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Sinn Féin Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin today announced that party activists are mobilising to attend anti-war protests at Hillsborough on Monday 8th April at 6pm. He said that while we regard the engagement of US Administrations in the Irish Peace Process as positive, we are totally opposed to the invasion of Iraq. Mr. McLaughlin said:

"We regard the engagement of US Administrations in the Irish Peace Process as positive. However, we are strongly opposed to the invasion of Iraq.

"We will be conveying our opposition to the war on Iraq directly to both the British Prime Minister and the US President."ENDS

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Sinn Féin Health spokesperson Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD has accused Government Ministers of squabbling over health policy while patients suffer. Commenting on the public row between Health Minister Martin and Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy, Deputy Ó Caoláin said the Government was "at sixes and sevens" over Health and challenged the Taoiseach to say "who is in charge". Deputy Ó Caoláin also called on the Minister to "take on" consultants who were holding up health reform. He said:

"Patients are suffering on waiting lists and hospital beds and wards are being closed. There are not enough consultants, junior doctors and nurses. The downgrading of smaller local hospitals continues apace. Services for people with disabilities are being cut back. And in the face of all this we have Government ministers squabbling over health policy. This Government is at sixes and sevens over health.

"I challenge the Taoiseach to say who is in charge of Health policy following Health Minister Martin's criticism of Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy. Minister Martin's frank statement that the Minister for Finance and his department have lost sight of the 'bigger picture' on health is a damning indictment.

"Equally damning is the Minister for Health's admission that consultants are still 'kings in their own domain' and are blocking the reforms necessary to improve the health services. It is time to take on this powerful elite. And in doing this the Minister should have the full support of his Cabinet colleagues, including the Finance Minister." ENDS

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on the Environment and Local Government Arthur Morgan TD speaking during the debate on the reform of Local Government in the Dáil this morning said that he "welcomed wholeheartedly the ending of the dual mandate" and urged the Minister to reinstate the provision for the direct election of Mayors and Chairpersons at the earliest opportunity.

Deputy Morgan said: "I look forward to the independent review of local Government that the Minister signalled would take place shortly. I hope the review is imaginative and creative because it is long overdue.

"I welcome wholeheartedly the ending of the dual mandate which I hope marks the dawn of a new ear for local government. One person cannot carry out the functions of two separate elected bodies effectively. I would urge that the provision for the direct election of Mayors and Chairpersons be reinstated at the earliest opportunity.

"There is an overuse of centralised power, which is unfair. It corrupts local authorities, not in the financial sense, but by forcing them to implement all sorts of planning levies and parking fees. For example, in my own county a planning levy of €3,300 is imposed on a young couple applying for permission to build their first house. How can that be fair, particularly in the context of the ending of the first time buyer's grant in the budget? It is a gross imposition on the very people local government should support.

"In ending the dual mandate we must also ensure that city and county managers are not given additional power. We should use the opportunity provided by this Bill to replace city and county managers with representatives who are directly elected by the citizens and voters of a city or county.

"I would be favourably disposed to supporting the Bill if the Minister made these changes." ENDS

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A public meeting at the Canal Court Hotel in Newry on Thursday night (April 3) was informed of a forthcoming delegation of Sinn Féin elected representatives which is to visit Brussels in early May to meet with officials of the EU Agricultural Commission. The delegation will be led by the party spokespersons on Agriculture and Rural Development, Martin Ferris TD and Gerry McHugh MLA. The purpose of the visit is to make representations on a wide range of issues effecting farmers on both sides of the border.

Among the issues which will be raised are;

1. Agricultural status for the Six Counties

2. All Ireland milk quota

3. Rural Development

4. Fisheries

5. Animal health and disease prevention

6. UK tagging and an All Ireland food policy

All of the speakers who included Pat Doherty MP, Conor Murphy MLA, Councillor Pat O'Rawe, Gerry McHugh MLA and Martin Ferris TD stressed the importance of tackling these issues on an all Ireland basis and referred to the Sinn Féin project to advance this. Martin Ferris also referred to the need to convince farmers and rural communities from the Unionist tradition that their interests are best served in advancing towards an all island approach.

Deputy Ferris said: "More and more people from the Unionist tradition are coming to that realisation and I have no doubt but that many also have a far higher estimation fro Gerry McHugh than they do for any of the Unionist spokespersons on Agriculture and Rural Development". ENDS

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Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe has welcomed last night's statement from the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs that acknowledges the serious concerns that exist in relation to the continued detention of the three Irish men in Colombia. He specifically welcomed the fact that the Government has raised the issue of the prejudicial comments made about the men since their arrest with the Colombian authorities.

Deputy Crowe said: "I would like to first of all welcome the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs has been following the case closely and that their desire is to see that the men get a fair trial. I would also like to welcome the Departments acknowledgment of the serious concerns that exist in relation to the plight of the three men in Colombia and the fact that they have been the subject of seriously prejudicial comments from the heart of the Colombian political and military establishment.

"Since these men were arrested the Attorney General in Colombia has said these men are guilty. A former President of the country, Mr Pastrana has said they are guilty. The current President Mr Uribe has said they are guilty. The head of the armed forces has said the men are guilty. And only last week Colombian General Moro and a number of parliamentarians said the men were guilty.

"I will be visiting Colombia for the third time next week. Since I first attended the trial some months ago not one shred of credible evidence has been produced against these men. They are being held in appalling and dangerous conditions.

"It is clear from the Ministers comments that the Government believes that the men's trial has been prejudiced. As a consequence I would ask the Government to demand the immediate release of the three men as it is very obvious that they can not and will not be given a fair trial in Colombia - no matter what assurances they are given by the Authorities there." ENDS

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Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe has welcomed last night's statement from the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs that acknowledges the serious concerns that exist in relation to the continued detention of the three Irish men in Colombia. He specifically welcomed the fact that the Government has raised the issue of the prejudicial comments made about the men since their arrest with the Colombian authorities.

Deputy Crowe said: "I would like to first of all welcome the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs has been following the case closely and that their desire is to see that the men get a fair trial. I would also like to welcome the Departments acknowledgment of the serious concerns that exist in relation to the plight of the three men in Colombia and the fact that they have been the subject of seriously prejudicial comments from the heart of the Colombian political and military establishment.

"Since these men were arrested the Attorney General in Colombia has said these men are guilty. A former President of the country, Mr Pastrana has said they are guilty. The current President Mr Uribe has said they are guilty. The head of the armed forces has said the men are guilty. And only last week Colombian General Moro and a number of parliamentarians said the men were guilty.

"I will be visiting Colombia for the third time next week. Since I first attended the trial some months ago not one shred of credible evidence has been produced against these men. They are being held in appalling and dangerous conditions.

