If I’m honest, I wondered if I was wise heading down to Dublin very early on Saturday morning to get to the RDS and the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. In the end, having attended the majority of the other local party conferences (only missed the DUP and the Greens ... and the TUV), my curiosity and people’s prompting got the better of me, and I drove down into a world and a party that I’m largely unfamiliar with.
Like the other posts about party conferences, I’m covering how it happened and what was said; I’ll leave the political analysis to others.
So what’s it like?
Like me – until recently – most people reading this blog probably haven’t been to a party conference, and certainly not one run by Sinn Féin . The Ard Fheis had the same family feel of other large party conferences. Friends with similar outlooks and common interests meeting up. There’s a huge social aspect on top of the actual conference business and party grandstanding on TV.
When it comes to logistics, Sinn Féin are very well organised. I’ve seen their planning and management first hand as an Election Observer back in June at the European poll. And those skills were on show again yesterday.
A big set filled one end of the conference hall with two rows of party luminaries high up on the raised stage behind the main podium. Morecambe and Wise could have had fun with the bank of steps in front. Though one speaker pointed out that the set wouldn’t be accessible for many disabled speakers and hoped there would be improvements next year.
Despite the multiple manned camera positions around the hall, there wasn’t a screen embedded into the set to magnify the head of the speakers. And no distracting Powerpoint visuals! Just words. I’d expected tricolours galore, but a single flag stood at one side of the stage.
Most parties rely on their venue’s wireless hotspots to serve the media and bloggers. Sinn Féin provided wired internet access, extension sockets and even direct audio feeds for anyone who needed them, as enough seats and tables to cope with the expected masses.
The PA was flawless – with none of the howl or feedback you sometimes get at other venues. Maybe next year the organisers’ official Ustream channel will work. (Though the PA was clear enough the mic built into my laptop could pick up the proceedings and make them available to various folk following Slugger O’Toole’s coverage of the day.)
There was encouragement from the front that speakers should not waste time repeating back what they said in Irish/English in Irish/English as wireless simultaneous translation headphones was available and both languages were equally valid for use.
The RDS hall holds about 600 people, and it was full during the “live” sessions that went out on RTE and BBC; at least half full for the rest of the day. Despite the number of delegates, the exhibition space was sparse.
Topics for debate
If it hadn’t been for the repeated use of the word “comrade” I could have closed my eyes and imagined that I was back at the SDLP conference. There was a similar volume of motions: Sinn Féin covered 152 compared to the SDLP’s 172. How come the unionists get by without all these official policies?
Lots of topics that you’d expect a democratic socialist party to cover: turf cutting versus peat extraction; perinatal services; student housing in the Holylands and the potential for a similar “erosion” in North Belfast as the University of Ulster expands its Belfast campus; objection against the plans for extension of the Belfast City Airport runway; and a mention for Titanic Quarter with a call for the Executive to intervene to ensure “maximum benefit for working class communities in terms of social housing, employment and community involvement”.
Sinn Féin deal with the motions in blocks of up to thirty. A queue forms at the side of the stage for delegates wanting to speak for or against one or more of the motions. The speeches are time limited, and once the time allotted for the motions is over, no matter who is left in the queue the session closes and they move straight to the votes. Compared to the SDLP experience of poor timekeeping and continual slippage in the timetable of business, they should send someone along to observe at the next Ard Fheis to pick up tips!
Despite being an all-island party and trying to keep policies equally applicable across with NI and the Republic, there’s a fair amount of context switching between the 6 counties and the 26 counties. So in amongst the motions to reaffirm support for Education Minister Caitríona Ruane there was another centrally-proposed motion “opposing the Irish Government’s withdrawal of the support services grant from Protestant fee-charging schools in the South”.
I was surprised at the level of debate and the occasional distension. Not at all the tightly controlled, always on-message party conference I expected. During one of the early sessions on Saturday morning, a delegate was openly critical about the party’s lack of progress around a donor card resolution passed at an Ard Fheis a number of years ago.
