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buting to the carnage in the gulf. If struggling for a decent wage was not enough justification for a fire fighters' strike, then Prescott's announcement provides an irrefutable reason for the fire fighters to continue their dispute with vigour.

It beggars belief that a British government that calls itself labour is prepared to sign away worker's rights to collective bargaining at the stroke of a pen because those workers will not agree to a settlement being imposed on them.

The right of a worker to withdraw his or her labour is a fundamental right. It would seem that the British government is rapidly heading towards a position where it will seek to deny that right. If it goes down that line, it will do damage to this emergency service. The fire service is dependent upon the professionalism, enthusiasm and good will of its workers. Fire fighters do a dangerous, difficult and complicated job. To treat them in such a disrespectful way cannot but affect their morale. Low morale is not the way to get the best out of people, especially people who we expect to put their lives on the line if needs be. Rather than improving the efficiency of the fire service, the approach being adopted by the British government is almost certainly going to have the effect of compromising efficiency.

By threatening the FBU in the way that he has, John Prescott has thrown down a gauntlet to all trades unionists he is saying essentially that he will not tolerate industrial dissent. No one should underestimate the seriousness of this challenge. If the British Government gets away with it in this case, it will use it again in future disputes. It is therefore important that all those who seek for a fair and just society where governments cannot impose unjust laws at a whim support the fire fighters.

So to some up, I would urge delegates to support motion 81 The fire fighters deserve our support because they have a good case for their demands, they deserve our support because of the effect their dispute is having on the British war effort in Iraq, and they deserve our support because if the British government gets away with such an approach to industrial relations, then other groups of workers will surely bear the brunt of its arrogance in the future.

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For almost six years Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have been in government in this State. In that time two of their senior Ministers, Brian Cowen and Mícheál Martin, have presided over the most unfair, the most inequitable and the most bureaucratic health service in western Europe. They and their colleagues - and especially their Taoiseach Bertie Ahern - have failed miserably to transform the health services as they promised. Before the General Election they promised to extend the Medical Card to a further 200,000 people and they broke their promise. They promised not just to cut but to eliminate hospital waiting lists after two years and that promise disappeared into thin air after the General Election. They repaid the electorate for their support by increasing the costs of medicines and hospital visits. And they have left health boards and hospitals with inadequate budgets so that we have the shameful prospect of beds being closed while the old and sick languish on waiting lists. It is a scandal and a disgrace.

Armies of task forces have reported on all aspects of the health service. They have built up mountains of reports. But where is the political leadership to end the apartheid in the system? Where is the political leadership to take on the vested interests such as the elite consultants who dominate the health services? Where is the leadership to stop the private healthcare industry from exploiting the public system? The answer is that there is no leadership from this Fianna Fáil/PD government. Their patron saint is Pontius Pilate as they stand aside and allow the closure by stealth of hospitals like Monaghan and Louth and watch gross inequality flourishing throughout the system.

The Irish people want and deserve fair and efficient health services. They don't want a system where wealth can buy instant access to the best of care in the private system while the public system is plagued with waiting lists and cutbacks. Unlike Charlie McCreevy, I believe the vast majority of people value their health and that of their children, and the public services which care for health, more than they value a few extra euros in their pocket from tax cuts. So let us promote Sinn Féin's vision for a new National Health Service, with free access for all at the point of delivery, funded through a fair system of general taxation.

This will require massive change and massive commitment. But I believe the dedicated workers at all levels of the health services, the patients and the communities will respond to real leadership and real dedication to fairness and equality. Sinn Féin can provide that leadership, so let us go out there and campaign for a truly National Health Service.

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Sinn Féin Derry Assembly candidate Raymond McCartney speaking at the party's Ard Fheis said: 'The seeds of educational disadvantage are sown early. Disadvantage in education reflects inequality in society at large.' Mr. McCartney said:

The Foyle constituency suffers form the highest level of unemployment in the North and many of the schools in the constituency have populations with 30 to 50% of children entitled to Free School Meals --the indicdator of social need currently used by the Department of Education. In order to be entitled to Free School Meals, a child must have parents who are unemplolyed or on very low income.

In the North approximately 50 percent live in poverty or at risk of poverty. This policy document makes a strong plea for tackling disadvantage at an educational level.

It stresses the importance of the involvement of parents and the community in the process of education.

The seeds of educational disadvantage are sown early. Disadvantage in education reflects inequality in society at large. However some school systems are better at reducing inequality in society at large. Some school systems are better at reducing inequality than others. Otherwise the relationship between school performance and home background would be the same from country to country.

It is clear that educational disadvantage is born not at school but in the home. And I would add, in the commuity. What has helped mitigate the crushing impact

In the South currently there is a debate on the validity of the system of indicators used to select 'designated disadvantaged schools': it is obviously biased towards urban areas and does not reflect the fact that educational disadvantage is largely concentrated in rural areas. It is obvious to me that we need an all-Ireland strategy to address this problem.

Our policy document commits us to working for an all Ireland anti poverty strategy based on an all-island wide deprivation index and proportionate targeting of funds to those areas of greatest social and educational needs on both sides of the border.

This document goes further than stating our policy. It calls on us to continue with our work of shaping government policy in Ireland and bring about an Ireland of Equals.

I ask you to give this document your support today. More than this I ask you to work hard to bring about the vision that is contained in this document. We are not about the wrongs of the past, we are about building for the future, as socialists and republicans

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Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin introducing the economic section of the Ard Fheis said: 'We had and still have unprecedented wealth in this economy and the Government has failed to harness that wealth in a planned way to benefit all citizens. We in Sinn Féin are developing the alternative.' Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

The Budget presented earlier this year by Charlie McCreevy represents one of the greatest frauds and swindles ever perpetrated against an Irish electorate. During the General Election, Champagne Charlie told the people: "I can confirm that there are no significant overruns and no cutbacks whatsoever are being planned, secretly or otherwise."

It's a long way from Fianna Fáil/PD pre-election promises and the reality of a right-wing government which has incensed the Irish public after less than a year in office.

We still haven't got an explanation of how the Minister could promise no cuts in the middle of May and then a few weeks later his Department was proposing cuts of some €900 million. It could only be massive deception.

The Fianna Fáil election manifesto, the Programme for Government, the National Development Plan and the National Health Strategy were thrown into the incinerator. Instead this government has brought us:

  • the axing of the first-time home buyers' grant
  • the reneging on the promise to extend medical card entitlement to a further 200,000 people
  • the cut in the school building programme
  • the social housing cuts
  • the shortfall in the health budget
  • the cutting of 5,000 Community Employment places.

This has followed five years of squandered opportunities in every Budget presented by this Minister for Finance. We had and still have unprecedented wealth in this economy and the Government has failed to harness that wealth in a planned way to benefit all citizens. We in Sinn Féin are developing the alternative and every year since 1997 we have presented that alternative in our pre-Budget submission to the Minister for Finance. Our policies arise from and complement the work of our activists at the coal-face of the economy, among the people who are worst affected by the cuts being imposed by this Government.

We need to campaign as a party for a new vision of the Irish economy, an economy, as the Monaghan motion says, "organised and managed for the benefit of all and not for the profit of the few". ENDS

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Sinn Féin Mayor of Belfast Alex Maskey speaking at the party's Ard Fheis said: In my mission statement shortly after I was elected I said I wanted to represent all the people of Belfast. To me that is what Irish republicanism stands for; that is what making peace is all about.' Mr. Maskey said:

Thart ar bhiain ó shin anois, toghadh mé mar Ard Mhéara ar dara príomhchathair na hÉireann, Béal Feirste. Bhí rí-bhród agus mórtas orm toisc gurbh mise an chéad bhall de Shinn Féin a bheith tofa mar Ard Mhéara Bhéal Feirste.

Almost one year ago I was elected as Mayor of Belfast, Ireland's second capital city.I was deeply honoured and proud to be the first member of Sinn Féin to hold the post of Mayor of Belfast.

It was the first time ever that a republican held the post. It was another important and historic development. It was made possible because of developments arising out of the peace process and because of the strength of Sinn Féin's mandate across Belfast. Sinn Féin is the largest political party on Belfast City Council. We have 14 Councillors elected by 1000's of people.

