat Doherty. Our position as the foremost nationalist party in the Six Counties and the largest pro-Agreement party was consolidated and advanced.
Victories in five parliamentary constituencies in the Six-County area came less than a year after an All-Ireland vote in the EU elections that saw us win the support of 342,256 voters across the 32 Counties.
If you want a quick explanation for the waves of reaction from the usual suspects that we have also seen in the past year, then you only have to look at those electoral successes. It has nothing to do with criminality or weapons or agents or any of the 101 diversions our opponents have tried to create. It has everything to do with the fact that well over a third of a million people on this small island look to Sinn Féin for political leadership. Irish republicanism is growing as an electoral and political force and our opponents will do anything to stop that growth. But I believe they understand neither the depth of our support nor the strength of our resolve.
For the same reason many of our opponents do not understand the meaning of the other huge event of the past year - the decision of the IRA to formally end its armed campaign and to put its weapons beyond use. Like the cessation of 1994 this decision was, I believe, taken from a position of strength. It was a vote of confidence in the ability of Irish republicans to take our struggle forward. It was done in the knowledge that republicans are changing the political landscape in Ireland and have the potential to bring about much more fundamental change. Above all it was based on the firm conviction that the republican analysis is correct and that we go forward undiminished in our determination to reach our goal of Irish unity and freedom.
The peace strategy has seen the republican electoral mandate greatly increased, as I have described. With our increased mandate comes increased responsibility and we take our responsibilities very seriously. We have an obligation to advance the peace process and in talks which commenced on Monday last we made clear our determination to see the Good Friday Agreement restored in full. We are not in the business of renegotiating the Agreement. The DUP must face reality and share power with Sinn Féin. The British government must face down the securocrats and rejectionists and fulfil its obligations to the Irish peace process. Both governments must set a deadline for the conclusion of talks and there can be only one acceptable outcome to those talks - the full restoration of the Agreement in all its aspects.
The pivotal role of the Irish Government in all of this cannot be under-estimated. Yet that Government’s performance, again and again, has fallen far short of what is required. Our negotiators have observed it at first hand. As the sole Sinn Féin TD from 1997 to 2002, and as leader of our TDs in the Dail since 2002, I have also seen this at first hand in Leinster House.
When the Peace Process and the Six Counties are debated in Leinster House the so-called opposition parties of Fine Gael and Labour see it primarily as an opportunity to pursue their anti-republican agenda. For its part the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrats government vacillates between the political imperative of the peace process and its own party political interests. Fianna Fail has been content to allow the Minister for Injustice and Inequality Michael McDowell to make the running. They hope to benefit from his attacks on Sinn Féin while skulking in the background to avoid the political flak.
McDowell’s 21st century McCarthyism extends to anyone he sees fit to target and his witch-hunt against the Centre for Public Inquiry and Frank Connolly is a case in point. Let it not be forgotten that he was fully backed by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and by his other Cabinet colleagues in that affair, despite his gross abuse of his position as minister. Not a single Fianna Fail member of the Oireachtas had the courage to speak out.
At the start of the peace process when Sinn Féin’s electoral support in the 26 Counties was less significant than it is now our political advance was seen as a purely Six-County affair. There was a brief thaw in our relations with Fianna Fail. But as soon as it became a matter of votes and seats being contested - and, God help us, actually won by Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties - the mood changed. Now we were showing that we really were capable of changing the political landscape North and South and challenging the old failed politics, not only on the national question but on social and economic issues as well.
From around the time of the first Nice Treaty referendum in 2001 the anti-Sinn Féin bandwagon began to roll again. And this went beyond the normal cut and thrust of party politics. We are used to that and expect it. The political establishment in the 26 Counties began to mirror unionism in its refusal to respect the Sinn Féin mandate and in putting up obstacles to progress in the peace process. Sinn Féin played a key role in defeating the first Nice Treaty referendum, a victory for democracy that was a severe embarrassment to Bertie Ahern. Then in the run up to the 2002 General Election McDowell devoted his entire speech at his own selection convention to an all-out attack on Sinn Féin and Irish republicanism. The renewed effort to criminalise Irish republicans in general, and Sinn Féin in particular, had begun. And don’t forget, McDowell’s is just the loudest voice. Others are just as culpable. This has been like manna from heaven to the DUP who could always point to the guff emanating from political and media sources in Dublin to justify their intransigence.
All this must change. The Irish Government must face up to its responsibility. It is not good enough, for example, for Bertie Ahern simply to state, as he did during the week, that he does not expect that the British Government will change its mind on the Pat Finucane inquiry. As you know the Finucane family is refusing to co-operate with any inquiry held under the terms of the Inquiries Bill which gives British ministers and British intelligence agencies the controlling hand and would effectively gag an inquiry. The Taoiseach should be going to Downing Street specifically to demand an end to the securocrat veto on the truth about collusion. He should demand a special summit with Tony Blair devoted exclusively to this subject. It is not just another item on the agenda. These are the same securocrats who have thwarted efforts to find the truth about the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974 which claimed 33 lives, or any of the instances of collusion or direct British attacks in the 26 Counties which claimed 47 lives in all. If the securocrats are not faced down on collusion how can they be faced down over their obstruction of the peace process in general? The Dail has actually voted in support of a full inquiry into the Pat Finucane murder, yet the British government, at the behest of military and intelligence forces, is still stonewalling on the issue.