It was a quiet year in terms of significant motions and business. NI journalists said that the weekend’s real political news story was happening up north with the UUP gearing up to throw a spanner in the works of Policing & Justice and in County Tyrone with the meeting of the Orange Order’s Grand Lodge that ended up giving a “cautious welcome” to the report of the joint committee on parades.
The high emotion and drama of previous Ard Fheiseanna (plural of Ard Fheis) that voted on the Good Friday Agreement and other peace process issues was missing, and “there's less of a whiff of cordite about this conference than those fifteen years ago” as Mark Devenport succinctly posted on his blog.
There was divergence of opinion with competing blood sports motions. Some delegates felt that hare coursing should still be allowed, and there was a rumour that someone was ejected from the hall after throwing water over another delegate during the coursing debate. (Hare coursing features in the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill that’s making its way through the Assembly.)
But it seems that Friday night had the main political drama with an innocuous looking motion seeking to prevent the option of Sinn Féin going into coalition government with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. The Ard Chomhairle (party executive) amendment eventually passed to leave the option of coalition open but impose preconditions including the agreement of a special delegate conference. Many of the speeches on Saturday very obviously returned to the issue of coalition to hammer home the message of how well it was working in the NI Executive. Martin McGuinness noted:
“But I have to say to Enda Kenny I do know what it is like to operate a coalition government. In case it has escaped his attention I jointly head one. Unlike his party colleagues, Sinn Féin ministers take decisions day and daily which impact on the lives of Irish citizens. Collectively as an Executive we have had to face up to the same problems as the Fianna Fail/Green coalition here in Dublin.”
During the hour-long televised sessions, I was nearly breathless watching the quick succession of speakers getting up on stage to deliver their four minute message to camera as soon as the applause for the previous speaker faded. The order of speakers, their subjects and their content was no accident.
Mary Lou McDonald and Martin McGuinness followed by three southern councillors (including Thérèse Ruane, Caitríona’s young sister). Then it switched to the north with contributions from local MLAs just in time for the BBC coverage to pick up.
If it had been
Britain’s Got Talent the Oscars, then Noleen Mc Polin would have stormed away with the best newcomer award for her spirited performance, backing Ruane’s education plans and stating that “[educational reform] will be the most radical delivery of the Executive”. If she doesn’t end up on a district council or standing as MLA for South Down in the 2011 Assembly elections, I’ll eat my hat … or sit through another party conference!
A selection of remarks from the speakers …
Martin McGuinness on the economic recession - “The race to the bottom that is underway must end and the deliberate targeting of the income of working families and public services is not the answer to sorting out this economic mess.”
Martin McGuinness on the UUP – “The UUP have three days to sort themselves out. They can do the right thing and join with the rest of us in building a new and better future, or they can continue to pursue a negative, rejectionist agenda which is out of step with the majority of unionist opinion and the vast, vast majority of citizens on the island. Is Reg Empey really saying that he is threatening the political institutions because Caitríona Ruane won’t reintroduce the 11 plus? What is more dysfunctional than that?”
Martin McGuinness on political commentators and rivals that say Sinn Féin could not be trusted in a Dublin government – “Wake up and look north. We are in government, we are taking the hard decisions and we are doing a doing a good job to boot. Their attitude is arrogant, it is partitionist and it is absolutely unacceptable.”
Gerry Kelly speechified on a United Ireland and how the Good Friday and Hillsborough agreements were an accommodation, building towards unification – “Despite substantial early resistance to the [north/south government level structures] by Unionists they are now embraced by all parties North and South. To illustrate this let me say that there have been 57 of these meetings between Ministers North and South since May 2007. Another four are planned for this month alone.”
By my counting that means that there have been more north/south ministerial level meetings that Executive meetings!
Michelle Gildernew presented the Farming News. As well as outlining her department’s programme to tackle rural poverty and social exclusion, she explained “why I am targeting the next £7 million tranche of our farm modernisation scheme at those farms and farm families” “who live in the more difficult environments, on our hillsides and mountainous areas”. Expect an Equality Impact Assessment on that policy soon.
