By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
“No one should harbour the notion that the republican struggle can be advanced any further by an armed campaign. This leadership is firmly opposed to such a departure... I have made it clear from the republican perspective - the war is over.”
Thus spoke Gerry Adams in a wide ranging presidential address to more than 2,000 delegates at Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis last weekend. He also called on other armed republican organisations to “look objectively at the current political situation... to carefully consider your options... to debate these matters.”
The clear implication in this remark for those republicans still using armed force is they should desist from doing so and put their energies into campaigning for a united Ireland.
This was a confident forward-looking speech from the leader of a party which has been at the centre of massive changes in Irish politics for a decade and more.
A speech representing the views of the leadership of a struggle who were daring enough to challenge themselves and others who thought that politics in this country was forever locked in a cycle of armed conflict.
The success of this challenge is now evident in the new era opened up by the IRA’s decision to end its armed campaign.
Gerry Adams’s speech blended epoch-making events like the 1916 Rising and the hunger strike of 1981 with the politics of today; casting an eye forward to shape tomorrow’s politics.
Central to what he said was the republican conviction that partition had failed all the people of this island, nationalist and unionist.
Failed them politically and economically.
Gerry Adams’s unequivocal support for and defence of the peace process is significant because at the minute the peace process is being squeezed. Caution and conservatism would be expected.
But such a stance would only encourage the wreckers.
Sensible, considered risk-taking is more productive especially when developing a peace process beset by malign influences inside the British and Irish governments.
The leaderships of the IRA and Sinn Fein took huge risks in initiating and sustaining the peace process.
Risk taking is familiar terrain for republicans because they are about challenging complacency.
They are about pushing out the boundaries in search of a new inclusive society based on equality.
In this and earlier periods of conflict republicans risked all for freedom.
In his speech Gerry Adams referred to a number of heroic deeds which left behind a legacy, a reference point for politicians of this era to draw off.
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, the 30th anniversary of the death on hunger strike in Wakefield Prison of Frank Stagg and the 25th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike when 10 men died in the
H-Blocks of Long Kesh. Gerry also talked about Michael Gaughan who died on hunger strike in 1974 in Parkhurst Prison.
The cause which drove them inspired them so much it conquered the fear of death.
That cause was the freedom of this small nation.
Ninety years ago with a small band of men and women behind him Padraig Pearse proclaimed an Irish Republic.
The proclamation guaranteed civil and religious liberty to all; the right to vote for women and men; a just and equitable society. A beacon of light, a freedom charter for then and now.
“Great words, great ideas” - is how Gerry Adams described the proclamation.
Words and ideas which motivate democrats on this island to this day.
The rising was a risky enterprise, a bold blow for national freedom, a David versus Goliath contest.
Pearse’s men and women took on an empire which imposed its rule on 500 million people.
After 30 years denying their history and this very event that gave them their freedom the Irish government will this Easter formally honour men and women, described by the establishment at the time as criminals - the Rebels of 1916.
A long overdue but nonetheless welcome ceremony.
Those rebels said Gerry Adams “had big hearts, boundless courage”.
So too the rebels who died on hunger strike alone in prison cells like Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg or together in the H-Blocks.
All were motivated by a vision of freedom.
Let us this year have big-hearted popular celebrations in their honour.