Speaking during his keynote address at the 2015 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis tonight in Derry, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the following:
“Like Derry, the political process went through something of a transformation, and for the better in the wake of the Stormont House Agreement.
Prior to that, the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement were in a very, very perilous situation.
For almost two years the political institutions in the north stagnated. The trigger for this was, in my opinion, the democratic decision by Belfast City council to fly the union flag only on designated days and the refusal of unionism to accept the decision of the parades commission in relation to Ardoyne.
The result was thuggery as crowds of angry loyalists came onto the streets to target, in particular, the police, the Alliance Party and the small isolated community of the Short Strand.
So-called republicans also remain intent on dragging us back to the past. But their campaign - if you can call it that - is not only futile and without support – it is counter-productive because the only time I see a British soldier on the streets these days is in response to their activities.
But beyond the violence, intimidation and damage to the economy, there was deep and lasting damage to the political process as unionism retreated from the partnership approach that has delivered so much for our society up to now. This issue and the attempt by the Tory-led government to impose their anti-poor, anti-working class policies on the Assembly and Executive brought the power-sharing institutions to the brink of collapse.
In this context we entered a difficult negotiation with a Conservative British government instinctively sympathetic to unionism and an Irish government preoccupied with Sinn Fein.
Against this backdrop, the Stormont House Agreement was a life-line for the political institutions. Before the negotiations, many people predicted we would not succeed, but against all odds, we found a way forward on difficult issues including flags, parades, the Past and emblems. And I want to pay tribute to our negotiating team for securing that formidable achievement.
We need to be very clear about the alternative if the institutions had collapsed – instead of our locally elected and accountable Assembly we would have had rule by British Tories and the imposition of Thatcherite policies that no-one here voted for or wants.
The Block Grant – the allocation of funding to the North’s Executive - has been slashed by the Tory-led coalition year on year since 2010, meaning we now have over £1 billion less money to spend on public services. To impose austerity of this kind on a society emerging from conflict is folly of the worst kind and symptomatic of the negative role which the connection with Britain continues to play in this part of Ireland.
Consequently, the Executive is forced to make difficult choices and for Sinn Fein these choices are entirely based on our defence of the welfare state and the protection of the most vulnerable. That is why we agreed to an additional £200m for our health service in the 15/16 budget, that is why we delivered £564m additional welfare protection and that is why the Education Department received £64m more in the final budget than was originally proposed.
But these additional allocations have to be funded. To do so, the five Executive parties negotiated a £700m package that will ensure the resources are available to allow people to leave the public sector – if they wish to – with significant financial packages. This voluntary exit scheme will deliver enormous savings, modernise the civil service and allow us to better prioritise front line services. This scheme - flowing from the Stormont House Agreement - is entirely voluntary and will be taken forward in a way that protects core services and retains key skills.
We also agreed with the DUP and the other Executive parties a package of protection for those who would have faced benefit cuts as a result of welfare reform. Our protected welfare system has eliminated the Tory cuts which are being imposed on the most vulnerable in Britain and which they sought to impose here on our most vulnerable. To achieve this protection we collectively committed £564m over the next six years - money which will remain directly in the hands of the most vulnerable. If that injection of funds into the welfare system was replicated in the south it would be in the region of 2.2 billion euros.
The categories of welfare recipients we have protected include children with disabilities, adults with severe disabilities and families who would have been affected by the benefit cap. In addition the punitive bedroom tax has been neutralised. No-one in the north of Ireland will pay a bedroom tax.
We will not be part of an agenda which pushes more children into poverty or targets the disabled as a way to save money. That is why we negotiated and agreed to protect those benefits under the control of the Assembly so that the categories of claimants targeted by the Tories in Britain will be protected by the unique measures we are putting in place here.
Of course, as George Mitchell famously pointed out, the most difficult phase of any agreement is the implementation.
That is the phase we are now in but let me give you this commitment: The welfare protections we agreed are an absolute red line issue for SF. No matter how difficult the implementation process may get, we will not - under any circumstances - tolerate any retreat from them.