Alex Maskey was next with Crimewatch – “We believe we are making good and steady progress as the Policing Board and DPPs engage more with communities” … “Comrades, we are delivering on our mandate while striving for an all-Ireland justice system”. I was surprised that unlike policing and justice speeches at other party conferences, Maskey made no reference to Peadar Heffron. Update - On the Friday night, Sinn Féin’s national chairman Declan Kearny did speak out against dissident violence and mentioned his cousin Peadar Heffron who “is making a good recovery and hopefully that will continue to be the case”. But Maskey still missed the opportunity.
Caitríona Ruane’s speech was well reported in the media and said lots of predictable stuff about her education policies and pointed to investment in schools … while making no reference to the fact that there is no budget available for building and repair work on NI schools after 31 March – which has forced the curtailment of some projects underway.
Speakers from movements in Palestine, the Basque Country and South Africa had a chance to address the delegates after lunch. Gerry Adams took his place on stage for the first time on Saturday during this session.
The gentleman from Palestine declared “I adore your people, love the Sinn Féin and it’s democratically chosen leaders, and I particularly love my friend Gerry Adams”.
Conference was brought a message from a Basque compatriot in jail and finished with a crowd pleasing “Tiocfaidh ár lá”.
Lastly, Baleka Mbete, the national chairperson of the ANC took to the stage. She was impressed with how Martin McGuinness had cleaned up, wearing shirt and tie, and doing important meetings. She recalled Northern Ireland politicians coming to South Africa, but having to travel in separate planes, eat in separate restaurants. But Nelson Mandela came and scolded them and it seemed to have worked. No surprise that this bit was left out of the Sinn Féin press office’s summary note of her address!
She hoped that Mandela will “stick around” to enjoy the World Cup, and the ANC centenary in Jan 2012.
Youth, diversity and fashion
Compared to the SDLP and Alliance conferences, Sinn Féin had a much older audience with fewer young people in attendance. Fashion wise, there was a lot more denim being worn than the other party conferences; but the SDLP’s short skirt trend didn’t really extend to the Ard Fheis!
Other than the international guests and some self-tanning disasters, the Ard Fheis delegates were all nearly as pasty faced as me. Where was the diversity that is so obvious across the island? Put bluntly, the Progressive Unionist Party’s conference had more black delegates, despite being tiny in comparison with Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis. Plenty of talk from the platform about standing up for LGBT rights, but a lack of ethnic diversity and physical disability.
I called in at the youth fringe event organise by Ógra Shinn Féin over tea time. About 45 young people listened to a panel talking about how “to make this country a better place for ourselves”. Panellists described how they got into politics, their desire for a unification and thinking about the inequalities of society.
As well as an honest reflection that standing for council had made one guy very recognisable in the pub, the youthful delegates were encouraged to get onto sites “like Facebook and Twitter and put up the events you’ll be attending, the rallies and protests” to get the word out about OSF activities.
One northern panellist who was a local councillor talked about his experience of “working with unionists when we can, and only confronting them when necessary”. This reflected other comments from the main stage on Saturday – practical co-operation rather than mindless aggravation. He also pointed out that unionist voters were consistently contacting Sinn Féin advice centres for help – echoing Niall Ó Donnghaile’s experience described in a previous post.
Adams’ closing speech
While the BBC generally broadcast from the party conferences at lunchtime, the other southern party leaders prefer going live to the nation on RTE at half eight on Saturday night. The Ard Fheis was elongated this year to accommodate Gerry Adams speaking at half eight. I’d been warned that the hall would fill up and that there would be an influx of journalists coming in at the last minute to cover his speech. While the hall was packed with delegates, the media throng was overstated.
Security was very visible all day. But I’m still not sure why – minutes before Adams came back into the hall to deliver his speech – we were told to note the location of the nearest fire escape?
Suddenly for the a sign language interpreter (presumably ISL, rather than BSL) appeared to the side of the stage – the first time all day. I can’t help feeling she was there for the cameras rather than anyone in the audience.
The first two thirds of Adams’ address was pitched at the RTE audience before returning to northern matters towards the end. There was an abundance of socialist rhetoric:
“Everyone who lives on this island has the right to a home; a safe environment; to access education and childcare; to civil and religious liberty; and to meaningful work with proper terms and conditions. Everyone has the right to health care.”
