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Speech by Gerry Adams to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 18 April 1998

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Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

Text of speech by Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin (SF), to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 18 April 1998.


"This Ard Fheis takes place against a background of great challenges for republicans across the country. There is great hope and concern sitting alongside each other.

The political landscape of Irish politics is changing and republicans are at the forefront of that change.

This Ard Fheis is an obvious manifestation of that and I welcome all of you here today.

Two hundred years ago the United Irish Movement rose against British occupation of our country. We stand today before the slogan which inspired that Movement. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. We can draw inspiration and example from the men and women of 1798. The United Irish Movement, whose bicentennial we celebrate this year was unique. It also had an equality agenda. Its aims were to create a socially progressive, tolerant and just society in Ireland. Its founders were mainly Protestants who embraced the concept of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. They demanded independence from Britain and promised equality. They swore to maintain the right and prerogative of Ireland as an independent people. We also must fashion such a unique movement which is open to all as the United Irish Movement was: `who know liberty, who love it, who wish to have it and who will have it'.

Our last Ard Fheis was a one day affair in Monaghan when we enjoyed the hospitality of that most republican county. Since then, the people of that constituency of Cavan and Monaghan elected our first Sinn Fein TD, Caoimhghin O Caolain. Not to be outdone the people of Mid Ulster elected Martin McGuinness and for their sins West Belfast reclaimed our seat. In Kerry and in Dublin West Martin Ferris and Jack Crowe put their claims on seats the next time round. Sinn Fein out-polled the DUP and became the third largest party in the six counties. Since Bobby Sands first contested Fermanagh/South Tyrone Sinn Fein has helped transform the political landscape in Ireland.

I want to take this opportunity of extending welcome to our foreign visitors. A particular word of thanks to Larry Downes, President of the Friends of Sinn Fein in the USA, and to Mairead Keane, head of our diplomatic mission in the USA, and to Kieran Clifford from our office in Washington. Deputy Secretary General of the ANC, Thenjiwe Mtintso. The representative of ZANU-PF and Minister of Home Affairs in Zimbabwe, Dumiso Dabengwa. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jose Ramos-Horta from East Timor, and our good friends from the Basque country here to represent Herri Batasuna.

Before dealing with the main theme of this address, I want to deal with one issue.

How many of you have heard of the Amsterdam Treaty? More importantly how many of you, and of the general public, know anything about this Treaty and its likely consequences for the 26 counties? In recent months we have voiced our concern that people in the 26 counties have had very little information on this issue. There has been almost no public debate regarding its consequences for Irish sovereignty and neutrality.

It is crucial that this major issue is given the proper and thorough discussion and debate that it deserves. Otherwise, the Amsterdam Treaty which would almost certainly be ignored in the debate around Articles 2 and 3 and Article 29.

The Amsterdam Treaty referendum could easily be put back until the autumn by which time, with proper and equal resourcing by the government for both the no and yes vote, citizens would have a more informed view of its content and probable impact. There is no legal time-limit for ratification of this Treaty and no other EU country has ratified it.

For our part, Sinn Féin is calling for a No vote. We believe that the Amsterdam Treaty threatens Irish sovereignty and neutrality. It takes a big step towards the militarisation of the EU.

I have written to the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, urging him not to hold simultaneous referenda on the Amsterdam Treaty, and Articles 2 and 3 and Article 29 on the same day.

The whole issue of changes to Articles 2 and 3 and Article 29 and the constitutional referendum which this involves and the other consultative referendum in the North is a direct consequence of the recent multi-party talks.

This presidential address will not take the traditional form of previous ones. Instead I will be reporting back to you on the phase of negotiations which have just ended and I will be inviting Martin, McGuinness our chief negotiator, to join me later.

On Good Friday, when these talks concluded in their last plenary session, I spelt out the Sinn Fein position. I made it clear that the presence of the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the British Prime Minister had created a focus which broke the stalemate. I said that ``This focus could have brought even greater forward movement and in the months ahead it can deliver further progress.''

I outlined our view that British policy in Ireland has manifestly failed, that partition has failed, and that the days of unionist rule are gone forever. I made it clear that there can be no going back to the failed policies and structures of the past, to the domination of a one-party unionist state supported by the British government.

When the vote was taken I did not vote and Sinn Féin has yet to make a decision on this document. I had previously made it clear that our negotiating team would report back to the Ard Chomhairle which would assess the document in the context of our peace strategy and that we would approach this development in a positive manner.