"It is clear from the Ministers comments that the Government believes that the men's trial has been prejudiced. As a consequence I would ask the Government to demand the immediate release of the three men as it is very obvious that they can not and will not be given a fair trial in Colombia - no matter what assurances they are given by the Authorities there." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Transport, Seán Crowe has described the Strategic Rail Review published today as lacking in vision and offering little in the way of the radical reform we were promised.

The Dublin South-West TD said: "For a review that promised radical change as part of the most extensive review of our rail service ever taken, I feel we have been short-changed. It lacks vision, ambition and any coherent sense of the need to expand our rail services.

"There is no commitment to balanced regional development. There is little comfort for people living in the west of Ireland who were promised a Western Rail Corridor.

"The report also lacks any serious attempt to build an All-Ireland rail transport system. There is an urgent need for extension of the rail network to the North-West of the island. A Dublin to Derry line would cater for thousands of people living in counties like Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh, Monaghan and others.

"While I certainly welcome investing in the rail services we have and in attempting to improve them, we need to be expanding our rail network now to cater for the needs of the future. If this Government is serious about balanced development, it must look beyond this review, and I am pleased to note the comments of the Minister that he will not consider himself bound by this document but will be open to looking beyond it." ENDS

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Speaking at a press conference today about the Garda handling of last nights Anti-war protest outside the Dáil Sinn Féin TD for Louth Arthur Morgan, who took part in the protest, has accused the Irish Government of "hiding behind the jackboot of the Berties storm-troopers" in the face of the opposition to the War on Iraq that exists in this Country.

Deputy Morgan said: "Firstly I would like to take this opportunity to commend and congratulate the peaceful protesters for the mannerly and orderly way they conducted themselves in the face of severe provocation.

"I am calling on the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice to explain what guidance or direction was given if any to the Gardaí that resulted in the unnecessary and excessively aggressive use of force against peaceful protesters that was witnessed at last night's protest outside this Dáil. And I would also ask them to explain why, after the controversy surrounding the Reclaim the Streets protests last year, were members of the Gardai again deployed with identification numbers. It is totally unacceptable and the actions of these Gardai were completely unjustified and provocative.

"There is clearly a Government sanctioned policy at play here which is designed to portray peaceful anti-war protesters in a bad light in the hope that it would turn other people away from coming on to the streets to express the democratic rights. We should not allow ourselves to be distracted or sidelined from our objectives, which is to see an end to the illegal war on Iraq, by the Governments undemocratic tactics.

"As we have seen on so many issues it is obvious that this Government in its arrogance has lost any connection to either reality or to the mood of the people. It is also very obvious that this Government and its Ministers are now hiding behind the jackboot of Bertie's storm-troopers instead of facing the people." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Equality Spokesperson, Upper Bann MLA Dr Dara O'Hagan has welcomed the decision of the High Court to quash the decision of the Equality Commission to withdraw financial support from a discrimination case after a judicial review of the decision.

Dr O'Hagan said:

"The ruling in this judicial review of the Equality Commission's decision to withdraw funding, at the last minute, in this discrimination case has serious implication for the Commission itself and particularly the legal funding committee.

"In the current negotiation Sinn Féin have been pressing the British government to live up to its Good Friday Agreement commitment on the full implementation of the Equality Agenda. I am seeking an urgent meeting with Des Browne to address Sinn Féin's concerns about the Equality Commission and its ability to support discrimination cases.

"The view of legal counsel that it was difficult to escape the conclusion that the Equality Commission miscalculated its finances, panicked and slashed its' caseload and then found reasons to justify its decision to withdraw funding of the majority of its discrimination cases only afterwards.

"The judgement against the Equality Commission highlighted the fact that it had made fatal errors in compounding an erroneous decision taken on a mistaken basis not just once but three times. This indicates that previous mistakes were then not addressed in twice reviewing the original decision by the Equality Commission legal funding committee.

"This ruling calls the credibility of the funding committee into question. I would also be concerned that the legal costs associated with defending the injunction far out way the cost in continuing to support this discrimination case that is due to be heard next week. The Equality Commission must, as a matter of urgency review its decision to withdraw support for funding its discrimination caseload. The financial implication of having to fight a judicial review into every decision made on such a mistaken basis cannot be under stated.

"The decision to stop supporting discrimination cases, that was taken entirely without consultation, also sends entirely the wrong message out to employers that operate either mechanisms of direct or indirect discrimination. The issue of discrimination whether direct or indirect or indeed structural and institutional must be tackled in an open and transparent way if we are going to build the ethos of equality and human rights into the fabric of our society." ENDS

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on International Affairs and Defence Aengus Ó Snodaigh has described the Governments endorsement of the Fine Gael Private Members Motion calling for increased humanitarian aid for Iraq as "a disgusting hypocrisy". He accused the Government of having a "Jeckyll and Hyde" attitude to neutrality and of shedding "crocodile tears for the children and civilians of Iraq."

During the course of the debate Deputy Ó Snodaigh said:

"The Government endorsement of this motion recognising the terrible humanitarian consequences of this war - of which I guarantee we are seeing only a small fraction reported on TV and in the newspaper - is not to be welcomed. It is a disgusting hypocrisy. They propose, in their twisted, Jeckyll and Hyde version of neutrality, to on the one hand help the Americans wage the war, and on the other to help the Iraqis recover, and thereby hope to appear to remain on the fence. I do not accept this as real neutrality and I do not accept the Government's crocodile tears for the children and civilians of Iraq.

"It is not enough for this Government to play a full role in the international relief effort. It must make every diplomatic effort to stop this war, and start by withdrawing its logistical support now."

Deputy Ó Snodaigh also cautioned against allowing humanitarian aid to be used by protagonists in the war saying "There must be no diversion, appropriation and redistribution by the invading forces of UN or other humanitarian aid. There must be no use of food and other aid as a propaganda tool, as part of a hearts and minds psychological operation against the Iraqi people, or as a form of bribery by invading forces."

He went on to say "Instead, there must be war reparations paid by the invaders and independently administered by the UN and other international non-governmental relief agencies. There must be no foreign military rule in Iraq, not even on an interim basis, not at any stage." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Agriculture and Rural Development, Martin Ferris TD met with farmers from North Louth and South Armagh on Tuesday (1 April) evening to discuss a range of issues. The meeting, which was organised by the Sheelagh Branch of the IFA, was also attended by IFA National Executive member Ray O'Malley and Conor Murphy MLA. Among the problems addressed were the growth in the levels of TB, cross-border rural development funding and the continued heavy British military presence in the area. The latter was highlighted following the meeting when Deputy Ferris was brought to see the nearby Drumucknaval British Army spy post.

