No ordinary Party – Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2018

By Sammy Barker

Sinn Féin held its Ard Fheis (conference) in Belfast on 15 and 16 June. Visitors and delegates were immediately made aware of a transition by the colour scheme. External and internal posters were purple and white; the stage back drop was purple and white with the platform party sitting at green covered tables. Utilising suffragette colours was a way of marking the centenary of some women receiving the vote, and the election of Constance Markievicz, Sinn Féin member, as the first woman MP. It also showed that Sinn Féin, under the new leadership of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, as a Republican party will be at the forefront of social change.

Its collective leadership – Officers and Ard Chomhairle (Executive) is composed of 50% women. The conference opening address was delivered by Deidre Hargey, the first woman from Sinn Féin to be Lord Mayor of Belfast. A major document ‘A Vision for Women’s Health’ was launched. A tribute to women republicans ‘Vótáil 100 – A Century of Unmanageable Revolutionaries’ was staged at the Ard Fheis. And a majority of featured speakers were women in the session broadcast live on RTE, Irish state broadcaster.

In addition to this, the constant theme being promoted was a party that would stand up for all those oppressed, exploited or abused in Ireland. Deidre Hargey explained that she was the Mayor for all the people of Belfast – unionist, nationalist, Travelers and Roma, ethnic minorities, LGBT and people with disabilities. A large number of contributions were made by young delegates. There were a number of notable contributions from lesbian and gay delegates.

For some years these trends have been visible, but at this Ard Fheis there was a sense of their complete fruition. The ‘New Ireland’ that was the theme of conference was captured by Mary Lou McDonald, ‘There is an equal place for everybody in a new Ireland. Ireland is no longer simply orange and green. Ireland is a rainbow of identities and culture’.

This is a process not just internal to Sinn Féin, but a broad change in Irish society. The large majorities achieved in the referendums in support of marriage equality, and for the repeal of constitutional Clause 8, demonstrates how Ireland is dramatically changing. This is undermining the old political alliances that arose from the ‘carnival of reaction’ that followed British imperialism’s brutal partition of Ireland. In the north, unionism has lost its majority in society, its majority in the popular vote, and its majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In the south, the two parties that have alternated in government since partition, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, have seen their combined share of the popular vote fall below 50% for the first time ever in the Irish General Election in 2016.

In conditions of rapid social change, the immediate and chief obstacle is the governmental agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Tories. Firstly, this bloc is preventing the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. After the Assembly elections in March 2017, there were five phases of negotiations. A political accommodation between Sinn Féin and DUP was achieved on 9 February 2018 which was unraveled by DUP leader Arlene Foster on 14 February telling the media she couldn’t sell the deal and left the talks. There have been no further talks since. DUP MPs, and some of their base, believe that its agreement with the Tories means it can avoid coming to terms with nationalists in the Assembly.

Secondly, the bloc is aiming to impose Brexit upon Ireland, by taking the north out of the EU despite fifty six per cent vote in the north to remain, and the existence of a pro-EU majority in the south. Sinn Féin’s position is ‘special status’ for the north inside the EU; the Irish government’s position is very similar without acknowledging any credit to Sinn Féin. Parties representing a majority of northern voters also reject losing the north’s connection to the EU single market, customs union and current ‘soft’ border.

The Ard Fheis reaffirmed Sinn Féin’s positions. Michelle O’Neill said, ‘Brexit represents the greatest economic threat to the island of Ireland in a generation. And I fully respect the right of the British people to leave the EU and I wish them well. However, I am wholly opposed to the British Government dragging us out of the EU against our will’.

Another by-product of the Tory/DUP bloc is the threat to gerrymander the parliamentary constituencies in the north. This month is the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the civil rights movement – in 1968 when violent evictions took place of squatters denied access to social housing by the unionist controlled Housing Executive. This led to the first march from Coalisland to Dungannon in August that year. So serious was the sectarian discrimination against the nationalist community that Michelle Gildernew MP reminded the Ard Fheis, ‘… we know too well universal suffrage was not a fact of life until 1969. This was the first major victory in the fight for equality but it was only the beginning’.