Our mandate itself is a compelling enough democratic argument for Sinn Féin to hold this office but it was the peace process and the contribution that republicans made to it that secured the position. No one should underestimate the political and symbolic significance to the nationalist and republican people of Belfast of Sinn Féin securing this office.

We have a long way to go yet before we can say that the nationalist people of Belfast have secured equality of treatment but having a republican Mayor is a big step in that direction. On taking up the post I was mindful that my year in office would be scrutinised particularly by our unionist opponents but also by people from that background who are beginning to look at Sinn Féin differently.

So from the outset I was determined to show to everyone and particularly to Belfast's unionists that not only had they nothing to fear from a republican Mayor but in fact I would represent them as well as my own constituency. In my mission statement shortly after I was elected I said I wanted to represent all the people of Belfast. To me that is what Irish republicanism stands for; that is what making peace is all about.

Tá Éire aontaithe mar fhís dúinn. Tá Aontachtóirí an oileáin barr-thábhachtach san fhís seo. Bhí sé beartaithe agam a thaispeáint dóibh siúd, trí bhriathar, an saol gurb fhéidir a bheith ann i mBéal Feirste, agus ar ndóigh in Éirinn aontaithe, le hArd Mhéara Shinn Féin bheith tofa i gcathair Béal Feirste.

We have a vision of a united Ireland. That vision includes the unionist people of this island. I wanted to show through what I did and said what living in Belfast, in a united Ireland, could be like if Belfast had a Sinn Féin Mayor.

I have been guided in my term by the following principles:

  • Equality
  • Reconciliation
  • Fair play
  • Openness
  • Freshness and
  • Inclusiveness

These principles gave me a broad framework within which to work and with the support of the party leadership we were able to make groundbreaking decisions.

My watchword since June of last year has been 'Equality'

  • In all its dimensions
  • Within the institutions of the City
  • In the treatment of all citizens by the Council

Belfast, although principally divided between unionists and nationalists, is a diverse city. There are many ethnic communities, which enrich Belfast and need recognised and legitimised by the Mayor. I believe I have played my part in making them feel part of the city. I also believe I have proactively engaged with the unionist and Protestant people in Belfast and beyond.

The decision that I should lay a wreath at Belfast's cenotaph last July within a few weeks of being elected was the first public step in that engagement. The decision was taken after careful consideration and internal discussions. It was not an easy decision because unionists on Belfast City Council have politicised the sacrifice made by those who died at the Somme and the First World War.

Since partition they used the ceremony as a badge of loyalty to their state thereby excluding the many Catholics and nationalists who fought and lost their lives in the war.I laid the wreath as a gesture of peace and national reconciliation to the unionist and Protestant people of this island.I believe many of them saw and accepted the gesture on those terms. I also believe that by laying the wreath it helped nationalist and republican relatives of those who died during the First World War feel part of a world-wide ceremony which they have been excluded from.

Another issue I devoted considerable time and effort to dealing with is the sectarian violence in Belfast. This affects both nationalist and unionist communities and is a blight on the lives of young and old. Many people from both sides worked with me and the many agencies who have been tackling discrimination for many years.I am glad to say that progress has been made in bringing much needed peace to these communities.

Recently the Ard Chomairle appointed me to lead Sinn Féin's outreach programme into the unionist and Protestant community. I am working with a group of republicans who are dedicated to this area of work. It is an engagement across the island with an obvious focus in the six counties.

Over the last ten years in particular a lot of progress has been made in this outreach work. We intend to intensify and build on the good work that has been done.

There is now an established net work of organisations and individuals within the unionist and Protestant community who we are in regular contact with. It is quite clear to me what we are dealing with in this engagement is unravelling centuries of conflict.

That means centuries of hostility between human beings, powerful emotions clashing with each other. Powerful memories of hurt and pain on both sides. This hurt and pain runs deep in the psyche of both unionists and nationalists. We are also dealing with a chasm of distrust and suspicion which has spanned the same period of time.

So you can see the task before us is a considerable one.

A process of change is underway. It affects unionists, nationalists and r epublicans. It is an unstoppable process. By its nature it is volatile and at times difficult to deal with. It requires leadership and hands on management to avoid misunderstandings.

An essential element in all of this is dialogue and face to face engagement. In this way we begin to see the integrity of the individual and what they stand for and believe in. Such dialogue helps us overcome the stereotypical image we have of each other. It helps us to see the integrity of the individual and the views they have.

You begin to see beyond the rhetoric whether it is your own or theirs. I am confident that peace in Ireland and a new beginning for all the people are well served through this engagement.

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Sligo Councillor Sean MacManus speaking during the health section of the party's Ard Fheis said:

It is obvious to us all that the Governments record on health care is disastrous and that their much-vaunted Health Strategy, announced over 16 months ago, is in tatters. Their failure is spread right across every aspect of health care provision, with lengthy waiting lists for public treatment in virtually all services. Nowhere has this reneging of their responsibilities being more clearly demonstrated than in the savage cuts in government spending on services for the mentally handicapped.

Instead of the €38million allocated to this sector last year the Coalition have provided just €13.3 million for 2003. These cutbacks are scandalous. At present there are over 4000 people on waiting lists in need of residential, respite or day care. These budget cutbacks mean that no inroads at all will be made to these waiting lists and that there will be no money for emergency placements. What then is to happen to patients whose parents or carers die?

Think about whom these miserable cutbacks will affect. We are talking about the most vulnerable people in this country, many of whom cannot voice their needs or concerns. The government's callous disregard for their situation will cause terrible hardship for the handicapped and their families, many of them elderly parents trying to cope alone with their adult children.

In this year, when Ireland has the honour of hosting the Special Olympics, we call on the Government to immediately reverse these cutbacks. Even in times of economic downturn, people with disabilities must be assured that funding to provide their vital services will be protected. Sinn Fein are committed to bringing about equality on this island, those with mental disabilities must be at the forefront of our efforts. Adequate funding must be provided to meet the needs of these special people.

Finally, while all the motions in this section on health are worthy of comment and support, I wish to briefly mention Motion 62 pertaining to the extension of the Breastcheck cancer screening programme throughout the state. I want to extend a welcome to Minister Martin's announcement on Thursday that the Department of Health and Children are going to extend this much-needed facility to all areas. For the past two years Sinn Fein in Sligo have campaigned for this extention. We fail to understand why the women of a large area of this state were discriminated against over the last three years by the non-provision of Brestcheck. We are also concerned by the two year start up for this rollout to our region. This will mean a minimum five year delay, much suffering and many deaths could have been avoided if we were all treated equally. Minister, we are not second-class citizens just because we live west of the Shannon.

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Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle member Joe Cahill speaking to the party's Ard Fheis said the message coming from this Ard Fheis has to be for you to go back into your areas and for the next eight weeks ensure that no stone is left unturned and that come election day the Sinn Féin vote is larger than ever before and the opportunity presented by our negotiation team is seized.' Mr. Cahill said:

The next two months will be a crucial period for republicans. In May Assembly elections will take place and next month marks the 87th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising. It Easter is an important time for Irish republicans. It is a time for remembering our friends and comrades who have given their lives, and freedom in pursuit of Irish Freedom.

It is a time for reflecting upon these ideals. It also provides an opportunity for renewal. When we as Irish Republicans rededicate ourselves to the legitimate and achievable goals of independence and unity for the people of this island.

The past year has predictably been one of ups and downs. The ongoing difficulties in the peace process caused by the continual pandering by the British government to the whims of unionism have resulted in the suspension of the political institutions and the commencement of another set of political negotiations.

However, the high point of the year was marked by the election results here in the 26 Counties. Sinn Féin arrived as a significant force in the political life of this state. Irish Unity is now at the centre of political life here. Parties and individuals who shunned the notion of Irish Unity are now talking about it as a matter of policy.

This work must now be built upon. In eight weeks we a facing into fresh Assembly elections. This will be a unique election. It provides this generation of republicans. The people in this hall the opportunity to radically change the political direction and the political make up of the six county state. I don't need to tell people here how crucial the next eight weeks will be. I also don't think that it is too much to ask, when you consider where we have come from and what we have come through, for a sustained effort in this short time ahead.