Deputy Ferris stated that he will continue to press the Department of Agriculture in Dublin to ensure that the northern authorities step up their efforts to curb the spread of bovine disease. He will also write to Minister Brian Cowan regarding the progress of investigations into British Army behaviour along the border which were referred several months ago to the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference.

"I would support the call of people living along the border for an all-Ireland approach to animal health and the implementation of an all-Ireland disease eradication programme", he said. "Like the people of this area the elements nor the animals recognise this border and it is illogical to pretend that they do. What happens in the 26 Counties in terms of disease eradication has to be mirrored in the Six Counties and vice versa. It only makes sense and it is an natural outworking of the Good Friday Agreement for there to be an all-Ireland approach to agricultural matters, especially around the issues of animal health and disease eradication".

Speaking at the Drumucknaval spy post, Deputy Ferris said: "This monstrosity and those others which blight the countryside around here are a testament to the failure of the British Government to fulfil its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. It is an unwarranted and unwanted intrusion into the lives of the local population and one which must be removed if there is to be tangible proof on the ground that the current process is effective.

"The continued presence of such posts also illustrates the increasingly incongruous nature of the British presence in this part of Ireland. It is some testimony indeed to the legacy of centuries of colonialism that these posts are the only remaining tangible evidence of the British presence in South Armagh. More and more the border areas are returning to their natural social and economic order. What is required now is to ensure that real demilitarisation takes place and that such alien structures are closed down and removed for once and for all". ENDS

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on International Affairs and Defence Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD has called for a comprehensive audit of Irish neutrality since the foundation of the state. Speaking after tabling a series of probing questions on the issue to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, Deputy Ó Snodaigh said:

"Based on the evidence to date, we have concluded that this Government is pursuing a covert policy to incrementally abandon neutrality without making itself accountable to the Dáil or to the people for this decision. But the fact remains that we still don't really know exactly how far the Government has gone down the road of compromising Irish neutrality. This information has not been made available to the public in a comprehensive fashion.

"Over the past months in particular, there has been an exclusive focus on the role that Shannon has played as a pit-stop on the way to war. But judging from the Defence Minister's answer to my question about the American military's use of Casement Aerodrome Baldonnel during the recent American war on Afghanistan, and the Taoiseach's casual comments about Irish complicity in the Vietnam War, we now know that neutrality violations are neither exclusive to Shannon, nor to this war. What we need now is full public disclosure, not ad-hoc information squeezed out of a secretive Government. Sinn Féin is therefore calling for a public audit on the state of Irish neutrality.

"A neutrality audit should be comprehensive, and include the following information in respect of the use of Irish airspace, airports, and seaports since the foundation of the state: in each case of foreign military overflight or landing, or of the overflight or landing of chartered civilian aircraft carrying troops, munitions, or supplies of a foreign military, or of foreign naval navigation of territorial waters or docking, the country afforded the privilege;

the Irish facility used; the specific date/s; the specific purpose;

the number of personnel on board; the number and type of armaments on board;

the duration of stay, if applicable; whether overflight, landing, or other charges were levied, and, if not, the cost to the Exchequer;

if related to a 'training exercise' what number and rank of Irish military personnel were involved, and

whether the exercise was under the auspices of NATO, the Partnership for Peace, the EU Rapid Reaction Force, or some other military configuration; whether notice was given to the Government;

whether it was on request, on the basis of invitation by the Government, or whether it was an emergency;

whether the Minister was advised and aware in advance;

whether prior Ministerial authorisation was given;

whether the flight or ship was inspected by Irish authorities for breaches of the Defence Acts, Air Navigation and Transport Act, or other applicable Acts or Orders;

whether civil aviation or harbour authorities were made aware of the overflight, landing, traversing, or docking before, during, or after it took place; the path approaching and leaving Irish airspace or territorial waters and the departure base and destination base.

"The Irish public need this disclosure to come to a fully informed conclusion as to the status of Irish neutrality ? whether it ever existed in fact or was a fiction all along, and the extent of successive governments' violation of or adherence to this policy. The demand for this information is there, the Irish people have a right to know, and the Government must respond." ENDS

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Speaking at Committee Stage of the Freedom of Information Bill at the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service, Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD called on the Minister for Finance to withdraw the legislation which he said was a "major step backwards for this democracy". Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

"I reiterate my total opposition and that of Sinn Féin to this Bill. It should never have seen the light of day and I believe the Government has abused its majority position in the Dáil and Seanad by forcing it through. There has been no process of consultation, no proper review, no public debate which should have taken place and which should have involved the Joint Committee among many others.

"The Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service has appealed for time to allow further hearings to be held as important areas have been identified in the legislation which the Committee agrees will need further significant amendment. I fully endorse that view. I also deplore the situation we are now placed in by the Minister. We only received his amendments late yesterday afternoon. This is no way to legislate, most especially with a piece of legislation which affects the rights of citizens.

"As the Irish Council for Civil Liberties pointed out at the Joint Committee, this Bill does not arise from a proper review of the Act. The High Level Group cannot be held responsible for that. They had their terms of reference and they were always going to look at the Act from the limited viewpoint of the higher civil service and their Ministers. The Government stands indicted for taking that limited Review and producing this Bill without any wider consultation and debate. It was sprung on us and sprung on the public and now we are asked to rubber stamp it.

"The point cannot be made strongly enough that the Freedom of Information Act is primarily a law that benefits individual citizens. Of course it also gives the media rights to information and that is welcome. But over 60% of FOI requests come from individual citizens. This Bill now curtails those rights.

"I appeal to the Minister to withdraw the Bill before we go any further. Let there be a wide consultation process and a really thorough review. The Minister's list of amendments does nothing to address the fundamental objections and sound arguments against the key sections of this Bill. We have been told that the Act as it stands is an impediment to smooth running of Government. But this has not been demonstrated. No examples have been given and no solid research presented.

"The Freedom of Information Act belongs to the people, not to any Government.

"It demeans politics and it demeans the Oireachtas for the Act to be treated in this shoddy way. This Bill effectively guts the original Act. It also paves the way for legal challenges and all manner of litigation that will benefit only the more affluent sections of the legal profession. Far from freeing up government and removing alleged obstacles, it has the potential to tie government up in legal knots.

"This Bill is a major step backwards for this democracy and should be withdrawn." ENDS

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I commend motion 309 to the Ard Fheis, and I hope that this Ard Fheis will confirm that Sinn Fein will lead the demand for comprehensive police reform across this island as the first step towards the creation of a single police force in a United Ireland.

