23rd March 2002
Address to pre-election conference at the Gresham Hotel, Dublin
By Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, MP
A lot has happened in the last decade. A lot has changed in the last decade.
10 years ago there was a sustained effort by the Dublin political establishment and the political elite here, to marginalise Irish republicanism.
Looking back now it seems like a different world. And in many respects it was.
In 1992 Section 31 meant that Sinn Fein was banned from the broadcast media and unofficial censorship pervaded the rest of the media. Governments refused, at least publicly, to speak to Sinn Fein. We were blocked from using the Mansion House for our Ard Fheis.
And our members, their families and elected representatives were the target of loyalist death squads, acting in many cases at the behest of British government intelligence agencies.
10 years ago corruption among sections of the political elite in this State was rife and the cosy relationship between big business, financial institutions and the major political parties prevailed.
But in the midst of all of this ordinary people remained sound. And this was evident here in Dublin where communities opened their community centers to us for our Ard Fheiseanna.
But perhaps of even greater significance was the warm welcome that was extended to the hundreds who travelled here to the capital from all across Ireland.
Communities in different parts of this city were heavily criticised back then for the decision they took. Many were bullied, all were vilified, some were threatened with the loss of funding.
But ten years later who was right? Those political leaders who obstructed the development of the peace process, who actively thwarted the efforts for peace, and preferred to stick with the old failed agenda of demonising and marginalising people, or the ordinary people of this city?
And ten years later many of those same politicians are still pushing the old agenda, still telling people not to vote for Sinn Fein. And some to their shame are even falling back on the sort of allegations and accusations first dreamed up in British intelligence backrooms and subsequently used to excuse the killing of republicans and our families.
But they are not telling people why to vote for them. They are running a negative campaign against Sinn Fein. Why? Because they don't want to talk about the real issues; they don't want to talk about the mess they've made of health, of housing or their failure to use the new wealth of the Celtic Tiger more generously and effectively.
And, because they are afraid of the radical alternative politics republicans are presenting to the people. They are not afraid of us. It is the people they fear.
They are afraid that ordinary people, fed up with corruption and sleaze and government failure to bring forward equality, will turf them out.
Some of those who are saying we can't be trusted are the same people who are commending our two Ministers in the north - Martin McGuinness Minister for Education and Bairbre de Brun Minister for Health.
They have also commended us for our stewardship of the peace process. Surely the ending of conflict and the saving of lives is the most important thing that anyone can be trusted with. Others are consistent at least on this issue. They were always against the peace process and Sinn Fein's involvement in it.
But I believe in people. Sinn Fein believes in empowering people, and in working in partnership with local communities to tackle problems and map out new policies.
I also believe that the story of this election, as it was in 2001 and 1999 will be the growth of the Sinn Fein vote and the increased number of seats that we will win in Leinster House.
The issues for the electorate are equally clear cut - health, childcare, housing, rural redevelopment, the peace process, and the future of this island, the Nice Treaty and a fairer and more equitable distribution of the wealth created by the Celtic Tiger economy. And these are the issues that I will be concentrating on this afternoon.
Building an alliance for Irish Unity
Sinn Fein is a republican party. We are the only All-Ireland party on this island.
Our goal is to see a United Ireland, which delivers real social and economic change. We are the only party with a strategy and policies for achieving Irish unity and independence. We are the only party that you can vote for whether you live in Derry, Kerry, Wexford or Belfast.
And in the north our vote has increased to the point that last summer, with the election of Pat Doherty and Michelle Gildernew, Sinn Fein became the largest nationalist party in the six counties.
In recent times other political parties have begun to accept that the logic of the republican position is popular with many of the plain people of this island. It's amazing to watch those parties that denied republicanism, and did nothing to advance Irish unity and independence, now vying with each other to promote their desire for unity and claim their links to republicanism.
We welcome this and we wish to see them go further than lip service on this issue We want to see the development of an 'Alliance for Irish Unity' which could include all those interested in creating the conditions to achieve that unity.
The process that we are involved in is about creating the conditions for a new democratic, pluralist dispensation on the island and a new relationship between Ireland and Britain.
