Opening Address - Sinn Féin Ard Fheis 2006
By Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD, Sinn Féin Dáil leader.
A chairde, Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh gach uile duine anseo anocht ag Ard Fheis Shinn Féin.
I would like to begin by welcoming you all here this evening, and those of our friends and comrades who will arrive over the next few days. We have a larger number of delegates and visitors registered for this Ard Fheis than ever before and this is an indication of the growing strength of our party and the increasing interest in our politics.
And while it can sometimes be difficult to fight as many elections as Sinn Féin faces, it is always an enjoyable experience to be able to extend an especially warm ceád míle fáilte to our newly elected representatives.
In particular, I would like to congratulate the new MP for Newry & Armagh, Conor Murphy. He has joined Michelle Gildernew, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness and Pat Doherty as the fifth Sinn Féin MP. On the 5th of May 2005 Sinn Féin achieved our largest ever vote in a Westminster election in the Six Counties. Our position as the foremost nationalist party and the largest pro-Agreement party was consolidated and advanced. Our MPs were joined by a host of councillors in May's local elections as Sinn Féin overtook both the SDLP and the UUP at council level in the Six Counties.
Comhghairdeas speisialta do Ghráinne Mhic Géidigh, a toghadh anuraidh mar an chéad ionadai Shinn Féin ar Bhord Údarás na Gaeltachta.
And I can't forget Joe Reilly. He didn't make it in the Meath by-election but he put up a great fight and secured a strong vote in difficult circumstances. Maith thú Seosamh agus gach duine a rinne obair sa feachtas sin.
I would ask everyone to join me in congratulating not just those of our party colleagues who were successful, but the scores of other candidates who flew the flag for the party and the thousands of activists who worked so diligently in last year's elections and made such a tremendous and ultimately successful effort.
Since we last met in 2005 other momentous events in Irish politics and in the life of this country have taken place. The announcement by the Irish Republican Army on 28 July that it was formally ending its armed campaign was a massive development.
This must be acknowledged as a most courageous and unprecedented step on the part of the IRA. I pay tribute to the Volunteers of the IRA for undertaking this leap of faith and for hazarding this unprecedented risk in order to advance the cause of peace with justice in Ireland.
Despite the profound difficulties of all this for many republicans, the IRA has now provided a golden opportunity to advance the peace process significantly and to open up a new era in Irish politics. With the peace talks finally underway it is time that the governments moved forward. It is time that they delivered on their commitments.
Of course republicans were active on many other fronts last year.
In June, the Courts jailed five Mayo men for protesting against the exploitation of our natural resources by Shell Oil. A dangerous and scientifically untested pipeline was to be routed through their community against their wishes. Sweetheart deals between successive Dublin governments and oil exploration companies would see the Irish people robbed of our natural resources.
The needs of the men in the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway races would, it seemed, take precedence over those of the people of Rossport.
But right across this island, the length and breadth of the land, Irish people took to the streets in support of the stand being taken by the people of Erris. Sinn Féin played a key role in those mobilisations and over the months of summer there was an average of three Sinn Féin protests every day right across this island.
The outrage felt by the Irish people forced one of the biggest corporations in the world to back down and free the Rossport Five. I am delighted that these men, their families and supporters will be attending the Ard Fhéis this weekend but it is also a reminder that this campaign is not yet over. We have all shared in a major victory, but the struggle is not yet concluded.
When we met at last year's Ard Fheis, it would be wrong to deny they were difficult times for the party. A savage media onslaught was being brought to bear on us and efforts were renewed to criminalise Irish republicanism and stop the growth of our party and our politics.
They failed again, as they have failed before and as, mo chairde, I assure you, they will continue to fail in the future.
And now, a year on, after taking all that our opponents could throw at us, we gather here again, stronger, bigger and more determined than ever to bring about that certain day and to establish a democratic, socialist republic.
This weekend is about preparing for the year to come and the run up to the next general election in the South. We will debate and discuss our policies, refine our strategies and our thinking for the year ahead and renew friendships and form new ones.
A number of policy documents are before us for approval.
