Confident leader pledges party will make no promises it cannot keep
ANALYSIS:SF president reserved his sharpest comments for the party’s main left-wing rival, Labour
SINN FÉIN has come a long way. At the weekend in Killarney, one’s mind kept returning to an assignment covering a previous ardfheis the party held in Dundalk. The year was 1993 and the IRA campaign of violence was still under way. Sinn Féin was a political pariah south of the Border. Since the previous year’s gathering, two of its leading activists, Malachy Carey and Sheena Campbell, had been murdered.
The Louth town, where Gerry Adams now has his political base, was deserted, except for uniformed and plainclothes gardaí and some anti-IRA protesters. Even the hire of the hall from the Urban District Council required a case in the High Court.
The contrast with the proceedings in Kerry could not have been greater. Party chairman Declan Kearney described Sinn Féin as “the fastest-growing party in Ireland” and he urged delegates to keep up the momentum.
Addressing the Killarney conference, Kearney, little-known on this side of the Border, but a significant figure among the new generation of Sinn Féin leaders, recalled how, not far away at Ballyseedy Cross in March 1923, eight IRA prisoners suffered terrible deaths after being tied to a mine by Free State forces.
But he departed from republican tradition by recalling also that, on the previous day at Knocknagoshel, five Free State soldiers were killed in an IRA booby-trap explosion.
Echoing Kearney’s sentiments, Martin McGuinness spoke of how reconciliation talks had begun in recent months with “a range of civic unionism and Protestant churches”.
In that context, a meeting between McGuinness, the archetypal IRA leader of former days, and the living symbol of Britishness, Queen Elizabeth, could be a source of considerable reassurance to the unionist community. Any such encounter, however, would doubtless incur the scorn of the dissidents.
McGuinness had scathing words for these groups, charging that their only proven capability was to break the hearts of the bereaved families of their victims.
Nevertheless, he offered to enter into dialogue with the dissidents, although his invitation was couched in such acid tones the prospect of such a meeting must be considered remote.
In his presidential address, Gerry Adams dwelt at length on the political situation in the Republic. It was no surprise that some of his sharper comments were reserved for the Labour Party, Sinn Féin’s principal rival for the left-wing vote and the affections of trade unionists.
Listing the austerity measures taken by the Coalition, he asked: “What really is the point of the Labour Party in this Government?” What would Connolly think of the promises broken by the party he founded?
Adams then had what may prove to be his own “Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way” moment when he said: “My commitment to you this evening is that Sinn Féin will not make any promises that we will not keep.”
But politics is the art of the possible and if Sinn Féin wants to enter the portals of Government Buildings in the next few years it will almost certainly have to make compromises and accept a share of the austerity it is now opposing in such strident terms.
Sinn Féin’s rivals are somewhat cynically suggesting that a defeat for the treaty would be bad news for the party because it would have to face hard questions about funds in the likely eventuality that Ireland needs a second bailout.
The best result for Sinn Féin in this rather-jaundiced perspective would be a high No vote but one that fell short of a majority.
Be that as it may, it seems a virtual certainty that Sinn Féin will, sooner or later, be walking the corridors of power in Merrion Street.