This has been a funny old week – at least for me. It is a week of ‘lasts’. After 35 years it is my last week as Uachtarán Shinn Féin. Wednesday was supposed to be my last occasion for ‘Leaders’ in the Dáil but I was at Stormont and so missed that. I attended my last meeting of the party’s National Officer Board and last week I chaired my last group meeting in Leinster House of TDs, Seanadóirí and party staffers. After 40 years last Saturday should have been my last attendance at an Ard Chomhairle (National Executive) meeting but I missed it because I was in the talks at Stormont. I was there at the end of a phone but conference calls aren’t the same.
On Saturday, at the RDS in Dublin, where I announced my decision last November to step down as President, a Sinn Féin special Ard Fheis will begin at 1pm. When it opens I will be Uachtarán Shinn Féin. When it concludes I will be one of thirteen thousand party members and Mary Lou McDonald will be the new Uachtarán Shinn Féin.
A new chapter in the story of our party and of our efforts to achieve independence and unity for the island of Ireland will have begun. Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill will be taking over a very different Sinn Féin from that which I and Martin McGuinness and others inherited in November 1983. The context is also very different. The peace process, which Sinn Féin played a pivotal role in fashioning, has created new political opportunities and transformed the political landscape on the island of Ireland. There is now a peaceful and democratic opportunity to achieve an end to the union with Britain. One challenge facing Mary Lou and Michelle is to grasp these opportunities and create new ones to advance our political goals.
Mary Lou and Michelle will also bring their own unique and individual style to the task of leading Sinn Féin. Both are formidable leaders. They are articulate, eloquent, passionate comrades who are committed to achieving a new Ireland, a united Ireland, a socially just Ireland based on equality for every citizen. And they have around them an amazing group of dedicated and experienced activists.
In the four months since I announced my decision to step down as Uachtarán Shinn Féin I have had the opportunity to travel widely and to meet party members and supporters across the island. From Derry to Belfast, Armagh City to Fermanagh, from Sligo to Cork, from Meath to Dundalk, Dublin and Kilkenny. Packed meetings. Filled with enthusiastic, eager, activists all looking forward. All looking to the future. All embracing the opportunity for change. And all up for the challenges ahead.
And the challenges are many. The talks in the North are still going on. I have been at Stormont almost every day in the last week. Under Michelle O’Neill’s leadership our efforts to restore the political institutions are continuing. Whether the two governments and the parties can succeed or will fail remains to be seen. Putting in place a rights-based society and implementing the Good Friday Agreement isn't easy.
Given the stark differences in attitude between those for and against Brexit, the outworking of the current negotiations between the British government and the European Commission also presents a significant challenge. So too do the austerity policies of the British government which continues to reduce the budget available to run government departments in the North, as well as inflicting major cuts to housing benefit and welfare payments to families and households.
There are also many challenges facing republicans in the South. The Irish state is not the republic envisaged by the 1916 leaders. The crises in housing, homelessness and in the health service are evidence of this. Nor is there an iota of difference between the conservative policies of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Both parties are champions of economic and social conservatism, austerity and cuts to the living standards of working people.
But none of this is insurmountable. Sinn Féin activists know what we need to do. We want to be in government North and South. A government in Dublin with Sinn Féin as part of it will place Irish unity at the top of its political agenda and face a British government with this clear demand.
No one knows when the next general election will be held in the 26 counties. But Sinn Féin is preparing for that now. And part of this means ensuring that Mary Lou has time to make her mark, demonstrate her undoubted abilities as leader, and plan for a bigger party with more candidates, winning more seats, and with more women and young people than ever before.
In the meantime the consequences of Brexit will become clearer and the efforts to deliver the promise of equality in the Good Friday Agreement will have advanced.
So I’m looking forward to Saturday’s special Ard Fheis. I’m looking forward to the challenges and opportunities that are before us. I think our best years are yet to come.