For possibly the first time we as republicans have the future direction of politics across the island in our hands. We cannot let that opportunity slip through our hands through lack of work, effort or discipline.

But this election will not be easy as I have heard some people say. You only have to look at the British attempts to damage our project through the registration to see that. Also our political enemies will not simply roll over. we have to go out and make this happen. We have to knock every door. We have to walk every street. For if we do not we are failing in our duty as republicans.

So if there is a message coming from this Ard Fheis it has to be for you to go back into your areas and for the next eight weeks ensure that no stone is left unturned and that come election day the Sinn Féin vote is larger than ever before and the opportunity presented by our negotiation team is seized. Anything less would be unforgivable.

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A chairde

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh gach duine atá anseo inniu, na hoifigigh, an ceannaireacht, na baill uilig agus chomh maith leis sin ár gcairde ón tír seo agus thar lear.

Tá súil agam go bhfuil sibh ag baint sult agus fiúntas as an chaint agus dióspoireacht thar an deireadh seachtaine.

This is a very unique gathering.

This is the Ard Fheis of the only all-Ireland political party on this island.

No where was this more in evidence than the sight of republicans, from all over Ireland, working together since our last Ard Fheis to achieve the incredible breakthrough in the Leinster House elections.

I want to welcome the new group of Sinn Féin TDs who joined Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin on the benches of Leinster House.

We have very good parliamentarians; innovative challenging and effective representatives who have given a voice to those whom the political establishment north and south turn their backs on and those who want a different Ireland, an Ireland of equals.

The work of the TDs and their team since 2002 shows that our party is a force to be reckoned with.

But there is much more to be done by all of us. That includes increasing the size of our team and sending republican women into the chamber at Leinster House to keep the other politicans right.

Sinn Féin - Building an Ireland of Equals

Last year the absence of a clear or credible alternative government, the collapse and the defection of a significant section of the Fine Gael vote to Fianna Fail and the lavish promises made by the coalition partners, ensured the re-election of the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat government.

But it was a very different story afterwards. Never have people become so disillusioned, so disappointed and so enraged so quickly by a new government. Little wonder!

Before the general election the people were told that there would be no cutbacks. But even before polling day the cutbacks were prepared.

Before the election the people were promised that hospital waiting lists would end within two years. But after the election this wasn't even included in the programme for government.

Before the election there was a promise to extend medical cards to a further 200,000 citizens. But after the election that promise was broken and instead of medical cards we got increased hospital and medicine charges.

Before the election there were promises to put right the appalling state of many of our schools. Especially small national schools in rural areas. But after the election they cut the school building programme.

Is this the type of society we want? A society where wealth flows as never before yet a quarter of our children and a fifth of our adults are in households with less than half the average income, where we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any industrial state outside of the USA.

What kind of economy is it where even people earning above the average industrial wage cannot afford a decent home? Where the local housing authority lists grow longer by the day.

There is a crisis in housing but it is not a crisis for property speculators, developers and landlords. They've never had it so good!

So, we are not about getting elected for the sake of it. We have work to do. We are for empowering citizens.

We cannot lose our campaigning edge. We are people in struggle. We are activists for change.

We are about building an alternative to the kind of government which can preside for two terms over one of the wealthiest economies in the European Union, yet fail to provide ordinary citizens with decent public services, in health, in education, transport and housing.

We are about transforming an economy where the income of the wealthiest ten percent is thirteen times that of the lowest paid workers.

We are for equality. That is why we are a party of change.

Sinn Féin represents the future. We don't have all the answers but we have never been better placed to make the case for national independence, social justice and equality for all.

The fact that it took two referendums for the establishment here to get a Yes vote on the Nice Treaty is proof of that and I want to commend everyone who played an active part in that campaign.

Despite prophesies of isolation in Europe and lies by the establishment parties, almost 40% of the electorate of this state agreed with Sinn Féin's analysis.

Our task in the decade ahead is to provide the leadership needed to challenge the status quo.

Throughout rural Ireland, but particularly in the West and North-West, whole communities, and even regions are suffering underdevelopment and neglect.

In the six counties 2000 people die prematurely every year because of poverty, and a quarter of households suffer deprivation.

The boom of the 1990s showed that we have the resources to create a just society across the whole island but there has been no real strategic planning, no proper regional development, no rural regeneration.

The last decade was one in which resources were squandered through tax give-aways to the wealthy and privileged, through corruption, and through policies and spending that failed to plan for long-term investment and development.

How is this to be changed?

A political party can mobilise, organise and represent and Sinn Féin is doing all these things. But it is the people who must bring about change.

Nothing can turn back the tide of change when enough people in our country decide to sweep away the old failed policies of the past.

Sinn Féin is nothing without the people.

We are nothing without the support we enjoy the length and breadth of Ireland and among our friends and exiles overseas.

22 years ago Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers were dying in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. They were the target of Margaret Thatcher's intransigence. But Thatcher's efforts to defeat republicanism failed.

The legacy of Bobby Sands and his comrades is the continued success, determination and growth of our struggle.

And that my friends, all other things to one side, is what has brought about this crisis in the peace process.

The British and the Irish establishment's version of the peace process did not allow for the growth of Sinn Féin.

Our party was to be perhaps a significant but nonetheless small, incohesive element in an anaemic political system in the north.

But it hasn't turned out like that. The Good Friday Agreement has been correctly seen as an instrument of change, real change in real ways in peoples lives.

For that reason nationalists and republicans and thoughtful unionists support it.

For that reason rejectionist unionists and the British establishment oppose it.

They understand that the Good Friday Agreement is essentially about establishing a level playing field.

They fear that the achievement of equality of treatment, and the emergence of a new inclusive society in Ireland, will leave much of Irish or Ulster Unionism without any rational basis and erode the very reason for the existence of the union and the British jurisdiction in Ireland.

Unionist leaders know this. So do British unionists, those in the British establishment and the London government.

That is why it is so difficult to get them to implement the changes that constitute the Good Friday Agreement.

The British government is a pro-union government and its tactical management of the process has exacerbated the crisis within unionism and encouraged the rejectionists.

But the rights and entitlements of citizens, regardless of creed, colour, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability or political opinion, is non-negotiable.

The legacy of discrimination and inequality experienced by nationalists in the north is neither a perception or a propaganda position.

It is a stark reality borne out yet again by the latest unemployment statistics where unemployment levels among catholic males is twice that of their protestant counter-parts.

Rectifying this requires a concentration of resources and other measures of intervention to end the cycle of inequality and eradicate the poverty trap.

Ten Years is a long Time in Politics

Sinn Féin is now the largest nationalist party in the north.

Far from being outshone by others our Ministers in the Executive were efficient, modernising, reforming Ministers.

Our Assembly team was effective, not only in the chamber but also across all the committees, and in their constituencies. And as we have seen the growth of Sinn Féin hasn't been confined to the six counties. We are recognised as a campaigning party and Sinn Féin is seen by an increasing section of the electorate to be the engine of the peace process.

Ten years ago it was all very different.

Ten years ago there was no peace process.

Ten years ago this party was a demonised organisation in transition sowing the seeds of our peace strategy to a censored media, pioneering delicate and difficult talks in a society which was polarised by the relentless cycle of ongoing injustice and violence.

Ten years ago we were told that peace was impossible in Ireland and that Irish unity was a pipe dream.

Ten years is a long time in politics.

Despite the many ups and downs we have seen what is possible.

Across the north life is better for the vast majority of people.

In saying that I am very conscious of families who have been bereaved, particularly as a result of sectarianism. I am also mindful of the family of a young IRA volunteer Keith Rogers who was killed in unprecedented circumstances earlier this month.

I am very conscious that for some people conditions have become worse.

Our representatives stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

We know the real terror faced by beleagured families and communities in interface areas in Belfast, in Larne, in South Antrim and elsewhere. And we extend solidarity to them.

All of which brings us to the current difficulties.

Depending on your viewpoint the crisis has been caused by unionism, or by Irish republicans or by the British government or by the Irish government or by the accumulation of factors involving or allegedly involving all of these elements.

I am not going to engage in the blame game in this speech and I want to acknowledge in a very clear way that the difficulties within unionism have been severely exacerbated by the ongoing focus on alleged IRA activities.