Sinn Fein has been in the forefront of pressing for necessary root and branch police reform in the 6 counties. We must also be in the forefront of reforming the Garda Siochana, and our objective must be to create the single most effective and accountable police force with the highest standard of human rights compliance in the world. We must stamp out the culture of corruption, of impunity, and of political policing that has taken hold in this state. Nothing less will do.

In this mission we will use the Patten thresholds as the minimum necessary, and we will be guided by the standards for policing set out in the Good Friday Agreement. But we will also be guided by evolving best practice wherever it emerges in the world. African American activists are also pushing the boundaries of civilian oversight and accountability. Canadian First Nations are experimenting with more direct forms of community policing, and we can learn from these experiences as well.

I am pleased to report that Sinn Fein are no longer alone in making these demands. The Human Rights Commission agrees that we need a Police Ombudsman. The Irish Council on Civil Liberties believes not only that the Patten Reforms SHOULD apply to the Gardai as well, but that this is eminently realistic and achievable. And I believe that those Gardai who are genuine in their commitment to serving and safeguarding communities will also welcome these initiatives with open arms, and consider them supportive to their work.

Finally, I also want to lend my support to Motions 317 and 318. As several of my Leinster House colleagues pointed out yesterday, despite the fact that full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in all its aspects was identified as THE KEY priority for this Government when they took office, this state has still got a long way to go -- and especially in the area of justice. The Offences Against the State Acts have not been repealed. The Castlerea Five are still being held as political hostages, despite the fact that the court has recognised that they are qualifying prisoners. Comrades, we need to increase the pressure for acts of completion by the Irish Government as well.

MOTION 309

Every society needs a police service and every police service needs the support of the communities they serve. For that reason it is imperative that there is total transparency and trust between the police service and the communities. In recent times a number of issues have arisen which can damage public confidence in the Garda Síochana. The Abbeylara shooting, the McBrearty case in Donegal, revelations of fraud in relation to contracts, and criticism by judges in relation to the giving of false evidence in court all damage the relationship between the Gardaí and the communities they are meant to serve.

This Ard Fheis calls for:

- the setting up of a Policing Board

- the setting up of an office of a Garda Ombudsman, independent of the Gardaí, and with power to initiate independent investigations

- the independent investigation, as a matter of urgent priority, of allegations that conversations between detained persons and their legal advisors were routinely taped in Garda Stations

- mandatory use of video taping of interviews with suspects

- appointments to senior Garda positions to be dealt with by an independent board and not by political appointment

- human rights training for all Gardaí

- a review of Garda equipment and procedures to ensure efficient policing in a modern environment

- decentralisation of Garda Síochána structures to ensure that the Gardaí are more accountable and responsive to local policing needs

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Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh said 'the biggest threat to Irish neutrality today is this Government's own policy. Fianna Fáil and the PDs have repeatedly lied and misled the Irish people about their support for neutrality. Irish neutrality is no longer just at risk. It has been willfully abandoned, it has been auctioned off to the highest bidders by this right-wing coalition.' Deputy Ó Snodaigh said:

There is a long tradition of republican support for military neutrality as a cornerstone of an independent foreign policy in an independent Ireland. Wolfe Tone called for Irish neutrality because he believed it was wrong for Irish people to sacrifice their lives to realise another state's ambitions. For the same reasons, James Connolly and the founder of this party, Arthur Griffith, co-founded the first Irish Neutrality Association, to oppose Irish involvement in the Boer War, which was fundamentally about the British Government seizing control of South African mineral resources.

Republican support for neutrality is no less relevant today. Our vision of positive neutrality in action is not about pacifism or isolationism. It is fully in keeping with our anti-imperialism, our internationalism, and our commitment to demilitarisation and conflict resolution through dialogue.

The mass mobilisations on our streets in recent months, and the depth of public concern for protecting Irish neutrality during both Nice campaigns have shown that the demand is there for constitutional neutrality, and it should be for the people to decide the issue by referendum.

The next EU Treaty due in 2004 has huge implications for Irish neutrality - even more so than Nice. All indications are that this new Treaty will consolidate the militarisation of the EU by establishing a "Defence Euro-Zone"; creating an EU Armaments Agency to support a new European military-industrial complex; introducing a so-called "solidarity clause" requiring collective action in defence of any member state; and by removing the need for unanimity among the states on defence-related decisions.

But, comrades, the biggest threat to Irish neutrality today is this Government's own policy. Fianna Fáil and the PDs have repeatedly lied and misled the Irish people about their support for neutrality. Irish neutrality is no longer just at risk. It has been willfully abandoned, it has been auctioned off to the highest bidders by this right-wing coalition.

The Government's covert policy of abandoning neutrality has finally been exposed. The Sinn Féin Neutrality Bill to amend the constitution forced the Government and all parties to go on record. But this was only the first step. We know that neutrality violations are NOT exclusive to Shannon. And the Taoiseach's outrageously cavalier comments about Irish cooperation in the Vietnam War show that neutrality violations are also not exclusive to this war. What we need now is full public disclosure, not ad-hoc information squeezed out of a secretive Government, and we are therefore proposing a comprehensive Neutrality Audit as a matter of urgency.

The time has come to actively campaign for positive neutrality with Constitutional protection. Sinn Féin has already seized the initiative. As republicans we have the capacity to show leadership on this issue of great national importance. And indeed we have the responsibility to advocate that Government respect the will of the majority on this island. I commend this motion to the Ard Fheis.

Recognising the continuing erosion of Irish neutrality by the Fianna Fáil/PD government and the intention of Fine Gael to abandon neutrality altogether;

Welcoming the increasing consciousness among the Irish people of the importance of Irish neutrality and independent foreign policy as demonstrated during the two Nice Treaty referenda and the unprecedented campaign of public mass opposition to Irish government support for the war on Iraq;

This Ard Fheis:

- Reiterates Sinn Féin's commitment to positive Irish neutrality and independent foreign policy;

- Commends the Sinn Féin TDs for proposing the 27th Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2003, to write neutrality into the Constitution, in their first opportunity to use Private Members Time;

- Commits Sinn Féin to campaign for positive neutrality to be enshrined in the Constitution and for the pursuit of truly independent foreign policy by Irish governments based on international solidarity and support for the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone Michelle Gildernew speaking during the debate on the peace process at the party's Ard Fheis said: "five years on from Good Friday and ten years on from the first IRA cessation, the spy posts are still there. The British Army are still on our streets. The apparatus of war is staring us in the face every day of the week. And Mr Blair wonders why republicans and nationalists are sceptical of his commitment to acts of completion." Ms Gildernew said:

Five years ago the British government committed themselves to removing their war machine in Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement was very clear. It demanded the removal of security installations and the removal of the Crown Forces from our streets.

