Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness launched a blistering attack on ‘dissident’ republicans at his party’s Ard Fheis (annual conference) in Killarney last weekend. McGuinness challenged his republican rivals to meet him and explain their “pathetic and futile” actions.
It was not clear if his comments were directed only at the breakaway IRA groups or included the various republican political organisations, but Sinn Fein later insisted the talks offer was genuine.
His hardline stance on dissidents coincided with another attempt to reconcile with unionists. In a first for a Sinn Fein leader, the Deputy First Minister said he respected the “British identity” of unionists in the north of Ireland.
“I recognise that there are one million people on this island who are British and let me state here and now that as a proud Irish Republican I not only recognise the Unionist and British identity, I respect it, and in return all I seek is for my Irish identity and tradition to be respected as well,” he said.
Mr McGuinness highlighted the impact on their families of the deaths of PSNI members Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr -- who he described as “a young GAA loving Police Officer” -- in 2009 and 2011 respectively.
“There are still those in our community who claim to be republican and claim to still be fighting for Ireland, these people claim they love our country but clearly they don’t love our people”, he said.
He said his background put him in a position to “understand the mindset” of militant republicanism.
“If anyone can claim to understand the mindset of those opposed to peaceful Irish republicanism, I think I can,” he added.
“Those involved in these violent acts don’t believe for one minute that they further the cause of Irish reunification. What’s more they also know the agreements we have negotiated are solid and secure.”
He went on to challenge dissidents to meet him -- so he could tell them ‘the war is over’.
“I am offering them an opportunity to meet and talk,” he said.
“Come and tell us what you hope to gain by deluding yourselves and the gullible that your actions will succeed in what is certainly a pathetic and futile attempt to turn back the clock.
“I was part of the conflict. I was there during the difficult and tragic times we had in the past and let me tell you, there was nothing romantic about the war.
“It was hard, it was painful and it was traumatic and I never ever want the children of Ireland who live today in peace to be subjected to the conflict, pain and hurt that we lived through.”
TALKS WITH VICTIMS
It emerged later in the week that an informal group of unionist victims of the conflict have been meeting senior Sinn Fein members for reconciliation talks.
McGuinness referred to them in his speech to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis.
He said the meetings were evidence that a “process of nationalist reconciliation and reconstruction” has begun.
The Derry native told Sinn Fein delegates that the overtures were “not about trying to turn unionists into nationalists or to try and hoodwink people about our intentions”.
He described the group as “very significant” and quoted their support for the talks during his speech.
“I said in my Easter speech that in the discussions leading to reunification we need to be imaginative and generous towards unionists,” Mr McGuinness said.
“The ability to be generous to each other should be seen as a strength not a weakness.”
Irish unity, the Austerity Treaty and the economy were among the other issues addressed at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, whose theme was ‘A New Republic - A New Future.’
Fifteen hundred delegates attended the INEC venue in Killarney on Friday and Saturday. Nearly 200 motions on a range of topics was on the programme, but only 12 failed to pass. None of the failed motions had been proposed by the central party Ard Chomhairle [leadership].
Guests who addressed the Ard Fheis included union leaders, a former worker from Vita Cortex; and guests from South Africa, Palestine, the Basque Country and the USA.
GIFT FOR QUEEN
The Ard Fheis also heard some debate among delegates, and among the journalists who attended, about the possibility of Martin McGuinness meeting the English queen.
Although no position was adopted, Mr McGuinness later suggested the Six-County Executive might present her with a gift. He said he “respects the right of people to hold her in high esteem”.
McGuinness’s comments were seen as further paving the way for an expected historic first meeting between a Sinn Fein leader and an monarch.
Elizabeth Windsor is due to make a two-or three-day trip to the north late next month and Mr McGuinness has previously hinted he would like to meet her.