In five short years the people of Ireland will commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising.
It is our job as Republicans to map out where we want to be in 2016 – and while five years may seem only a short period in which to bring about the sort of fundamental political, social, economic and constitutional change we want – but reflect for a moment on the changes made in the past five years.
This time five years ago the peace process was deadlocked –the DUP leadership had yet to sit down with Sinn Féin – the political institutions remained in what seemed permanent suspension and the two governments seemed bereft of ideas to free up the process.
The onus lay on us – the party driving the peace process forward to take the initiative, salvage the process and ensure that the potential of the Good Friday Agreement was not lost.
So this time five years ago our negotiating team was preparing to head to St. Andrews – within 6 months what people said was impossible had happened – the DUP and Ian Paisley were in power sharing institutions with Sinn Féin and the other parties on the basis of equality.
Republicans had taken another strategic initiative on policing and fully functioning all-Ireland political architecture was up and running.
Also in the course of the five years from then we have seen the Hillsborough Agreement and the transfer of powers on policing and justice away from London and onto the island of Ireland – another significant milestone on our journey.
And also look at where we are as a party – the advances we have made over that five year period. In 2006 when we gathered would anybody have predicted an Executive jointly led by myself and Peter Robinson seeing out a full term? Sinn Féin Ministers making decision around the Executive table which impacted for the better on thousands of ordinary people’s lives.
Would anybody here hand on heart seriously have suggested five years ago that Gerry Adams would be leading a Sinn Fein Oireachtas team of 14 TDS and 3 Senators – that Fianna Fail would be in the position they now find themselves in.
And I rehearse all of this not for the purposes of history – but for the purposes of showing what is possible. Change does not have to take decades – political circumstances can be moulded and shaped and change can quickly happen.
That is the lesson of the past five years and more importantly it is the inspiration for the next five.
So how do we build the New Republic – how do we continue to make change and at the same time deliver for ordinary people day and daily.
We continue to do what we are doing – Sinn Féin is the party of the New Republic – we are the party with vision, with hope and with commitment.
The worst trait in any political leader is to aim low – it is much better to aim high and come up short than not try at all.
It seems to me that some political leaders in Ireland have waved the white flag – they accepted the loss of sovereignty – they accepted the IMF and the ECB – not necessarily because they wanted to but because they hadn’t the vision to look for another way – there is always another way – there is always something better to aim for.
And that is the way we came at the Tory imposed cuts in the Executive budget here, we could have rolled over. We could have agreed with the approach of others. We decided on different approach. And despite a lack of economic levers we have managed to offset some of the worst of the Tory excesses. But it is by no means an ideal situation and many significant economic challenges lie ahead for the Executive.
But I am confident that working together in proper partnership all of the parties around the Executive table can play a role on one hand in protecting the most vulnerable and on the other in sustaining and indeed creating new jobs for our people.
Indeed next week myself and Peter Robinson will travel to the United States for a number of important meetings aimed directly at securing further foreign direct investment and I am hopeful of further progress in this regard.
And yesterday the Executive acted to ensure no increase in Student Fees will take place during this Assembly term.
But we are not simply involved in institutions to mind the shop.
As republicans we have cause and we have purpose. And given the progress of recent years we rightly carry great expectations of what we can achieve in the future. And those expectations go way beyond simply Sinn Féin supporters or even those who want to see a united Ireland. The expectation of us to continue to succeed is shared by many who don’t ultimately share our primary political goal of unity and independence. But it is our duty to continue to reach out to unionists and it is our duty to persuade them of the merits of a new Republic and of their treasured place in it.
In the five years between now and 2016 I want to see us lead a national conversation on the future of this island. We are haemorrhaging our young people to far flung parts of the world in search of work. A combination of greed and arrogance has left much of the Irish people demoralised. That is not the vision of 1916 and it is not my vision for Ireland approaching its centenary.
And our national conversation needs to be truly national and indeed global. Our Diaspora have a stake in our future. Let us begin the work today of structuring a proper engagement on the type of new Republic we want to build – let us engage without preconditions and engage with those who have previously not had their voices heard.
Let us have meetings in every Irish county in the next year – let us meet every group who has a stake in building a new republic. Remember the men and woman of 1916 came from different backgrounds and different places. They had a vision and they had a purpose.
Let the new republic offer hope to those currently under pressure. Let it be based on equality and fairness and let it be a proper Republic with citizens at its core.
And as part of this let us deal with the legacy of the conflict. For too long this issue has been dodged by the two governments. Proper reconciliation is key to the future.
We have already stated that it is our preferred view that a proper international truth commission be put in place. Others have reservations, others are hiding on the issue. But let us be realistic the current status quo is not working for victims and is not working for the wider process. No amount of HET inquiries or even prosecutions will deal with this issue and indeed as some have argued it is making the task of genuine reconciliation all the harder.
The British government shunted the issue onto Eames/Bradley and then quietly placed their report on the shelf. It seems to me that the biggest obstacle to properly dealing with the past is a continuing refusal at the very top of the British system to acknowledge their combatant role in the conflict. This needs to change. And republicans need to realise that dealing with the past will not be an easy process for us – Republicans inflicted much hurt during the conflict - but if we are to build a new Republic and a new future it is necessary and it is a road none of us should be afraid to go down.
And in my experience of recent years many within the unionist community are up for a journey of reconciliation and dialogue. Tonight one of those the Rev. David Latimer from First Derry Presbyterian church has demonstrated that by his courageous decision to accept our invitation to address this Ard Fheis.
No doubt David will say things tonight which will challenge many of us in this hall. And likewise David will hear things tonight that will challenge his view of the future. And that is key – that is what the national conversation I have spoken is all about – we don’t have all the answers and have never claimed to have.
A new Republic can be built. But it will only be built if we take the lead in building it. I trust in the Irish people. I trust in our ability to fulfil the legacy of 1916, I trust in our ability and I trust in our vision for the future.
Five years isn’t a long time in the history of any nation – but in five years as we have already shown political conditions can be transformed. My message from here is that Ireland can be transformed in the next five – join with us in making that happen.