I wish to welcome all of you here and those joining us on RTE to the 2014 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis here in Wexford.
2013 was once again a year of great challenge for the Irish people. In the south the austerity policies of the EU and IMF continue despite the much hyped departure of the Troika. In the North, the tory government continues to introduce measures which disadvantage the most vulnerable in our society.
The old, the young, the sick, citizens with disabilities, carers and mortgage holders still carry an unjust and unfair burden. A change of political direction is needed. The cycle of austerity, inequality, unemployment and emigration must be broken. The Irish people deserve better.
What is needed is a fundamental realignment of Irish politics. The Irish people deserve better than the politics of two conservative blocs or parties of the left propping up right-wing governments.
North and South, in government or in opposition, Sinn Féin has pointed to a better, fairer way forward. This is about protecting families on low and middle incomes, public services, investment in jobs, fair taxes, and growing the all-Ireland economy. It is about fairness in the economy, fairness in Government and fairness in society.
Our Republican ideology is needed now in Ireland like never before. A National Republic based upon equality, democracy and justice is the natural challenge to the failed politics of austerity and partition.
Republicans stepping forward and showing leadership is what needs to happen in the time ahead.
We need to continue to lead in opposition in the Dail.
We need to continue to lead in government in the north.
We need to lead in the council chambers across Ireland.
We need to lead in the communities where we live.
And we need to continue to lead in the Peace Process.
I have spoken in recent days about my frustration at the lack of positive engagement by political unionism at this time.
I have to say I have been heartened by the response I have had privately from people across society in the north to my intervention.
Make no mistake about it – the vast majority of people want the political institutions in the north to succeed. They share my sense of frustration at the current approach being adopted by unionist leaders..
The current difficulties are real, but they are not insurmountable.
My commitment and the commitment of Sinn Fein to the process and to the institutions is absolute.
In the time ahead I would appeal to civic society in the north, to the churches, the unions and ordinary citizens who are wedded to the peace process to make your voice heard.
No longer can your voices be drowned out by the rejectionists who have over the course of the past twelve months sought to use flags, parades and the past to undermine the progress made over the course of the past twenty years.
Building the Ireland I want to see begins with addressing our past and defining our future.
We have an opportunity to do that on the back of the recent talks, chaired by Dr Richard Hass and Professor Meghan O’Sullivan.
Going into those talks, all the parties should have known that compromises had to be made. We knew that, and in our effort to get agreement, we compromised. We compromised because we believed there was an obligation on us to replace hurt and division with healing and reconciliation.
We compromised because we need to challenge intolerance, inequality and exclusion. Sectarianism is no different to racism, sexism or homophobia.
They are all wrong. They are all evil.
We compromised because the task of national reconciliation and nation building places demands on all of us to embrace change.
I am not afraid to compromise because honourable compromises in the interest of building peace and justice is legitimate and nothing to be ashamed of. I an proud of the compromises we have made.
This frightens some.
Over the past year in the north we have seen this fear played out in flag protests, opposition to Irish language rights, including the attempts by the orange order in Belfast to bully people from a unionist background, who wish to learn the irish language. Also, a fear of cultural equality, the blocking of the international Peace building and conflict resolution centre at Maze/Long Kesh and the very public failure of the unionist parties to sign up to the Haass proposals.
My Irish identity is no threat to those who identify themselves as British.
In the North there are two main allegiances. Pro Irish and Pro British. Both deserve to be respected and no identity or culture is more worthy than another.
Last year in my home city of Derry, during fleadh cheoil na heireann, four loyalist flute bands participated and were warmly welcomed and applauded. This enriches both our cultures and the fleadh was better for it.
Recently a motion put to Derry City Council that it makes a bid for Derry to become Irish city of Culture was passed unanimously with the support of DUP and UUP councillors.
I have spoken to both the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste to emphasis both the historic and symbolic nature of these fine examples of how a spirit of generosity can deliver for everyone.
The challenge we as republicans face is to articulate a vision of a united Ireland which will accommodate, safeguard and cherish the British identity.
In the meantime the challenge for political unionism is to demonstrate to Irish citizens in the north how they intend to accommodate, safeguard and cherish our identity. So far they have failed to grasp this challenge. I appeal to those Unionists who wish to see progress, to break free of the rejectionists and negative forces, and lead from the front. Our communities are stronger together.
I would like to make it clear, that I support the right of the Orange Order to parade. However, they must do it in a way that is respectful. We must be respectful to each other. The Orange Order should reach out to their neighbours and engage in dialogue. Only dialogue will resolve the difficulties that we see repeated each year. No one should be fearful of our combined cultures.
For the past ten years I have pro actively with others, supported the Orange Order and the Apprentice boys of Derry, right to parade in Derry. Respect, dialogue and a spirit of generosity, has meant that Derry has been trouble free for years during the marching season.
And the fear I speak about was manifested in the past week or so with the disgraceful online abuse targeted against a young teacher and Sinn Féin councilor , our colleague Catherine Seely.
The forcing of Catherine from her job as a school teacher in North Belfast has been motivated entirely by sectarian hatred and prejudice and driven by an unrepresentative and nasty anti-peace process group of extreme loyalists.
Their actions are contemptible.
If this situation was reversed and a young Protestant teacher, who also a member of the DUP, was being forced from her job in a Catholic school, I would be at the door accompanying her to her work. We would challenge directly those behind the threats and doing everything in my power to see them faced down.
People will judge for themselves the response of Unionist politicians to the attacks on Catherine Seely.
This was a time when people should rightly have expected a robust response from leaders within Unionism. This has yet to come.
I am heartened by the glowing and brave tributes that came from Catherine’s pupils in Boys Model. They have shown courage and leadership. The local DUP MP could learn a lot from them.
I extend to Catherine my best wishes and continuing solidarity and support and that of the entire party.
Republicans are up for the challenge of reconciliation.
We are up for the challenge of Nation Building.
We are up for the challenge of uniting our people and uniting our country.