The Ballyfermot Civic and Community Centre is an impressive, three storey, modern facility which provides many local services to the Ballyfermot community. 25 years ago it was a dilapidated, poorly equipped, inadequate community centre. But in 1992, despite threats from the government and Dublin council that their funding would be cut, Ballyfermot opened its doors to our Ard Fheis. It was a time when the establishment parties in Dublin were blocking our use of public buildings. The local community took us to their hearts and provided billets for scores of activists,
Last July we were back again for a special national strategy meeting. It was tasked with beginning a process of mapping out Sinn Féin’s organisational and political goals for the next ten years. That conversation has been taking place since then at all levels of the party.
Those of us who knew Martin well are in the midst of a grieving process. I don’t say that lightly. Look at the video that his grandson Oísín tweeted last week. But as I reminded the halland said in my oration at Martin’s graveside: “Don’t mourn. Celebrate and organise. That’s what Martin would want.”
And part of that organisational work is to manage the generational change within the party. As part of this Martin was to stand down from the position of OFMDFM in May. This was to be one of our big moves. Michelle O Neill’s appointment as our leader in the North was another. In the time ahead there will be other changes. Our intention is to do this in a way which is democratic and at a time and in a way which moves us forward strategically.
It is of crucial importance that Sinn Féin also actively seeks to win social and economic rights for everyone. The best way to do that is to work in tandem with those who are denied those rights so that there is a real depth to our campaigning.
We must also have a belief that political and societal change is possible. If we lower our expectations or limit our vision then we are not playing to our own strengths. If you think your opponents are going to win; or if you think you cannot win, then without doubt that is what will happen. You won’t win. However, if you go out to win, if you believe you can win, then anything can happen. Then you will win.
Especially if you’re up for it, fit for it, trained for it, and clear about what you need to do. And if we go forward together, united, cohesive, and with energy, determination and high hopes. So we are in a time of great opportunity.
In the south the government has stumbled from scandal to scandal, sometimes a scandal a week. It survives because the Fianna Fáil leadership needs to keep Fine Gael in power until it believes it can win an election. It is also worried at the potential for Sinn Féin to grow.
In my view the type of changes that Irish republicans require, socially and economically, will not be achievable unless we are in government. And these rights will not be fully achieved unless Ireland is united. And that is unlikely to happen in conditions which would move more easily towards a real Republic unless we are in government.
I know there are lots of questions about who Sinn Féin should be in government with; who we should not be in government with, and so on. That’s an issue for another day. But we need to understand that we cannot contest a general election unless we are very clear that we want to be in government.
That means a step change in our thinking. It means creating an active culture that moves us into and prepares us for being in government on republican terms. The timing of such an initiative; when we might be in government; our influence on that government; our partners in that government; the programme for government; will all be dependent upon how many TDs we get elected.
We also need to articulate and implement the politics of making the northern institutions work as a logical transition on the journey to a new and agreed united Ireland.
Martin’s resignation and last month’s election result has in a very real way transformed the political landscape. Sinn Féin received our biggest ever vote in the North. The unionist electoral majority was ended and their majority in the Assembly is gone. Of course they could regain this in the next election.
We also have to be the defenders of the GoodAgreement. It is that Agreement which defines the institutional, constitutional and legal framework and the new relationships that now exist within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain.
So Sinn Féin’s position is that the only option for the British government, if talks do not succeed, is to call another election. We have also said clearly that any return to direct rule will be a breach of an agreement in 2006 between the Irish and British governments. Our position is that this would be an act of bad faith which the Irish government should oppose.
All this will be crucial as the negotiations around Brexit take place. I am confident that as the consequences of Brexit become clearer more and more people from a unionist background will be open to the idea of exploring new relationships on this island. We need to be intelligently putting the argument for unity and for a referendum as set out in the GoodAgreement.
Of course we will be accused of exploiting Brexit to suit our own agenda. That is nonsense. The fact is Brexit is bad for all parts of our island. It will bring back a hard economic border. So our main argument has to be about preventing this. The fact is that a majority of people voted against it. Sinn Féin’s position is for a designated special status for the North within the European Union. That must be our focus in the immediate term.