29th March 2003
Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2003
Address by Sinn Fein Vice President Pat Doherty, opening the peace process section
The Sinn Fein vision for this island is unique. But it is important that it is not allowed to become exclusive. It is this vision which has taken us on a remarkable journey over the past 10 or 15 years.
It was the Ard Fheis of 1988, 15 years ago, when I launched our discussion document `A scenario for peace'. Four years later I stood in front of the Ard Fheis and presented an updated document `Towards a Lasting Peace'.
At that time Gerry Adams was in talks with John Hume and the peace process as we now know it was in its embryonic form. Politics in the 26 Counties was dominated by brown envelopes and disgraceful practices.
Our political opponents and sections of a hostile media scorned our efforts and predicted failure. Their vision could not see beyond the daily reality of conflict and war on our streets. They could not move beyond demonising Sinn Fein. Many in the establishment were happier jumping on board the so called `Peace Train' instead of working to build a real peace process and actually addressing the causes of conflict. They were blind to the impact of partition and they could not see how society on this island could be transformed and indeed needed to be transformed.
Republicans presented that vision. We sought to break down barriers and challenge all of those groups and individuals who had a stake holding in the future of this island to join together and make a viable peace process work.
We have travelled a considerable distance since then. I have to admit when I stood here 15 years ago I could not have foreseen just how much rapid progress we have made.
However all of this work, and the work undertaken over the past ten or fifteen years, will be in vain if we are not clear and agreed on the political project which we have undertaken. We do not simply aim to bring the issue of Irish Unity onto the centre stage of political life although that is important - we must aim higher - we must aim not simply to promote, but to secure the national, democratic and social rights of all sections of our people.
Despite being the oldest political party on the island Sinn Féín is the new, dynamic vehicle for change on this island. The progress we have made in recent years has been remarkable. More and more people are becoming part of a movement for change on this island.
Our peace strategy helped create the space. Our negotiation team helped create the Agreement. And you have crated the dynamic which has driven this entire process.
But all of this is work in progress. We have not yet completed our journey. We still have some way to travel.
That will mean for all of us a lot of hard work. It will be a testing time. But republicans have shown time and again that we are up for this. That we have not been found wanting when met with the challenges thrown up by this process.
But the peace process has not just thrown up challenges for Sinn Fein. Stop for a moment and look at where it has taken our political opponents.
Unionism has in the main been unable to cope with the demands of conflict resolution. Indeed many within its ranks are in a state of denial. Denying that discrimination ever existed. Denying that they were part of this conflict. Denying that they were responsibility for inequality, supremacy and second class citizenship.
They view, wrongly, equality as a threat. Equality is a threat to nobody. A level political playing field is a threat to nobody. In fact it is the inevitable outcome of a successful conflict resolution process.
But unionism needs to realise that human rights, equality, democracy or decent policing are not concessions. Sinn Fein won't be bartering on these issues. They are basic rights and basic entitlements and are the direct result of the outworking of the Good Friday Agreement.
They know what the full implementation of the Agreement means. They know the result of an Equality Agenda. They know the result of an end to exclusion and discrimination. They know that a level playing field removes much of the rational for the existence Unionism itself. They fear that a new inclusive society will erode the very rational for the existence of the union and continuing British jurisdiction on this island.
That is the stakes we are playing for. That is why the spooks within the British system, those who invented shoot to kill and those who created the unionist paramilitaries and who are still trying to defeat Irish republicanism are trying to undermine the Agreement and the process which created it.
At the last Westminster election Sinn Fein became the largest nationalist party in the north. We surpassed the SDLP. This was a massive achievement and was hugely significant.
The rise of Sinn Fein and the rise in the popularity of the demand for a United Ireland has thrown up massive questions for the SDLP as a party. They entered the last elections on a post nationalist ticket. They clearly had confined any vision they had to the boundaries of the six county state.
This view was rejected in favour of the Sinn Fein vision for a new Ireland, an Ireland at peace with itself and with its neighbour. That is the future. The future is not partition, division or the conflict it resulted in.
Since the last Westminster election those in the SDLP who shunned the idea of a united Ireland in favour of a cosy arrangement with a section of unionism within the confines of partition have been left with much soul searching to do. Some have demanded that they seek out partners in Fianna Fáil, others have suggested Pat Rabbite's version of Labour, I am quite sure there are others who would be more at home within the ranks of Fine Gael, and indeed a sizable group content to carry on modernising the union and maintaining a version of the status quo. But there are those who realise that the future lies in a United Ireland. And it is those people that we must work with. That we must build alliances with. And not just in the six counties. There is a pool of United Irelanders in the 26 Counties which we have not yet tapped into. That is a job of work which we must undertake.
We correctly viewed the Good Friday Agreement as an instrument of change, real change, in real meaningful ways. The resistance it has met in the corridors of the various establishments has not therefore surprised any of us. Nor has the approach of the Sinn Fein activist to all that has been thrown in our path - all the stalling, all the grand standing, all the provocation. You have not become disillusioned. You have refused to become distracted and all of the time you have kept your eye on the real prize.
The peace process which grew from our strategy has become a cherished and important process for most people on the island. Sinn Fein are seen as the engine driving it. That is why we have grown across the island and will continue to do so.
We have seen what is possible. Peace is possible - real and lasting and even more importantly a united, independent Ireland is ours if we want it badly enough, if we go out and work hard, if we win support for that objective, for that vision and we are prepared to work hard to achieve it. This generation of republicans more so than any since partition have that chance, that opportunity and I am confident that we can deliver.
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