‘A new Republic for 2016’

The Sinn Fein annual conference has heard calls for a national conversation on the future of Ireland, between now and the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016.

The North’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was the central figure in this year’s Ard Fheis, which was held in the Six Counties for the first time.

Sinn Fein’s arrival on Friday at the glittering Waterfront Hall, constructed as a showpiece for a new Belfast in the 1990s and typically used by the main unionist parties for their conferences, marked another stage in the party’s transformation into one of the most powerful in Ireland.

Nevertheless, as the delegates gathered around the theme of ‘Towards a New Republic’, armed PSNI police kept discreet watch from a nearby building.

The 100th anniversary of 1916 is expected to put an enormous strain on the political establishment in both parts of Ireland as they are confronted with the legacy of the Rising and the partition of Ireland.

Mr McGuinness said the next five years should be devoted to building a republic based on the vision of the 1916 leaders, and called for meetings to plan for the anniversary in every county.

He pointed to the last five years as an example of what had been achieved: Sinn Fein ministers sitting in a Six-County administration with the Democratic Unionist Party and, in Dublin, Gerry Adams leading a group of 14 TDs and three Senators.

He said “some political leaders in Ireland have waved the white flag - they accepted the loss of sovereignty - they accepted the IMF and the ECB [austerity plan] - not necessarily because they wanted to but because they hadn’t the vision to look for another way”.

He added that, “It is our duty to continue to reach out to unionists and it is our duty to persuade them of the merits of a new republic and of their treasured place in it.

“In the five years between now and 2016 I want to see us lead a national conversation on the future of this island. We are haemorrhaging our young people to far-flung parts of the world in search of work. A combination of greed and arrogance has left much of the Irish people demoralised. That is not the vision of 1916 and it is not my vision for Ireland approaching its centenary.

“And our national conversation needs to be truly national and indeed global. Our diaspora have a stake in our future. Let us begin the work today of structuring a proper engagement on the type of new republic we want to build - let us engage without preconditions and engage with those who have previously not had their voices heard.

“Let us have meetings in every Irish county in the next year - let us meet every group who has a stake in building a new republic. Remember the men and women of 1916 came from different backgrounds and different places. They had a vision and they had a purpose.”

The friendship between Mr McGuinness and a Derry-based Presbyterian minister was the focus of the first day of the Ard Fheis.

In his 20-minute speech, described as “historic” by Sinn Fein, the Reverend David Latimer addressed Martin McGuinness personally, telling him: “Martin, you are one or the true great leaders of modern times.”

He said they were “brothers in a diverse family”.

Mr Latimer’s decision to accept the invitation to become the first northern Protestant clergyman to address a Sinn Fein Ard Fheis provoked some controversy among hardline unionists.

However, he said only “5 per cent” of the messages from the community had been negative.

Dr Latimer, who three years ago served for a period as a British army chaplain in Afghanistan, was enthusiastically received at the conference, earning a standing ovation at the end when he finished with what he called a “Celtic blessing” on all the delegates.

His description of delegates as “A chairde” [Friends] and his final wish of “Adh Mor Ort” [Good luck to you] brought back memories of the speech delivered earlier this year by the Queen of England at a royal banquet in Dublin Castle.

But his description of Mr McGuinness, a former IRA commander, as “a great modern leader” infuriated some unionists.

Ultra-hardliner Jim Allister of ‘Traditional Unionist Voice’ said the flamboyant clergyman had “trampled on the graves and memories of all the victims of his IRA”.

Allister branded him a “latter day Lundy”, after a historic Protestant figure rejected as a traitor by loyalist groups.

Dr Latimer nonetheless insisted on Sunday it was a strong and genuine friendship he has developed with the Deputy First Minister. He said that it started when Mr McGuinness helped provide funds to restore the church at which he ministers, the First Derry Presbyterian Church.

He wanted to use his landmark speech at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis to call for a symbolic public day of reconciliation in the Six Counties, he said.

“I have to recognise there are people within my own community who probably would be seeing that I was amongst people on Friday night who were involved in the past.

“But people change. We do not stay static and we have to recognise that where change has taken place we have to applaud that change because change is what we need.”

Mr McGuinness also grabbed the headlines on Saturday when he told his party that unionists “need to be loved and cherished”. He condemned those unionists who criticised Rev Latimer.

“They should take notice of the fact that the overwhelming majority of our people are hugely supportive of the peace process, and yes, of us doing what many people would consider to be ‘steps too far’ or ‘risky things’,” he said. “That’s what peace-making is all about.”


On Saturday, the Sinn Fein deputy first minister also paid tribute to victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York, which he said claimed the life of a valued supporter of the peace process.

Mr McGuinness recalled how he learned of the attacks while holding a private meeting with party president Gerry Adams and the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

“Both myself and Gerry Adams had travelled to New York on many occasions and our first thoughts were of concern for our many friends in that fine city,” he said.

“The Irish diaspora in New York have been long time supporters of Irish freedom and our party has many, many supporters in that city and indeed throughout the United States.

“As it turned out a great friend of Ireland - and a visitor here on many occasions, the New York Fire department chaplain Fr Mychal Judge - christened Robert Emmett - perished in the twin towers on that day alongside so many others.

“He too was a frequent visitor to Belfast.”

Mr McGuinness described him as a “great friend of the peace process”.

“The loss of Fr Judge was something that impacted on us very personally indeed,” he said.

“And it is important that as we set about completing the task of uniting Ireland - of building a New Republic - that we are conscious of the important role Irish people across the world will play in that.”

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© 2011 Irish Republican News