Thursday, July 24, 2014

Expel Israeli Ambassador


August 1969 was a tipping point in the history of the north. Sectarian pogroms, a feature of nineteenth century Belfast and partition, returned to the streets of Belfast with hundreds of families in Ardoyne, the lower Falls and the Clonard area being forcibly evicted from their homes. Loyalist mobs led by the RUC and B Specials attacked Catholic homes. Filmed sequences from the period show families scrambling desperately to save belongings as they abandoned their homes with flames billowing behind them and smoke rising into the air. Whole streets of terraced homes, local businesses and mills were destroyed.
The refugees carried their children, bundles of clothes and small pieces of furniture in their arms or on their backs while larger pieces were left abandoned in the street or piled onto to flat bed lorries to be carried off.

The streets of the Falls Road and Ardoyne were a war zone.  It was a terrifying time. In the three days between August 14 and 16 eight people were killed and scores more injured. The familiar streetscape in the Falls that I had grown up in was shattered. The close knit community was left battered and bleeding. The image of frightened families running for their lives and the sense of devastation, of gutted buildings and of makeshift defensive barricades are still fresh in my mind. As are the rolls of barbed wire strung arbitrarily across streets by British Army squaddies as the first of Belfast’s separation walls took shape.    
Many of the families ended up in schools in Andersonstown, including – St. Teresa’s, Holy Child and La Salle. They lived in overcrowded classrooms. Desks pushed up against side walls. They slept on mattresses among the bits and pieces of furniture they retained.

The August pogrom was the failure of politics and it set the scene for decades of conflict.
I was reminded of the overcrowded Belfast schools while watching a report on the 120,000 Palestinian citizens who have been forcibly evicted from their homes by the Israeli military. Thousands of homes have been flattened by no warning Israeli bombs from air, sea and tank. Most of the refugees have taken shelter in some 61 schools and other property run by the United Nations. Conditions are appalling. Too many people, not enough mattresses, blankets, food and water. And all living under the imminent threat of Israeli bombs.

The Director of Operations for UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) which provides aid to refugees said: “These men, women and children are relying on us to provide them with shelter and the reality is that UNWRA only had relief supplies in stock for 35,000 people.” The real figure at time of writing is four times that.
The scale of the nightmare in Gaza is so much bigger than our Belfast experience. In two weeks over 700 Palestinians have been killed – mainly civilians and children. Thousands more have been grievously injured and rushed into hospitals inadequately resourced after eight years of an Israeli siege and themselves the target for Israeli attack.

A report in the London Guardian at the weekend told of an Israeli assault on Shujai’iya district in at “least 100 Palestinians were killed – 67 on one area - … the corpses of women and children were strewn in streets of Shujai’iya as people fled on foot and packed into vehicles.”
Nowhere is safe. Four people were killed when Israeli tankls bombed the al-Aqsa hospitasl. In Khan Younis Israeli bombs destroyed a home killing 24 members of one family. Whether on the beach or at home children have been deliberately targeted as Israel engages in the collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza.

Each news report brings another story of horror and destruction as the death toll rises.
The Palestinian people are the victims of one of the great injustices of the modern era. For over sixty years millions have lived in refugee camps. Most know no other life. Opportunities for political progress and peace have been squandered by successive ruthless Israeli governments hungry for Palestinian land and water and determined to ensure that Palestinians remain fractured, impoverished and too weak to challenge Israeli aggression.

In 2009 I saw for myself the disastrous impact that the Israeli siege was having on the lives of the people of Gaza. I was angry. I was only there two days and I was angry.
Imagine living in those conditions for generations. If you deny people the right to a job, to a home, to freedom and control of their own destiny then don’t be surprised if they too are angry.

If you force almost two million people to live in a huge open prison where there the future looks likely to be a replay of the past then don’t be surprised if they are angry.
The powerful governments of the world have stood back and time after time excused Israeli actions, proclaiming that Israel has the right to defend itself. What of the right of the Palestinian people to security and defence?

