BY PETE CLIFFORD AND ANNE HOWIE
DUBLIN, Ireland - A thunderous 10-minute standing ovation from 1,400 delegates and observers greeted four Irish republican prisoners, known as the "Balcombe Street Four," as they joined the platform at the May 10 Ard Fheis (national conference) of Sinn Fein. They had just secured temporary release to attend the meeting, having served 23 years in British jails. Their reception symbolized what Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness described as a "sense of vibrancy and life" he had never seen before in the republican movement.
Sinn Fein is the political party leading the fight for a united Ireland, free of British occupation and domination. The Ard Fheis overwhelmingly endorsed the leadership proposal to cast a Yes vote in the May 22 referenda in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland on the "Northern Ireland Agreement." The agreement was negotiated in talks that included Sinn Fein earlier this year but has not been signed by the nationalist party. The delegates also voted to alter the party's constitution to take seats in the assembly to be elected in Northern Ireland. These decisions were taken, as the reception of the prisoners marked, with resolve to intensify the struggle for self-determination.
The four men who were welcomed on the stage were imprisoned in 1975 after a six-day gun siege by armed police on Balcombe Street, London. Their sentences for carrying out a bombing campaign totaled more than 2,000 years. Just a few months ago British home secretary Jack Straw had insisted they would spend the rest of their lives in jail. The week before the Sinn Fein conference, they won transfers to Portlaoise prison in the Republic of Ireland, and under the terms of the agreement will be eligible for release in the next two years.
The four were among 27 political prisoners granted temporary parole to participate in the Ard Fheis, including the Republican Officers Commanding from Long Kesh, Maghaberry, and Portlaoise prisons. Their presence reflected the leadership role played by the prisoners in the fight for self-determination, as well as the momentum built up for their release. Martin Meehan, a leader of Saoirse, which campaigns for the prisoners, called on the conference delegates to "intensify the fight to get them home for good."
The Ard Fheis was meeting in its second session. The first, held April 18-19, had agreed to reconvene after further discussions in the cumann (branches) on the Northern Ireland Agreement. (A report on the first session appeared in the May 4 Militant.) All the delegates these reporters spoke with said that lengthy discussions had been held over the last three weeks. A high point of these was a series of public meetings addressed by leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa.
ANC leaders speak in Ireland
At the first session of the Ard Fheis, ANC deputy secretary general Thenjiwe Mtintso was a featured guest. Following that, a delegation of ANC leaders Mac Maharaj, Valli Moosa, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Mathews Phosa came to Ireland to meet for three days with the republican fighters. With just two days publicity, they addressed an 800-strong public meeting in Belfast. Three hundred people attended a meeting in Dublin, and similar meetings were held in many other towns and cities. Phosa and Ramaphosa also joined a Sinn Fein delegation in a meeting with 120 republican prisoners in Long Kesh.
At the center of these discussions, reported the Sinn Fein paper An Phoblacht/Republican News, was learning from the struggle against apartheid in South Africa the "importance of mass action. Changes will not be made unless the people are mobilised to push them through."
The significance of these meetings was also noted by An Phoblacht when it commented, "17 years ago this week [Irish prisoner] Bobby Sands was in the final days of his hunger strike. At the same time [UK prime minister] Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government was calling the ANC terrorists.... Today the ANC is the democratically elected government in South Africa. And Irish republicans are on the march to freedom."
The British media gave scant attention to the ANC leaders' tour.
Through six hours of debate at the Ard Fheis, more than 60 delegates presented their views and the conclusions of the discussion on the agreement in their local areas. Most who spoke supported the proposals of the Sinn Fein leadership.
Summarizing the Sinn Fein leadership's assessment of the agreement, the party's president, Gerry Adams, explained, "On the one hand it upholds the Unionist veto over the constitutional statutes of the north, and, on the other hand it reduces British territorial claim to that one hinge, while it compels Unionists to accept key and fundamental changes involving all-Ireland dimensions to everyday life." The Unionists are those who support the continued "union" of the six northeastern Irish counties with the United Kingdom.
Adams stated, "British rule has not ended. Neither has partition. That is why our struggle continues."
Amendments to Irish constitution
A few delegates, mostly from the Irish Republic, questioned whether they should agree to changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of the Republic. The proposed amendments would dilute Dublin's territorial claim to the six northern counties, by making reunification conditional on the consent of the majority there.
Larry O Toole from Dublin argued that "thousands of people in the 26 counties [of the Republic] are against changing Articles 2 and 3." He also asked, "Will Northern nationalists be even more exposed" with the removal of these articles.
