I want to welcome you all to the AGM of Sinn Féin’s National Elected Representatives Forum. I want to begin by commending the work of all of our elected representatives, and of those within Sinn Féin whose task it is to effectively co-ordinate the work of the hundreds of Sinn Féin elected representatives.
I want to thank all of the people who represent our party. Sinn Féin expects the very highest standards from our representatives. We take our example from the first MP of our generation - Bobby Sands MP and our first TD Kieran Doherty.
While we cannot expect to emulate their sacrifices, their example, their integrity, generosity, comradeship and dedication, along with that of Councillor Eddie Fullerton, Cllr John Davey, Cllr Bernard O’Hagan, Seanna Campbell, Vice President Maire Drumm and the many other members of this party and family members and friends who were killed, are the role models for us today.
Remember that our mandate and the rights of our electorate were won on the sacrifices of others and their families.
The National Elected Representatives Forum has the job of advancing our political policies and objectives in an efficient manner and to make best use of the power and influence our mandate provides.
It is a fact that Sinn Féin is the largest pro-Agreement party in the north and the third largest party on this island. We have elected representatives in all of Ireland’s democratic institutions, as well as 5 MPs and 2 MEPs.
This brings with it enormous political responsibility.
SINN Féin IS THE FUTURE
It is also a fact that Sinn Féin is an Irish republican party.
Our strategy to achieve a united, independent Ireland marks us out from other Irish political parties, all of whom, with the exception of the unionists, proclaim their republicanism but have no strategy or political will to achieve it.
Sinn Féin’s goals are straightforward; an end to partition, an end to the union with Britain, the construction of a new national democracy - a new republic -on the island of Ireland, and reconciliation between orange and green.
But we are not prepared to wait until we have achieved these goals for people to have their rights to a decent home, to a job and a decent wage, to decent public services like health and education, and a safer cleaner environment.
Irish Republicans want change in the here and now. Our policies provide a real alternative to the uninspiring and jaded approach of the other parties who before election time promise radical measures and them replicate the mistakes of those they temporarily replace.
Irish republicanism is better than that. Our republicanism is about positive, progressive change - fundamental, and deep-rooted.
That means we have to be agents of change. This is an enormous responsibility.
Sinn Féin is about empowering individuals and communities to achieve change. We are about building an alternative to the kind of government which can preside over one of the wealthiest economies in the European Union, yet fail to provide ordinary citizens with decent public services, in health, in education, transport and housing.
We are about transforming an economy where the income of the wealthiest ten percent is thirteen times that of the lowest paid workers.
Sinn Féin is for equality. Sinn Féin represents the future.
We don’t have all the answers but we have never been better placed to make the case for national independence, social justice and equality for all.
A YEAR OF ANNIVERSARIES
This year marks the 90th Anniversary of the Easter Rising -- as well as the 25th Anniversary of the hunger strikes.
For those of you who have forgotten I want to remind you that tomorrow is Mothers Day. It is also a day for remembering the families of those hunger strikers who died and we have asked that people light a candle in solidarity with them.
The Proclamation of Easter 1916 is the rock on which modern republicanism is built. It is a Proclamation of Freedom and a Charter of Liberty. It was a radical affirmation of the kind of Republic it would be.
‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty; equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts cherishing all of the children of the nation equally ...’
The task of the National Elected Representatives Forum is to turn these objectives into reality.
It is to use our electoral strength and representation on Town Councils, District and County Councils, on Udras na Gaeltachta, Leinster House, the northern Assembly, at Westminster and in the European Union, to do this.
For Irish republicans these are all sites of struggle.
Today’s agenda, covering policy development, political strategy, priorities for the Forum in the year ahead, truth processes and campaigns, is a reflection of all of this.
Let me also take this opportunity to express my support for the motion to be discussed today, which calls for equality in the selection of Forum representatives to the Ard Comhairle.
The AGM should agree to selecting a man and woman as representatives to the Ard Comhairle.
In my Presidential address to the Ard Fheis I set out the five key strategic challenges, which lie ahead for Sinn Féin, both in the short and longer term.
First and foremost we must concentrate our efforts on the current negotiations. The peace process is arguably the most important issue facing the people of this island today. Progress will create stability, will create opportunity, will create wealth, and will improve our standard of living.
Failure will set all this back by decades. So, the coming weeks are critical.
The briefings in recent days from the two governments, and in particular from the Irish government, have been giving some indication of their likely approach.
Several weeks ago Sinn Féin resolutely opposed any halfway house, in-between, transitional, interim or shadow Assembly. That remains our position.
If there is to be an Assembly in the north then it has to be the Assembly contained in the Good Friday Agreement.
Although it only worked for a short time it was popular and relatively efficient.
However, the current approach of the governments to the restoration of the political institutions is a source of significant concern. There is no future in the governments tampering with the Good Friday Agreement to facilitate the DUP.
Rather than looking at how they can change the Good Friday Agreement to suit the DUP, the governments need to be coming forward with propositions, which are about implementing the Good Friday Agreement and then endeavouring to get the DUP on board.
Our party obviously will look at whatever proposals the governments produce, and we are in daily contact with them. But there is no point in the governments withdrawing proposals a month ago and then repackaging the same proposals and trying to represent them as something else. It won’t wash.
As far as Irish republicans are concerned we have delivered big time in terms of this process. It’s now over to the governments to deliver. Their responsibility is to implement the Good Friday Agreement. It is now over to the DUP to deliver.
This phase is particular challenge for the Irish government. The Taoiseach has a duty to come forward with propositions that are about the Good Friday Agreement - not some notion that Ian Paisley has conjured up.
If the DUP are not prepared to come on board with the rest of us -- if they insist to sticking with No! -- then the governments and the rest of us must move ahead without them.