Change is always difficult. When taken in the context of a conflict, change can be traumatic. And this can be made even more difficult when there are those, both within sections of unionism and within the British political and military establishment, who still want to hold on to the old ways. In my view that is where the serious threat to the peace process comes from at this time.
The challenge to unionists should not be underestimated by republicans. But neither should unionists ignore the fact that they represent 20% of the population of this island. Their potential is greater in an Irish state which wants their vital and essential contribution than it is as 2% of a British state which has consistently demonstrated no real interest in them except when it serves British establishment interests.
The Good Friday Agreement is a compromise between conflicting positions. Bedding that Agreement down, implementing it fully, and stabilising the peace process is the immediate short to mid term priority for our party.
But our goal as Irish republicans for an Irish unity that is inclusive, that unionists will feel welcome in, that they are part of, remains as a legitimate and achieveable objective.
So, as friends and neighbours we have to persuade unionists that they should be prepared to put forward their vision for the future and to consider, discuss and engage with nationalists and republicans about the nature and form a new united Ireland will take.
Consolidating the Peace Process
Sinn Fein does not pretend that we have the answer to all these questions, neither do I believe we have a monopoly on Irish republicanism. If we have done anything in our time it has been to make republicanism, real republicanism, increasingly relevant to a growing number of people. So this election is about voters claiming and staking their part in this process. It is about building core support based on ideological commitment to an Ireland in which the people will be sovereign.
It is about a battle for ideas, about building alliances, about winning friends and allies to our struggle.
There is a lot of criticism of our party from all the usual suspects. But if the peace process is to be properly pinned down then the strategy which we have developed and employed needs to be validated. In going before they electorate we do so with the express intention of not only strengthening the republican position but also consolidating the peace process and the imperative to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement.
Tranforming society on this island also means bringing about real social and economic change. The last ten years have been a time of unprecedented economic growth.
We welcome the fact that there is greater prosperity on the island.
We welcome the fact that more people are working.
We welcome the end to generations of forced emigration.
It is also a good thing that people from other countries can live here.
But the unprecedented growth in the economy during the past decade has slowed down. It remains to be seen if this slowdown can be halted and reversed.
One thing is certain. For those on average or below average incomes the economic slowdown is already a reality. Because of the failure of the government to use economic growth to create equality it is a reality they are ill-equipped to cope with.
And that is the real legacy of this government and its predecessor the Rainbow Coalition. They have actually widened the gap between rich and poor and between men and women in every single budget over the last decade.
It is no surprise that the conservative parties have failed to tackle structural inequalities. The interests they represent, even though there are decent people involved in all of these parties, are the interests of the wealthy and the well off.
So, the wealth of the boom years, a wealth that has been created in the main by PAYE workers has not been utilised for the public good. It has not been put into public services.
The state we are in
Despite accelerating economic growth since this government came to office in 1997:
- a quarter of our children and a fifth of our adults are in households with less than half the average income.
- the government presides over a crisis in our healthcare system and a housing nightmare for the 50,000 households in need of accommodation
- a United Nations report published in July 2001 found that we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any industrialised state outside the USA
- one in four women raising children, or managing households on their own, experience poverty
- while there are now many more women at work than ever before, women are over represented among those on the minimum wage, and in the area of part-time work. In other words they continue to be undervalued in economic terms.
This is the unequal society that now faces recession. And already we hear voices calling for belt tightening and fiscal rectitude - the chorus that in the past meant cuts for the low paid and those on social welfare. The wealthy have been well cushioned against recession by this government.
Those on lower incomes have seen neither the substantial direct gain in wages nor the improved services, which they need at a time of economic uncertainty.
It is little wonder that there is growing disillusionment with party politics. This is due not only to the way that key players in all the other parties have brought politics into disrepute by defrauding and cheating the people. It is due also to the failure to build a relevant and effective alternative.
The quality of this government is reflected in the ineffectiveness and blandness of the opposition. And this is not down only to the ability or lack of ability of those on the opposition benches, it is because of the sameness, the common ideological position of all the other parties in Leinster House. Sinn Fein is about changing that.
