Ard fheis shows just how far Sinn Féin has come

Posted By: November 03, 2021

Deaglán de Bréadún. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, November 3, 2021.

ON Saturday last, I fetched up at Dublin City University to collect my press pass and attend the Sinn Féin ard fheis.


The holding of the conference in the imposing Helix conference hall/theatre at DCU was yet another reflection of how much the party has grown and become mainstream.


I am racking my brains to recall at what point in my journalistic career I attended an SF party conference for the first time. Certainly, I was present at the Mansion House in Dublin on November 2, 1986, when the game-changing decision was made to alter the abstentionist policy so that SF candidates who were successful in a general election could take their seats in Leinster House. Since a secret IRA convention shortly beforehand had taken a similar decision, the result of the Mansion House vote was no great surprise. There was a split afterward of course and Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) was founded by those who couldn’t stomach the Leinster House move.


I had raised the abstentionism issue with Gerry Adams in late September 1986 – at a time when interviews with the Sinn Féin leader were as rare as hen’s teeth and he was banned from RTÉ under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. He said it was a matter for the ard fheis to decide and that he didn’t expect a split if the policy was changed. Six weeks later, a motion to that effect from the party’s ard Chomhairle (executive committee) was approved by 429 to 161 votes. In a speech to the conference, the late Martin McGuinness referred to the fact that the IRA army council had already approved the dropping of abstentionism


Last weekend’s event also took a decision that was less dramatic than the 1986 move but still had considerable significance, namely, to accept the establishment of non-jury courts in “exceptional circumstances”. Like the proposal to drop abstentionism, this was a motion from the ard Chomhairle but, on this occasion, there was no mention of the army council. Times have changed.


The non-jury Special Criminal Court was set up in 1972 on the basis that jurors were likely to be intimidated in certain types of cases. Opposition to it had been a feature of Sinn Féin policy for many years, based on the fact that persons accused of IRA-related activities could be brought before it and have jail sentences imposed on them. Now that the Provisional IRA is generally believed to have hung up its Armalite, Sinn Féin policy has changed. They still want the currently-constituted “Special Crim” abolished but are in favor of a situation where a judge can decide that a case should be heard in a non-jury court. This would apparently include cases where alleged members of dissident republican groups were being brought to trial.


The party has come under sustained criticism for its previous stance on non-jury courts. This move could take the steam out of that and make the possibility of a Sinn Féin-led government even more likely.


No doubt I’m not the only person who has a “pinch me, is it real?” reaction to SF’s political progress. On a cautionary note, the final date by which a general election must be held in the south is February 20 2025. That’s three years and almost four months away and the Shinners just might have run out of steam by then. On the other hand, the bandwagon could be rolling even more powerfully at that stage.


The latest poll figures at the time of writing suggest that the party could win up to 60 seats if a general election took place soon. At least another 20 would be needed for a majority. That would mean trying to cut a deal with the smaller parties and independents or forming a coalition with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. But here’s the thing: SF got 24.5 percent of first preference votes in the February 2020 general election and a RedC/Business Post survey on October 22 had them at 33 percent. It’s still a long way off an overall majority but a significant advance, nevertheless. Can Fianna Fáil and/or Fine Gael reverse the trend? No sign of it at present.


The day after Saturday’s ard fheis, I observed the official unveiling of a statue to Kevin Barry, the legendary young republican activist hanged by the British in 1920. The ceremony took place in his home village of Rathvilly, County Carlow and the only senior politician I recognized in the crowd of several hundred was former Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Our leaders are out of touch.


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