So SF did defend the most vulnerable when no-one, and I mean no-one else, was prepared to show leadership. We have a welfare system that is better than that in Britain.
And our Ministers John O’Dowd, Michelle O’Neill and Caral ní Chuillin have led from the front in terms of protecting frontline services and bringing equality to the heart of government.
SF in government has been a success story. We have led the way in decentralising an entire government department to the north west, we have directed additional funding to the most disadvantaged schools, we are revitalising the Irish language community through investment in Irish medium education and the Liofa Project, unemployment in the north has been falling month on month for the last two years and levels of foreign direct investment are at an all-time high.
Let our opponents in the north and the south reflect on these very real achievements when, in their desperation, they attempt to blame us for Tory cuts which are beyond our control. The fact is, we have protected the vulnerable and the sick, we have protected health and we have defended the education of our children in the face of a massive attack by the British conservative-led government.
North and south we have opposed austerity.
In government and in opposition we have opposed austerity.
Let me be very clear. Sinn Fein doesn’t do austerity.
Others do austerity.
We do equality.
And in this context I want to commend the Sinn Fein Assembly team and our Chief Whip, Caitriona Ruane, in particular for closing down the DUP’s attempt to legalise anti-Gay discrimination through a so-called conscience clause. The DUP Bill is going no-where and I also want to commend Green Party MLA Stephen Agnew and NI21’s Basil McCrea for standing with us in defence of equality for all. This is a very specific example of progressive politics working and provides a glimpse of the future direction of politics across this island. The ground is shifting north and south. There is a new dynamic developing which can see us break out of the narrow definitions and the predictably divisive issues.
The presence of the Londonderry Bands Forum at this Ard Fheis and at Fleadh Ceoil na hEireann in 2013, is yet more evidence of that. I want to commend Derek Moore and the Forum for the leadership they have shown.
Putting your head above the parapet isn’t easy. In my leadership responsibilities, it is a priority. It is also difficult but it also challenges everyone in our society to recognise the importance of reconciliation. It is possible for people to retain their differing allegiances whilst working together in a spirit of generosity for the common good.
And it is our young people who we should be taking the example from. They aren’t interested in fighting old battles. They have no time for sectarianism, racism or prejudice.
They want to see compassion in politics.
Compassion for expectant mothers like Sarah Ewart dealing with the heartache of fatal foetal abnormality, an issue which this Ard Fheis will debate this weekend.
They want to see rights for all. For Irish speakers, the LGBT community, ethnic and religious minorities.
They don’t want political leaders whose views on such issues are skewed by their own religious fundamentalism.
Society and young people in particular have moved far beyond this old politic, this out-dated version of society.
The referendum in the south on marriage equality will show how far this island has moved. And we need to continue in that direction. As a society, north and south, we must stand for equality for all our citizens.
Sinn Fein stands against sectarianism.
Sinn Fein stands against racism.
Sinn Fein stands against homophobia.
WE want to work with others to deliver a new, more tolerant and inclusive society on this island, a society which accepts and celebrates diversity and the cultural richness that diversity brings.
That is the New Ireland which Sinn Fein is advocating as we face into the centenary of the Easter Rising.
That is the manifestation - in the here and the now – of the Ireland of equals envisioned in proclamation of 1916.
Over the coming period, the people of Ireland will have the opportunity to endorse that vision in elections North and South.
Much has been said already about the prospects of Sinn Fein emerging as the biggest party following the Dáil election.
That is certainly our goal. But it is also our goal to become the biggest party in the North at the 2016 Assembly elections.
Both those goals are achievable and the symbolism of doing so on the 100th anniversary of the Rising would be massive.
It would also be fitting.
Because SF is the only party which is serious about building the kind of nation which was declared in 1916.
A just nation. A fair nation. A nation that cherishes all of her children equally, regardless of colour or creed.
That is what we stand for. That is what more and more people across this island are endorsing every day.
This is an interesting, challenging and very exciting time to be an Irish Republican. It’s ok to want and work for Irish reunification and economic and social justice.
I know you are up for this challenge.
Let’s go and do it. Let’s keep up the good work – le cheile.”