The Ard Fheis was our biggest ever. The enthusiastic and very positive mood among delegates and the level of debate on policy issues was extraordinary and impressive. As someone else said to me the hall was buzzing. And that was especially evident at the end of the Saturday evening when the two and a half thousand people packed into the RDS raised their voices to the rafters and sang "Óró, sé do bheatha abhaile".
The Ard Fheis took lots of important decisions relating to the party’s constitution; to the issue of Sinn Féin going into coalition government in the south; on housing and health and abortion and many other matters.
It was also a night of remembrance. Martin McGuinness’s wife Bernie and his family were present for a celebration of his life and times that was hugely emotional. Elisha McCallion’s reflective words on Martin, the video of young people reciting his poem – Fullerton’s Dam – and the music was evocative and moving. Republicans miss Martin. We also miss all those comrades who died in the last year and in the decades of conflict before that.
However, for many, and certainly for the media much of their focus was on what I was to say about my own intentions as Uachtarán Shinn Féin. Some time ago I had made it clear that I would use my Ard Fheis speech to do this. Martin and I had discussed this a year and a half ago. We understood the need for regeneration and renewal if Sinn Féin is to achieve its historic goal of ending partition and reuniting our divided island. As in any walk of life it is important to plan for the future. This is especially true in politics. Generational change in leadership is a necessary element of our party’sten-year plan for reorganisation and growth.
Achieving reconciliation between Orange and Green and Irish unity are enormous challenges. They won’t happen by chance. No more than building a public health service across the island or having a housing policy that tackles homelessness, or winning support for our alternative to Brexit. They will not somehow magically materialise. You have to think strategically, build support, reach out to others in society, and produce costed, viable policy positions. You have to plan, plan, plan and deliver. And you need a leadership that is focussed on the future, engages with party activists and works with them to advance those plans.
With Bernie McGuinness
Martin had decided that on May 8th this year he would step aside as Deputy First Minister. That would have marked his tenth year in that post since the deal with Ian Paisley in 2007. We also agreed the timeframe for my stepping aside as Uachtarán Shinn Féin.
However, the best laid plans don’t always work. Martin took seriously ill. This, and the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the accusations by some in the DUP of corruption in that party, accelerated Martin’s timetable. And the rest is history. Martin resigned on January 9th this year and the institutions collapsed. In the Assembly election on March 2nd Sinn Féin came within a thousand votes of overtaking the DUP and crucially, what had been intended almost 100 years ago to be a permanent unionist majority came to an end.
Martin died on March 21st and in the subsequent Westminster election Sinn Féin saw our support reach historic heights.
Despite this very personal and enormous political loss, I remained convinced that my timetable for standing aside as leader of Sinn Féin should not change. I was also determined that the first people to be told of my decision was the party. And the opportunity for that was last weekend’s Ard Fheis.
Last minute changes
So, after almost 35 years as party leader, on Saturday evening I formally announced my decision to step down from the position of Uachtarán Shinn Féin. It’s now over to the incoming Ard Chomhairle of the party to agree the timetable for the process to elect a new Uachtarán sometime in the new year. I also said that I would not be standing in the next general election for the constituency of Louth and East Meath.
My first election as a candidate was in 1982 for the short lived Assembly. I was one of five Sinn Féin Assembly members from across the North, including Martin McGuinness, Francie Molloy, Danny Morrison and Jim McAllister. The following year I was returned as the MP for west Belfast. Apart from a brief period in the 90s I was consistently elected as MP for the west of the city up to my resignation to stand in the southern general election in 2011.
I want to thank all of those who have worked with me over those years; who welcomed me into their homes and communities and who made me part of countless campaigns.
I want to especially thank the people of west Belfast and the people of Louth for their unwavering support and solidarity, and friendship.
In their rush to write my political obituary some in the media have concluded that I’m now to retire. Well they’re wrong. I will continue to serve the republican struggle and Sinn Féin if and when I can. Bogside republicans don’t retire. Neither do Ballymurphy republicans.
Practicing the Speech