I went to my first Sinn Féin Ard Fheis about fifty years ago. I say about fifty years ago because I don’t recall if it was in 1967 or 1968 and I haven’t the time to check out the dates. Suffice to say it was a long time ago. I was the youngest in a small delegation of Belfast comrades including the late Seán McCormack. We stayed in The Castle Hotel in Gardiner Street. Local legend has it that Micheál Collins used to stay there. The Castle certainly has a chequered republican history from 1916 through the Tan and Civil War onwards. That Ard Fheis weekend was also the first time I stayed in a hotel.
Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna have frequently been the scene for the most important decisions affecting the direction of republican politics on this island. It is the Ard Fheis, not the Party President or Ard Chomhairle (National Executive), which is the supreme authority of Sinn Féin and this year’s Ard Fheis which takes place at the weekend in the RDS in Dublin promises to be another of these.
Ard Fheiseanna are an opportunity to debate party policy, shape the political direction of the party for the year ahead and a social opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones. While I always enjoy them some have been more memorable and historic that others.
The 1970 Ard Fheis was one of these. It was a turbulent time within Irish republicanism, as well as in the northern state. The violent response of the unionist government to the civil rights movement and the demand for change led to significant disagreements among republicans over how we should respond. When I travelled to Dublin to participate in the Ard Fheis in the Intercontinental Hotel (later Jury’s) in January I was refused entry on the spurious grounds that I was not properly accredited. Locked out I went off and joined a protest against the apartheid South African Springboks who were to play at Lansdowne Road rugby football grounds. Behind me in the Intercontinental Hotel republicans divided into a bitter split. Official Sinn Féin mar dhea was born. So too was Provisional Sinn Féin. I have never been comfortable with the term Provisional affixed to either Sinn Féin or the Army.
Over the following years I attended every Ard Fheis, apart from those years when I was imprisoned. During the 70s Sinn Féin was largely a protest organisation campaigning against internment, British repression, torture, British state collusion with unionist death squads, and in support of the men and women on protest in the H-Block and Armagh Women’s prisons or in gaols in Britain.
I was elected Uachtarán Shinn Féin in 1983. In 1986 the Ard Chomhairle put a proposal to the Ard Fheis for an end to abstentionism in the South. This was a huge step to take. It was a fundamental political departure and with it came threats of another split.
Thirty one years ago this month the Mansion House was packed for that historic debate. Rumours of splits and walkabouts abounded. In my presidential speech I told the conference that as political conditions change so too must republican strategy. I warned that the removal of abstentionism would not provide a magic wand solution to our problems. In the south it would only clear the decks. I told the delegates and visitors to our Ard Fheis that they had to cease being spectators of a struggle in the six counties and become pioneers of republicanism in the 26 counties, putting our policies before the people.
I vividly remember during the lunch break meeting with Ruairí, Daithí O'Connell and others who were against changing the constitution. I appealed to them to stay within the party and within the struggle, and not to walkout. Regrettably, when the necessary two-thirds majority was achieved Ruairí and his colleagues, about 40 in all, walked out of the hall.
One response to that decision, and to the fear that Sinn Féin could provide an alternative to the establishment parties, was an entrenchment of public hostility by the southern political and media establishment toward Sinn Féin. As a result we were refused the use of the Mansion House to hold the Ard Fheis. Other public buildings were denied to us as Fianna Fail, the Labour Party and Fine Gael abused their municipal authority to bar us.
Eventually in 1992 the Ballyfermot Residents Association offered us the use of their community centre. Danny Devenny and his friends painted murals on the walls and the organizing committee ensured that the Ard Fheis ran smoothly and was hugely enjoyable, despite the cramped conditions.
We launched a new discussion documents ‘Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland.’ At its core it advocated, inclusive dialogue and talks as the means of resolving the conflict; a new arrangement between London and Dublin to end partition; international assistance to help break the deadlock; and, a programme for national reconciliation. The document marked a major shift in Sinn Fein thinking. It was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Ard Fheis.
Following the conclusion of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement negotiations we had one week to prepare for our Ard Fheis. It took place on April 18th. The Ulster Unionist Party was holding a meeting of its ruling Council that day also. About mid-afternoon on the Saturday news came through that the Ulster Unionist Council had endorsed by 540 votes to 210 support for David Trimble and the agreement. When I got this news I told the Ard Fheis and said 'well done David'. And then, probably for the first time in the history of our party, the conference spontaneously applauded a unionist leader.
At the end of that Ard Fheis the Ard Chomhairle proposed that we hold a special reconvened one-day session for May 10th to take a formal decision on the Good Friday Agreement. We needed that time for party activists and republicans generally to discuss and debate the many issues raised by the Agreement.
On Sunday May 10th we returned to the RDS. As before, the hall was packed. Unbeknownst to the delegates and visitors we had persuaded the Irish government to release the recently transferred Balcombe Street prisoners for their first parole in twenty-three years. When the Balcombe Street men entered the hall there was sustained and wild applause for over ten minutes. Tears flowed freely down many faces. They came onto the stage and the RDS shook with the sound of clapping and the rhythmic stamping of feet.
In the end, after five hours of debate the delegates changed the party’s Constitution to allow successful candidates to sit in a northern Assembly. Of all the moments that have been described as historic this truly deserved that description. That Ard Fheis really did make history.
In the years since then there have been other Ard Fheiseanna that have been historic, including the Ard Fheis in January 2007 which saw Sinn Féin agree to the new policing dispensation that we had negotiated in the preceding years.
So, this weekend we are back in the RDS for the Ard Fheis. There are many important matters on the clár for discussion, including the impasse in the North, the eighth amendment, homelessness, the crisis in health and international affairs. We will also be discussing our ten-year strategy for growth and regeneration – Unity in our Time.
If you can’t come take the time to watch the live slot on RTE on Saturday morning. You will see a party with the vision and leadership to achieve government North and South and committed to Irish unity and reconciliation.