Recent conferences held by republicans and the DUP highlighted a stark contrast in focus, says Nelson McCausland
The two largest political parties in Northern Ireland have just held their party conferences — and the contrast was stark. The first to take place was the Sinn Fein conference and Gerry Adams formally announced his impending retirement, but then we knew about that already.
More significant was the focus of the conference, because when Sinn Fein delegates met in the Convention Centre in Dublin their primary focus was on the Irish Republic. Northern Ireland was a bit of an afterthought.
This conference was part of Sinn Fein’s preparation for the next election in the Republic and the party used it to address some of its more difficult issues, such as the recent resignations and the contentious issue of abortion.
However, for me, the most illuminating speech was that of Elisha McCallion, the Sinn Fein MP for Foyle. Elisha seems to court publicity, as we saw back in June with her embarrassing tweet about the inadequate size of her hotel room in London.
Elisha certainly got into the mood of the Ard Fheis when she said “up the rebels”, a phrase that she said was used by the late Martin McGuinness.
However, the loudest cheer of the day came when she described Martin McGuinness as “a proud member of the IRA”.
That thunderous cheer said a lot about Sinn Fein, because it is the only party represented in Westminster, Stormont or the Dail whose party conference would applaud terrorists.
Elisha McCallion was born on October 21, 1982 and is just 35 years old. She is one of the new generation of female politicians in Sinn Fein and that makes it all the sadder. Sinn Fein has certainly changed, but it still has a long way to travel on the road of normalisation.
The behaviour of Elisha McCallion and the delegates who cheered her show how difficult that road will be.
Her words brought to mind the time when the weekly Sinn Fein newspaper carried a column entitled ‘War News’ and reported in glowing terms of the actions of the IRA.
Then last Saturday the DUP held its conference in the La Mon Hotel near Belfast. In her keynote speech as leader of the party, Arlene Foster started by placing Northern Ireland in the context of the United Kingdom and said: “Our conference takes place against the backdrop of unprecedented interest in the Democratic Unionist Party from across the United Kingdom.”
In a confident speech that was well-crafted and well-delivered, she referred to many of the most important political and practical issues facing the people of Northern Ireland, but she did not forget the victims of terrorism.
She said: “Sinn Fein go to their conference and glory in the murder of the IRA.
“Today conference my thoughts are with the victims of Enniskillen, Kingsmills and La Mon and the many thousands of innocent victims who have conducted themselves with dignity over the decades.”
Twelve Protestants were murdered by the IRA in the Enniskillen bomb. Eleven Protestant workmen were lined up by the IRA gunmen at Kingsmills and slaughtered in what was a blatantly sectarian atrocity. Twelve Protestants were burnt alive when the IRA fire-bombed the La Mon Hotel. Of course the IRA murdered many Roman Catholics too, including several who were murdered as they attended Sunday morning Mass.
Yet a thousand republicans in Dublin cheered as Elisha McCallion spoke of the “pride” of a member of the organisation that carried out these atrocities.
Here we had a new generation of Sinn Fein leaders cheering those who denied so many the most fundamental of all human rights, the right to life. At its conference Sinn Fein talked about its “rights-based approach” to politics. It all rings rather hollow when we hear Sinn Fein praising terrorists because there was no “rights-based approach” with the IRA.
The two conferences came towards the end of a remarkable year in Ulster and British politics, but at the end of that year, Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds were able to set out a positive vision for Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein seem shackled to a murderous past.