That report was given to the Ard Chomhairle at meetings yesterday and last Tuesday. The Ard Chomhairle agreed that a report should be given to this Ard Fheis. They also agreed that a motion to adjourn the Ard Fheis be put to you all. The idea is that we discuss all of this but we are not going to be bounced into decisions at this critical juncture for our struggle. Today and tomorrow we will have a collective and preliminary discussion. Then, as you agreed this morning, we will adjourn this Ard Fheis and reconvene within the next few weeks to decide a definite position on how we face into the next phase of this struggle and of our view of this paper and to discuss any direction which the Ard Chomhairle may give about the two up-coming referenda.

For now, I want to encourage you all to give your views in an open, frank and comradely way about where you think we are, where our struggle is, how last week's developments fit into this and how we move from this point forward towards our goal of unity and independence.

On Easter Sunday all of our speakers called on all republicans to examine the document in great detail. While this is probably a necessary exercise it is not enough to read this document on its own, line by line or word by word. Parts of it are ambiguous and contradictory. It needs to be examined in the context of strategy and struggle. And in preparing for the next phase we need also to examine the positions and strategies of our opponents and enemies.

I have always made it clear that while our goals and principles must not change, our strategic objectives, strategies and tactics must be constantly reviewed and rooted in objective reality.

It is crucially important that all of us are totally involved in making the decisions which will prepare this party to fulfil the historic challenges which face us. As part of this review all of us need to be open to self-criticism and self-examination.

For the benefit of the International audience who will watch and listen and read about this Ard Fheis, this small island of Ireland is a partitioned country of five million people.

British interference in our affairs goes back many centuries. So does the struggle to end British involvement in our affairs. This century began in a great convulsion of reaction to the quest for Irish independence.

82 years ago on this very day this city echoed to the clamour of freedom as the men and women of 1916 declared the Republic. Now as the century draws to a close and on the cusp of the millenium that self same clamour echoes all around us.

In the last 30 years the struggle so far has come through a series of phases from the civil rights days and the mass and popular uprising of the early seventies through periods of intense armed conflict and the prison struggles including the hunger strikes into electoralism and the Sinn Fein peace strategy. That struggle goes on but it could be moving once more into another defined phase because whatever else the Good Friday document does, it has the potential to redefine the relationship between these islands, thus concluding one phase of our struggle and opening up another one.

If we are to learn the lessons of the last 30 years, if we are to have confidence in our own strength and in the achievability of our goals, then we must continue to build our political strength and while winning friends for our position, we must also confound our opponents. We have argued that the movement from today's inequality, division and conflict must be transitional. We have argued that progress can be achieved through a rolling process which builds a bridge into the future. In fact, in a document of that name, I presented a case for transitional and other arrangements into a peaceful and democratic Ireland. It is my view that many of these ideas should underpin our strategy in the time ahead.

Such a transitional process could provide a pragmatic route to our ultimate goal but only if the dynamic for such change is stronger than the resistance to it. In assessing the outcome of last week's deliberations, and our own positions, we need to explore whether this is a possibility.

The background to the Agreement was the IRA cessation of August 1994. The republican objective was to genuinely explore the possibilities of a just settlement. The IRA initiative was abused by those politicians resisting change and by securocrats who cannot accept the fact that the IRA is intact, strong and undefeatable. Nor could they contemplate a resurgent nationalist community asserting its rights, because the existence of the northern state was founded, first, on the denial of the right of the Irish people to independence and, second, on the denial of fundamental civil, national and democratic rights to Irish nationalists in the North. Their obstructionist approach led to the breakdown of the first IRA cessation.

It should not be necessary to stress that these people are still in positions of power in the British establishment and still working to a unionist and militarist agenda.

There is no big secret about republican strategy, just as there is no big secret about British government and unionist strategy. They want to maintain the union and we will always want to end it in order to push for our objective - Irish reunification and independence.

The talks process has not settled centuries of British interference in Ireland. Major issues remain unresolved. As Irish republicans we believe that Britain's involvement in our country has been disastrous for us and for them also. We were bequeathed conflict and death, we were bequeathed division. Britain has never had any right to be in Ireland. Britain will never have any right to be in Ireland. But the British government can play a positive role before leaving by trying to redress some of its wrongs and by helping to create the conditions for a peaceful transition to a just settlement.

We knew from the outset that other parties, had already subscribed to a unionist veto described euphemistically as `consent'. We disagree with that position. The reason we cannot subscribe to a unionist veto is quite simple. That veto led to partition and to great suffering by nationalists under Stormont. It was a great historical wrong which allowed a national minority to veto progress by the Irish nation. That veto, and the pandering to that veto, has fed unionist intransigence to this day. It did so at the talks. It continues to feed intransigence and to delay a just settlement. Significantly, that veto has also been the pretext for continued British involvement in Ireland.