The Irish Government has weakened its own authority to challenge Britain on these issues because elements in its own State also sought to close down investigations of collusion. The Irish government further undermined the national position when it co-operated in the establishment of the now totally discredited so-called Independent Monitoring Commission. That legislation was opposed all the way by Sinn Féin - but only two other TDs supported us in voting against it in the Dail. Since that vote in December 2003 the taxpayer in the 26 Counties has been footing the bill for this mouthpiece of British intelligence to the tune of O1.5 million per year.
The pressure of public opinion must be brought to bear on the Irish government, especially from within the 26 Counties. This is why it is vital that the political strength of Sinn Féin is increased on a national basis.
We made a significant breakthrough and secured five Dail seats in 2002. We are five among 166 TDs but I have no hesitation in saying that on all fronts we punch above our weight and I am very proud of the representation and the leadership given by the Sinn Féin team in Leinster House. That includes not only the five TDs but also the other full-time activists who work in that site of struggle. Each of our TDs has several policy portfolios which entails speaking for the party on those issues in the media and in the Dail, as well as helping to develop party policy, linking up with NGOs and spearheading party campaigns.
We are presenting the only real alternative to the policies of the Fianna Fail-PD government which has been in power since 1997. This is a government which has been in office during the most prosperous period economically in the history of the 26-County state but which presides over one of the most unequal societies in Europe. A report issued this week confirms that the top 20% of wage-earners in the 26 Counties earn 12 times more than the lowest 20%. One in seven children live in poverty. Our two-tier public-private health service is grossly inequitable and limps from crisis to crisis. On this small island lavish wealth lives side by side with avoidable poverty.
We are out to change all that, North and South. Change will not be delivered by the other so-called Opposition parties in Leinster House - Fine Gael and Labour. They cannot even agree on basic issues such as the privatisation of State assets, Irish neutrality and the EU services directive which threatens jobs, wages and conditions in Ireland. For that reason we have christened them the Coalition of the Confused.
There has been much discussion about whether Sinn Féin would enter a Coalition in the 26 Counties. If we believe that such an arrangement would advance our agenda including Irish reunification and our social and economic policy platform then we should take the option seriously. But it will be decided by the party membership at a special Ard Fheis if and when the need arises. But we will have no options to consider if we do not first of all increase our political strength and that means at least doubling the number of Sinn Féin TDs in Leinster House in the General Election which could come at any time in the next 17 months. Like all the elections we have fought in recent years that will be an All-Ireland election for Sinn Féin. I look forward to comrades from all parts of the Six Counties participating across the constituencies as we prepare to send a greatly strengthened Sinn Féin team back to Leinster House. And in so doing we will also advance the demand for people in the Six Counties to have their MPs, their Teachtai Dala, participating in Leinster House.
That said, we do not rely and cannot rely solely on elected forums to bring about change. Real change, the type of national, economic, social and cultural change we want will only come about through empowerment, through people the length and breadth of this country claiming their rights. In the past three years we have seen people power in action in the massive anti-war movement in 2003 and in the campaigns in support of the Rossport Five and the Irish Ferries workers last year. The media and political establishment would like to think that such campaigns are a thing of the past, that people are depoliticised and demotivated and will not take to the streets. But they were proven wrong and in all of these campaigns Sinn Féin has been to the fore.
Why we need to campaign, why we need people power is best summed up in the words of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic which “declares the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland to be sovereign and indefeasible”. That means Ireland owned by its people - not by the British government, Shell Oil, Tony O’Reilly or any golden circle of wealth and power. This year we mark the 90th anniversary of that Proclamation and the 1916 Rising. We welcome the fact that the Irish government has ended its embarrassed silence on the Rising. For our part, in marking this 90th anniversary, we will focus on the unfinished business of the men and women of 1916 - the need to end partition and to create a society that truly cherishes all the children of the nation equally.
30 years ago tomorrow in Wakefield Prison in England Prionsias Stagg died on hunger strike. The Fine Gael-Labour government hijacked his body and buried him under concrete in his native County Mayo. They hoped to bury the sprit of Irish republicanism with him. A few weeks later the British government opened a new prison at Long Kesh and for five years they tried to bury Irish republicanism in the concrete tomb of the H-Blocks. That too failed. The ten hunger strikers of 1981 smashed the criminalisation strategy and began a new phase of struggle. Like the men and women of 1916 they inspired freedom-loving people all over the world. The 25th anniversary of the hunger strikes is an opportunity for us to educate, debate, organize, recruit and plan ahead. Advancing closer to our ultimate goal in 2006 is the best way to commemorate the hunger strikers.
1916 leader James Connolly once addressed the British government in these words:
“If you strike at, imprison, or kill us, out of our prisons or graves, we will evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and perhaps, raise a force that will destroy you! We defy you! Do your worst!”
They have done all of those things to republicans in the past 90 years.
They did their worst.
We defied them.
Here we are, stronger than ever.
We have not been defeated. But that is not enough. We want to win.
Let us plan and work for success and let us succeed.
Ar aghaidh linn le cheile.