After Weston Park the British again publicly committed themselves to a rolling programme of demilitarisation. Indeed it was ten years ago that the then British Secretary of State Peter Brooke publicly claimed that an IRA cessation would be immediately met with imaginative moves on this issue from the British side.

Yet five years on from Good Friday and ten years on from the first IRA cessation, the spy posts are still there. The British Army are still on our streets. The apparatus of war is staring us in the face every day of the week. And Mr Blair wonders why republicans and nationalists are sceptical of his commitment to acts of completion.

We are not interested in rationalisation. We are not interested in the British view of normalisation. We are only interested in what the Agreement demanded. Either the British are serious about resolving conflict or they are not. Their positive public soundings have not been matched by their actions on the ground. The Crown forces continue to harass nationalists on a daily basis. The use of Plastic Bullets has dramatically increased, particularly by the British Army. The PSNI travel around in armoured jeeps and operate from military barracks. South Armagh and other areas are still blighted by spy posts. Mr Blair you don't have to tell us that you have not implemented the Agreement - we see it everyday.

At Weston Park a senior member of the SDLP said that the issue of demilitarisation was only an issue for Sinn Féin and the British government. He was wrong. It is an issue for every citizen in the six counties and

indeed beyond. Recent public statements from the SDLP seem to indicate a change in their view of this matter. We welcome this. However if they think that dressing up a three year old Police Authority rationalisation document and selling it as demilitarisation is on then they are very much mistaken. If the SDLP are genuine in wanting to see demilitarisation then well and good - but they should be warned that as with policing the nationalist and republican community will not accept the SDLP entering a negotiation and then settling for less than the Agreement demanded. As with policing Sinn Féin will not be letting the British off the Good Friday Agreement hook on this matter.

The Irish government have responsibilities in this regard also. They committed themselves to dealing with the oppressive Offences Against the State Act. Five years on there is no change. The process is stalled and it seems that many within the establishment in the 26 Counties are predictably resisting removing this particular weapon of oppression.

The message coming from this Ard Fheis cannot be any clearer for the British government. We don't want to hear the excuses any more. We don't buy any rubbish about so called republican dissidents or the level of threat being posed by the IRA. You are stalling, you are breaching an international treaty and the time for you to get your act together has long since passed.

We don't want to look at your troops any more. We don't want to live underneath your spy posts. If your are so keen on these installations then relocate them to London or Birmingham.

Over the past two years the various British pseudo gangs - the UDA, UVF and LVF have been engaged to varying degrees in an anti-Catholic pogrom in Belfast and elsewhere in the six counties. Predictably the security apparatus was not deployed to prevent attacks on the Short Strand or North Belfast. Predictably no pipe bomb factories where uncovered. Predictably what we got from the PSNI was endless media briefings indicating that this was a tit for tat situation. We all know the reality to be very different.

This is the reality of the British presence on our streets. No amount of briefing or spin can distort this reality. The best defenders of the peace process on this island are the republican community in our heartlands in Tyrone, Fermanagh and South Armagh. Tony Blair knows this. He knows that one republican committed to making this process work is worth more in terms of building a peaceful future than any number of British soldiers stuck in spy posts or fortified barracks. He knows that one republican prepared to walk the streets selling this process is worth more than any number of armed PSNI members skulking through our areas in armoured cars.

It is time for Mr Blair to face down the Generals in Whitehall. To challenge the securocrats at the heart of his system. The people still fighting the war. Those still seeking to defeat Irish Republicanism. Those people who created the unionist paramilitaries. Who invented shoot to kill. Who organised the murder of Pat Finucane and countless others. Because the reality is that these are the same people who have sought to subvert and stall progress on the range of issues. Not just demilitarisation -- but Policing, Criminal Justice, Human Rights and Equality

These are the people responsible for the slow pace of this process. These are the people who Blair has to pull into line. His track record up to now is not good. We will be watching closely in the time ahead. The message is very clear. It is time to deliver on your commitments. Time to complete the job of removing the apparatus of war. And time to complete the job of implementing the Agreement.

ENDS

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Sinn Féin Policing spokesperson Gerry Kelly speaking to the party Ard Fheis on Policing said " let's be clear, one of our jobs, as a political party, is to achieve a new beginning to policing and justice. We have made progress. Be in no doubt about that. We have brought the British Government slowly but surely back towards Patten. We have put the issue of transfer of Policing and Justice at the centre of the political agenda." Mr. Kelly said:

British policing in Ireland, and in particular in the North of Ireland, has historically been an instrument of political repression, terror and counter-revolution. The RUC was established as a political police force, the paramilitary wing of unionism and it enthusiastically fulfilled these remits for its entire existence. In the 70's the British Government remoulded the RUC as the principal military cutting edge against resistance to British rule.

The experience of Irish nationalists and republicans at their hands has been one of sectarian hostility and conflict. That experience has continued to this day with the PSNI on the city streets and rural areas of the six counties.

This history made the RUC an issue for political campaigning and, as a consequence, for negotiations when they began.

Policing, and policing structures, however, have never been an arena of struggle for republicans. We were abundantly clear about what we were opposed to. We still are. But beyond calling for an end to the RUC and formulating the principles of an acceptable police service we did not address the issue. Sinn Féin's strategy of negotiations changed that. Before the Good Friday Agreement negotiations we brought the demand that the RUC should be disbanded into the process creating, for the first time in the history of the 6 county state, the potential to undermine the political and sectarian character of policing in the north and to deliver progressive and radical change.

The potential to radically affect policing was thus opened up by republicans in the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. This continued into the period of the deliberations of the Patten Commission and since then in the repeated bouts of negotiations to see the Good Friday Agreement implemented in full.

But we are not naïve people.

Of course the Patten Recommendations were never going to be adequate from an Irish republican perspective. By definition that requires a national police service subject to democratic accountability in a politically independent all-Ireland state. But the developments during the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement and since have opened up the issue of policing as a new arena of struggle for republicans; and as a potential site of struggle which serves the achievement of national and democratic objectives. And that means not only seeking to achieve a police service and policing which is acceptable to the community as a whole. But also, denying the opponents of change the blunt instrument of oppression they have used for generations to prevent change and maintain the status quo.

These objectives are reflected in the reality that we have made policing, and the related issue of criminal justice, key elements in our negotiations with the British government. But that is only part of the picture. At many other levels, republicans have engaged, instinctively in this new area of struggle. Street protests and demonstrations, white-line pickets, demands for inquiries into the activities of the RUC and the Special Branch, lobbying and campaigning are all part of this. A very important manifestation of republican involvement in this arena of struggle was the widespread engagement by our community with the Patten Commission, an engagement which undoubtedly helped shape and radicalise the Patten Report. For it is the community, the people, which must be and will be the judge and custodian of what is acceptable in a police service.