In a new low the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of using “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.” Israel kills 600 Palestinians and then blames the Palestinians for the media news reports.
As long as world leaders accept the single narrative of Israel then there will be no peace in that region. There is a Palestinian narrative that must be given equal validity and a Palestinian people who deserve hope and peace for the future.

Around the world countless demonstrations have been held in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Those efforts must be intensified in the time ahead. At the weekend I urged the Irish government to go beyond the politics of empty rhetoric and expel the Israeli Ambassador – to set an example for the rest of the EU. There is widespread support for this.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

End the War on Gaza


 

 

 
Protest against Israeli assault on Gaza: Belfast

 
The Israeli assault on Gaza has killed 200 people. Most of whom are civilians and children. Thousands more have been forced to flee their homes under threat from the Israeli government.

The short ceasefire announced for this morning is a welcome development.  


However it will only be another temporary lull in the cyclical violence in that region unless a real and inclusive dialogue takes place involving all of the combatant groups, including Hamas, and if the core issues of statehood for the Palestinian people, an end to the Israeli theft of Palestinian land and water rights, and the lifting of the siege of Gaza are not agreed.

Below are some thoughts on the situation:

Imagine that the population of the north was squeezed into an area half that of County Louth, the smallest county on the island of Ireland.

Imagine that 1.8 million people are locked into a piece of land that stretches roughly 40 kilometres from the border to Drogheda and is roughly 10 kilometres wide.

Imagine that 80% of the people who live there are dependent on some form of food and clothes aid.

Imagine that over 80% live below the poverty line.

Imagine that unemployment is 44%, and that 58% of young people between the ages of 15-29 have no work.

Imagine that 52% of women have no work.

Imagine that electricity is unpredictable and frequently fails.

Imagine that the health system is unable to cope and does not have access to modern equipment and the medical drugs and treatments others take for granted.

Imagine that 10% of children under five have had their growth stunted by malnutrition.

Imagine that anaemia is widespread, affecting over two-thirds of infants, 58.6 per cent of schoolchildren and over a third of pregnant mothers.

Imagine that most of the sewage sites are overflowing and the system is close to collapse, and that 3.5 million cubic feet of raw sewage is finding its way into the Irish Sea every day.

Imagine that there is little rainfall and that most drinking water comes from ground wells.

Imagine that you know that in six years time they will all run dry. There will be no drinking water.

If your imagination is up to the task you have just imagined the harsh reality of life for almost two million men, women and children living in the Gaza strip. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Myself and several colleagues visited Gaza five years ago in 2009. It was just after the Israeli ground invasion. By the time the Israelis left the economy of Gaza was shattered. 3,500 homes had been destroyed; another 28,000 damaged; 800 industries were damaged or destroyed; 10 schools were destroyed and 204 damaged.

1440 people had been killed, including 114 women and 431 children.

A school destroyed by Israeli assault in 2009
In 2012 there were further Israeli attacks on Gaza. In November of that year 161 Palestinians, including 71 civilians were killed. The then Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, justified the assault claiming that: "All our objectives were reached, taking out the Fajr rockets, rocket launching pads and Hamas offices".

Less than two years later and the Israeli Defense Forces claim that Hamas now has 10,000 rockets! How? What happened to Barak’s claims?

For Palestinians the reality is that they are stateless. They are a nation without a settled piece of secure territory they can call their own. Millions live in refugee camps. Many have done so for over sixty years and many millions more are scattered around that region and the world.

The Separation Wall erected by the Israelis has seen huge chunks of Palestinian land and water rights stolen. Illegal Israeli settlements containing over 100,000 illegal settlers occupy Palestinian land on the west Bank.

