By Frances Davis
Sinn Féin held its Ard Fheis (Annual conference) over 9-10 September. Described as ‘a conference of firsts’, it was indeed the first time the event had taken place in Belfast at the prestigious Waterfront Hall. The rising confidence and strength of the party was evident, reflected in the breadth of speakers and policies over the two days, and laid out in both keynote speeches of party president Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Vice President Mary Lou McDonald gave the perspective for ‘reuniting Ireland’.
Martin McGuinness’ opening address underlined the significance of the Ard Fheis being in Belfast, made possible by the immense struggle and change which had taken place over the past three to four decades. As Gerry Adams pointed out in what was a highly poignant address on Saturday evening, it was indeed ‘a big deal for Belfast republicans that the Ard Fheis is assembled here’. Outlining both the proud history of political struggle in the city, he reflected how Sinn Féin was once a banned organisation in what was ‘a one party – police state – run by a unionist elite which controlled all the institutions of government’. The nationalist community were second class citizens, with internment, bans, sectarian murders and threats and political exclusion. It would have been unthinkable at that time for the Ard Fheis to have been held in Belfast in such a venue. However, as the Sinn Féin President spelt out: ‘Those days are gone; done with, over. Unionism, as it comes to terms with this new reality, will be liberated by it. The orange state is no more. This Ard Fheis, your presence here, is proof of that.’ It was a hugely significant moment, symbolising the progress made and the rise of Sinn Féin over that period.
Sinn Féin’s perspective, as a left-wing, Irish republican party, was set out in detail by the leadership and by numerous new TDs, Senators, assembly members and councillors. Pushing forward the peace process, the perspective for Irish unity is now coupled with a clear and coherent economic policy which is streets ahead of any other mass party in Europe. In the policy debate on the economy, subtitled ‘Finance, opposing austerity, jobs, workers rights and agriculture’ the motions set out a clear position against cuts and austerity and for investment and an economic stimulus as a way out of the economic crisis. With clear confidence in this strategy unparalleled in this country, many of the party’s new elected representatives argued that a framework of cuts was an economic catastrophe, and spelt out clear policies: ‘Austerity has failed. The cutbacks have not reduced the budget deficit nor the number out of work. Austerity has damaged the economy and intensified the economic crisis’. A programme of investment and job creation, alongside Sinn Féin’s core perspective for Irish re-unification, was given unanimous backing from the conference. This clear line is one from which the left in Britain and elsewhere could take a lead.
Another first was the speech at the Ard Fheis from Presbytarian Minister David Latimer, who received a standing ovation. It was an extraordinary appearance and, despite an intensity of attacks from within unionism, one which took forward Sinn Féin’s approach of engagement with the unionist community. As Martin McGuinness said upon introducing Latimer: ‘It is our duty to continue to reach out to unionists and to persuade them of the merits of a new republic and of their treasured place in it.’ Particularly notable was Latimer’s description of Martin McGuinness as ‘one of the great leaders of our time’. However, as writer Roy Greenslade correctly points out in his Guardian blog this historic appearance was largely ignored in the British media.
In other debates progressive left policies were agreed overwhelmingly, including an end to student fees, against cuts in health, housing and education, and on justice and equality. The party gave strong solidarity support to the Palestinian people, welcoming the agreement between Hamas and Fatah and calling for an immediate end to the blockade of Gaza. The conference also welcomed the peace initiative taken by the Abertzale Left in the Basque country and welcomed the economic co-operation in Latin America and the Caribbean. It urged an end to the blockade of Cuba and for the freeing of the Miami 5, and opposed intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also of significance was the speech to the Ard Fheis by the Chief Whip of the ANC in the South African Parliament, Dr Mathole Motshekga, who made the point that the struggle in South Africa against apartheid had been inspired by the struggle of the Irish people. In turn Sinn Féin TD Padraig Mac Lochlainn thanked the ANC who where ‘there for us at key moments of our peace process’.
A full assessment of the Ard Fheis, speeches and policy passed can be found here.
A clear indication was given that the party are likely to stand a candidate in the forthcoming Irish Presidential election later this year. Gerry Adams, in his speech said he was in favour of such a move. The party will make a final decision this Friday.