Patten did not go far enough for us. That is one reason why we have put the issue of the transfer of policing and justice at the centre of the political agenda.

But we recognised that, if implemented in full, Patten could begin a process of change with the potential to fundamentally and irreversibly change the nature and composition of policing in the north. For this reason, the Brit securocrats, the Unionist Parties, the RUC itself, particularly the Special Branch, have railed against Patten and have attempted to hollow out the proposals. For the very same reason, we have demanded the full and time framed implementation of the Patten recommendations.

We identified what we needed, a police service that is:

  • Representative of the whole community
  • Accountable to the whole community
  • Free from Partisan political control
  • Civic in nature
  • And Human Rights centred.

Negotiations on policing have been a critical focus for Sinn Fein. While we continued to pursue the agenda of radical change, others set their sights too low, settled too soon and for too little.

The Mandelson Police Bill in May 2000 deliberately gutted the Patten recommendations. The SDLP astonishingly voted for this Bill when it was introduced into Westminster. They then abstained when the second vote was taken some weeks later.

Their confusion on the issue of policing didn't end there.

The SDLP told us before Weston Park that getting new policing legislation was not possible. Sinn Fein pressed ahead until we got such a commitment. During the Weston Park negotiations the British Government publicised their intentions for new legislation. The substance of this legislation was not sufficient to undo the damage done by the Mandelson Bill -- but we acknowledged it as movement in the right direction.

The SDLP immediately claimed credit for legislation which they had said was not possible and on that basis they signed on for inadequate policing arrangements which fell short of what is needed. In line with this they adjusted their message. Now they said new legislation was not necessary. That was perhaps inevitable given their decision to support the British position.

But it was a mistake. The Irish government's support for that position was a mistake. More importantly it was a damaging mistake. It undermined and fractured the nationalist and democratic unity which had existed on this touchstone issue.

And for almost two years now the most common refrain of British Government representatives in meetings with Sinn Féin has been to tell us that the SDLP do not want additional legislation and are opposed to it.

But republicans refused to be pressurised or demotivated. We held our nerve. We demanded further necessary change, including legislative change, and we entered the current negotiations with a comprehensive agenda for change across a range of issues, including policing and justice, as Martin McGuinness outlined.

And in this negotiation we have made further progress. Some of the outstanding issues have been dealt with and, if the British government fulfils its commitments these will become clearer in the near future. In particular we want to see movement on the issues of plastic bullets, representativeness and the Special Branch. One of the key issues, as I outlined earlier, is the transfer of powers on policing and justice from the British government and the British Secretary of State to the Assembly and Executive in the north and consequently to the all-Ireland Ministerial Council. It is critical that we wrest power and control from the British securocrats in London. It is critical, as part of our effort to achieve democratic accountability and acceptability by the community as a whole, that powers in these areas are transferred to the new political institutions. Part of doing away with generations of bad policing is to centre control of policing on the island of Ireland.

So where does all of this leave us?

Well let's be clear, one of our jobs, as a political party, is to achieve a new beginning to policing and justice. We have made progress. Be in no doubt about that. We have brought the British Government slowly but surely back towards Patten. We have put the issue of transfer of Policing and Justice at the centre of the political agenda. That is, policing, under local democratic control, to be shaped as a community service and not a tool of oppression and sectarianism.

Republicans are not against policing. In fact, those who have suffered from and continue to suffer from bad policing want proper policing more than anyone else does. That includes me, it includes the parents of the Holy Cross children, the residents of Short Strand, Whitewell, Alliance Avenue, Newlodge, Limestone Road, sex crime victims, drugs victims, car-crime victims and all the others who want a better way of life. It may not be on your television screens but loyalist attacks continue and blind eye and collusion policies continue also.

The unionist population may be apprehensive about the loss of their police force. But if we are to be honest, republicans too are nervous about the potential of achieving a new beginning to policing. The more we achieve the more nervous activists get. It is a huge issue for us. As big an issue as the Good Friday Agreement itself. The party president made clear yesterday that no decision has been taken to support the current policing arrangements by the out-going Ard Comhairle. Such a decision will only be taken by a specially convened Ard Fheis.

We are not yet in a position to call such an Ard Fheis because we have not yet achieved the threshold for a new beginning to policing. The vexed issue of policing is a work-in-progress (an unfolding negotiation). But the debate has already commenced in the schools, living rooms, workplaces and places of recreation and that is a good thing. Policing is a critical arena of struggle for republicans. We have made it so.

Gerry Adams said yesterday that there will be no sudden announcement of a special Ard Fheis. If we get to that point there will be a position paper for discussion and debate. This is an issue sits deep in the soul -- especially with those still suffering from the actions of the PSNI. And, in facing into this issue, we, as political activists must continue to think strategically, debate strategically and decide strategically what is best for our party, for our struggle and, ultimately, for our people and our future.

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Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness presents a report on the current negotiations to the Ard Fheis.

All of you are aware that our party has, in recent weeks, been involved in a very intensive round of talks with both the British and Irish governments and various political parties in an attempt to resolve the current impasse in the peace process.

I want to take the opportunity here to outline our approach to these negotiations and to give you a sense of where they are at this time.

I don't intend to rehearse in detail the background to the current difficulties. This has been amplified by other speakers yesterday. Gerry Adams dealt with it at some length in his Presidential address. Nor do I intend to set out the finer detail of the various negotiations we have been involved in -- this is still work in progress. But I think it is important to say something of the context within which this particular phase of negotiations has arisen. Or, at least to begin with that.

The British government suspended the political institutions on 14 October. In doing so they were acting at the behest of the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party and in clear breach of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. People will make their own judgement as to the bearing of the forthcoming election battle between the DUP and the UUP in the decision to suspend. The UUP, if you remember, signalled as far back as March of last year their intention to bring about the collapse of the institutions.

Later in October the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, came to Belfast and admitted that his government had not fulfilled their obligations with respect to the Agreement. He went on to call on all parties to the Agreement to engage in what he described as Acts of Completion.

Sinn Féin has consistently called for the full and faithful implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Our approach to all of this has been the same approach we have brought to previous phases of negotiations - consistent and persistent. While others were attempting to reduce the focus on resolving the current difficulties to a single item agenda, we have been pressing both governments to produce a comprehensive implementation plan to address all the broad range of issues required to bring about the full implementation of the Agreement.

Some weeks after the suspension of the institutions the governments finally convened all-party talks. In advance of these talks Sinn Féin set out for all the parties our view on all the issues which needed to be addressed.

