In 1992 Sinn Féin held our Ard Fheis in the Ballyfermot Community Centre. The previous year Dublin City Council had barred us from the Mansion House and the political establishment was united in blocking us from all municipal buildings.
It was a historic Ard Fheis. We launched our Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland policy document which was the cornerstone of our peace strategy and which within three years saw the successful opening up of the peace process.
At that time the community centre was a ramshackle and deprived public utility. It was so small that we had to erect and attach a marquee. The community association, led by Vincent Jackson, were told their funding would be cut if they let us across the door. The government and Dublin City Council were told where to go.
Last weekend Sinn Féin was back in Ballyfermot in the Civic and Community Centre. It is a modern, open and airy, three story building and a fitting testimony to the hard work of the local community.
Sinn Féin activists from across the island of Ireland were there to map out our ambitions for Ireland over the next decade, as we continue to work towards Irish unity and the transformation of Irish society.
Ten years ago we engaged in a National consultation process – “Regaining the Momentum”. We set ourselves clear goals, and agreed local programmes of work. We set ourselves two election cycles as a timeframe.
10 years on and we are planning for the next decade. Last weekend’s Ballyfermot meeting was about democratising that process.
Our starting point is as a United Ireland party. Our objectives are Irish reunification; to build an Ireland of equals; and to secure national self-determination and political independence and sovereignty. There will not be a real republic without a United Ireland. To achieve this we need to build our political strength and build alliances with others. We are also for fundamental political and societal change.
The political establishments north and south are opposed to our objectives. The British establishment is also opposed to the emergence of the type of Ireland we envisage. All those interests act to thwart us.
When you add to this the task of government in the north and the political objective of getting into government in the south, then the challenges are significant, but not insurmountable.
Republicans have to turn the majority nationalist emotional commitment to reunification into an active political commitment. We have to persuade an undefined small percentage of unionists to that position.
One of the game changers for Sinn Féin in pursuit of ending partition will be our influence over or leadership of an Irish Government. By definition that means that Sinn Féin in government in Dublin or Sinn Féin as the main opposition party. This is a huge challenge. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will not easily surrender that ground to us.
People in the 26 Counties also need to be convinced that a United Ireland is affordable.
People in the six counties need to be convinced that unity will work and that the loss of the subvention will not impoverish them.
On June 23rd the overwhelming majority of citizens in the north voted to remain within the EU. In the aftermath of that vote I and others in Sinn Féin said that an opportunity existed to hold and win the referendum on Irish unity contained in the Good Friday Agreement. A series of well attended public meetings is evidence of the popularity of this view.
Initially our position was criticised by some of our political opponents. But in recent days that early response has dramatically changed. At the weekend the Fianna Fail leader and then the Taoiseach Enda Kenny came around to this position also. The SDLP has also supported a referendum.
Last Monday I was in Stormont. It is clear that there is widespread concern within the business community, the voluntary and community sector, within the agriculture and tourism sectors that Brexit will adversely impact on the North’s economy.
The Good Friday Agreement allows for national reunification if a majority in the North consent to that. In the context of the North being dragged out of the EU by England there is now a greater opportunity to achieve this. The Agreement also makes very clear that in the event of a majority of citizens opting for reunification that the sovereign government would be obliged in this international treaty to exercise its responsibilities and powers with rigorous impartiality and would fully respect the “civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities.”
In the time ahead more and more people, who would have either opposed Irish unity or would have been dubious of it, will be open to the idea of exploring new relationships on this island. To make best use of this opportunity all of those parties on the island which support reunification need to discuss how best this can be achieved.
There is a need to be open and imaginative about the possible new constitutional arrangements and political structures that might be needed. At a meeting of party leaders with the Taoiseach I urged the Taoiseach to push ahead with an island-wide dialogue to discuss how the remain vote in the North can be respected and what agreed strategy can be put in place to minimise the impact of Brexit.
He agreed that an island wide dialogue is needed. He also agreed to bring forward propositions to achieve this.
That project needs to move ahead speedily so that in any negotiations involving the EU and Britain and the Irish government that the proposal for a referendum on Irish unity is on the agenda.