And of course, on the republican and nationalist side there is anger, frustration and annoyance because there is little focus on the ongoing activities of unionist paramilitaries or the actions of the British forces.

Should we give up hope in the process?

No.

But we have to face up to the reality that the British government holds the survival of David Trimble and the ascendancy of the UUP within unionism as priority objectives.

This might be a fair enough tactical approach if the dynamic was not being drained out of the process; if Mr. Trimble was fighting his corner and promoting the Agreement; and if the changes for which the British government has direct responsibility were proceeding regardless. But this is not the case.

And where stands the Irish government in all of this? The Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty between the Irish and British governments. They have a joint and co-equal responsibility for its implementation. The British government has no right to act unilaterally and it needs to be told this again and again.

In particular Irish citizens, victimised and targeted by sectarian violence, have a right to expect effective political protection from the government in Dublin. And all sections of the electorate have the right to expect that the Irish government will uphold their rights in the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, instead of stepping outside that agreement to bring in sanctions.

A New Beginning to Policing?

Tomorrow our Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness will give a more detailed report on the current negotiations, but for now I want to make a few specific remarks on the highly sensitive and emotive issue of policing in the north.

Let me state clearly that no decision to support the current policing proposition has been considered by the outgoing Ard Chomhairle. Such a decision will only be taken by a specially convened Ard Fheis. And we are not yet in a position to contemplate convening this. If we do so, it is my intention that a position paper would go to all levels of the party for discussion - that is the party membership as a whole, and that there would be a comprehensive debate leading up to a special Ard Fheis.

I also believe that there should be debate within the wider republican and nationalist community. We should make no bones about the enormity of this issue. The Irish nationalist and republican experience of policing has been one of oppression, hostility and conflict. The RUC, the armed wing of unionism, was established as a political paramilitary force to defend partition and institutionalised sectarianism. Under direct rule it became the cutting edge of the British state in Ireland. It has left an unhealed scar on the nationalist and republican psyche. The consequence of resistance to that has also left its mark on the unionist section of the community in the north.

Sinn Féin brought the demand that the RUC should be disbanded into the process of negotiations. For the first time there is the potential to radically effect the nature and role of policing in the six counties.

We have made policing, and the related issue of criminal justice, a new arena of struggle for republicans and nationalists. In that context, while building towards national independence, our objective in the interim is to depoliticise policing in the north. That means removing policing as a pillar of unionist power and preventing it from ever again being used by any section of society as an oppressive paramilitary force.

In pursuing these objectives we made it clear that the Patten recommendations did not go far enough for us. That is why we have put the issue of the transfer of policing and justice powers from the British government to the Assembly, the Executive and the north-south Ministerial Council at the centre of the political agenda.

That is policing under local democratic control and accountability, to be shaped as a community service and not a tool of the securocrats.

There is no reason why powers on policing and justice cannot be transferred on the same basis as other key issues such as health, education and economic development.

We have also argued for the full and immediate implementation of the Patten recommendations, not as an end in itself but as part of a process of change. This is because we believe that they could, when implemented in full, fundamentally and irreversibly change the nature, ethos and composition of policing in the north. For this reason the Brit securocrats, the unionist parties, and elements of the police itself, particularly the Special Branch, which at its core is the old RUC, have attempted to hollow out the Patten proposals.

We are arguing for the Good Friday Agreement vision of policing to become a reality.

The people we represent are law abiding. They have a right to be policed by public servants who act on their behalf.

Violence in their homes against the elderly, anti-social behaviour, car crime, the scourge of drugs, violence against women and against children, random violence on our streets is intolerable and unacceptable. The threat to the most vulnerable in our society from criminal elements, has to be tackled. That's why we have to get policing right.

So consequently if I am asked can I see a time when it would be appropriate for Sinn Féin to join the Policing Board, and participate fully in the policing arrangements on a democratic basis? The answer is yes.

Are we at that point now? The answer is no, not yet.

We may know at the end of the current negotiations. And let me tell you that there has been substantive movement or commitments to movement on key issues by the British government.

These commitments have been achieved solely by the Sinn Féin negotiating team.

After Weston Park in July 2001the SDLP signed on for inadequate policing arrangements. That was a mistake. The British and Irish governments had put forward a take it or leave it package. The SDLP acquiesced to that position. It now attempts to claim the Weston Park proposals as a result of its good negotiation, even though it was Sinn Féin which was central to that process.

The difference between us and the SDLP on this issue, and the Irish government for that matter as well, is that when we collectively failed to achieve the necessary progress they gave up. We did not. We continued working.

The broad nationalist consensus was broken on this issue. It was left to Sinn Féin to carry forward the demand for an end to politically partisan policing and for an accountable, representative, human rights based, and civic police service.

The results of some of that work can be seen in the amendments to legislation going through the British Parliament at this time. Other elements of it will become public if the British keep to their commitments in the time ahead.

But far from wanting a fight with the SDLP or others on this issue I want to see a consensus re-established on the policing issue as well as on all the other outstanding aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.

The reality is that the northern state remains in its ethos and symbols a unionist state. This is reflected in all of its agencies and institutions, with the exception of the democratic institutions, which of course are now suspended - yet again.

The implementation of the Good Friday Agreement means that all the symbols, the ethos, institutions and agencies of the northern state will have to be representative and reflective of all citizens there. There has to be parity of esteem and equality of treatment.

This week a senior Irish government source briefed sections of the media that at a meeting last Monday the Taoiseach told the Sinn Féin leadership that there is no room for further negotiations. The Taoiseach did not tell us that. Later a senior Minister was reported as warning parties of seeking a 'concession too far'.

The issues which are at the core of the Good Friday Agreement are not concessions. They are rights and entitlements. They are also not yet a reality. They are very much work in progress. And until they become a reality and until the Agreement is fully implemented Sinn Féin will continue to negotiate and campaign for this.

The British Prime Minister's speech last October in Belfast specifically acknowledged that the Good Friday Agreement has not been implemented.

Our responsibility, and the responsibility of all parties to that agreement, must be to bring this about. There is no other way forward. All of us have to make politics work. All parties have to strive to bring closure to all these issues in ways which are realistic and achievable. All of the parties, and this includes both governments, have to make peace, to build justice.

While I believe that the majority of unionists want to embrace change it is clear that their political leaders do not want the Good Friday Agreement to be implemented. That seems to be the Ulster Unionist Party's current position. Ian Paisley has always been clear about this. It appears that the demands of unionism are insatiable. They are also not deliverable.

Not unless the two governments tear up the Good Friday Agreement.

Not unless people in the south allow them to do this.

Not unless nationalists and republicans in the north decide to accept less than our very basic entitlements.

We have no intention of doing that.

Lig dúinn bheith soiléir faoi rud amháin, 'sé sin go gcaithfidh gach duine comhionannas córa agus comhionannas deise a fháil.

The old days are over. The days of second class citizenship are finished.

So the challenge for Mr. Blair is quite profound. He and the Taoiseach have made an exceptional contribution to the search for peace.

He understands as well as I do that this is a process and that all of us need to see beyond the difficulties of the moment.

His task in the short term has to be to continue the process of peacemaking.

The Good Friday Agreement remains the only show in town.

This party doesn't need to be told that. But rejectionist unionists do. So too does the British system.

I believe Mr. Blair should also see that Britain's strategic interest are best served by the democratic resolution of the long-standing quarrel between the people of these two islands.

So the challenge for Mr. Blair is to shape his own system, his own agencies, to make this process work, and in so doing to accept that the leaderships of political unionism will not journey along the Good Friday Agreement process if they can avoid that.

But like people everywhere they will respond to the conditions in which they live. I therefore retain a confidence that if unionism is liberated, like the rest of us, from the conditions of the past, they will rise to the challenge.

There can be no escape from the reality that the conditions in which we will all have to live are those defined by the Good Friday Agreement.

Until the unionists know that for a certainty they will resist that Agreement.

This is a hugely traumatic process for them. In their hearts many unionists know that the game is up.

It isn't over. But it is up. And whether the majority of unionists ever had any real advantage from the old agenda depends on how you define the word advantage.

Let us be clear that social conditions which cause concern in republican and nationalist communities across this island also exist in loyalist and unionist communities in the north.