Republicans seek agreement between the people of this island as a way of resolving this conflict. That means winning unionists, or at least a sufficient number of unionists, over to the goal of a United Ireland. Is that possible? Have we confidence in our republican analysis, in our arguments and in our vision of the future? Of course, how quickly we can do that depends on nationalism and republicanism building on the limited political consensus which has marked recent events.

But consent has to be a two way street. We have not heard much about the principle of nationalist consent. Nationalists have had to struggle long and hard for our rights and we republicans have been in the vanguard of that struggle and will remain in the vanguard of that struggle throughout the challenging period before us. I shall not prejudge the outcome of the crucial debate that is ahead of Sinn Féin but I say this. United we can do whatever we like. We can continue to confound our critics. We will be imaginative and courageous, open and honest, and will never lose sight of our objective of a United Ireland. And we will continue to make advances.

Much has been said about the Agreement. It has been interpreted this way and that. It is up to us collectively to decide how we approach it. On the one hand it upholds the unionist veto over the constitutional position of the north, and, on the other hand it reduces the British territorial claim to that one hinge while it compels unionists to accept key and fundamental changes involving all-Ireland dimensions to everyday life.

So while the Agreement is not a settlement, it is a basis for advancement. It heralds a change in the status quo. And it could become a transitional stage towards reunification but only if all those who express an interest in that objective, especially the powerful and influential, move beyond rhetoric to build a real, dynamic for national democratic change.

But they must move beyond rhetoric. It was never and it will never be enough to say the nationalist nightmare has ended. And we, who are in the vanguard of this struggle, those risen people throughout this island and abroad are the guarantors of that.

So Sinn Fein will subscribe to what we view as positive in the Agreement, to those aspects which contribute to moving us towards our overall objectives, and it is you, the activists, who with the leadership, shall decide on that.

Some of our critics will say: `You cant do that! You have to buy into it, all or nothing!' But they are wrong.

We can do and we will do whatever we are mandated to do.

We will not be caged in, psyched out, intimidated, cajoled, patronised or bought off. We have our eye on the prize. The prize of freedom.

As everyone knows there was a two week period of intensive multi-party negotiations which started on Monday 30 March. Our party had argued for that type of intensive, concentrated and focussed dialogue. In fact, you will recall it was we who first asked for a timeframe for the negotiations. In the absence of any other dynamic, in our view such a timeframe could act as a catalyst. In the run up to this date, and following our expulsion from the talks, we had a series of meetings with the British and Irish governments and with President Clinton and his officials in the White House.

Our concerns as we approached this intensive period were that the two governments had yet to agree on many of the substantive issues and David Trimble had, and has yet to bring himself to recognising the legitimacy of our mandate. We raised all of these concerns in our different engagements. In the absence of agreement between the governments we feared that the British government would go down to the wire on some issues and that the Irish government would be forced to negotiate up which is always more difficult than negotiating down. We were also concerned that the officials at the British end, mostly the same ones who handled this issue during John Major's term, would, once again, take up a unionist line. In both cases our fears were justified.

In the first day or so it became obvious that Senator Mitchell, who played a thoroughly commendable role, had no paper to deliver. I went to see Bertie Ahern in Dublin. After a very thorough meeting I left assured that he was focussed on all the issues and that his engagements with the British Prime Minister which were due to start later that week would concentrate on the substantive issues.

For us the substantive issues were those which we believed needed to be tackled as part of our effort to bring an end to British jurisdiction in our country and those other matters which are central to a conflict resolution process and the equality agenda. As it transpired, Mr Ahern and Mr Blair made progress. Their officials were then left to put words to the political positions their leaders had agreed.

Meanwhile back at the Talks venue, the Unionists were still blocking and impeding progress. We warned that they would increase this hard-balling and negative stance and that its aim was to prevent the tabling of any paper which was not to their satisfaction. Mr Trimble had a series of meetings with Mr Blair and that week passed without a paper being tabled at the talks.

On Sunday, Lucilita, Bairbre, Caoimhghin, Rita OHare and myself met with the Irish government. Bertie Ahern's mother took seriously ill that day and despite this he saw ourselves and other parties. In fact he left our meeting to go to the hospital and regrettably Julia Ahern died in the early hours of the following morning. My own mother died suddenly in 1992. She was rushed to the hospital with a stroke. I did not visit her for fear of jeopardising others. I have yet to recover from her death. Colette's mother died 3 years ago. She has yet to recover. So we know how Bertie feels. He had to conduct business as usual. I would like to extend condolences of this Ard Fheis to the Ahern family.

