Gildernew was speaking at the Ard Fheis, or conference, of Sinn Fein, the party that is leading the fight to end British military occupation of northern Ireland. Participants discussed the current state of this fight. Two thousand delegates and guests attended the event, held here March 28–30.
Gildernew was one of four leaders of Sinn Fein elected to the British parliament in 2001, doubling its representation. "The Crown forces continue to harass nationalists on a daily basis," she said. "The use of plastic bullets has dramatically increased, particularly by the British army. The PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) travel round in armored jeeps and operate from military barracks. South Armagh and other areas are still blighted by military spy posts."
In country areas British army helicopters routinely fly at 100 feet above local homes, said another delegate. Soldiers had recently cordoned off one village for two and a half days.
A delegate from Fermanagh reported that in his area opponents of British rule had organized an effective picket of an army foot patrol. Forced off the road into fields, the patrol had to be airlifted out by helicopter.
Sinn Fein’s youth movement, Ogra Sinn Fein, has played a prominent role in protests against the British presence.
Gerry Kelly, a Sinn Fein leader from Belfast who served 15 years in jail for his part in the fight against British rule, said that negotiations with London and the unionist parties had to be combined with "street protests and demonstrations, demands for inquiries, and campaigning." Unionists in Northern Ireland--the six Irish counties that are known as Ulster--wage a reactionary fight to defend the "union" with Britain and against Irish unity.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams discussed the stalled negotiations in his keynote address to the conference. Thanks to the attitude of the British government and the unionist representatives, he said, the talks face a challenge: they could either "take a great leap forward" or continue at the present "frustrating and begrudging pace."
Adams’s address was televised live on RTE, the Irish TV channel. The party had gained this access by winning five seats--four more than previously--in last year’s elections to the Dail, the Irish parliament. Party chair Mitchel McLaughlin pointed out that 10 years ago the same TV channel would not broadcast the voices of Sinn Fein representatives, in accordance with government-imposed censorship.
Towards mid-April the British and Irish governments are due to propose the next phase of negotiations, including the holding of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, said Adams. London had unilaterally shut this assembly last October--the fourth time it had taken such action--and also announced that the elections would be delayed one month to the end of May.
"The British and Irish establishments’ version of the peace process did not allow for the growth of Sinn Fein," observed Adams. This, he said, was the real source of the crisis in the negotiations. "They fear that the achievement of equality of treatment, and the emergence of a new inclusive society in Ireland, will leave much of Irish or Ulster Unionism without any rational basis and erode the very reason for the existence of the union and British jurisdiction in Ireland."
Sinn Fein is pressing for the removal of "policing as a central pillar of unionist power," said Adams. The heavily militarized police service has increasingly stepped into the shoes of the British army in the urban areas, he said, while London’s troops play a more visible role in country areas. Sinn Fein demands that policing power be transferred from London to the assembly and the North-South inter-government bodies.
The Sinn Fein leader said that given further steps forward, he could "envisage a future without the IRA (Irish Republican Army.)" Ulster Unionist leader and former First Minister of the assembly David Trimble, is demanding that IRA leaders disarm and declare their struggle to be at an end. He is also pressing for limitations on Sinn Fein’s participation in the assembly should the IRA breach its four-year ceasefire.
Discrimination against Catholics still leaves a deep mark, said Adams, noting that unemployment among Catholic males is still twice that of their Protestant counterparts. The progress made by nationalists means the "days of second-class citizenship are finished," he said. Adams also observed that as the British grip has weakened, workers who are Protestant have in many ways been abandoned. "We do not want anyone to be treated the way we were," he said.
Youth from the New Lodge area of Belfast staffed a table outside the Ard Fheis hall. They publicized the findings of an inquiry held in November 2002 in New Lodge into the murder of six men 30 years ago there by British forces. At the time London claimed without evidence that the victims were armed.
"This was premeditated murder, which shows Bloody Sunday was not an isolated incident," said Chrissy Huddleston, a delegate to the conference from the area. Bloody Sunday is the name given to the 1972 massacre of 14 civil rights protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, by British troops. The British government has been forced to mount a still ongoing public inquiry into the events.
London won’t "concede anything without pressure," said Huddlestone. A young campaigner at the table said that, 30 years on, New Lodge is an issue "because as we are in a position of strength, now we feel something can be done." Some 500 people had attended the New Lodge inquiry in November of last year, he said.
Sinn Fein leader Daithi Doolan voiced opposition to the U.S.-UK assault on Iraq. Permission granted by Dublin for the use of Ireland’s Shannon airport as a stop-off and refueling point for tens of thousands of U.S. troops showed that "the Irish government is most definitely colluding with the slaughter of innocent Iraqis" in spite of its professed neutrality, he said.
The same weekend as the Ard Fheis, some 10,000 marched through Dublin in a protest against the U.S.-UK assault on Iraq. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has called for Dublin to explicitly line up behind the imperialist assault.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s Sunday Business Post reports that a number of Irish firms have made bids to subcontract to U.S. firms in the postwar construction work in Iraq.
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