There are conditions of serious and severe social alienation in loyalist areas which lead to genuine feelings of isolation. The causes of these conditions are many - not least the fact that for years there has been social deprivation in protestant working class areas.

In fact the protestant working class in many ways has been abandoned. We want to see the standard of living of all sections of the community raised through meaningful employment, and the provision of social amenities, places of recreation and better housing. Addressing poverty and deprivation by targeting social need is a universal concept which should not be bounded by political allegiance or religious belief.

There is little merit in governments offering financial support to any section as a short term sweetner. A prolonged and consistent policy which will remove social grievances and reduce alienation is essential.

And we have been arguing for this consistently. Including in the current negotiations with both governments.

Let the message go out from us here today, to loyalist and unionist working class areas - we understand what is happening to you and we know such problems must be addressed.

Irish republicans do not want anyone to go into the space that nationalists and republicans in the north are vacating. We want to close that space down. We do not want anyone to be treated the way we were.

Sinn Féin has worked to have the Good Friday Agreement implemented, not only because that is our obligation, not only because that is the right thing, but also because this fits into a strategy of creating an alternative to war and a means of sustaining and anchoring the peace process.

Many may argue that we have an imperfect peace. But let's be realistic about this, it is a lot better than what is happening in other parts of the world at this time, and it's a lot better than what was happening in this country over a long time.

Our strategy, and Mr. Trimble knows this, is about bringing an end to physical force republicanism, by creating an alternative way to achieve democratic and republican objectives.

It wasn't us who promoted the issue of arms decommissioning as a precondition on an Agreement but it was us, and others, who moved so that the IRA came to do the unthinkable. To not only work with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning but also to put arms beyond use under its auspices at a time when unionist paramilitaries were on a killing spree, when sectarian orange marches were being forced into Catholic neighbourhoods and when the British Army was remilitarising.

It wasn't us who came up with another demand once progress on the arms issue was being made.

Sinn Féin is not the IRA but we have used our influence, as every party to the Agreement is obliged to, in order to advance the objectives of the Agreement.

This party is not accountable for the IRA and I will not accept that we or our electorate can be punished or sanctioned for alleged IRA behaviour but I do have to say that I believe that the IRA is serious and genuine about its support for a peace process.

I speak for this party and we are completely committed to peaceful and democratic means.

As an Irish republican, as a citizen of Ireland, I want to see an end to British rule in this country yesterday. The Good Friday Agreement is a big personal and political compromise for me.

I want to see a united Ireland by 7pm this evening. But I am realistic enough to know that this is unlikely, for today anyway. But it will happen. And I will continue to work, and this party will continue to work, until it does.

Because I know it will be achieved through a process - not by way of ultimatums from me or any other Irish person.

I want to see an end to all of the armed groups on this island. That has to be the aim of every thinking republican.

Does anyone think that the IRA is ever going to respond positively to ultimatums from the British government, or David Trimble?

But does the logic of the peace process move us in that direction?

The answer is yes.

And who can influence this the most?

The British government - the unionists - the Irish government and us as well of course. In the days and weeks ahead all of us; the British government - the unionists - Sinn Féin - the Irish government, have decisions to make. Those decisions could decide whether the peace process takes a great leap forward or whether it continues at the frustrating and begrudging pace that has marked its progress thus far.

So can I envisage a future without the IRA?

The answer is obvious. The answer is Yes.

Sinn Féin is about making peace.

About working with others to make this a reality for everyone.

There is no other way forward.

And that stands true not only in our country but across this planet. Humanity deserves justice. Human beings can live together in harmony.

This party is opposed to the war in Iraq.

If big powers want to declare war it should be war against third world poverty. The cost of any one of the bombers being used in Iraq would wipe out the debt of any of the countries which are crucified by this injustice.

The UN estimates that if funds being used to pay off debt were diverted into health and education the lives of seven million children a year could be saved. That is 134,000 children a week. Saving them would be right. The war in Iraq is wrong.

May I at this juncture point to the positive, inclusive and magnanimous policies which are underpinning the term in office of Belfast's first Sinn Féin Mayor Councillor Alex Maskey. Alex is leading by example.

In many ways his work is not only an effort to build a bridge out of the past. He is building a bridge into the future.

There are very few unionists who would put their hand on their hearts today and say with conviction that Irish unity will never happen. That being the case it is incumbent on all of us to prepare for this and to lead by example. To build bridges. This particularly applies to the two governments.

The message should be - prepare for re-unification.

The majority of people in this state want this. Four of the six counties in the north already vote for those parties who would claim to be pro-united Ireland, as do the majority of people in Belfast. And the numbers voting for pro-united Ireland parties in the other two counties is growing by the day.

It is therefore, incumbent on the two governments to have in place plans and mechanisms to ensure a smooth transition when the time arrives.

I am not pointing out these facts in order to frighten or further destabalise unionism but because I believe that many unionists also recognise the change that is taking place.

Their fears must be addressed in a comprehensive manner, which will secure assurances and guarantees to satisfy misgivings.

We have a responsibility to reassure unionists and to guarantee their rights in concrete terms.

Unionists should not ignore the fact that they represent twenty per cent of the population of this island. Their potential is greater in an Irish state which wants their vital and essential contribution, than it is as two per cent of a British state which has consistently demonstrated no real interest in them, except when it serves their own interest.

Sinn Féin is calling for:

· Northern representation in Southern political institutions.

· Voting rights in Presidential elections for Irish citizens in the north.

· The publication of a Green paper on Irish unity by the Irish government.

· A broad campaign alongside other political parties, community groups, trade unions, and other sections of society in creating An Alliance for Irish Unity.

· The expansion of the island-wide approach in key policy areas, including the economy, health, agriculture, employment and tourism.

· The establishment of the all-Ireland inter-Parliamentary Forum.

· The establishment of the all-Ireland Civic Forum.

Equality is the most important word in the Irish republican dictionary. That includes gender equality. We have a lot to do within Sinn Féin to make our party representative of society.

We have incorporated guidelines and directives to enhance the process to have more women candidates elected and we will be increasing the number of women candidates in winnable seats for the upcoming Assembly elections in the north.

We also have to increase our representation of women at all levels within the party and at all levels of political representation.

This party needs to continue with radical and political change to facilitate this. That includes male members moving over in order to empower women comrades. It means recruiting more women into our ranks.

I do not want to be a member of a party which is not conscious of this. Remember the majority of people in Ireland today are female.

There is a big challenge facing us also on the issue of the Irish Language. This years Slogadh was an outstanding success. Our language is a national resource. It is part of our natural wealth.

Behind the arguments about funding, and rights, and resources and equality for the Irish language, and Irish speakers, there is a fundamental fact that we must never lose sight of - the Irish language belongs to the people of Ireland, all of the people, irrespective of class, or creed or background.

It has to be our priority to relearn our own language. We have to be part of language planning which puts Irish back in the mouths of the people.

So we have lots to do. And not enough people to do it. I appeal to those who share our vision to come into this party. Or to work with us in broad alliances.

Tá na toghcháin seo le teacht iontach tabhactach don pháirtí seo. Caithfidh achan duine a seacht ndicheall a dhéanamh chun an oiread is mó suíocháin a bhaint. Tá mé ag rá libh anois gur seo tús an toghcháin inniu.

Earlier today I paid tribute to senior people who are moving into new positions as part of the regeneration of our party. I am very pleased to see Joe Cahill is here with us today as tenacious and determined as ever, and not thinking of anything except the grand slam and not thinking of going anywhere except on the canvas trail on the upcoming Assembly election.

These elections give the electorate yet another opportunity to re-invest in the peace process and in the republican vision. Despite the shredding of the electoral register this contest gives Sinn Féin the opportunity to increase our political strength and to continue to build for the future.

What sort of future can it be?

Imagine an Ireland in which there is no more war - no more conflict.

An Ireland in which the guns and bombs are silent for ever.

An Ireland in which the words of hate are silent - for ever.

Imagine the people of this island free from division, foreign occupation, injustice and conflict.

Imagine the five million people of our small island applying our collective energy, our intelligence, our wisdom to produce the wealth to improve the quality of life for all our people.

Imagine an Ireland using that wealth to tackle poverty, to build homes, to educate, to protect the environment, to heal the sick, to help the weak, the aged, all the children of the nation.

