United Ireland no longer a date but a dialogue...
The first-ever Sinn Fein annual conference north of the border threw up some changes in the Sinn Fein mood music. The changes in outlook were mirrored by the results of a Belfast Telegraph poll of 100 grassroots activists, as Political Editor Liam Clarke reports.
Party conferences are not events for debate or soul searching.
They are there to rally the faithful — public bonding sessions at which parties use the TV coverage to project a coherent and efficient image to voters.
This year Sinn Fein managed to transform a united Ireland into a process of persuasion, not a timetabled event.
The slogan they used to sum this up was ‘Towards a New Republic’.
Martin McGuinness did the vision thing on what this might entail, feeding the speculation that he may stand for the Irish Presidency.
At times he sounded almost like John Hume as he argued that Irish unity was about uniting people, not just territory.
“The border is just a line on a bap, I mean a line on a map,” he said, drawing a few indulgent smiles but no heckles with the slip.
He was clearly the conference’s favourite. He also foregrounded engagement with unionists and talked of a five-year national conversation about what the New Republic might be like.
“It is about people, fairness and equality,” he said, adding, “we see unionists as brothers and sisters to be loved and cherished”.
The change in tone is significant and delegates were clearly comfortable with it.
Instead of demanding a date for British withdrawal to pull the rug out from under unionism, as republicans did during the IRA campaign, Sinn Fein is now inviting unionists and others to discuss what sort of society they would like to live in.
Then the aim is to package that into a new constitution which will then be put to a referendum.
There was more emphasis on getting it done right than getting it done quickly; in fact there was no sense of hurry at all.
Sinn Fein outlined plans to use its position in the Dail and Stormont to build support and promote cross-border co-operation, seemingly indefinitely.
Michelle O’Neill, the Agriculture Minister, talked of “a new Food Strategy Board to lead the development of a sharper strategic approach to food to 2020”.
That would draw the north and south closer together but it also stretches four years beyond the 2016 deadline for the national conversation to end.
This year Gerry Adams’ speech was being refined and crafted |up until the last minute to fit the time slot for a live broadcast on RTE.
He is now the leader of Sinn Fein in the Dail, where he said it was shouldering the role of the main opposition voice, and it was mainly aimed at a southern audience.
Though he drew laughs when he reminded the Belfast audience: “I haven’t gone away you know.”
It centred mainly on the southern economy, the threat that the euro might collapse and falling living standards.
He clearly wants no trouble in the north.
He said British withdrawal could best be achieved by “republicans reaching out to unionists”.
“This requires us and them to recognise each other’s integrity and to live in peace,” he said, assuring his audience that “Sinn Fein’s vision of a new Ireland — a New Republic for the 21st century is both pluralist and inclusive.”
Promoting peace is clearly key to Sinn Fein’s drive for votes on both sides of the border.
However, some unionist politicians feel Sinn Fein is airbrushing its past.
The latest is Robin Swann of the UUP.
He criticised Rev David Latimer, the Presbyterian Minister who called Martin McGuinness a great leader in an address to the conference.
He said Rev Latimer should have told delegates that “he cannot accept their point that they had been right in their campaign”.
Mr Swann accused the clergyman of “attempting to portray SF/IRA as ‘holier than thou’.”