Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has called for greater compromise and confidence in dealing with unionists during a significant mass rally in west Belfast.

Adams was speaking on Sunday during the 25th anniversary commemoration of the deaths of republican hunger strikers in 1981 in a protest for political status.

The Sinn Féin leadership had led a parade up the Falls Road involving supporters from across Ireland.

In a day of drama and potent symbolism, men and women wore blankets similar to those worn by the prison protesters in 1981. Later, white doves were released to represent the freeing of the spirits of those who died in cells in the H-Blocks in Long Kesh.

Mr Adams said republicans needed to take power and said positions needed to change if real progress was to be made.

“The challenge facing us is to be avowedly anti-sectarian, to face up to the challenge of making peace with the unionist section of our people and that means we should not be afraid to make correct strategic compromises,” he said.

Ahead of intensive negotiations expected this autumn in the planned effort to restore power-sharing for the Six Counties by November 24, the rally was a powerful reminder of the support of key republican communities for the Sinn Féin leadership.

Speaking at Casement Park in west Belfast, the home of the Gaelic Athletics Association in the city and a metaphor for mainstream nationalism, Mr Adams told tens of thousands of Sinn Féin supporters that republicans needed to take courage.

Sinn Féin is being urged to make a historic break with the past and support a British police force in the North of Ireland for the first time. The party is seeking the devolution of policing powers from London to a restored Belfast Assembly as a precondition of its support.

“We need to achieve leadership, we need to continue to be strategic, we need to have the confidence to take political power,” said Adams.

“We have a mandate, we are in a transitional phase. We are about a new egalitarian society on this island, we are Irish Republicans and we are proud to be republicans.”

He added that supporters and leaders needed to remain united.

Mr Adams added: “We need, and this is essential, confidence in ourselves and in our position.

“The hunger strikers knew exactly what they were doing, why they were doing it, and the effect that actions would have.

“We also, friends, know exactly what we are doing, why we are doing it and the effect our actions will have and that is how are we are going to continue to build this struggle.”

The Belfast West MP also praised today’s IRA for “bringing peace and justice to our society”.

“The hunger strikers are role models. The big lessons are there for all of us and are obvious -- that these ordinary people could do extraordinary things.

“These people went onto a political offensive in a battle for hearts and minds, sowing the seeds of where we are today.

“When we went to meet Tony Blair and his cabinet at Downing Street, I remember thinking that our side of the table was terribly crowded. There was Bobby [Sands], Mairead [Farrell] and many many others, keeping us right, helping to steer us in the correct way,” said Mr Adams.

“The IRA, the wind that shook the barley, deserve our special appreciation -- not just dead comrades or their families but the IRA today, sitting near you, proud to bring peace and justice to our society.”

Mr Adams called for those present to “think big” in the drive for a united Ireland.

“We need to now think big. To keep doing as we’ve always done is to sell ourselves too short.

“We, my friends, are on the way to freedom -- to freedom in our lifetimes,” he said.

Mr Adams ended with a tribute to all male and female republican prisoners, who, he said, had sacrificed so much. He made a final call for republicans to make good on the legacy of the hunger strikers.

“Our vision is not just a dream either. Dream first, then make it happen. That is exactly what the hunger strikers did when they took on the most reactionary government in western Europe of its time. They beat Thatcher and her cronies.

“We don’t need to do what they did but we need to be like them -- generous, brave, magnanimous. We need to be confident in our position. That’s how we’re going to build our struggle for a national republic,” he said.

Singer Mary Black performed before the crowd who were earlier addressed by Sinn Féin member of the European Parliament Mary Lou Macdonald as well as relatives of the hunger strikers and ex-prisoners.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News