George Bernard Shaw once said, 'Some people see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never were and ask why not.'

This party is determined to rebuild the political process and to keep the peace process intact.

We are living through a time of great hope, great risk and great opportunity.

No one ever said that any of this was going to be easy.

Freedom never comes easily. All history teaches us that.

But history also teaches us that the determined movement of people organised, and resolutely demanding their rights will win through. That is what we have to do. That is what we will do.

There is no way back. There is only one way - and that is forward.

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Dublin Sinn Féin TD Sean Crowe, speaking at the party's Ard Fheis attacked the government for their failure to address Child Poverty. Deputy Crowe said;

A quarter of a million children are living in poverty in the 26 Counties. Just under 100,000 of these children are experiencing enforced basic deprivation. The National Anti-Poverty Strategy set 2007 as the deadline for the elimination of chid poverty.

If the Government was serious about achieving that target, you would have expected massive investment in this area in the last Budget. But instead, Charlie McCreevy cynically targeted the most vulnerable and weakest section of our society and betrayed hundreds of thousands of Irish children.

Child Dependenet Allowance has been frozen since 1994. Child Benefit, recognised as the best way to tackle Child Poverty was to be increased, we were told, by between €31 and €38. Instead, it was increased by a truly pathetic €8 a week. The Back to School Allowance barely pays for a uniform let alone the books and other rising costs in our so-called free education system.

These children are going to school hungry, in clothes that keep them neither dry nor warm. In many cases they find no relief in their schools. Schools in every part of the country are rundown, in danger of collapse, have inadequate heating or one of hundreds of other problems.

There is a whole generation of children that is going to grow up abandoned by this State, betrayed by acts of criminal negligence by a right-wing Government, which can find the money to cut Corporation Tax, but not to tackle child poverty.

I call on the Ard Fhéis to ratify Motion 267 and show our support for the End Child Poverty Coalition which is working to keep the elimination of child poverty at the top of our national agenda. ENDS

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Portlaoise Town Councillor Brian Stanley speaking during the Education section of the party's Ard Fheis said that 'the reality is that in my own town Portlaoise and right across the country, the signs of Fianna Fail and the PDs broken promises are all too apparent, in the form of dilapidated school buildings and prefab that are falling to pieces.' Cllr. Stanley said:

I am supporting motion 57 which is calling for the adoption of our new policy document 'Educate that you may be free' and motion f which calls for greater resources for the provision of proper buildings for Gael Scoileanna.

The policy document sets out a clear vision to work towards, to improve the education system in this country. It lists as its first aim that education should be "an instrument of progress for all, not a means of reproducing inequalities" and the need for it to be "based on the principals of social justice, equality and respect for diversity".

It also sets out practical short-term objectives to improve primary, post primary and third level education, such as the upgrading of substandard schools and rationalising the curriculum at second level.

The reality is that in my own town Portlaoise and right across the country, the signs of Fianna Fail and the PDs broken promises are all too apparent, in the form of dilapidated school buildings and prefab that are falling to pieces.

In Portlaoise the situation has reached crisis point with special resource teachers having to teach in cloakrooms, schools unable to take any more enrolments due to overcrowding and a absence of any commitment from the Department of Education to even provide prefabs. The local Gael Scoil which is in rented prefabs on a rented site, has to move from its existing location within the next few months. They are forced to beg the money from the Department to move to another rented site.

And this is how the Government deal with the need for new schools, they pay huge leases for rented sites on which to put rented prefabs, which I am informed cost over €800 for each classroom per month or almost €10.000 per annum. This goes on for years, with millions paid to companies that rent out these temporary buildings. There would appear to be a complete lack of any long term planning.

We should be up front about how we could pay for the new schools that are needed. So called public private partnerships, which are little more than hire purchase schemes that will crucify the ordinary taxpayer with repayments while allowing rich investors to evade tax could be used. We could do like some other parties and simply demand new schools but fail to spell out where the money would come from.

This state cannot have proper public services without paying for them and that does not mean increasing the burden on those taxpayers earning low to middle incomes. To find the funds we must, restore capital gains tax to 40%, Retain corporation tax at 16% with higher levels for financial institutions and introduce a new tax band for those on incomes over €100.000 per annum. And we must also stop the Government wasting our money on jets and new meres, which are little more than toys to impress the elite of Europe".ENDS

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already on their knees from economic sanctions that have caused more deaths than ALL weapons of mass destruction ever used. No clear and present danger has been proven. The weapons inspections were disrupted, and now we may never know the truth.

We in Sinn Féin must make our position on this issue clear and unambiguous. We must bring our specifically republican approach to the issue, and play our full part to stop Iraqi mass graves, the proliferation of bodybags, and a highly unstable future for the Middle East region and for the United Nations.

There are those in the establishment and in the press who have tried to tell us we have no right to take this position against this war. But I say that our opposition to this war is a totally logical extension of our politics -- particularly our anti-imperialism, but also the demilitarisation agenda.

Some party activists and supporters, in relying on mainstream press reports, aen full participants in the anti-war coalition in this state from the beginning. But as Irish citizens, and as global citizens, we can always do more. I urge you not only to support this motion, but to go back to your local areas and show leadership in your own communities on this issue.

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The great task, that has faced the Irish nation throughout history, has been that of taking ownership of our political destiny and evolving a democracy that meets the needs and fulfils the aspirations of all its citizens.

James Connolly called this "the re-conquest of Ireland by the Irish people."

Sinn Fein's task is to be the leadership; the catalyst and the driving force behind that project. The immediate responsibility facing our party is to ensure that there is a meaningful and ongoing Republican contribution to the further development of a Peace Process that we have been instrumental in creating. By building our political strength across this island we will advance the cause of reconfiguring the political structures that have failed our people for so long.

This reconfiguration of the Irish political landscape has already begun. The Good Friday Agreement, the all-Ireland Agreement, is an explicit acknowledgement of the failure of past political structures. It is an admission of the failure of partitionist politics, division and the denial of democracy. While only a beginning, the Agreement has already yielded great hope, new energy and tangible progress in several areas.

It has been a positive development in so many ways. It has been good for the people of this island and it has been good for this party. Although only fully functional for nineteen months out of what should have been a forty-eight month term, through the political institutions, the Assembly, its Executive, its committees, the NSMC, Cross Border Bodies and Implementation Bodies, Sinn Fein representatives have acquired invaluable experience. That experience has assisted us in building our political strength. The work that we are doing is being recognised by more and more people with the result that we have seen our electoral mandate strengthened on every occasion and at every level. I have no doubt that this trend will continue in the Assembly elections.

The Agreement has also been good for broader nationalism. Through the experience of the Peace Process, the negotiation of the Agreement and the working of the political structures, there has emerged a more professional, confident, assured, robust and imaginative nationalist political project.

The entire Peace process brought the issue of the Six Counties to the heart of politics in this state. The Agreement built upon that. This is an immensely important development in political and historical terms. For too long those who governed the 26-County state turned their backs on the North and its people. They ducked their moral and political responsibilities. They pretended that the North did not matter or didn't affect the future development of the rest of Ireland. The establishments, North and South, perpetuated political differences between both parts of the island over 80 years of partition.

It is our task in Sinn Fein, as United Irelanders, to be in the leadership of bridging the divisions between all political traditions on this island - and don't mistakenly believe that the unionist mentality only exists in the six-counties. We need to be in the leadership of evolving the political structures, which allow this to happen.

The Six Counties and all its people must become, in real terms, a permanent feature of the political life of the nation. This is only natural and right. It is also natural and right that there is a need for Unionist involvement in the evolving political shape of this country.

We have witnessed over the course of the past few years clear evidence that republicans and unionists can work together to the benefit of all the people of Ireland. We have seen that politics can work when given the space and the political will is present.

We have seen, despite the various breakdowns and crises over the past five years, the immense benefits of the Agreement for our society and all our people - Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, Unionist and Nationalist. The cessations of armed actions; the reduction in conflict related deaths; the opportunities created for the normalization of life in the community and for increased investment and employment opportunities; local ownership of political decisions; the fact that unionist and nationalist Ministers can deliver results more efficiently than British Direct Rule Ministers; all this has been recognised by unionist people as much as by nationalists. People have seen these improvements and they like what they have seen.

