Sinn Féin’s ard fheis in Derry was a fast-paced bellicose gathering of a party hungry for power and baring its teeth before next year’s general election.
Delegate after delegate took to the stage in the packed Millennium Forum hall delivering growling criticisms of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, as well as the Tory-led government in Britain.
This vociferous pack of politicians and their doggedly loyal supporters are in a veritable hunt for power. Sinn Féin wants a mandate for government and on their own terms, not as a junior partner.
The old walled city was an appropriate venue for the two-day party conference.
Despite Derry’s troubled history, a theme of reconciliation was relayed by party figures on stage. It was a fitting location with elections looming both in the North and South next year.
While the party is expected to poll well in the Dáil elections, the outcome of the assembly elections in the North could be a different matter. Some expect Sinn Féin will suffer losses as a consequence of agreeing to huge budget cuts it claims are being imposed from London. This is the price of being in power, as opposed to Opposition and challenging the status quo.
We can expect Sinn Féin’s record in the North to be scrutinised by opponents in the coming months. It might be fighting austerity in Dublin, but some see it as responsible for these same policies in the North. In some corners of the home city of Martin McGuinness, there is resentment towards Sinn Féin, particularly from young people, over the cuts.
Of course though, the mood inside the packed conference centre in Derry on the weekend was not one of worry, but determination.
Motions on topics from health, to rural affairs, policing and a united Ireland were fleshed out.
Not surprisingly, while party chairman Declan Kearney talked about the war being over and forgiveness, ardent Republican thoughts naturally came to the fore. Limerick councillor Séighin Ó Ceallaigh got a rousing cheer from the floor when he asked why the British royal family or British government should be invited to attend the 1916 commemorations.
“Can we really invite the establishments responsible for the executions for 1916, both Bloody Sundays, the death of republican hunger strikers, and the torture of so many POWs to events remembering these republican heroes?”
However, more pressing issues were debated over the weekend, which will solidify the party’s stance going into the general election next year. Red line issues for any power deal were set out. Sinn Féin has now made it clear it will not support a Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael-led government.
Furthermore, it is determined to abolish water charges and property taxes if it gets into government. The reality of finding alternative funds to replace these charges has yet to be properly explained by Mr Adams or his frontbench TDs.
The party’s position on supporting abortion for fatal foetal abnormalities was made clear too, with female delegate after female delegate giving strong speeches. Furthermore, Sinn Féin has very much aligned itself with the left for the election. This was evident in its attacks on bankers and defence of water protesters, as well as the promise of a 7% wealth tax if the party enters government.
This was summed up by Mr Adams in his speech: “Bankers and their political cronies are the golden circle. It is corrupt bankers and corrupt politicians who should be in jail, and not water charge protesters.”
What impact the Derry convention has on voters in the South is unclear, but it was certainly an opportunity to address common issues North and South and attack the Fine Gael-led administration in Dublin and the Tories in London.
However, it remains to be seen if Sinn Féin are genuinely preparing for government or will they instead wait in the long grass in opposition after the next election. Opposition benches though can be lonely places. Overall, they want — as Martin McGuinness said — to be the biggest parties both North and South next year. Voters will decide that, but Gerry Adams and his party believe they will get the numbers.
“Little wonder that Enda and Joan are worried. They and their cronies will be even more strident in the run in to the election — so brace yourselves. They know the people want change. Sinn Féin wants a mandate for government. I believe we can win that mandate,” he said.
Certainly though, the presence of dynamic speakers and strategists, young aspiring councillors and a vibrant almost fervent mood in Derry makes Sinn Féin the biggest threat to Fine Gael and Labour’s hopes of a second term.
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