At midnight on Monday the paper was eventually tabled. Our talks team were ready and waiting and I want to take this opportunity to commend all of them. We had at least a score of people working non stop during this period. They included our front team of negotiators, the back-up people who drafted and provided the arguments, the publicity people, the secretariat which monopolised three word-processors and at least 5 lap-tops and the security people who were on constant call. We also had the active support of a number of lawyers and senior counsel. They all deserve our heartiest congratulations.

I now want to call upon Martin McGuinness to take us through the twists and turns of the situation from Tuesday until Friday and to give his assessment to you.

[The address by Sinn Féin's Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness followed here]

Before following on from Martin's remarks I want to pay tribute to our friends from abroad. We regularly pay tribute to our friends in the USA and to President Clinton. The international dimension of this struggle has been an expanding one. On Thursday, I received a call from the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and we had a brief discussion about the situation here. We also received a wide range of greetings from throughout the world and if I may single out one person who has been a stalwart ally I want to pay tribute to President Nelson Mandela.

Martin has painted out a sense of what happened and of what has to be done. But of course none of the recent developments or the potential of the current situation would be possible if the IRA had not shown the great courage in taking the initiative for peace in August 1994.

In 1998 we are at a high point where Sinn Fein and republicanism is a pivotal and growing force in Irish politics. We need to be confident about our own strength. We need to build our struggle right across this island so that the reconquest of Ireland is realised in all of its social, economic and cultural manifestations as well as in the political field. Our task must be to articulate and develop the core republican positions in a way which is reasonable and attractive to the broad mass of the Irish people. This cannot be a northern struggle with the south tagged on. It has to be a truely national struggle. That is your responsibility.

Unionist nervousness should not blind us to the enormity of our task and to what has to be done in the time ahead. Last year in my address to you I stressed the need for republicans to be concerned about what was happening inside unionism. I told you then and I want to tell you again, `we must make every effort to ensure that northern protestants and unionists are not forced to occupy that political space we wish to escape from'.

Today, more than ever, we need to hear the many voices of unionism. We need to know what is going on inside their section of our people.

I am aware that the political circumstances that have unfolded over this past seven days have left a deep sense of uncertainty among many unionists. Northern Unionists are now having to deal with a range of political issues which surface in the form of raw emotions. I know the difficulty they are having in dealing with such emotions. I appreciate the intensity of their feelings and recognise how much they matter to those who feel the hurt and pain.

We who carry so much pain must not allow our hurt make us insensitive to the hurt and pain of the unionists. We must make it clear that we have no wish to dominate them in the way we were dominated in the past. I also appreciate that for many republicans this journey of reconciliation with the unionists is difficult, but surely the depth of our republican vision is its capacity to lift us above our more negative feelings. Our vision compels us to build a bridge into the hearts and minds of those who we once described as our enemy.

Looking into Unionism today I see confusion and fear. Many in that community believe that ahead of them lies a rushing political humiliation. Many believe they are being moved into a position of second class citizenship where they will be robbed of their identity. They fear they are being forced into a political space which was previously occupied by nationalists and republicans.

These perceptions have become magnified since April 10. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to spell out to the northern protestant and unionist community the core political values that lie at the centre of our wish to engage with you.

Republicans have no wish to discriminate against you; to dominate you; to marginalise you; to drive you from this island; to make you second class citizens in the land of your birth.

Now let me spell out the core political values that lie at the centre of our relationship with you.

There is a common need: to recognise the integrity of the other; to be at peace with each other; to understand the way we have hurt one another; to listen to one another; to be patient with one another; to find our common ground; to celebrate our difference as diversity. And as equals.

Today the Ulster Unionist Party is meeting. They are worried. Divided. Concerned. Change is never easy. The politics of change are volatile but unionists and republicans must deal with the politics of change. I understand the difficulties facing David Trimble. I feel that he has compounded some of his difficulties by refusing so far to embrace with generosity the breadth of change which is needed. Change must be managed. That is difficult for everyone, for you, for me, for Mr Trimble. The anchor of change has to be dialogue. In his heart of hearts Mr Trimble knows that. He also knows that the real significance of last week's events for unionism was that the Ulster Unionist Party was moved further than it wanted to go. But if Unionists are to play a positive role in the shared responsibility which must shape a shared future for everyone on this island, unionism will have to move even further into modern times.

David Trimble says that in his opinion the union is much safer under the Agreement than it was before. But he knows the truth is that the union has been severely weakened. That is the reality.

