Every step Sinn Féin took brought it closer to its “central and most urgent” goal of a 32-county republic, the North’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told the party’s annual conference in Dublin at the weekend.
The attendance of about 1,000 Ard Fheis delegates at the RDS applauded when McGuinness said sitting in a powersharing government with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) “has not and will not dilute my Irish republicanism one bit”.
Mr McGuinness attacked what he termed the “old guard” in the North’s civil service and elsewhere who were opposed to “progressive proposals” by Sinn Féin’s ministers for education, agriculture and regional development.
“They are still there, in the system, the civil service, in sections of the media and in elected office,” Mr McGuinness said. “Our task is to confront those opposed to change.”
Without drawing attention to the party’s own change of political direction in recent years, McGuinness notably referred to the aim of “a united, free and equal” 32-county Ireland instead of the traditional call for a democratic, socialist 32-county Republic.
He said the DUP deserved credit for agreeing to enter a power-sharing administration in the Six Counties.
“Ian Paisley knows that my allegiance is to Ireland. But, at the same time, we should acknowledge the journey which the DUP have undergone in recent years,” he said, describing the party as “DUP Nua” -- New DUP.
Forecasting “a political battle” in the coming weeks to secure the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast as provided for in the St Andrews Agreement, he called on the DUP to approach the issue “in a sensible way”.
Although the DUP is opposed to the transfer, Mr McGuinness recalled that “during the talks which led to the first meeting of the Sinn Féin and DUP leaderships on March 26th, a senior member of the DUP delegation said his party would stand by the Andrew’s Agreement”.
However, in a hardline response to McGuinness’s comments at the weekend, Mr Paisley insisted “The DUP never signed up to any May 2008 deadline”, and he again demanded the disbandment of the IRA army council.
In a statement clearly reflecting increased pressure from his DUP colleagues, Mr Paisley said: “The target date of May was set by the two governments alone. It is not a date that has been endorsed by the DUP. At no time did any Democratic Unionist indicate that May 2008 was a credible date for the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont.”
He continued: “If republicans are absolutely committed to democracy and the rule of law they have no need of a so-called army council and they should end their sectarian campaign against our Loyal Orders.”
Paisley’s comments were issued on Saturday, after Mr McGuinness’s speech but before the presidential address to the ardfheis by Mr Adams and his own announcement of his resignation as First Minister from May.
Speaking about the controversy within the DUP, Mr Adams has said it was a sad commentary on the state of unionism that the focus of some is to force “a situation where Paisley must go”.
He said that the unimaginable and some would say the “unbelievable” had happened.
“Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness are sitting as equal partners, in a power-sharing government in the north,” Mr Adams said.
“A few weeks ago led by An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, 11 ministers from the north - four of them Shinners - and 11 from the south, discussed a range of matters affecting all the people of the island.
“And there wasn’t an English minister about the place.”
The Sinn Féin leader said most people were uplifted, if a little taken aback, by the visible signs that Mr McGuinness and Mr Paisley have a civilized working relationship.
But Mr Adams said that others within unionism, who are opposed to the process, including some within Mr Paisley’s own party, have an opposite view and are against power-sharing.
He warned that such people have been actively seeking to bring power sharing to an end.
“That is the context for the refusal to agree the transfer of powers on policing and justice at this time,” he said.
Mr Adams emphasised that the DUP has to fulfill its obligations on a range of issues, including policing and justice power and the Irish language.
“The future of the DUP, the future of unionism and of the power-sharing arrangements will be decided, to a very large extent, by the way DUP leaders deal with these matters,” the West Belfast MP said.
“It is a matter for the DUP who leads their party. It is not our business and we will continue to work in good faith with them.”
Mr Adams said he had “a message for the naysayers that this process will prevail.”
Declaring that a united Ireland was closer than ever, Mr Adams announced that he would shortly be setting-up “a high-powered taskforce” comprising leading republican figures “to drive forward the roadmap to Irish unity”. Mr Adams called on the Irish diaspora to give full support to the campaign in the lead-up to the centenary of the 1916 Rising.
Reflecting the party’s move away from socialist policies on economic and taxation issues, Mr Adams insisted “Sinn Féin is not anti-business. Sinn Féin is pro-business. Neither are we a high tax party. We are a fair tax party.”
The party leadership won a motion backing changes to party taxation policy, which removed plans for tax increases on corporations and high earners. At the same time, a motion to delete a commitment to socialism from the party’s constitution was overwhelmingly defeated.