Should we be surprised then when violence erupts? The last week the Israeli assault on Gaza has left almost 200 Palestinians dead. Once again it is the civilian population that is being collectively punished by the Israeli state. 75% of those killed have been civilians. Just over a quarter have been children. Some of the images that have appeared on the internet of children have been horrifying and deeply upsetting.

But the impact of the Israeli assault extends beyond the dead and injured. Gaza relies on wells for drinking water. At the weekend Palestinian officials were accusing the Israeli military of deliberately targeting wells in Gaza City, as well as water pipelines. Thousands of families have been left without access to clean drinking water. This is especially critical in a region where one Oxfam official said that 90 percent of the water in Gaza was already unsafe to drink.

Hospital bombed
In January 2013 the EU Heads of Mission Jerusalem Report 2012 was published. It was a scathing indictment of the Israeli government’s flouting of international law and it’s violation of the rights of Palestinian citizens living in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories.

The report found that the Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the west bank are ‘the biggest single threat to the two state solution.’

The EU report accused the Israeli government of implementing a settlement policy that is ‘systematic, deliberate and provocative’ and of pursuing a deliberate policy of seeking to drive Palestinians out of East Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Report indicted Israel for violating ‘international humanitarian law’.

A United Nations report published two years ago  – ‘Gaza in 2020 – A liveable place?’ concluded that within a decade, ‘There will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory for most.”

The report added that; ‘The already high number of poor, marginalised and food-insecure people depending on assistance will not have changed and in all likelihood will have increased.’

The Separation Wall
The Palestinian people have been robbed of their land, imprisoned by separation walls and borders into ghettoes, and have little power or influence.

Israel by comparison is a first world, highly developed, rich and heavily armed super-state with nuclear weapons.

At some point there will be a ceasefire. But everyone knows it will only be a lull before another round of violence. Without a comprehensive peace accord that deals with all of the key issues of Palestinian self-determination and independence and of two states, as well as of economic issues and prisoners and land and water rights, no ceasefire will last long.

Real progress toward a negotiated political settlement requires an end of armed actions by all of the combatant groups. That means an end to the rocket attacks from Gaza. It also means an end to Israeli aggression and its bombardment of the Gaza Strip which has caused enormous suffering. It also means lifting the blockade of Gaza.

But perhaps most important it needs the international community to stop standing by while Gaza and the Palestinian people are again pounded back to the stone age by the might of the Government of Israel.

Photos from Belfast protest: Go raibh maith agat Peadar





 

 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Unionist walk out of talks – a step back


 
 

 
With the intensive all-party talks less than 48 hours old the Unionist parties all walked out. The reason? The Parades Commission has barred an Orange march from returning along part of the Crumlin Road through a nationalist area.

The DUP leader Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt were then joined by the leader of the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) Jim Allister and by the parties linked to the UVF and UDA in issuing a joint call to action for loyalists to oppose the Parades Commission’s determination and describing the all-party talks as ‘fruitless’.

The unionist leaderships urged loyalists to respond peacefully and lawfully but given that their decision is in direct opposition to a lawful decision by the Parades Commission, it is questionable how much weight will be given to this by those loyalist elements that have been periodically involved in serious street disturbances in the last two years.

Many will also question their sincerity in appealing for calm in light of the claim in their joint statement that ‘having seen republican threats of violence being rewarded the conclusion is swiftly drawn that violence pays.’

It is also important to note that there are more loyalist and orange parades taking place each year than ever before. In 2005 there were 2120 marches in the north. By last year that had more than  doubled to 4,637. Two thirds of these are loyalist parades. Claims that objections by a handful of nationalist areas to orange parades going through their communities is an attack on the Orange is clearly a nonsense.

The decision by the unionist leaderships today is evidence of their failure to stand firm against the demands of the Orange Order, the UVF and UDA in north Belfast. This is about these groups playing the Orange Card and using the threat of political instability to achieve their demands.

This is unacceptable. The status quo is not tenable. Sinn Féin will resist all efforts by unionist leaders to roll back the Good Friday Agreement.

