Gerry Adams gave what is thought to be his last speech as president of Sinn Fein to the party’s Cuige Uladh [Ulster department] in Belfast on Saturday morning before his succession by Mary Lou McDonald. The full text of Mr Adams’s speech.
This AGM comes at an important point in the development and evolution of Sinn Fein.
In November I told the Ard Fheis that I was stepping down as Uachtaran Shinn Fein.
I want to thank all of those, including many of you in this room, who have worked with me during my 35 years as Uachtaran Shinn Fein.
I value your friendship, your advice and your activism.
I believe we can be very proud of our successes during that time.
My decision to step down is part of Sinn Fein’s ten-year plan for the regeneration and renewal of the party.
It is also part of the outworking of conversations Martin McGuinness and I had almost two years ago to manage the necessary generational change within the party leadership.
This is essential if we are to continue to grow electorally and organisationally; foster reconciliation between the people of this island, and with our nearest offshore neighbour and achieve our historic goal of ending partition and reuniting our divided island.
All of these are enormous challenges.
None are insurmountable.
I believe Sinn Fein can meet these challenges.
I believe we can achieve our objectives.
A united Ireland will not happen by chance or through luck.
Ted says: “Nothing is inevitable in life, except death.”
So, to achieve an end to the union we need to have a party that is fit for purpose.
A party that is ideologically committed to fairness and equality and the other core values at the heart of our republicanism.
We need a party that thinks and acts strategically; a campaigning party that promotes the welfare of citizens and the rights of citizens; that builds alliances with others of like-mind on issues of common interest; and which produces costed, effective policy positions that can make a real difference in the lives of citizens.
You have to plan, plan, and plan again to deliver.
And we have to be active.
Doing nothing is not an option.
Sinn Fein needs a leadership at local and regional level and nationally that is focussed on the future, engages with party activists and works with them to advance our plans.
BUILDING POLITICAL STRENGTH
I want thank and commend the Cuige’s outgoing Officer Board.
Sinn Fein is stronger today than at any time since partition.
However, as everyone here knows it is what we do with this political strength that is important.
How do we use our political strength to advance our core objectives?
In particular, how do we advance our core objective of a united Ireland while positively transforming the lives of citizens for the better?
How do we get the political institutions established and functioning properly.
We are building a party across this island.
How do we maintain our national cohesion?
How do we build a harmonious relationship with unionism?
How do we improve the lives of citizens?
Eradicate poverty? Build equality and a prosperity process? Get rid of sectarianism? Promote the Irish language? Resolve the housing crisis and fix the dreadful problems in Health Services?
That is all very much the focus of the ten-year plan that has been in development for over a year and which all of you have been part of formulating.
An important part of this plan is the Good Friday Agreement which will be 20 years-old in April.
In the two decades since it was agreed there has been a significant and positive improvement in the lives of citizens.
This has been most noticeable in the absence of violence and the lives saved as a result of the peace process.
It has also impacted positively on economic activity.
Many will remember that as a result of structured political and religious discrimination Catholics in the North were generally two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than Protestants.
The Labour Force Survey Religion Report for 2015 and updated last January provides evidence of how our efforts and the efforts of others have begun to reverse this injustice.
Among the other challenges facing us in the time ahead is the restoration of the political institutions.
Michelle will update you on the work of the negotiating team and the work plan for the Cuige.
I just want to note my concerns that politics in this state are very polarised at this time and that the atmosphere is very toxic.
It is my view that this is not good for anyone except a small minority of bigots.
Separate development and negative divisions are not good for our community.
People deserve better.
There will always be political tension between unionism and republicanism.
That is natural.
But this can and should be managed in a responsible, respectful way.
It is not in the interests of the vast majority of citizens that political parties should retreat to our trenches and hunker down comfortably in the certainty of our respective positions.
We have to challenge ourselves and our support base.
We also have to challenge unionism.
Whether the upcoming talks succeed or not in the short term, there is no merit in Sinn Fein disengaging from the conversations and dialogue with unionists and others that is necessary - in whatever format is appropriate in the time ahead.
Standing still is not an option.
We are agents for change and it is up to us to find the ways and means to bring this about.
Notwithstanding the crisis around the power sharing institutions Brexit is perhaps the greatest challenge facing all the people of this island at this time.