Rita O Hare, who moved the motion for "Yes" votes for the leadership, stated that Sinn Fein is against any change of Articles 2 and 3 that would "remove the imperative to unity or affect the rights to citizenship. We oppose the incorporation of the consent clause." But she pointed to the additional proposed constitutional amendment to Article 29, which provides for the setting up of cross-border bodies and "ensures the actuality of right to jurisdiction in the north." She also noted that the change to Article 2 actually confirms for the first time the right to Irish citizenship for the people of Northern Ireland.
O Hare argued, "All aspects of the agreement have to be viewed in the wider context. Change is coming as a result of our struggle."
Many delegates expressed the view that the real content of both the cross-border institutions and the Northern Ireland Assembly would be decided in struggle.
Martin Ferris, a Sinn Fein leader from Kerry, said that while he understood reservations about entering the assembly, "the partition setup of the past cannot be applied any longer. This assembly's lifeline is connected to the North-South bodies, the all-Ireland element without which it cannot function. And our intention is to expand that all- Ireland dimension. The assembly," Ferris added, will be an opportunity to "go face to face with those who want to hold on to power in the North and hold back the tide of change. The six-county statelet," he added, "depends for its existence on the exclusion of nationalists."
Reflecting on the increasing support for Sinn Fein throughout Ireland, Martina Anderson, speaking for prisoners in Maghaberry jail, said, "We firmly believe that we cannot allow the gains made by Sinn Fein to be squandered by parties such as the SDLP [Social Democratic and Labour Party]. Our participation in the assembly will enhance our struggle in a new phase." The SDLP is a reformist party that accepts the partition of Ireland.
Summarizing the challenge nationalists face, Sinn Fein Youth delegate Niall O Murcha argued, "The problem is not the policies of the state, but the state itself." O Murcha said that "self-imposed isolation is what our enemies want. We need to turn the Assembly into another battle ground to end partition."
After the referendum on the agreement, Sinn Fein is preparing for elections to the Northern Assembly in June. Members in the South were encouraged to travel North to join the effort by election director Dodie McGuinness.
After the vote to endorse this electoral move, Adams explained this "must be underpinned by a strategy wedded to mobilizations, campaigning, street activism, and the international dimension."
Protests against cops, rightists
A significant number of the speakers were youth delegates reporting on the almost weekly pickets, protests, and marches they have been organizing and are planning. On April 26 they organized a 3,000-strong protest in Crossmaglen calling for the release of the prisoners. Deirdre Fallon reported that Sinn Fein Youth members were currently facing 23 court cases from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) as a result of harassment they have faced for calling these actions. Fallon declared, "Despite what [British prime minister] Tony Blair says, the RUC will be disbanded."
Using the pretext of alleged threats from "dissident" republican groups the same day as the Ard Fheis, the Irish Times reported the British Army mounted a huge security operation in West Belfast.
Many delegates also spoke to these reporters about their efforts to organize against the forthcoming pro-British Orange Order parades, which seek to march into nationalist areas. The Irish News reported May 12 that the British government-appointed Parades Commission has just decided to route such a march through the predominantly Catholic village of Dunloy on May 17, just five days before the referendum. The commission is also expected to sanction a major pro-British parade through North Belfast on June 19, just before the elections to the assembly.
The last few weeks have also seen an accelerated fragmentation of the pro-British forces. While Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble secured the backing of his party's council to endorse the agreement, 9 of the 13 members of Parliament representing his party oppose it, as does the 80,000-strong Orange Order.
Ultrarightist Ian Paisley has organized a series of rallies along with dissident Ulster Unionist MPs to call for a No vote. Unionist opponents of the agreement have been particularly enraged by the decision to establish an independent Commission into the future of the RUC. Backed up by the Daily Telegraph, which editorialized April 6 that the RUC was the "greatest of British police forces," they have sought to reverse this part of the agreement.
When Blair sought to reassert that the RUC had a future by appointing Christopher Patten, the former British governor of Hong Kong and a Conservative Party leader, to head this "independent" commission, it added fuel to the fire. William Thompson, a dissident Ulster Unionist MP said, "Most Unionists will remember Mr. Patten as he stood lowering the Union Jack on Hong Kong. What we find in Northern Ireland is that the British government are slowly but surely lowering the flag."
Sinn Fein president Adams argued at the Ard Fheis that nationalists need to turn towards this crisis of Unionism. He emphasized, "Sinn Fein is not a Catholic party" and went on to explain, "When we call for the end of the British presence in Ireland, we do not mean our Unionist neighbors. You have as much right to a full and equal life as any other section of our people."
At the conclusion of the Ard Fheis, there was a huge vote
in favor of the proposals advanced by the leadership, with
331 of the 350 delegates endorsing their course. Contrary to
media speculation, there was no walk out by those who
disagreed. Sinn Fein emerged stronger and more unified
through responding to the agreement by deepening its fight
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