This morning’s move by the unionist leaders was not entirely unexpected. We warned the British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Labour Leader ED Miliband that unionist intransigence was threatening the political process.

Why would unionists engage positively in dialogue when David Cameron has not been fully engaged with the peace process in the last four years. Yesterday’s meeting with David Cameron was our first such meeting since he came to power in 2010. This is deplorable and is clear evidence of the British government’s failure thus far to properly engage with the process of change in the north. David Cameron, like other Conservative leaders before him, has leaned heavily in the direction of political unionism and away from the inclusive approach of the Good Friday Agreement.

This has contributed to the political process facing a succession of crises. But the situation has deteriorated even further in recent months as a consequence of the DUP’s unwillingness to participate positively within the political institutions and the Good Friday and other Agreements. Like David Trimble before them the DUP engagement has been tactical and aimed at serving their own party political agenda rather than the needs of the Good Friday Agreement.

They have bought into the architecture of the Agreement because they have no choice. But they have not bought into the substance. As Martin McGuinness has noted ‘We are in government with unionists because we want to be. They are in government with us because they have to be.’

In other words they have bought into the political institutions in terms of elections, salaries, and status but not into the need for real partnership government, the effective development of north-south co-operation, equality, mutual respect and parity of esteem. The DUPs participation within the institutions has been marked by blocking and stalling important initiatives; including equality measures in the education sector and collapsing the Programme for Government commitment on the Maze Long Kesh site.

Instead of applying themselves to making the Agreement work the DUP leadership has formed a loose axis with the Ulster Unionist Party, the TUV, the UVF and elements of the UDA and the Orange Order to obstruct progress.

None of this is unusual. From the first day after the Good Friday Agreement was achieved the UUP – then the larger unionist party – behaved in much the same way. It took a significant effort on the part of the British Labour government in the days leading up to the Good Friday Agreement referendum in May 1998 to persuade David Trimble to adopt a positive attitude. At one point it looked like the referendum would be lost.

 
Ivan Lewis, Mary Lou McDonald, Ed Miliband, Gerry Adams and Michelle Gildernew
 
Tony Blair visited the north three times, gave numerous interviews and Labour party people from Britain worked behind the scenes to focus the UUP on winning the hearts and minds of unionist voters. Trimble sold the Agreement and the referendum was passed comfortably.

But every negotiation since then has taken the same path. While Sinn Féin and others have played our part in creating the conditions for agreement it is a fact that without a pro-active British government encouraging the UUP and then the DUP there would have been no progress.

Thus far the Cameron government has chosen to endorse DUP intransigence and support the unionist narrative of the conflict. London failed to back the Haass compromise proposals on parades, flags and symbols, and contending with the past; it unilaterally broke the Weston Park commitment on resolving the issue of OTRs, and has not implemented key elements of the Good Friday Agreement.

Recently, David Cameron has begun to indicate an awareness that the process is in difficulty. But this morning’s action by the unionist leaders has significantly ratcheted up the crisis in the political process.

The intense period of negotiations that the political leaders in the north had agreed to hold and which began only last night are now ended. The unionists have left the stage. That’s their decision.

Yesterday we told Mr. Cameron that making progress requires a positive engagement by the Irish and British governments on issues which are their direct responsibility. The governments cannot deplore the lack of progress in the process unless they act to fulfil their obligations. Without that unionism will do as little as possible.

Sinn Féin will resist all efforts by unionist leaders to roll back the Good Friday Agreement. The British and Irish governments must also stand resolute for the Good Friday Agreement. They need to be champions for progress, for positive change and for the Agreement.

As co-equal guarantors of the Agreement the two governments must ensure continuing progress and this has to include implementing agreements already made that are their sole responsibility.

 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Spectacular intellectual gymnastics and the Guildford 4

Gerry Conlon died on Saturday. He was one of four people arrested, tortured and falsely imprisoned for carrying out bomb attacks in Guildford and Woolwich in England in 1974. His father Giuseppe was also arrested while visiting his son in prison and wrongly convicted of involvement in bomb making. He died in prison.