Building an Ireland of equals
Sinn Fein believes that there are many serious issues to be addressed in the Irish economy that go past the simple figure of how many jobs were created.
We want an economy where those who work to generate wealth do so in the knowledge that they can afford housing, that they can afford to be ill and that can be assured that their children, and everyone elses child, is getting the best possible education.
Sinn Fein retains the commitment to public service and idealism which the other parties have lost.
To represent this party is a very humbling and gratifying experience. But to be entrusted with the votes, that is the hopes and confidence of our people, is a great honour. It is one we are pledged to uphold.
We are not concerned with the trappings of office or the politics of self-interest.
If this party exists for anything it is so that we can act as agents of change.
If this party stands for anything it is to bring that change about. We are about equality.
This means tackling such crucial issues as low pay, working conditions, the lack of affordable childcare, the role of the government in the economy and the pressing need to address regional and rural underdevelopment. Sinn Fein's priorities in terms of the economy are:
For a full review of the income tax system, to be completed and implemented within the lifetime of the next government. Our focus is to create an equitable tax system. Pending this review we are proposing that the existing tax bands are retained with the exception of those on a minimum wage.
We propose the complete removal of all those earning the minimum wage from the tax net in the first year of the next Dáil.
We will seek to close the tax loopholes that have allowed the very richest people in Irish society to avoid paying a tax rate even equal to 20% of their income.
We also propose reviewing departmental budgets in order to prioritise areas of spending with a high social importance such as health, education and infrastructural development. This review will be conducted in partnership with the Trade Unions and other representatives of the wider society.
The rights of children and parents to affordable, accessible quality childcare must be recognised and supported by the state. This should include childcare tax credits to be available to all women and community based after-school care.
Sinn Fein proposes an innovative approach to job creation with the same quantity and quality of resources available to indigenous enterprise as inward investors.
It is a disgrace that local business people cannot get help on the same level as fly-by-night speculators who have no real stake in this country and who follow the cheapest labour market in their effort to maximise profit.
Our party also believes that there should be greater assistance and funding for women in business.
Scrapping the Two-tier Health Service:
The government's lack of innovation in terms of the economy is even more evident in terms of their approach to the health service.
It is a scandal that in our health system we have first-class and second-class patients.
Private healthcare is subsidised by the State while those on public waiting lists get second-class treatment. In our hospitals consultants are being paid from the public purse for treating public patients while at the same time they profit from the thriving private health business. Their skills can be bought, and public waiting lists by-passed, at the right price.
This system is neither fair or efficient. This Government's current Health Strategy, despite the positive elements in it, continues that approach.
If transforming the health system and creating equality means taking on the vested interests of the most powerful minority in the health services - the consultants who benefit from both private and public systems, then this must be done.
Sinn Fein is for a healthcare system that is free at the point of delivery for all.
This would include free GP care, free hospital care, free medication. This should be funded from general taxation.
We propose ending the public subsidising of private hospitals and the establishment of a single waiting list based on need and not ability to pay.
Medical card eligibility should be extended to all those on or below the minimum wage and to all persons under 18 years of age.
Sinn Fein supports a free and prompt national breast and cervical screening programme for all women.
An effective Housing Strategy:
The gross inequalities in our society are most clearly visible when it comes to housing. At one end of the market you have multi millionaires competing for so called prestige properties. At the other end are people on average incomes who are either crippled with huge mortgages, or if they qualify, join the ever-growing local authority waiting lists.
Women are over represented on our waiting lists. And there are growing numbers of homeless in our towns, villages and cities.
We have been in the depths of a housing crisis since this government came into office. The root of this crisis is the Government's failure to provide social housing. Since 1996 the number on local authority waiting lists has risen by 43%.
In addition, house prices in the private market increased by an average of 15% in 2000 and people in private rented accommodation increasingly face poor living conditions, high rents and no proper security of tenure.
Sinn Fein believes that major state investment in a comprehensive social housing programme is essential.
This means front-loading of funding under the governments 'National (mar dhea) Development Plan' to allow local authorities to house people.