These included:

  • The political institutions and the democratic rights of all sections of the electorate.
  • Equality and Human Rights
  • Victims of the Conflict
  • The Irish Language
  • The use of flags and emblems for public purposes
  • The issue of arms
  • Demilitarisation
  • Policing and Justice
  • Transfer of powers on policing and justice
  • Prisoners.

Once it became clear that discussions would in fact deal with the broader range of issues rather than the single item agenda the UUP withdrew from these discussions.

While Sinn Féin was in touch with both governments throughout October and November this current negotiations phase did not begin until the start of December. By the 22nd of December we had submitted to both the British and Irish governments a 57 page document setting out our views on how all the issues should or could be addressed with a view to resolution.

The negotiations picked up pace in early January and since then we have been involved in intensive discussions on all the issues with all the parties, but particularly with the two governments and their officials.

Both Gerry Adams and myself have been in London and Dublin on a number of occasions. We have met with both the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach several times throughout this period and with the British Secretary of State and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Our negotiating team including Gerry Kelly, Bairbre de Brun, Conor Murphy, Marylou McDonald, Arthur Morgan, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Martin Ferris and Mitchel McLaughlin, also held regular meetings with officials from both governments.

One session of negotiations in Belfast between Sinn Féin and the two governments on the 20th of February lasted 15 hours starting in the early afternoon and finishing at 5.00am the following morning.

In the following week we spent 2 days in London and one in Dublin in further discussions. This period of intense contacts prefaced the 2 days of negotiations at Hillsborough on the 3rd and 4th of March. By then, even before the Hillsborough talks, we had made significant progress, particularly on policing and justice issues.

And, since Hillsborough we have continued our contacts with all the parties and our discussions with the two governments.

Throughout all of these negotiations we have sought to achieve a plan for the full implementation of the Agreement and to counter any attempt to filter this implementation through a unionist prism.

A particular irony in all of this is that while our approach is premised on inclusivity, equality and the democratic imperative there are those whose sole focus has remained the exclusion of Sinn Féin from Ministerial office, from government and from the political institutions.

While this may be frustrating for many of us we should not view it as indicative of a lack of progress. In fact, quite the opposite. The more progress we make the more intense will become the efforts of the opponents of change.

The suspension of the institutions by the British government has of course been central to this current crisis. Nor indeed is this suspension crisis new. It is the 4th time this has happened in breach of the Agreement. We have been resolute in our opposition to suspension since the British government arbitrarily took this power onto itself. But - and this is the politically important thing -- it is untenable. It has to go and we are confident that, as a result of our endeavours, that it will go.

A related matter is the issue of sanctions outside the terms of the Agreement. This has recently become a part of the story around this phase of the negotiations.

So let us be clear. Sinn Féin will not be held responsible for any words or deeds other than our own.

We demand for our electorate the same democratic rights, entitlements and treatment as all other sections of the electorate. We reject all sanctions outside the terms of the Agreement.

It is perhaps appropriate at this juncture to mention -- briefly, for I did this at some length earlier in the Ard Fheis -- our contacts with the UUP throughout this recent phase of negotiations.

A lot of time was spent at Hillsborough with the UUP. And indeed there have been several meetings and other points of contact with the UUP since then; and on substantive issues.

Our objectives in these discussions are clear: republicans and nationalists need reassured that the political institutions will not be faced with the same serial suspensions and crisis they have in the past.

I cannot say that they have yet borne fruit other than the benefit of discussion and engagement in which there is an inherent political value. But we will persevere with that. We are a patient lot.

All of that said, we are making and have made progress. We have made progress on Policing on Justice, on Human Rights, on Equality, on the Irish Language and on other issues.

Policing

At the core of our approach to policing has been the imperative of ensuring that the police service is democratically accountable and representative.

We have made steady progress in redressing this position, building on the advances made in Weston Park 18 months ago.

On the issue of democratic accountability we have, in our most recent discussions, secured commitments to new legislation. That is, in addition to the raft of legislative amendments we secured at Weston Park, we have additional amendments which:

  • requires the British Secretary of State to consult with the Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission on the key areas of policing objectives
  • requires the same consultation process in respect of Codes of Practice over which the British Secretary of State formally had a blank cheque, and
  • ensures that the Belfast sub-groups are placed on a par with the District Policing Partnerships.

These are important additional and reinforcing aspects of accountability; particularly in respect of the Belfast sub-groups where areas like West Belfast will be a pivotal testing ground in any new beginning.

Other areas that have been addressed are operational or in the implementation field, but are equally important. They range from demilitarisation of the PSNI, to the defortification of police stations and to the objective of an unarmed police service, and to an accelerated process to bring this about.

We have also made progress in terms of creating a human rights ethos.

Other issues which we continue to press the British on, and on which we hope to see early movement, are the future role and power of the Special Branch, the issue of plastic bullets and the achievement of representativeness. We have made it clear that the Special Branch abuses which took place under the cover of the Walker procedures and the force within a force created and perpetuated by lengthy or indefinite tenure of Special Branch positions can be no part of a new beginning to policing.

The British government has also agreed in principle to the transfer of power on policing and justice from the British Government to the Assembly and the all-Ireland Ministerial Council. What we are seeking now is that this is firmed up in terms of specific proposals and a defined time frame.

On Criminal Justice:

We successfully re-opened the whole issue of criminal justice and secured a commitment to new legislation.

This will cover for example a Judicial Appointments Commission which is reflective of the community and which has as a key objective the achievement of a judiciary, which is also reflective of society.

There will also be a requirement on the Director of Public Prosecutions to refer to the Ombudsman any matter which indicates that the police have committed a criminal offence or behaved in manner which would justify disciplinary proceedings and it will be an offence to interfere with the DPP.

Specifically and crucially both of these address the concerns many have about the recruitment and running and protection given to agents like Brian Nelson.

There will also be a new independent mechanism to deal with specific complaints against the DPP

And the criminal justice agencies will have to have due regard to relevant international human rights conventions and standards in carrying out their functions.

Criminal Justice agencies will be required to engage in programmes of action and outreach to achieve a workforce reflective of the community.

All criminal justice agencies will be required to publish statements of ethics which will make clear that employees are not permitted to belong to any organisation which acts contrary to the law or the interests of the criminal justice system.

On Demilitarisation we have commitments but we have yet to close on this issue.

On OTRs we have secured a commitment from both the British and Irish Governments to speedily resolve the issue of people on the run as a result of the conflict. We look forward to their return home to their families.