There are a set of fundamental contradictions in the English Tory and DUP positions.
Contradiction No. 1 is the claim that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland but that the North will be dragged out of the customs union and the Single Market.
Contradiction No. 2 is that there is no threat to the Good Friday Agreement, yet there are 142 areas of all-Ireland co-operation that could be adversely affected by the Tory Brexit.
Contradiction No. 3 is that there will be no erosion of rights for citizens living in the North but Britain is to push ahead with its withdrawal from the European Court of Justice.
Contradiction No. 4 is that the people of the North voted to remain in the European Union, but that decision that has been ignored by the British Government, the DUP and others.
Sinn Fein flagged these contradictions with the Irish Government and advised that it needed to be very careful in its dealings with the British Government.
The job of the Irish Government has to be to protect, defend and advance the national interest. That is of the whole island.
For too long the Government has seen itself purely as acting in the interests of the southern State.
We have been championing a practical solution, namely, for the North to have special designated status within the European Union.
That is the only and best solution.
In the year ahead as the negotiations over Brexit continue Sinn Fein must redouble our efforts across this island and in the European Parliament to increase support for special designated status.
We must especially engage with the Irish government which has the ability to significantly influence the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
Many republicans are bemused that a Fine Gael-led government has now a better position on the national question and on Brexit than the Fianna Fail leader.
And while this commitment may be only skin deep it is nonetheless good.
And don’t let anyone for a moment imagine that they would be saying they are against the border or for a united Ireland and so on if Sinn Fein wasn’t as strong as we are in the North or if Sinn Fein wasn’t so strong as we are in the South.
And if our MEPs weren’t as assertive as they are in the European Parliament.
The government has discovered that its stance on these positions is popular.
So we can anticipate that they will continue with the rhetoric.
What we have to do is to get them to move beyond the rhetoric.
And let me say the Irish government is entitled to look after the interests of the people of the North, all the people.
In fact it is obliged to and the Taoiseach and Minister Coveney should not kow tow to Unionist indignation at this or to the cynical game playing of the NIO.
As Irish republicans our primary political objective is to end partition and secure a united Ireland.
Everything we do or say must be set in that context.
Our policies, statements and actions must enhance that objective.
Our political strategies must win greater support for it in the time ahead.
We must also use every opportunity available to us to persuade our unionist neighbours to support a new and agreed Ireland.
We have to demonstrate on local councils, in the Assembly and Executive if they are restored, in our daily work as political and community activists, that we and our unionist neighbours have much in common.
This very specifically requires that we ensure that everyone’s rights are underpinned.
It also means that the Irish government, and those parties in the Oireachtas who have so far resisted establishing an all-party Oireachtas Committee on Irish unity, must step outside of their comfort zone and beyond the rhetoric of unity, and take positive steps to actually promote it.
Sinn Fein is the only party capable of getting them to do this.
We need to devise strategies and win support for a referendum on Irish unity.
And we need to campaign for this.
We also need to win that referendum.
This is another reason why it is essential for us to engage with unionism, whatever form or processes this involves.
The Ard Fheis in November took the very important decision of being prepared to go into government in the South, on republican terms, after the next election if we get a sufficient mandate.
That decision is about putting down a clear marker for the future.
Sinn Fein wants to be in government North and South.
A government in Dublin with Sinn Fein as part of it will place Irish unity at the top of its political agenda.
We will set out clear policy objectives for such a government, including the holding of a referendum on Irish unity under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
That means we have to win a significant mandate in an election.
But it also means doing the organisational and political work now to win that referendum.
We need to have confidence in ourselves and in the people of Ireland.
Don’t listen to Leo or Micheal or Colum or Arlene when they tell you Irish unity is not possible.
Don’t believe the naysayers and begrudgers in the Independent Media Group and others of like mind who claim that a United Ireland is a pipe dream.
It’s very real.
It’s very achievable.
We can do it.
It is for Sinn Fein - it is for this Cuige and others to keep a United Ireland on the political agenda South and North.
Finally, this will be my last speech as Uachtaran Shinn Fein to the Cuige.
Nominations for that position closed yesterday.
So if you didn’t get a nomination and wanted this job it’s too late now.
Please welcome the President elect of our Party Mary Lou MacDonald.