We propose setting targets for the elimination of waiting lists by local authorities. Specially this would mean providing 70% of applicants with suitable accommodation within two years of their being on the list
We support a statutory ceiling on the price of land zoned for housing and statutory control of rents in the private rented sector.
Each generation has a responsibility to take care of the environment, to protect it and to improve it for the next generation. This is not being done.
From Sellafield, to planning, or the lack of it, to the effects of pollution, there is a lack of coherent, farsighted strategies.
Sinn Fein's attitude to all these issues is a matter of public record. One environmental issue which this party has detailed policies on is that of waste management.
Wherever you go in Ireland today you will hear the concerns of communities in places like Louth, Meath, Wexford, Cork and Galway at government attempts to introduce incineration facilities to their areas.
It is a disgrace that the government response to such concern has been the introduction of draconian legislation to disempower local authorities which refuse to implement central government dictated waste management strategies.
This legislation was created as a direct response to the actions of several local authorities which refused to endorse central government attempts to include incinerators in their waste management strategies.
Thus, what began as a struggle for a sustainable environment culminated in to a battle for basic democratic rights. It is because of experiences like this that Sinn Fein has brought forward a new statement on our principles and policies on waste management.
Sinn Fein is working for:
the establishment of an all-Ireland zero waste agency to develop a strategic approach to the planning, financing and implementation to the issue of waste management.
We support the application of the `producer pays' principle
We propose to direct funds to local authorities to support recycling, reduction and reuse initiatives
We oppose incineration as a means of waste disposal.
A programme for rural regeneration:
Across Ireland, rural communities are disappearing. As more and more families leave farming, rural villages are becoming run down. Local businesses are closing and essential services being withdrawn. And a further 20,000 farmers are expected to leave the land in the next ten years.
The reality is that primary producers are now receiving less for their produce in real terms than they did when we joined the EEC in 1973.
To effectively tackle rural decline Sinn Fein believes that what is required is a co-ordinated strategic approach to rural development agreed by all of the statutory organisations, government bodies, farming and community groups.
This has to include new structures, properly resourced and funded to reverse the current trend.
Sinn Fein also supports a return to a sustainable practice of local quality produce for local markets.
This should be combined with support mechanisms to keep people on the land, create ancillary employment and prevent rural depopulation.
A funding initiative to promote organic farming
An all Ireland strategy to promote animal health and consumer confidence in Irish products.
Access to long term finance at reduced interest rates to address the serious shortfall in the number of young farmers in farming.
The development of locally based services and infrastructure with improved access to and awareness of the Rural Transport Initiative both of which are vital to the survival of rural communities.
EU and Nice Treaty
Last June, the electorate in this state rejected the Treaty of Nice. But the government has failed to implement the decision of the people and has not respected their democratically expressed will.
I note that the government is now stating that it will produce a declaration on Irish neutrality from EU leaders in advance of a re-run of the referendum.
However, this proposed declaration would have no standing in law and will not address the concerns raised during the Nice Treaty referendum. The Irish people would still be expected to ratify exactly the same document.
If the government is genuine about this issue they should begin by respecting the result in the Nice Treaty and end their attempts to re-run the same referendum twice.
They should address the concerns raised by the electorate.
Irish neutrality should be enshrined in Irish law.
Sinn Fein wants to see the EU becoming a partnership of equal states, co-operating economically and politically, with the wealthier regions and nations assisting the poorer.
The ongoing centralisation of economic and political power is a process independent of EU enlargement.
We welcome the enlargement of the EU to include new member states if that is the wish of their peoples. But we do not want to see further powers taken away from democratically elected parliaments and handed over to un-elected bureaucrats.
We want to be able to relate to the rest of the world on our own terms and not as part of a giant EU state.
There has been a lot of debate recently regarding the formation of the next government and the attitude of the various conservative parties to Sinn Fein's position in any future administration.
We have also seen a small number of Garda in Kerry engage in a vicious campaign of harassment against our candidate in North Kerry Martin Ferris.
All of this is clearly part of a negative campaign against Sinn Fein aimed at adversely effecting our potential in the general election.