Pro-Agreement Unionist political leaders must, and I believe do, recognise the value of the current process for the people they represent. And, I include in this, members and leaders of the DUP, some of whose Ministers carried out their duties with admirable efficiency and dedication. I believe that the Agreement is changing unionist attitudes, however reluctantly. I believe Unionist leaders see the benefit in the exercise of actual political power for the first time in decades, as opposed to the sterility of years of wielding the negative political power of an undemocratic veto, blocking any political progress.

The Agreement was an historic compromise between Irish nationalism and Irish Unionism. As such it can only work with the willing participation of both political traditions

I welcome Tony Blair's comments in the British House of Commons following Hillsborough that there can be no renegotiation of the Agreement and that it will be fully implemented. Some unionists that I have spoken to recently told me that they noted these remarks -- and more significantly -- the serious tone with which he delivered them. I also noted that serious tone. Rejectionist unionists need to hear that message time and again.

I know this entire process has been a difficult one for Unionists. It has been difficult for republicans also. This party has worked hard to underpin the process and ensure the survival of the Agreement. Cherished positions have been re-worked and remoulded to facilitate changed political realities. These same political realities also confront unionists.

Such realities require pragmatism from a progressive Unionism. A Unionism, which grasps the new realities and works them to the benefit of its constituency. A Unionism which takes ownership -

co-ownership with nationalists - of the Agreement and its institutions. A unionism that recognises opportunity in change and manages it rather than fighting it.

Neither this party nor I, would presume to define for Unionist leaders their political interests, but I think it is now universally recognised that what is required is a unionist stamp on the Agreement. Only with such a brand of ownership can unionist leaders sell the Agreement to their electorate.

As a republican who believes in the value of the Agreement, I have a duty to reach out and find common ground with unionists who are seeking political progress. I say this evening to those unionist leaders - this Sinn Fein leadership is ready and willing to work with you. I say this because I believe we need each other to make this peace process work in all of our interests. I say it because I believe that the majority of people from both constituencies want it to work.

This Sinn Fein leadership is anxious to work with Unionist leaders in building a political future for all the people of Ireland. I believe that many unionist politicians are astute enough to see that current historical and political conditions offer unionism opportunities that should be grasped and built on.

I also believe that Unionist leaders understand as we do that political agreement has to be reached, at this juncture, in the best interests of the people that we both represent. An arrangement which can best secure our political future. They must know there will not be a better opportunity or any better deal available. There are those within the DUP too who can see this as clearly as anyone in the UUP. The DUP, that has already been working the structures of the Agreement, no matter how must they may protest, will eventually find itself in a position where it will deal with republicans in relation to moulding a secure political future.

The Unionist leadership has experienced the pain of making necessary historical and political compromises with nationalism without the gain of ensuring the existence of stable political structures that would lead to social and economic benefits for their community. Such political institutions could create the atmosphere that would complete the transformation of our society and an end to all armed groups. A climate that unionist leaders claim they want to achieve. Such an outcome is in all our interests. But it is an objective of the process that we all must work towards. It should not be used as a precondition or an obstruction to political progress. It is a destination that will only be reached if we are willing to work together. I urge unionist leaders to do the necessary now.

Accept the Agreement that you negotiated in all its parts, take ownership of it and sell its benefits to your electorate. The Agreement can secure all our futures.

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Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle member Lucilita Bhreatnach in her opening to the party's 2003 Ard Fheis said 'The last 18 months have shown how effective Sinn Féin can be in government, in elections and on the streets. The hard work and dedication of the thousands of our party activists and supporters across the nation continues to reap dividends.' Ms Bhreatnach said:

Fearaim fáilte romhaibh chuig Ard Fheis na bliana seo.

I would like to begin by welcoming delegates, visitors and guests to this year's Ard Fheis, which is the first to receive live coverage from RTÉ and it is interesting to note, that it is less than 10 years since the lifting of Section 31, under which Sinn Féin was to be neither seen nor heard on RTÉ, or any other Irish broadcaster. It was part of the concerted effort by the Dublin and London governments to marginalise Irish republicanism.

Agus mé ag breathnú timpeall orm anocht fecim seana cháirde anseo agus aghaidheanna nua, is cuimhníom siar ar an tréimhse le ocht mí dhéag ó shin ó chruinnigh muid le chéile, is léir go bhfuil muid éirithe I bhfad níos láidre.

Toghadh cúigear Teachtaí Dála de chuid Shinn Féin sa tréimhse seo. Ba é sin an eachtra ba mhó polaitíocghta a thit amach.

The election of Aengus, Arthur, Martin, Seán along with Caoimghín was just the most visible part of the rising tide in republican fortunes as the Sinn Féin vote broke 120,000. Our vote was up right across the state and candidates like Nicky Kehoe, Dessie Ellis, Joe Reilly, John Dwyer and others came very close. Next time, which will be coming round soon, I have no doubt, they will make it.

During the '90s Sinn Féin worked hard to build political strength. At times, there has been confusion, with people believing that political strength and electoral strength were one and the same.

But there are many kinds of political strength. The marches of 150,000 people in Belfast and Dublin against the war on Iraq was a demonstration of the political strength of those people in Ireland who support a policy of military neutrality.

These people are seeing in Sinn Féin a party to the forefront of campaigning for a Constitutional amendment to enshrine neutrality in the 1937 Constitution. In February, our TDs tabled a motion to this effect in Leinster House, forcing the right-wing parties in this State to admit their opposition to a real, independent, neutral foreign policy.

Another mobilisation of our political strength could be seen in the high vote against the Nice Treaty in the undemocratic re-run of that referendum. In the face of a campaign of deliberate lies and misinformation staged by the Government, backed by an unquestioning media, just under 40% of voters rejected the Treaty and it is worth pointing out that, without exception, the highest No of votes were recorded in those constituencies where our support is strongest, where our membership took the issue to the people.

Tá líon na ndaoine a aontaíonn lenár ndearcadh polaitiúil agus lenár dtuairaimí, ag fás. More and more people are coming to join Sinn Féin. In Dublin alone since the election the number of cumainn in this city has increased by over 25%. Similar increases have been reported right around the country.

Caithfidh muid leanúint leis na léirsithe ar na sráideanna. Ár streachailt a threorú I ngach treo, sé sin sa Tionól nó I dTeach Laighean, sna ceardchumainn nó I ngrúpaí pobail. Caithfidh muid níos mó iarrachtaí a dhéanamh guth a thabhairt dár n-analís. Tá daoine ullamh dona h-athruithe. Tá siad ag lorg athruithe cuimsitheacha. Is fúinn é na h-argóintí a chur agus a léiriú dóibh gurb é Sinn Féin an t-aon pháirtí atá raidacach ar an oileán seo.

We will give the electorate that radical alternative in the Six Counties this May. The Westminster and Local Elections of 2001 saw the emergence of Sinn Féin as the largest nationalist party. It is something we will underline decisively in the Assembly elections. Our record in the Executive is a proud one, and proves our ability to work constructively in government.

Martin McGuinness, as Minister for Education, abolished the discriminatory Eleven Plus examination which marked a child for life before they reached their teenage years and set up the all-Ireland centre of excellence for the education of children with autism in Middletown. Bairbre De Brúin, by taking Health, one of the most difficult portfolios in any administration determinedly pushed through a radical public health strategy targeting social inequality as a major cause of poor health. Bairbre not only succeeded in getting this strategy launched, but signed up every single Department in the Executive to it.

The last 18 months have shown how effective Sinn Féin can be in government, in elections and on the streets. The hard work and dedication of the thousands of our party activists and supporters across the nation continues to reap dividends.

But to achieve the gains in May, our work on the ground must be increased. Tens of thousands of voters face disenfranchisement and while our activists have done tremendous work in registering these people, many more are still without a vote. This too, is a form of building political strength, of empowering and politicising the people right across the Six Counties.

This weekend we will hold debates on a wide range of issues that affect the people. We will discuss the peace process, review and put forward proposals on education, health, justice, community and language issues. This together with the election of the party leadership will set the tone for the next twelve months for this party. I would ask all of you to participate, to represent the views of your cumann. This is your party, and we are all here together to discuss and decide Sinn Féin's policies on the road to the Republic.