The Guildford 4, the Maguire 7, the Birmingham 6 and others were all victim of a series of grave miscarriages of justice which saw the British police service, judiciary and political establishment conniving in imprisoning citizens they knew to be innocent of any wrong doing.

Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Carole Richardson and Paddy Armstrong spent 15 years in English prisons under the most horrendous of prison conditions, often in solitary confinement.

A public campaign in support of their release eventually succeeded in achieving that in 1989. Following this Gerry became a strong advocate for and campaigner on justice issues. As a victim of injustice he was articulate and tireless in pursuit of justice. His death is a loss to his family and friends but also to all of those who were touched by his courage and who he endeavoured to help.

Within hours of his passing former SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon sought to score political points against Sinn Féin by accusing republicans of ‘almost conniving’ to keep innocent people behind bars.

The responsibility for the detention and incarceration of many innocent people in England and in Ireland rests absolutely with the various police forces and judicial and political system.

The British police knew that the Guildford 4 were innocent but they connived to keep them and other innocents in prison.

Seamus Mallon’s line of argument, though spurious and devoid of merit, was taken up by sections of the media. The Taoiseach repeated this line in the Dáil on Wednesday.

Some of this has by now become little more than a well-worn and tiresome routine that is rarely matched by the facts. A column in the Irish Independent: ‘Weasel words from Adams on Conlon case is used as a weapon in propaganda war ‘ is typical.

The Indo columnist wrongly claims that: “Gerry Conlon was in jail because the IRA bombed Guildford”. Like Seamus Mallon he ignores the facts. The British police arrested the Guildford 4; tortured false statements from them; and then railroaded them through a judicial process that was unjust and biased.  That was the responsibility of the British police. The IRA was responsible for the bombings. They made that clear at the time.

The same Indo columnist goes on to rewrite the history of the period. He claims that it was 1977 and as the IRA’s Balcombe Street unit was about to “receive huge sentences for other bombings they half-claimed that they were also responsible for the Guildford bombings. Could they be believed?”

It was 1975 and yes the IRA could be believed.

In December, 1975, the four IRA Volunteers who became known as the Balcombe Street unit were arrested. Within 24 hours of their arrests they told senior British police officers that they, and not the four people who had been recently convicted – later to become known as the Guildford 4 - were involved in the bombings.

The British police said they would look into these claims, but there is no evidence of any further investigation. At the subsequent trial of the Balcombe Street unit it emerged that the forensic evidence had been edited to remove all reference to Guildford and Woolwich.

On the strength of legal statements given by members of the Balcombe Street unit, the Guildford Four were eventually granted an appeal in October 1977.

At the appeal hearing, with the support they explained later of the IRA leadership, Eddie Butler, Harry Duggan, Joe O'Connell and Brendan Dowd testified that they were responsible for the Woolwich attack. Brendan Dowd also accepted responsibility for the Guildford bomb attack. All of the men said that the four persons convicted of the Guildford and Woolwich bombings had played no part.

According to the highly respected British Labour MP Chris Mullin, who campaigned for many years on behalf of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six: “So detailed was the Balcombe Street unit's account that it was not possible to pretend that they had not been involved”.

Despite this, the British Appeal Court, headed by Lord Roskill, perversely professed themselves satisfied and upheld the convictions of the Guildford 4. They engaged in what Mullin described as “spectacular intellectual gymnastics” in order to accept confessions obtained under torture and to deny the appeal.

Why did they do this? Because if it was accepted that the British police had fabricated confessions and ignored the evidence of those IRA Volunteers really responsible then as Lord Bridge argued in the Birmingham six case you would have to accept that the all of this “shows the police not only to be masters of the vile techniques of cruelty and brutality to suspects. It shows them to have a very lively and inventive imagination.”