The shadow of the Ryan Report, the Dublin Archdiocese Commission’s investigations, and Liam Adams was clearly visible in the extended section dealt with children.
“The Proclaimation of the Republic asserts the need to cherish all the children of the nation equally …
It doesn’t say unless you are poor or elderly, Or unless you have autism; or learning difficulties; or disabilities. Or unless you come from a remote rural area. Or from Moyross or Sheriff Street; or Strabane or Ballymena.
It doesn’t say unless you are a child in the care of the state. The protection of children is a fundamental human right. the protection of children is the responsibility of all of us and it should be guaranteed in the constitution.”
There was a call for people to stop being passive and get stuck in.
“And all of us who believe in a better way, in a just society, in a real republic; we need to make our beliefs relevant to more and more people. We need to be about empowerment. We need to raise our voices. We need to make a stand.”
Not sure if that means there will be an upsurge in republican bloggers?! The theme returned again later in the speech.
“That’s the main thing, to stand up for ourselves. And for others. That is what happened throughout our history.”
Think I’d prefer if parties reversed the order and stood up for others before themselves, but maybe that’s why I’m not a member of any.
There was a reminder of other finished “struggles”:
“Most struggles aren’t won by single actions. Or by iconic leaders. Though they have their role. They are won by people, taking individual actions, which accumulate into irreversible change.”
Suffragettes, anti-apartheid movement, Rosa Parks, …
The economy was never far away from speakers’ lips on Saturday. Adams took a few shots at the government and at NAMA.
“We need leaders to ensure that no banker will evict a family from their home.”
“The biggest scandal of all is the pouring of billions of taxpayers’ money into a toxic banking system and NAMA. There is no NAMA for workers.”
As the 25 minute speech concluded, members of the public Northern Ireland were invited to come to Sinn Féin “town hall” meetings and help crowdsource their “manifest for change”. And a quick mention of the continued strategy “to marshal [the Irish diaspora’s] political strength in support of a United Ireland”.
The speech ended with the second “Tiocfaidh ár lá” of the day followed by a sharp militaristic ninety degree turn to the right, stand to attention and a song. Willie McCrea doesn’t have the monopoly on culture!
I grew up during the Troubles. I remember sitting (reading) in the back of the car on the way down to a holiday in West Port. Black flags lined the lamp posts for much of the journey. I remember listening over breakfast to the daily account of overnight violence, bombings and murders on Good Morning Ulster. I wish Sean Crummey had been around to do the voiceovers for Gerry Adams on television reports. Culturally, I can’t help but associate the republican movement with those dark days.
The organisers and delegates were a friendly and welcoming bunch. There were none of the suspicious looks or pointed questions that a naïve blogger might ave expected.
The Ard Fheis was a party conference like many of the others I’ve witnessed over the last few months. They debated the minutiae of turf cutting one minute, criticised the government and other parties the next. They took advantage of the rare, unedited access to television and online audiences, as well as well as conducting vital party business to keep the party organisation on the road. There was a lot of back-slapping, and not too much back-stabbing. Heaps of advice doled out to other parties, and plenty of encouragement for the most often criticised representatives and policies of their own party.
Humour in abundance – Barry McElduff is still Sinn Féin’s version of Sammy Wilson (DUP) or Basil McCrea (UUP). And not a mention of guns or bullets, prisoners’ rights. Don’t think I even caught a reference to Iris Robinson. She must have been on the banned topics list.
Mary Lou McDonald spent quite a lot of time in the hall, sitting up on the stage during the business. But Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were much less visible. Admittedly, they were busy giving interviews and serving the demands of the multiple media outlets present. But they had a lot less face time with delegates than the leaders I could see at other party conferences.
Sinn Féin have left the building and won’t be back to the RDS for a few years. Future Ard Fheiseanna will tour the four provinces of Ireland over coming years. 2011 will see them in Belfast – possibly returning to the Ulster Hall (not the first time it’s been held there) if the clash of dates with the Waterfront Hall can’t be resolved.