Specifically, in an election where Sinn Fein will win or lose seats on handfuls of votes, mainly transfers, it is a deliberate attempt to persuade sections of the electorate not to transfer to Sinn Fein candidates.
Let me be very clear on all of this.
I am very proud of Martin Ferris. I am proud to have him standing for Sinn Fein in North Kerry.
I am proud of the record of this party in standing shoulder to shoulder with communities threatened by the scourge of drugs.
We have no apologies to make for this.
To label this work as vigilantism is a gross misrepresentation of the communities right to stand up for itself and our vulnerable members, particularly our young people.
It is also a misrepresentation to suggest that we are doing the work of the Garda.
Sinn Fein has no ambition to be a police service. We have enough to do. That is not our job. Our job is to work with the Garda Siochana and others to ensure that criminality can be effectively tackled. In Kerry that means a task force approach, similar to the approach in Dublin, which saw the Garda, statutory and voluntary and community groups come together to tackle the drugs problem. It means more resources made available to these agencies and groups, including the Garda.
It also means introducing into the policing system here reforms to policing that make the Garda more accountable to the community it serves. For example, the appointment of an Ombudsman would be a constructive move forward.
But back to the issue of Coalition government! Sinn Fein has a substantial electoral mandate. We have as much right as any other political party to enter into a coalition government. The question for Sinn Fein is whether there are any potential coalition partners who support building a more equitable and just society in Ireland.
This is a basic issue of equality. Sinn Fein's 200,000 votes are as valid as the votes received by any other party.
If the electorate places Sinn Fein in a position of strength following the general election then this mandate should be respected.
For our part Sinn Fein will hold a special delegate conference following the election to decide on this matter, if this issue arises.
Some of the other parties have said they will not share power with Sinn Fein. Shades of the DUP - they don't wnat to see a fenian about the place? But does anyone really believe that a Taoiseach in-waiting will not deal with our party if we have enough TDs to make a difference? Does any really believe that our support will not be actively sought? The real politic is that it will. And the real question is not, and never has been whether they will go into govrnment with us. The real question is whether we would go into government with them.
A lot of time has been spent here today outlining our core policy positions. This is not a wish list. It is the minimum that the government of a just society should deliver to its voters. It is based on the republican principles of creating a fair, just and equal society that guarantees and promotes the rights of all.
It is a response to the state we are in today and our starting point for redressing the widespread inequalities that sadly characterise Irish life today despite a decade of unprecedented prosperity.
Sinn Fein is for equality. That one word sums up what we want to achieve. Our hard work and achievements within the peace process are an indication of what we can do when republicans put our minds to it, strategise and push ahead.
I have no doubt that we will succeed in our endeavours to bring about real social and economic equality.
Ten years ago there were those who opposed our efforts to build the peace process.
Ten years ago there were also those who actively facilitated corruption in this state.
There were those who said that there was not enough money to provide an adequate health service or public transport system but had no problem creating countless tax loopholes and avoidance schemes for their rich friends.
And there were those who oversaw the collapse in planning while prisons were built before schools or shopping centres.
Ten years ago it fell to republicans to seize the initiative and take the courageous steps necessary to bring peace to Ireland.
We have yet to achieve the democratic peace settlement but is there any doubt that it is our endeavours which have been central to the recent transformation of that situation?
Is there any doubt that we continue to move the process forward by dint of hard work, strategic planning and an ability and willingness to take risks?
So it is with the current social and economic dispensation on this island. We are the generation of Irish republicans who will live as free citizens in a free Ireland.
But social equity and economic justice cannot wait until then.
This election is an important and key part of the resurgence of Irish republicanism on this island.
This is going to be a good election for our party.
Those who are against us need to argue these issues with us. They need to stop hiding behind the politics of illusion, name calling and misrepresentation.
I have no doubt in our ability to increase our mandate.
One thing is for certain Caoihghín O Caoláin will not walk back into Leinster House on his own.
You people here today have the opportunity to make this Sinn Fein's best election in the history of this state. Go out and make it happen.
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