This was what another British judge, Lord Denning, speaking of the same case, called the “appalling vista” that would arise should it be proven that the British police had deliberately imprisoned innocent people.

Later in his evidence to Sir John May's Inquiry into the Guildford & Woolwich bombings in 1989, British Labour MP Chris Mullen MP stated:

“In the absence of an explanation a good deal more credible than any which has so far been advanced, I submit that from soon after the arrest of the Balcombe Street IRA unit it is inescapable that those in authority, up to the highest level, realised that innocent people may have been convicted of the Guildford and Woolwich bombings and were anxious to avoid facing up to that possibility.”

None of this is any consolation to the families or the victims of these miscarriages of justice like Gerry Conlon or his family. Neither is it any consolation to the families of the victims or the victims of the IRA bombing.

Our endeavour must be to ensure that these events never happen again. Efforts to score political points by distorting or ignoring the facts makes no worthwhile contribution to this.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Time to realign politics


 

 


 

 
Today we are holding an internal party conference in Dublin. Those taking part are our new elected representatives and the party leadership. It has been a really good day and is preparing the party for the work to come.
This is my speech.
Fáilte romhaibh go léir.and the part

Ar dtus , ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas a dhéanamh le na ceathrar MEP’s, nua tofa – Martina Anderson, Lynn Boylan, Matt Carthy agus Liadh Ní Riada, agus na dhá céad seasca is a ceathar (264) comhairleoirí a raibh tofa sa Thuaisceart agus sa Dheisceart ar an darna lá is fiche (22ú) agus tríú lá is fiche 23ú Bealtaine.

That is a significant achievement. But for Sinn Féin elections are not about simply playing the political insiders game.

If citizens want to judge Sinn Féin it cannot be just on how many votes we have. It has to be on the changes that we bring about. That is the only way to judge what we have achieved in the last 30 or 40 years. And on what we will achieve in the upcoming period.

For us electoral politics are about transforming society on this island, north and south. It is about putting the interests of citizens, as opposed to elites, at the top of the political agenda. All of you in this room are the elected representatives of the Irish republican ideal. That is both a challenge and a great honour.

So, let us always be clear on who we are, what we stand for, and who we represent.

We need to know our core values. Our beliefs.

We need to be the very best that we can be at promoting these core values.

We need to know how to win support for these core values.

Initially this support may be passive. Most people become passive supporters before they become activists. It is our responsibility to convert passive support into active support so that citizens are empowered. So what does Sinn Féin stand for?

Sinn Fein stands for equality, for fairness, for economic justice — for the right of citizens to a home, to an education, to a job, to healthcare, to the pursuit of happiness.

We are freedom, equality and solidarity. We are against austerity.

Sinn Féin is for a united Ireland and we have the strategy to bring it about.

We are for the unity of Orange and Green, for civil and religious rights with tolerance and respect for all citizens.

And we are for the promotion of the Irish language as the common heritage of all on this island.

We are for an independent Ireland in a Europe that respects the rights of nation states and is based on principles of social solidarity.

Tá polasaithe Sinn Féin bunaithe ar na bunluachanna poblachtach seo.

As Sinn Fein continues to grow, we must always remember that our project is not about any one of us as individuals.It’s about the republican cause.

Standing United

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was very dangerous to be a Sinn Féin representative. Our leaders, councillors, election workers and their families were subjected to a brutal campaign of assassination. For some it remains dangerous.

Last week Martin McGuinness’s car was damaged. Others in the party get regular death threats. When Sinn Fein Councillors in the north were first elected they were denied their rightful entitlements, as were those who voted for us.

And for decades in this state Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour combined to exclude Sinn Féin Councillors from committees and delegations on councils. Indeed we were denied the use of public buildings for Ard Fheiseanna, including in my own constituency of Louth. They are still at it today.

