Sinn Féin grassroots tackle party leadership

Delegates at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis were deeply divided in a debate on policing and coalition policies, which saw the party leadership narrowly holding its position.

At the annual conference, there was a wide debate on the policing issue including some delegates warning that they were not prepared to join the police and patrol the streets alongside the British Army in support of an artificial state. The party leadership, however, won the debate in calling for the transfer of powers on policing and justice to restored political institutions in the north.

Votes on a number of policing and justice were narrowly passed in the leadership’s favour. One such motion, calling for a British timetable to withdraw from the North before the party supports the PSNI police, was defeated in a contentious debate.

Gerry Kelly, the party spokesman on policing and justice, reiterated that any major change in Sinn Féin policy would only come at a future special conference on this subject.

Mr Kelly said that whatever happens in the negotiations “key issues such as policing and justice cannot be put on the shelf to be dusted down when we achieve a united Ireland”.

“We must develop further our all-Ireland vision for justice and policing,” he said.

The debate prompted a diverse range of views with those in support of the main motions arguing that the opportunity for a new beginning to policing must not be squandered.

Introducing the first motion Gerry Kelly said republicans would not be badgered or forced into accepting less than the new beginning to policing promised in the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Kelly attacked “political policing”, referring to the biased policing of unionist marches; the discovery of files on republicans passed on to loyalist paramilitaries; high profile arrests and false accusations; Special Branch payments of #50,000 a year to a loyalist who has murdered 12 Catholics and the Stormontgate “coup d’etat” which collapsed the political institutions.

“Our opposition to the present policing arrangements is not just a matter of timing,” he said. “It is a matter of integrity, entitlements and our inalienable rights. Republicans will not be badgered or forced into accepting less than the new beginning to policing promised in the Good Friday Agreement.

“The key outstanding matter is the transfer of powers on policing and justice away from London and out of the hands of British securocrats, into a restored local assembly and all-Ireland institutions.”

Barry McColgan, from the youth wing, said the transfer of powers from London to Belfast was a red herring. The party should not take part in policing until policing was freed from British rule.

He emphasised that they didn’t want a state force used as a tool to uphold the state. Instead community restorative justice and community policing was necessary, he said, at a grass-roots level.

A leading party figure, Declan Kearney, who is chair of the party in the Six Counties, delivered an influential speech against the dissenting motions. Delegates, he said, would be sending a message “to the political detectives” that they were “long-fingering” the policing issue if they accepted the motions.

He said the party needed to go “toe-to-toe” with those in the security forces who are opposed to the Good Friday agreement.

The PSNI, he said, “had killed our friends and torn down governments” and should not remain in its current form.

Although the leadership won the day at the RDS, both sides expressed uncertainty over the outcome of the planned special conference, should one be called.


However, opponents of Sinn Féin’s move into the political mainstream scored a success when they forced a strong condition on the party’s participation in a 26-County coalition government.

A motion by the Kevin Barry/Nora Connolly cumann in Dublin, calling on the party to insist upon the repeal of the repressive Offences Against the State Act, was narrowly passed.

However, delegates were persuaded not to vote for a blanket ban on entering power in the 26 Counties, but rather to leave the issue aside until a post-election special conference, if a coalition option was available.

The 1939 legislation includes powers to set up the non-jury Special Criminal Court and to jail people for five years on the word of a Garda police superintendent.

The coalition debate was the most controversial of the weekend debates was on coalition, during which a number of speakers warned colleagues not to enter power with Fine Gael, Labour and, particularly, Fianna Fail, while Dublin Ogra Sinn Féin wanted coalition vetoed until a united Ireland was achieved.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News