So while I am conscious of Mr Trimble's difficulties and ready to engage directly with him I must also remind him that the challenge for him is to join in managing and planning the future along with the rest of us.

It is my view that this will happen. But only when there is no alternative. That is why the role of the British Prime Minister is so crucial. Up to this point British policy in support of the Union, as well as the unionist veto, have been at the root of the conflict here. That is why the focus of all democratic opinion must be on securing changes in British policy and removing the veto.

Yesterday, I spoke to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. 10 Downing Street also phoned 44 Parnell Square and I spoke to the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who I will be meeting again on 27 April. I took the opportunity to impress upon him once again that the British responsibility in Ireland is to right wrongs. I also conveyed to him complaints that I have received of British military and RUC harassment in Belfast, South Armagh and Tyrone. Indeed over the Easter period a number of our negotiating team were victims once again of this harassment. In my view Mr Blair understands that he must bring changes urgently on the ground and in these areas which have suffered most from the blight of British militarism and the British presence.

His is the biggest responsibility because he must face up to righting the wrongs, which are the historical and contemporary legacy of Britain's involvement in our affairs.

When Irish republicans talk about British interference and the British presence we do not mean the unionist people. They are an important and valued part of our society. We want to make peace with the unionists, to work with you, to accommodate and celebrate our diversity as equals.

One of the big challenges facing us in the time ahead is how we deal with the new structures which are being proposed. This must be part of our evaluation. Irish republicans have an emotional and an understandable political as well as a constitutional block to participation in a Stormont parliament. If that abstentionist policy underpins our contest in the Assembly elections then the seats in the cross border bodies, which have the power to make and implement policy on an all Ireland basis, and which would rightly belong to our electorate, could be allocated to other parties. We need to ask ourselves if this serves our struggle. If it does, fair enough. It if does not then we have a duty to look at alternatives based upon a coherent republican strategy.

We cannot and we will not recognise as legitimate the six county statelet. And we can and we will continue to reject partition and British rule. That is our credo.

We cannot stand still. The struggle must be developed. We need to keep making advances, creating a new political culture. A culture of change. To bring an end to the status quo. Nationalists and republicans living in the north are not some ethnic minority living in a foreign state. We are Irish people living in our own country. Our rights are not concessions that is the gift of unionism of the British government to give or withhold.

Northern nationalists willingly and consciously share in the sovereignty of the Irish people. This needs to be given recognition and accommodated at this time as part of the forward momentum of a transitional process. Accordingly we have advocated that Irish citizens in the north be entitled to return representatives to the Dail and to participate as fully as possible in the political life of the nation. We have also proposed that Irish citizens in the north be entitled to vote in presidential elections and relevant referenda. I welcome the Taoiseach's referral of this matter to the Commission on Constitutional Review and urge that the processing of this be expedited. I would also invite individuals and organisations and other political parties throughout Ireland to actively demonstrate their support for these proposals.

The Irish government have a responsibility to develop the citizenship right of those in the north to its fullest extent.

Ireland is Ireland. The Irish people are the nation and the national territory is all 32 counties, our islands and territorial seas. No section of the Irish nation can have a veto on the political destiny of the whole nation. The Irish nation has never voluntarily recognised the claim of the British government to sovereignty over any part of Ireland. Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone are Irish counties. Nothing can change that. And nothing ever will.

That is why we have to keep building our struggle and building our political strength.

Because it is by building that strength that we will build the capacity to move both the British government and the unionists. Our interest is not merely in new structures. We have no interest in jobs for the boys or the girls. We are not place seekers. We will not be found fumbling in the greasy till adding halfpence to the pence. Our interest is in freedom and in winning maximum changes in every aspect of our lives.

All political prisoners must be released. We will not rest until they are at home with their loved ones.

There will be many difficult times ahead. We must cast off delusions and suspicions and rise to the challenges before us.

Irish republicans have demonstrated time and time again our capacity to overcome adversity and advance our struggle for freedom and justice against enormous odds.

It is not enough to sloganise. We are not verbalised republicans or rhetorical revolutionaries. We are deadly serious about turning the division of 1798 and 1916 into a reality. I believe this generation of Irish republicans will do just that.

It will not be easy. The last few months have seen many killings. Last night another man died. So there are mighty challenges if we are to remove the causes of conflict from our country. But we will persist mindful that while we seek to make peace the orange state is lining up to do battle.

So let us have our discussions here today and tomorrow. Let us come back here to take our decisions collectively and in unity. And let us have freedom."

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