Witness the alliance of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour conniving to carve up council positions for each other. It’s time Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil stopped pretending they are different. They are not. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are conservative soul mates. They should be in government together.

The challenge for Sinn Féin is to decide where we want to be in the medium to long term and chart a course toward this. That means we have to be very clear about our objectives and our strategies. That means we need to be more cohesive than ever before.

What we are trying to do is unprecedented. It hasn’t been done before and arguably it hasn’t been tried. Because what we are trying to do is to build in two parts of a partitioned island a national struggle that transcends the border; that doesn’t succumb to partitionism; that is cohesive and continuously moving forward even at times at an incremental pace.

It means supporting each other and working together as comrades and equals. It means working our party structures and ensuring that none of our elected comrades, especially  new councillors are left to muddle through policy matters. This is a two-way process. It means Councillors coming to us. It means Head Office and leadership providing support.

A lot of work to do

I said earlier that we need to decide where we want to be in the medium to long term. That is a subject we have to return to in a process of engagement across the party so that we can get a democratic consensus on these questions. So I won’t elaborate on that too much today.

But we can look forward to the immediate future. For example, two years from now we will have contested at least two by-elections, a Westminster election, a General Election and an Assembly election. We will have commemorated the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

We will have had to deal with huge challenges in the peace process and political process and ongoing negotiations. There is a large onus on us, who want Irish unity to persuade those who are unionist of the merits of this position. We also have a strong view that outside the issues of political allegiance there is potentially huge common ground between working class unionists, loyalists, nationalists and republicans. 

Notwithstanding the shortcomings of unionist leaders, Sinn Féin needs to engage with unionism in all its forms and sectors. Across the island and indeed internationally our position on social and economic issues is essentially a republican one. That is that, citizens have rights and society must be shaped on these core values in a citizen centred, rights based dispensation as opposed to privileges for the elites. 

For this reason we are anti-austerity and pro public services. We need to popularise these core values by developing policies, which can win public support. So there is a lot of work that needs to be done over the next two years. 

Sinn Féin has just come out of very good elections where483,113 people voted for the party and elected a record number of councillors and MEPs in addition to our team of TDs, MLAs, Senators and MPs. We are now the largest party on the island. There is growing support for our pro peace process/anti-austerity message and our all Ireland politics.   

We need to deliver. There will be an additional onus on us to do this where we hold power. We need to be radical and innovative in delivering for communities against the backdrop of the current economic crisis. 

The centenary of 1916 has the potential to have a significant influence on politics on the island. It creates an opportunity to focus on the question of Irish Unity and the real need for changing politics. We need to step up our work for the decade of centenaries.

We also need to keep building our party and to address some organisational weaknesses across the island. There are 3 Councils across the island where we didn’t get any Sinn Féin representative elected and 19 Local Electoral Areas (LEAs) in the 26 Counties where no one was returned.

There is also a growing disenchantment with the political process in the 6 counties and a decreasing turnout in the 26 Counties. This needs to be tackled.

Today we will discuss our national strategic objectives and start putting in place our political, electoral and organisational strategy and workplan for the next 2 years.

Our immediate priorities are:

·        Negotiations and dealing with difficulties in the political process and peace process.

·        By-elections and Westminster elections.

·        Preparations for a General Election and Assembly elections.

·        Preparations for the centenary of 1916 with a strong focus on Irish Unity.

·        Engage with unionism in all its forms, on issues of common ground.

The North

There is now widespread concern about the situation within the DUP. It is quite clear that the DUP does not appear to have the appetite for the challenge of dealing with the outstanding issues of flags, parades and the past in any serious way.,

Sinn Féin demonstrated very clearly during the Haass negotiations our seriousness and determination to find a way forward. We made compromises during those talks.

For any process aimed at resolving these issues to succeed unionist political leaders need to show a similar willingness. That has not been evident so far.

Despite this there does exist a window of opportunity to resolve the issues of flags, parades and the past. Sinn Féin will meet separately with An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and British Prime Minister David Cameron in the next few weeks.

