Sinn Féin’s traditional Belfast headquarters has reopened following a refurbishment, including new repairs to structural damage suffered in loyalist attacks.
Those present for the opening at the weekend included Sinn Féin’s Bairbre de Brun, local MLA Sue Ramsey, Dublin city councillor Dessie Ellis, Paul Maskey, a Sinn Féin candidate in the current Assembly elections, and party president Gerry Adams.
A small plaque on a wall beside the entrance gate has been erected to the memory of John Downes, “murdered at this location by the RUC on 12/8/84”. He was killed by a plastic bullet.
“The blast wall has been taken down, a sign of the times,” said Gerry Adams, referring to the structure which had been erected in front of the building to protect it from bomb and rocket attack.
“Connolly House has been at the centre of republican activity in this city since it was bought by the party in 1983,” he said in a brief address.
It had been named after James Connolly - Belfast organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union from 1911 - who had lived not far from there until he left Belfast on Good Friday 1916 for the Easter Rising in Dublin, he explained.
The house “was acquired in the aftermath of the hunger strike campaign and as part of Sinn Féin’s evolving plans to build a strong political party in Belfast,” he said.
“It was an extraordinary time in the development of republican politics. . . when our first councillors, Alex Maskey and Sean McKnight, went into Belfast City Council; the assembly election of 1982 saw Sinn Féin win five seats across the North and confound and upset our political enemies; and then in the 1983 Westminster election when we won the West Belfast seat for the first time.”
When Connolly House was first opened, Sinn Féin was “a relatively small party. . . beginning to get to grips with the political challenges of creating change. . .” He recalled the DUP slogan at the time, “Smash Sinn Féin”, and Ian Paisley appearing at a press conference waving a sledgehammer.
Today Sinn Féin was “the largest nationalist party in the North, the largest pro-agreement party” and was going into the March 7th election with 24 Assembly seats, he said.
“Twenty five years ago the DUP thought they could smash this party. Now they are within weeks of agreeing to go into a power sharing executive with Sinn Féin,” Mr Adams said.
The most serious attack on Connolly House used rockets bought from the old apartheid regime in South Africa and brought into Ireland by unionist paramilitary groups and British intelligence, including the DUP-founded Ulster Resistance.
Several republican activists were shot and wounded in two attacks in February 1994 and on another occasion hand grenades were hidden in a hedge near the front entrance and a trip wire laid to catch anyone coming into the building.
Mr Adams recalled how in September 2004, “at a very sensitive time in the peace process”, a four-foot long bugging device was found in the house which was brought to Leeds Castle and returned “to its owner Tony Blair, who said famously ‘is that all?’.”