Sunday’s extraordinary Sinn Fein Ard Fheis saw overwhelming party support for a seismic shift on policing and a clear endorsement for the Adams/McGuinness leadership.

A couple of thousand people packed the Royal Dublin Society conference hall for what turned out top be calm, almost routine debate on policing. But the outcome, the adoption of a motion leading to the support of the British PSNI police in the north of Ireland, has changed the course of Irish history.

In the morning, a long line of speakers stretched well down the hallway, some four-to-one in favour of the motion.

Only a small number of delegates spoke against it, notably the party’s youth wing Ogra Shinn Fein which warned that the move could turn out to be a big mistake.

There was no walkout from the Ard Fheis and the discussions overall were conducted without rancour.

There was, however, a a small demonstration by republicans outside the gates of the RDS conference hall.

Time was called late in the afternoon with many speakers still in line to make a contribution, But when proposal was put to the vote, the result was as all sides expected, with over four in five of those present indicating their approval of the leadership motion.

The cameras turned from the voters to the stage as a relieved Mr Adams stood to acknowledge the standing ovation and be embraced by his leadership colleagues.

The vote ensured the curtain was called on the shadow assembly in Belfast before the parties head out on the election trail to return a fully-mandaterd Assembly and make another attempt to reach a deal on power-sharing.

This motion was conditional on the implementation of the powersharing institutions within the timeframe of the St Andrews Agreement, and, if this does not happen, then only when alternative partnership arrangements are in place to implement the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Nevertheless the vote was seen as a historic step forward towards embracing policing structures and the PSNI, and Sinn Fein President has already moved this week to bring effect to the policy changes.

In a carefully crafted speech to delegates Gerry Adams made a strong appeal for the party to be united and he emphasised that the time “is now right” to move on the policing issue.

The party’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness, spoke about having to “boss policing” and said the PSNI must “earn trust”.

“We have make them know that they will be the servants of the people - not the other way around,” he said.

At the end of the debate Mr Adams said the decision reached was about a “new culture of politics... the politics of change”.

“Sinn Fein is the engine of that change - and we go from here united,” he said.

However, Mr Adams said the party needed to give space to everyone who was concerned or had reservations.

“The debate does not finish here. It continues as our struggle continues.”

Mr Adams said the Irish republican vision of a better Ireland, a new Ireland of equals. According to Mr Adams the decision had the potential to advance the republican struggle.

He said that after this decision they should take things “very calmly” and not be upset by how others respond.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described the vote as a landmark decision that opened the way to power sharing. He said it was vital to maintain the momentum from the St Andrews Agreement and the timetable set out.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also welcomed the move and the London government said it recognised the “leadership” that had been needed to get Sinn Fein to this point.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News