I would like to begin by welcoming delegates, visitors and guests to the 2005 Ard Fheis – on this, the 100th anniversary of our party.
The last few weeks have been very difficult. Difficult for republicans and difficult for those we represent – the republican communities who have supported and sustained the republican struggle over the years. These communities know from first hand experience why the struggle was necessary, and they know at first hand the sacrifices that have been necessary to get us to where we are today.
I want to directly address those communities this evening.
For them, what is important is not the endless debate about whether Gerry Adams and I were in the IRA. Or whether people believe us or Hugh Orde about the Northern Bank robbery.
No. What is important to them is whether they can believe in us — believe in us when we say we are committed to true equality; believe in us when we say that we are against criminality of all kinds; believe in us when we say that our commitment to the peace process is total and absolute
What pains me the most about the last few weeks is not the criticism from the two governments, our political opponents, the media and those unionists who are so clearly delighted to have an excuse for their intransigence. We are used to that and we can take it.
What pains me the most is any suggestion, suspicion or indication that the IRA could be turned into a criminal gang or a tool of individual interest, or otherwise engaged in criminality. And in that context I am both outraged and saddened at the involvement of a small number of IRA volunteers in the brutal killing of Robert McCartney in Belfast four weeks ago.
So let me be clear. The murder of Robert McCartney was wrong – and let me be absolutely clear this was a grievous crime. It is wrong, it should never have happened and it is wrong that those who witnessed the murder should be intimidated in any way. And the McCartney family are absolutely right when they say that those responsible should be held accountable for their actions and should make themselves accountable for their actions. I again urge all of those involved in any way to admit their role and to make themselves accountable in court.
We cannot allow republicanism to be diminished in this way. To do so would be a betrayal of our struggle, of our own personal commitment, of the hunger strikers and of those brave republicans who selflessly gave their lives and liberty for a noble and worthy cause.
The speedy response of the IRA to the involvement of its members in the killing of Robert McCartney is in stark contrast to years and decades of cover up by the British government around collusion, shoot-to-kill, torture, Bloody Sunday, the Dublin Monaghan bombings … I could go on and on.
But the lessons of the last few weeks go wider than that – and, painful as it is, we as republicans have to face the reality that there is a crisis of confidence that could destroy the Good Friday Agreement.
In December we got close to a historic agreement that would have put violence behind all of us forever. We were cheated only by the insistence of the unionists on the humiliation of the IRA.
I am not prepared to let our struggle be demonised, or to be caught in a downward spiral that leads inexorably to a return to violence.
Instead, republicans are determined to find a way, however difficult and challenging, to put all conflict and violence behind us all for good; to see all weapons put beyond use; to prevent criminality; to participate in policing on the right terms; and to pursue a purely political, peaceful and democratic path to the Irish unification that every one of us wants to see.
We have made momentous progress in building towards Irish unity in the 12 months since we last met at an Ard Fheis. One of our most successful moments of the last twelve months was of course the election of two MEPs – Mary Lou Mc Donald in Dublin and Bairbre de Brun in the six counties. And of course, with Pearse Doherty coming close to taking a third, combined with the massive increase in our representation on local councils across the south, positioning our party to make great gains in the next general election in this state sent shockwaves through the political establishment. The radical alternative to the politics of partition and conservatism, north and south that Sinn Fein represents was endorsed by a growing number of people across the island.