Party leaders in the Executive have agreed an intensive round of talks and Sinn Féin is engaging positively in this process. However to be successful the Irish and British governments must become more engaged in upholding and fulfilling their obligations

We also need the continuing support of the US Administration, of political leaders on Capitol Hill and of Irish America.

Economic policy

Since the elections, Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil and media commentators say they will subject Sinn Féin’s economic policies to greater scrutiny. Tá muid an sasta faoi sin.

It would be great to have a real discussion about the need for a different economic approach. During the period of the Celtic Tiger Sinn Féin and especially our small dedicated group of TDs, pointed out the dangers of the developing property bubble and the potential for an economic crash.

We warned of the over-reliance on taxes from the property sector; of over dependency on construction; of the danger of auction politics. Others tried to outdo each other with promises of tax cuts.

Sinn Féin argued that the wealth of the Celtic Tiger should be used to create sustainable jobs, build infrastructure, and be invested in health and education.

We were ridiculed by the same people whose flawed greedy self serving policies collapsed the economy, forced hundreds of thousands out of work and almost half a million of our young people overseas. Sinn Féin was right then and we are right now.

We believe that it is possible to make the necessary deficit adjustments without harming families or frontline services by creating jobs, asking the wealthiest to pay more and by cutting waste from public spending.

The Property Tax, Water tax, removal of medical cards, cuts, mortgage distress and lack of social housing have pushed working people to the limit.

So, let’s see some scrutiny of the policy of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil which says that for decades to come that our children and our grandchildren should be forced to pay for the greed of the bankers, developers and corrupt politicians.

Government Failure

This Fine Gael/Labour government promised a ‘democratic revolution’ but has delivered the same stale, old politics of the previous Fianna Fail-led government. They appoint cronies to state boards. Ministers favour their own constituencies for funding. They seek to control the banking inquiry by stuffing it with government TDs and Senators.

They ignore the hardship endured by the most vulnerable as a result of austerity. They take medical cards from the most vulnerable, fail the homeless, and cut services for the elderly, the sick and the young. They have betrayed the electorate.

Fianna Fail cannot provide a credible alternative to the Government because the government is already implementing Fianna Fail policy. Fianna Fail does not disagree with the Government on any of the major issues facing our citizens. Fianna Fail is an integral part of the 'Consensus for Cuts'. The Water Tax, for instance, was Fianna Fail’s idea.

Sinn Fein in government

For our part Sinn Fein needs to be ready for government in this state on our terms, agree our policy priorities and political platform and our commitments need to be deliverable.

We are ambitious for change and believe we can deliver on jobs, housing and health. But we will not do what the Labour Party has done — we will not enter government merely to give cover to the agenda of conservative parties.

That’s the old failed political system. Citizens want fundamental change. Sinn Féin seeks to offer a viable, do-able, political alternative. This will not be achieved by the creation of yet another right-wing conservative party offering repackaged versions of past failed policies.

 Despite the fervent wishes of the conservative media this state does not need a ‘PDs Mark 2’, led by disgruntled Fine Gael TDs. The reality is that some combination of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil has been in government since the foundation of this state.

But just as one-party Orange rule in the North is gone, the failed two-and-a-half party system in this state is going also. Today's gathering is further proof that Sinn Féin is now a major player in both states with policies and an expanding organization, which transcends partition.

It is time for a realignment of politics. Let those on the Irish left who really believe that a government without Fine Gael or Fianna Fail is possible begin working together towards that end.

Building new politics

Sinn Féin is committed to a new Republic, with new politics that puts fairness and equality at the heart of government. As we spearhead the building of a real political alternative throughout this island, we must remain radical, rooted, relevant and republican.

People are increasingly looking to us for leadership and to provide hope for the future. That is our task comrades. That is your task. Let us get to it. Ar aghaidh linn le cheile!

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