This means, especially for the two governments as the two sovereign authorities, that they proceed to faithfully and vigorously implement all other aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, in respect of demilitarization, human rights, equality and the all-Ireland agenda.
The second great challenge facing us is the need to develop an entirely new relationship with unionism. Our engagement with unionism must deepen and broaden in the time ahead. This is a major challenge for this party and especially for our elected representatives in the north who are among the few republicans who engage directly with the DUP.
I would urge you to see this as a personal priority and challenge in the time ahead. Regardless of the disposition of the DUP, republicans need to engage with unionist communities. We need to talk about the future.
Everyone has the right to guarantees for their civil and religious liberties. Republicans need to talk to unionists about this. We need to listen to their concerns. It is within our collective ability to resolve problems. For example, as I said at the Ard Fheis the annual crisis caused by the small number of contentious loyal order parades must be sorted out. This requires positive political leadership and meaningful dialogue based on equality and mutual respect. Sinn Féin has consistently supported such an approach.
THE ALL-IRELAND AGENDA
Our third great challenge will be to build an Ireland of equals. We want to advance the all-Ireland agenda, to make partition history and to campaign for an Ireland of equals.
Sinn Féin is for building on the all-Ireland aspects of the Good Friday Agreement irrespective of the negotiations around the restoration of the institutions. It makes sense. It especially makes sense on an island as small as ours and with a population of only five million, half that of most major cities in the world!
How do we do this?
The Good Friday Agreement established a range of areas of co-operation and implementation bodies. These covered issues as diverse as Health, Education, Transport, Environment, Agriculture and Tourism; as well as Intertrade Ireland, a Food Safety Prevention Board, Foras na Gaeilge, and others.
The potential and real benefits of closer harmonisation, co-operation and implementation in such key areas of governance are clearly evident.
For example health provision is in crisis across Ireland. It makes sense to mould the two health departments into one. This would lead to more money for drugs and new technology, a better planned and co-ordinated service, and obvious benefits to patients.
Or take transport as another example. Why can’t we have an all-Ireland road strategy, which links our major towns and rural areas and enhances the potential for every area, however isolated, to secure economic investment and jobs?
Or take the example of agriculture. A common all-Ireland agricultural policy would benefit farmers, especially in negotiations with the EU.
And there is room for significant expansion of these areas of co-operation and implementation.
Energy and strategic/infrastructural investment, education and youth, sport and recreation, waste management, policing and justice and rural development, are just some of the areas of governance which can be improved.
In fact there is no facet of life on this island, which cannot be improved by adopting an all-Ireland approach.
Which brings me to the whole area of equality and human rights law and implementation, and the rights and entitlements of citizens. No more prevarication. Let the governments provide the Human Rights and Equality Commissions with the necessary legislation and resources to see speedy progress on the introduction of a Bill of Rights in the north and an all-Ireland Charter of Human Rights.
A Charter of Human Rights will assert comprehensive social, economic, political, cultural and civil rights, for all of the people.
Let us make better and proper use of the Equality Commission to effectively promote and enforce equality in public authorities, Government departments and statutory agencies.
And then there is the all-Ireland Consultative Civic Forum which was allowed for under the Good Friday Agreement but which has never met.
This can make a significant contribution to the promotion of democratic accountability. The Irish government should move ahead with convening this body.
The all Ireland Consultative Civic Forum holds the potential to bring all those who are marginalised in society, along with the other social partners, together and to impact on Government plans and projections for the implementation of a human rights based society.
It offers the potential for the development of participatory governance, where the people themselves, through their community organisations, have a formal and established role in determining the priorities of government.
We now must deepen our engagement, our understanding of unionism if we are to have partners in conflict resolution.
BRITISH SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT
The fourth great challenge facing this party is to build support for Irish unity in Britain.
Last week I was in the United States. Irish America remains faithful to the cause of peace and freedom in Ireland.
Its importance is to be found in the open doors in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Ignore the nonsense about Sinn Féin being marginalized in the US. It’s not true and Irish America is our guarantee against it ever happening.
In my opinion there is a potential to create in Britain a solidarity movement similar to that in the USA.
BUILDING SINN Féin
Our fifth strategic task is to build Sinn Féin.
There are more republicans in Ireland today than at any time in our history. There are many more republicans on this island than there are members of Sinn Féin. We need to encourage men and women to join our party.
We especially want to open up our party and our leadership to women. We need more women involved in our decision making processes.
Five big strategic challenges -- with the biggest challenge being that we have to do all of this at the same time. I believe we can do it.
THE YEAR AHEAD
2005 was an historic year for Irish republicans. The IRA formally ended its armed campaign and dealt with the arms issue.
2006 is a year of great potential, of great opportunity in the peace process.
But also between now and the next AGM of this body we have a big job of work to prepare for elections, north and south. That means selecting candidates, oiling the election machine, and much more.
Sinn Féin continues to be significantly underdeveloped in the 26 counties. But the fact is that there are more republicans on this island today than at any time since partition. That is a measure of our success and our potential.
So, hard work, sensible planning, and common sense policies - well presented - will make a difference.
Sinn Féin has a vision for the future. We are totally committed to establishing an entirely new Ireland built on positive change, on equality, on partnership. An Ireland which is open, transparent and accountable -- a people-centred republic -- owned by and responsible to the people. An Ireland in which there is no more war, no more conflict, and where the wealth is invested creatively and more fairly and where our children wake up in homes that are warm and go to schools which are properly resourced.
An Ireland where no one waits for a hospital bed, a home or a job. The resources exist to build this republic -- the New Ireland.
And in seeking to achieve it we should be guided by Wolfe Tone’s motto, which remains perennially relevant, to seek to unite politically all patriotic people “under the common name of Irishman”, which of course includes Irishwomen as well.