The Balmoral was packed. There was an expectant atmosphere in the hall. Everyone present knew that the nominations for the position of President of the Party had closed at 5pm the previous evening. Most delegates would have known there was only one name in the ring. In the last two weeks Mary Lou has travelled the length and breadth of the country holding a series of exhaustive meetings, speaking to party activists, setting out her vision for the future of Sinn Féin and for the people of the island of Ireland, and seeking their support. So, all eyes followed Mary Lou as we entered the hall.
However, the several hundred party delegates who were present weren’t going to get it that easy. Before any mention was to be made of the election they first had to endure my last speech to them at Uachtarán Shinn Féin. I began by apologising to any of them I might have upset or annoyed during my 35 years as President and to any others I might annoy in the remaining three weeks. But the main focus of my remarks centred on where republicans are now and where we want to go in the time ahead.
If you want to bring about change, meaningful change in your life, the life of your family, your community or society or indeed a political party you can’t stand still. If the last five decades has taught this generation of Irish republicans anything it is that change requires action, initiatives, risk taking, engaging with political opponents and strategising. You have to know where you want to go and then plan how to get there.
Ted says: “Nothing is inevitable in life, except death”. Even though he is having a mid-life crisis he’s right. So, we will not wake up one morning and find ourselves in a united Ireland. It will not happen by chance or through luck or because someone says “it’s inevitable”. If we want a united Ireland then we need to be match fit to achieve it. Anyone who plays competitive sport, especially hurling and football, know that you need a team that is in peak condition and well prepared, with good backup, trainers who will push you to the limit, and experienced managers to map out the game strategies. You won't win any game, whether its chess or hurling, playing in your own half. Yes, you have to get your defences right but you also have to advance – you have to play in your opponents half of the pitch - if you want to win. And we want to win.
So we have to plan to win. Planning is key. Planning and delivering. Doing nothing is not an option. Results count. Outcomes matter. To make all of this work we need to constantly build our political strength. I have been beating this particular drum for a very long time. That means making Sinn Féin bigger. We have 13,000 members currently. We want to double that in the time ahead. We also need more people voting for our party.
This year marks the centenary of the 1918 election and Sinn Féin’s famous landslide victory which led to the establishment of the First Dáil. Today over half a million people vote for Sinn Féin across this island. More than voted Sinn Féin in 1918. But it isn’t enough. If we want to be in government in Dublin after the next general election then we need more TDs.
Last November the Ard Fheis took the very important decision of stating our preparedness to go into government in Dublin, on republican terms, after the next election if we get a sufficient mandate. If we want to transform peoples’ lives in that state; end poverty; fix the housing and health crises; then we need to be in government. Just, if the terms are right, as we do in the North.
But it’s also about achieving Irish unity. Sinn Féin can best do that if we are in government north and south. Sinn Féin want a referendum on Irish unity in line with the Good Friday Agreement. So we must persuade those parties, especially in the Dáil, who employ the rhetoric of a united Ireland, to step outside of their comfort zone and take positive steps to actually promote it. Sinn Féin is the only party capable of getting them to do this.
We must also plan for a referendum. Winning a date for a referendum is only one part of the project. We also want to win that referendum. That will involve a huge amount of work, including engaging positively with unionism. That means tackling the toxic politics of this era. There will always be political tension between unionism and republicanism. That’s natural. But it can be managed in a better way to everyone’s benefit so that the real issues affecting people can be tackled.
The job of leading that strategy – of building Sinn Féin – of getting functioning institutions in place, of dealing with Brexit, of winning a referendum on Irish unity will be for all of us but it will soon be the primary focus of the next Uachtarán Shinn Féin – Mary Lou MacDonald.
I have every confidence in Mary Lou and in the younger generation of Sinn Féin activists who are stepping into the shoes of my generation. Or as Mary Lou put it so well on Saturday – she’s not stepping into my shoes – she’s brought her own! Good luck to her in all that she does. I hope she takes time out to dance as well in the time ahead. As long as it’s not with Ted or Gerry Kelly. Or Sammy Wilson