Martin McGuinness has the backing of a majority of Sinn Fein members to meet the Queen and near unanimous support if he expresses regret for the suffering caused by the IRA campaign.
The shift in stance on the Royal family and a feeling it’s time for a message of apology to all those touched by republican violence are among the main findings of a Belfast Telegraph survey of opinion at Sinn Fein’s ard fheis held in Killarney over the weekend.
Despite the support from most for engaging with the Queen, the message coming from the leadership that dissidents had to be faced down seems not to have permeated right through the rank and file.
Party president Gerry Adams has offered to meet with dissident republicans to try and negotiate an end to their campaign.
Despite this, most delegates indicated that they would not give information on dissidents to the police — even though the party is appealing to young Catholics to join the PSNI.
When asked if they would be prepared to ring the police anonymously and say where dissident weapons were hidden, 36% said they would call but 14% wouldn’t. The rest were undecided.
When they were asked if they would appear as prosecution witnesses if they saw a dissident attack on the police only 16% said yes with 60% refusing.
Some said that fear of revenge attacks would deter them from going to court.
Declan Kearney, the party’s national chairman, discussed the results of the poll with the Telegraph and was at pains to point out that progress was being made.
On the issue of dissidents and going to the police, Mr Kearney said: “Our position in regard to the PSNI and the support for the justice system in the north is absolutely unambiguous.
“It is the job of the police to deal with those who continue to use violent means to try and destabilise the peace process and hold progress back.”
A public expression of regret to “all who were injured and bereaved” as part of the IRA campaign was favoured by 84%.
This was significant because in the past the IRA has apologised only to innocent victims.
Mr Kearney (below) was “not surprised” by the result.
He said it showed that republicans wanted to “move the peace process to the next stage by healing division and healing the hurt”.
“Republicans are open to being very imaginative, very generous and compassionate about how that can be done,” he stated.
There was a majority (54%) for allowing Mr McGuinness to meet the Queen, with 30% opposed.
This represents movement and probably means that Mr McGuinness can make the gesture without causing a split.
One delegate who opposed it added that it would probably be a seven-day wonder and not a major cause for contention.
Mr Kearney felt that meeting the Queen in Northern Ireland would be difficult because of republican opposition to her status here, but didn’t rule it out.
He believes that her recent visit to the republic had “made a contribution to the peace process”.
He argued: “There are many within our society for whom the English Queen’s visit would have meaning and we as republicans need to recognise, respect and be very tolerant of that.”
Sinn Fein’s Ard Comhairle, of which he is a member, will decide the matter when they have details of the visit.
There was strong support (84%) for Gerry Adams’ continued leadership with TDs Mary Lou Mc Donald and Pearse Doherty favoured by the 14% who wanted Mr Adams to leave before the next Irish election.
Only 60% said they would like a referendum on Irish unity soon, though this is official Sinn Fein policy.
Interestingly, 96% would vote for unity if living standards were maintained. This fell to 66% support if it meant a fall in income.
In voting terms Sinn Fein is a party of plumpers, unlikely to transfer on to other candidates in a single transferable vote election.
Just 10% would consider a preference vote for the DUP, 16% for the SDLP, 6% for the UUP and 8% for Alliance with the Greens coming out best on 38%. None at all would transfer to Fianna Fail or Fine Gael in the Republic.