Yet, fifty years later the Boundary Commission wants to use criteria to define constituencies in the north of Ireland that are different from the criteria used for England, Scotland and Wales. As a result, there are to be extra seats for the DUP, in line with the DUP’s own submission to the Commission. Of course, Sinn Féin and other democrats are submitting evidence to the Commission, aiming to prevent this injustice before the Final Recommendation is made to the Secretary of State in September this year.

One feature of the Ard Fheis remained unchanged, that is its consistent internationalism. This year two addresses were given by Dr Afif Safieh on behalf of the Palestinian Fatah organization. His first address was given, in a typical act of republican generosity, in the session of conference streamed live by RTE. Support for the Palestinian struggle runs deep in Ireland. The Ard Fheis passed motions calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ireland, for immediate recognition by the Irish government of the Palestinian state, rejection of meetings with Israeli government bodies and for Ireland’s withdrawal from the planned Eurovision Song Contest next year in Israel or Jerusalem. Of course, representing the nation which turned ‘Boycott’ into a verb, conference reaffirmed its full support for BDS.

The Ard Fheis also heard Josu Juaeisti Abaunz, Foreign Affairs Chair at the EH Bildu Coalition, representing the Basque organisations. After sixty years of armed struggle, ETA has disbanded to open a peace process. Despite 280 Basque political prisoners remaining in jail, he expressed great confidence in the process. Last week a human chain of 175,000 was organized in the Basque in their support. Sinn Féin has directly followed and supported the struggle through its many turns.

The Cuban Ambassador of Ireland, Hugo Ramos presented a message of greetings from the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. As would be customary, he received a standing ovation. Additional resolutions were carried on the struggle in Catalonia, Cuba, Colombia, Syria and Kurdistan, Egypt, Honduras, Bahrain and in support of the Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier. The range of these concerns reflects the commitment and daily work of this profoundly internationalist party.

The most controversial and sustained debate was around Sinn Féin’s policy response to the result of the Clause 8 referendum. The Ard Chomhairle, the youth organization and a number of Cumann (branches) submitted a motion which directed Sinn Féin representatives supporting appropriate legislation guaranteeing women’s access to abortion. The party had enthusiastically campaigned for repeal, and Mary Lou McDonald won many plaudits for her contribution from outside the party. A number of Cumann put forward a proposal to allow for a ‘conscience’ vote by party members and legislators. The debate was extremely sharp, with a large majority of contributors supporting Sinn Féin’s position in the campaign. The opposition, for the most part, avoided the issue of women’s rights, concentrating on the ‘unique’ nature of abortion. The debate was concluded with an authoritative intervention by Martina Anderson MEP. She explained that the last time she had spoken at an Ard Fheis on the issue was in 1995, two days after her release from Maghaberry prison, when she represented the pro-choice position of the women prisoners. Since being defeated in that vote, she told the opposition, ‘We have walked in your shoes – year after year’. Now that an overwhelming vote in favour of the leadership position has been carried, no exemptions in breach of the membership decision will be allowed to legislators. No ordinary Party this.

The Ard Fheis covered a wide range of issues. There were important debates on climate change – with a document launched for climate friendly electricity generation. The critical economic issues of health and housing provision in the south were seriously debated. A large number of policies were agreed in support of ‘secure work and decent wages’. The Ard Fheis concentrated on promoting alternatives to austerity and the neo-liberal consensus.

There was a weakness, insofar as the larger economic policy to sustain this progressive social programme was not elaborated. Mary Lou McDonald spoke of a decade of underinvestment by successive southern governments, the deep scars of austerity and some specific policies such as state ownership and roll out of the broadband infrastructure. Clearly there is work to be resumed in the coming period on these issues if the party is to be prepared for governmental power.

Overall, the Ard Fheis demonstrated that the party has successfully negotiated a generational change in leadership, whilst maintaining its integrity. It is becoming ready for government on both sides of the border, and eager to promote initiatives which will bring about the unification of Ireland, in the foreseeable future. Its energy, imagination and courage stands in obvious contrast to the DUP/Tory bloc and the declining parties in the south. Such leaders and activists are the guarantee of the viability of the Good Friday agreement and Ireland’s further social progress.