On Human Rights and Equality

We now expect:

  • Appointments to the Human Rights Commission to be in line with international standards.
  • A process to give new momentum to the Bill of Rights
  • Increased powers and resources for the equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.
  • an extension of the bodies which are subject to an equality duty

We have demanded a renewed focus on:

  • addressing the unemployment differential between different sections of the community
  • the regeneration of areas of greatest need, and
  • tackling sectarianism

I welcome, also the coming on stream in the north of the facility at Post Offices there for Irish passport applications. This was agreed some time ago. We will press for further development of these facilities as soon as possible.

On the Irish language

We now expect:

  • Other commitments in the GFA to be fulfilled in respect of the fund for Irish-language film and TV production and the availability of TG4.
  • adequate funding for Foras na Gaeilge

We expect also an affirmation of the principle that there is no hierarchy of victims and, most importantly, action to support that; for instance, an end to the discrimination in the funding of victims support groups.

We also call on the Oireachtas to expedite the implementation of the recommendations to provide representation in the Oireachtas for Irish citizens in the north through their elected representatives. It is important that all Irish citizens are encouraged and enabled to play an active role in the democratic life of the nation. The Irish Government, obviously, has the primary responsibility for achieving this democratic development and we call on the government to expedite the process to do this.

But let me be clear, despite the claims by some that the negotiations are closed there is no deal done.

And let me be equally clear our best endeavours and energies are directed at achieving a deal.

We do not yet have an acceptable policing service or a representative criminal justice system. We certainly do not have equality. And no one is going to give it to us. This party will have to fight for this issue every day. It cannot be left to the negotiating team no matter what commitments are made. This issue of equality has to be the political and campaigning thrust of this party. In other words it is work for you. We do not have functioning political institutions or the demilitarisation that the GFA promised. But we intend to continue to be an engine for change in all these areas. It was particularly disappointing to hear the Irish government assert that there should be no more negotiations on these issues. Surely their role should be to defend Irish national rights and the rights of Irish citizens north and south rather than try to set limits or boundaries on forward progress.

And Sinn Féin, in the context of the peace process, has entrenched our strategy of negotiations to achieve these ends. That is what we do. So we will continue to negotiate. We will continue to fulfil our political mandate to deliver radical and progressive change.

But negotiations and negotiating strategy cannot be seen in isolation. Every one here has key role to play. Every Sinn Fein voter has a role to play. The political landscape of the North has changed forever.The degree of change that we can achieve is linked directly to our political strength. We have an obligation to reach out to unionists and others; we have a responsibility to use our mandate wisely in the interests of a lasting peace.

Increased political strength will allow Sinn Fein to deliver further change in the interests of all of the people of this island. In the Assembly elections, as in previous elections across this island, we collectively, as a party, have the opportunity to increase our political and negotiating strength. That is the challenge we must address as we leave this Ard Fheis.

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Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris speaking at the party's Ard Fheis said that t he potential benefits of developing the oil and gas that lies beneath our waters is immense. We only have to look at the example of Norway to realise this. The difference, between this state and Norway, however, is that the Norwegians have maintained their national interest in their resources unlike successive Governments here who have given them away. It is vital that the current terms and conditions are revoked. If they are not then the exploitation of these resources will bring minimal benefit. Mr. Ferris said:

I would like to propose this motion which sets out the steps which we believe are necessary in order to establish proper control over our oil and gas reserves. As the motion states, the terms under which those resources are currently held by multi-nationals like Shell and Marathon are probably of less benefit to this state than those which apply in some of the most corrupt and undemocratic regimes in the world.

Indeed, when one considers that the most significant change made to the licensing terms in favour of the companies took place while our old friend Ray Burke was Minister for Energy, it is hardly to be wondered at. The demand for those terms to be revoked has been raised by myself and others in Leinster House and I have called for the circumstances of the changes introduced by Burke to be subject to examination by the Flood Tribunal.

I have also pointed to the ongoing close relationship between Fianna Fáil and the oil and gas multi-nationals, one of which has for a number of years hosted a fund-raising event for the party at Galway Races. When I mentioned this during the course of a radio interview, I had the pleasure to receive within hours my very first demand to withdraw what I had said with an implied threat of legal action.

The letter came from Enterprise Oil, the wholly owned Irish arm of the charming Shell corporation. They demanded that I withdraw my reference to the Galway Races event. I am happy to report that I treated this threat from those associated with the murder of Ken Saro Wiwa and other activists in Nigeria with the contempt it deserved. I have heard no more from them since.

Shell are currently involved in the planning appeal over the proposed development of the Corrib Gas field and on behalf of our party I would once again like to assure the local community in North Mayo that Sinn Féin and our local representative Vincent Woods stand fully behind them in their fight to prevent the exploitation of this resource and the destruction of the local environment that this will entail

The potential benefits of developing the oil and gas that lies beneath our waters is immense. We only have to look at the example of Norway to realise this. The difference, between this state and Norway, however, is that the Norwegians have maintained their national interest in their resources unlike successive Governments here who have given them away.

Not only that but they expect us to be pleased that anyone would be even interested in taking our oil and gas. This would be like leaving the key in your front door and coming home to find that burglers had arrived and stolen all your belongings but feeling happy that they thought you had something worth stealing in the first place.

It is vital that the current terms and conditions are revoked. If they are not then the exploitation of these resources will bring minimal benefit. As one person with long experience in the industry said to me, the way things stand at the moment it would be better if the oil and gas was left where it is rather than be taken up by the multi-nationals. I commend this motion as the policy which Sinn Féin will follow and which will form the basis of our approach to mineral exploration when in Government.

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Sinn Féin TD Sean Crowe speaking at the party's Ard Fheis called for the release of the Colombia Three.

On the 11th of August, 2001, Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and Jim Monaghan were arrested by the Colombia security forces in Bogota. They have spent over 500 days in the worst kind of prisons imaginable in danger from attacks by right wing paramilitaries.

They have been held on the flimsiest of evidence by a Government whose human rights record would disgrace Saddam Hussein. But because America backs the Colombia government, hundreds of millions of dollars go to shoring up a Colombian military which has murdered Trade Unionists, journalists, political activists and ordinary civilians.

If the trial against the men has proved anything, it is that there is no evidence against these men.

I have visited the men on two occasions and will be going to see them again next week to continue to observe the trial. I will carry with them the best wishes of this Ard Fhéis and I know they appreciate the support Sinn Féin has given these men.

I would also thank those people outside of Sinn Féin who are standing up for these men. The Colombia Three have been used as a political football by everyone from David Trimble to Pat Rabbitte. Clearly, we can only expect this Government to protect the human rights of those of its citizens who are not republicans.

I ask your support for this motion in order that we might send out from this Ard Fhéis a very, very simple message to the Dublin Government, the Colombian Government and real power in Colombia, the American government. The message is this. Bring them home.ENDS

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