Our proposals on healthcare and enterprise in particular are substantial and thought-provoking documents designed to form the bedrock of Sinn Féin's policy platform for the next election.
But they are also campaigning documents and it is up to activists to ensure they are not left to lie on the shelf but are tools for outreach and politicisation at every opportunity.
Two other policy documents have been generated from our ongoing participation in the European Parliament. Making the Case outlines the arguments for an EU support package for Irish reunification using the experience of German unification to inform our policy. Challenging the Democratic Deficit strikes at a core problem of the European Union, its anti-democratic nature. The increasing power of the EU is matched only by its proclivity for doing its work in secret, for policies developed by an unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy utterly cut off from the needs of working class people across Europe.
I would like to thank all those who helped put these documents together and those members who made submissions or attended the conferences that preceded this weekend's Ard Fheis.
Last year was the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of our party. I would like to pay tribute to the work of the Céad Bliain Organising Committee, anchored by South Down MLA Caitríona Ruane, for the work they put in over the year to make the event such a success, culminating in a massive Rally for Irish Unity in Dublin with an estimated 15,000 people taking part.
This year we mark two more anniversaries. It is the 90th anniversary of the Rising of 1916 and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It is also the 25th anniversary of the Hunger Strikes in Long Kesh that saw ten young men give their lives to reaffirm the legitimacy of our struggle, including Kieran Doherty who was, in the course of his hunger strike, elected a TD for Cavan and Monaghan.
This makes 2006 a year for reflection, and not just for us, but for the people of Ireland. We welcome the decision by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to hold a parade this Easter Sunday, even if we are disappointed that the proposals seem to exclude citizens from participation in the commemorations.
Sinn Féin has regularly been accused of hijacking commemorating 1916 by our political opponents. The simple reality is that we continued to honour their memory and their sacrifice when others chose not to. As with every year since the Rising, Sinn Féin will mark that historic event with commemorations in every county in Ireland, inviting people to take part regardless of their political persuasion to honour the men and women who risked all to help establish the Republic.
But it is not just 1916 that will be remembered this year. The men and women of 1916 might have declared the Republic, but the struggle to make their vision real fell to a new generation of republicans, many of whom found themselves fighting to uphold that vision in the crucible of Long Kesh and Armagh Jail.
The struggle taken up by Pádraig Pearse, James Connolly and Constance Markievicz was carried on by Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes and Maireád Farrell.
The events and initiatives planned by the Commemoration Committee for the year to come will educate a new generation on the struggle in the prisons and the heroic sacrifice of the ten men who gave their lives in 1981, as did Frank Stagg in 1976 and Michael Gaughan in 1974.
But the commemorations this year must be about more than looking back. They must also be about looking to the future, exploring how best we move our struggle forward in the coming years and how best we complete the job of delivering Irish unity and independence.
Regrettably, the enthusiasm for an end to partition is not shared by all the political parties of this island or what Liam Mellows called, 'the stake in the country people'. The decision by the Taoiseach to capitulate on the issue of All-Ireland representation in Leinster House is an appalling indicator of the deeply held partitionism of the Fine Gael and Labour parties in Leinster House.
It is a slap in the face for nationalist and republican communities who have long looked to Dublin as the place where they want their voices to be heard. It is also a setback for many people of other persuasions who saw the economic and political benefits that accrue from facilitating a voice for the people of the Six Counties in Leinster House and I want to assure the Taoiseach that Sinn Féin is not prepared to let this matter rest.
That the Taoiseach has caved in to such partitionism is especially ironic given his decision to commemorate 1916. We would remind the Taoiseach that the unfinished business of the men and women of 1916 is the ending of partition and the reunification of our country.
There are almost 500 motions on the Clár this year, reflecting a healthy and enthusiastic internal democracy that is an absolute prerequisite for a republican party. And I am pleased as well to see so many comrades, especially so many women, nominated to contest the elections to the Ard Chomhairle this year and I wish them all well.
I look forward to robust and challenging debate over the weekend confident in the knowledge that it will provide the foundation for the next step in the continuing growth of Sinn Féin and the unstoppable momentum towards an end to partition and a democratic socialist republic.
Ar aghaidh linn le chéile.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.