And it is up to you, to all of us, to put in the work that is necessary to see the massive growth of this party continue. Ní bheidh sé éasca, ní raibh sé a riamh, ach is féidir linn breathnú siar ar hocht mí dhéag atá caite agus an dul chun cinn ata déanta again a mheas.

It will not be easy, indeed, it has never been easy, but we can look back over the 18 months since our last Ard Fheis and see how far we have come, and we know that we are closer to achieving this party's single overriding objective, the formation of an independent 32 county socialist republic.

We have never been closer to this dream than we are today. It is this generation of republicans that will see Bobby Sands referred to as the rising of the Moon, Eirí na Gealaigh, and it is people like you who will bring it about. Táim fíor shásta an Ard Fheis seo a oscailt anocht.ENDS

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Sinn Féin Dáil Group leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD has said that Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen would be better served defending the rights of Irish citizens instead of urging Sinn Féin to stop negotiating on behalf of our constituents and in the best interests of the peace process.

Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

"Since December Sinn Féin has been engaged in negotiations with the two governments and the pro-Agreement parties to achieve the full implementation of the Agreement. This work continues. We do not have equality. We do not have human rights. We do not have a new beginning to policing.

"Assertions such as those from Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen, claiming that the negotiations are closed, are in effect an attempt to prevent progress being made on these issues. That is not the Sinn Féin position and it certainly should not be the Irish government position.

"I want to state categorically that Sinn Féin is not giving up on any of the outstanding issues - policing, demilitarisation, equality and human rights. We will continue to work to secure the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement."ENDS

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Kerry North TD Martin Ferris has expressed disappointment that Michael O'Neill and John Quinn were not released this morning but welcomed the fact that the court recognised that the men were qualifying prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement. Deputy Ferris said that 'The onus is now back on the Minister to honour his commitments under the Agreement and release the men."

Deputy Ferris said:

"It is disappointing that the men were not released this morning but I welcome the fact that the court acknowledged that the men qualify for release under the Agreement. The onus is now back on the Minister. He should honour his commitments under the Agreement and release the men.

"The Good Friday Agreement committed both the British and Irish governments to releasing all qualifying prisoners within two years. That was 1998. It is now 2003.

"I am conscious of the pain and upset of the McCabe family but the Castlerea prisoners qualify under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and there is an obligation on the government to honour their commitments and release them." ENDS

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Responding to comments made in todays Irish News by SDLP spokesperson Alex Attwood on the issue of new policing legislation, Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly said:

" This new legislation is welcome and is the outworking of three years of hard work and negotiation by Sinn Féin. This included Weston Park and the commitment by the British government to amend the original Policing Act in addition to the progress made in the current negotiations. This work is not yet finished. Crucial issues such as plastic bullets, representativeness the future of the Special Branch, and the transfer of powers on policing and justice are the focus of continuing deliberations.

" Alex Attwood comments are not surprising given the fact that the SDLP told us before Weston Park that amending legislation was not possible - yet it was delivered and more recently they told us again that new legislation was not possible - yet again it has been delivered. Had the SDLP held its nerve and not settled for less than Patten then perhaps we would have achieved the new beginning to Policing by now.

" Nevertheless, our objective remains a police service which is civic, democratically accountable and which reflects the goals set in the Agreement. We have made progress on this over recent years, and especially in the current negotiations. More needs to be done and this remains a priority for Sinn Féin in our ongoing discussions with the two governments." ENDS

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Speaking in Leinster House last night in support of a Green Party Bill to set up a National Transport Authority to co-ordinate and integrate the Irish public transport network with the construction of new roads, Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Transport Seán Crowe gave his support to the legislation.

The Dublin South-West TD said: "Sinn Féin has long been on record as supporting the creation of a national transport authority as a positive step towards the development of an integrated all-Ireland strategy on public transport and infrastructural development."

Deputy Crowe went on to condemn the Government's plans to break up CIE:

"The Government's move to break up CIE represents the wrong kind of transport policy. Instead of a public transport system which works in a co-ordinated fashion, the Minister proposes that its various elements compete against each other. At one of his first meetings with CIE following his appointment he told the company he believed the subvention it received from the State should be reduced, rather than increased to a level which would allow it to realistically tackle the problems it faces.

"We need to address decades of underfunding in our transport system. The most recent comparative study of investment in urban public transport in European cities indicated Dublin had the third lowest subvention rate for urban bus services."

Deputy Crowe also used the opportunity to express again his disagreement with the use of tolling and Public Private Partnership for the construction of the badly needed infrastructure necessary for Ireland's social and economic development.ENDS

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Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Agriculture and Rural Development, Martin Ferris TD, has stated that the cuts and closures currently being forced on Teagasc will seriously undermine the future of Irish farming as it faces into another year of crisis and the proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Deputy Ferris was speaking following a presentation by Dr. Jim Flanagan, Teagasc National Director, to the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food.

Deputy Ferris questioned Dr. Flanagan in regard to the manner in which the cuts were effecting the work of the authority in research and education. Ferris also questioned the Government's commitment to the modernisation and development of agriculture given these cuts and others which have affected the introduction and support of young farmers. Dr Flanagan admitted that the restrictions on the Teagasc budget have forced them to curtail the scale and extent of their activities.

"The decision to enforce these cuts at this time will further exacerbate the crisis in Irish agriculture. As Dr. Flanagan admitted, the cuts will force many highly skilled people out of agricultural research and education and this will further undermine the ability of the sector to adapt and innovate in the future. It is particularly important that as we face into the proposed CAP reform that Irish agriculture is equipped with the facilities and personnel to assess the impact of the reforms and develop alternative proposals. It is a telling comment on this Government's attitude to farming that such cuts should be made at this particular time". ENDS

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Sinn Féin Finance Spokesperson Caoimhghín O'Caoláin has expressed his disappointment at the decision of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to accept 'Sustaining Progress'.

The Cavan-Monaghan Deputy said:

"It is still Sinn Féin's view that 'Sustaining Progress' represents a poor deal for Irish workers and the low-paid, especially those working in the private sector. The narrow margin of the vote at the ICTU Congress confirms a growing level of disquiet amongst Trade Unionists at the Partnership process.

"The pay rise of 7% will not, in my view, keep pace with inflation and there is no sign of any movement on issues like Trade Union recognition. At the same time the deal signs Unions up to compulsory binding arbitration.

"We believe the way forward for Trade Unionists is to begin a determined campaign to organise workers in the private sector. Progressive alliances must be built between the Unions, the Community and Voluntary pillar which also has grave difficulties with the deal and with those parties who have a policy of critical engagement with the Partnership process. Only in this way can we present a united front in support of worker's rights, decent pay and real social progress."ENDS

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Sinn Féin TD for Dublin South West Seán Crowe has accused property developers of unjustified greed following revelations that houses prices in a new estate in Tallaght had increased by €16,000 over a three day period last week. He said the increases had shattered the dreams of many young families and couples who are already struggling to get mortgages arranged. He said there now existed an axis of evil that included the Government, property developers and the lending institutions that is compounding the housing crisis that exists in this state.

Deputy Crowe said:

"I am appalled that blatant and unjustified greed has led to an increase of an unbelievable €16,000 being attached to new houses in Tallaght over a three day period last week. This increase has shattered the dreams of many young families and couples who are already struggling to get mortgages arranged.

"This is a deliberate abuse of the housing crisis in this state. It is an abuse that is facilitated by what I would call an axis of evil, which includes the Government, property developers and the lending institutions that is only compounding the housing crisis. There can be no justification whatsoever for the fact that the houses in Russell Square advertised on March 20th at €198,000 can suddenly jump to €214,000 on March 22nd and 23rd when people called to view them.

"I have raised this matter on South Dublin County Council and have put a question to the Minister for Environment and Local Government asking what measures he is going to take to ensure that this type of sharp practice or gazumping is ended. I would also call on the Financial Ombudsman to investigate the practice of lending institutions giving people up to five times the value of their salaries as mortgages. This practice is not only adding to spiraling house prices but is leaving such people very exposed and in danger of losing their homes should interest rates change by even one or two percent." ENDS

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