By Anne Cadwallader
DUBLIN — The 1999 Sinn Fein ard fheis took place in the RDS at the weekend in an atmosphere of anger, frustration and resentment, with party leaders making strenuous attempts to cool tempers and restore morale.
Delegates were united in condemning the deadlock in the political process over IRA decommissioning and adamant that the two governments must take urgent action to break the impasse and implement the Good Friday peace agreement.
Although the leadership was critical of the Ulster Unionists, personal criticism of the UUP leader, David Trimble, was minimal and most speeches referred to the republican movement’s wish to work alongside unionists.
The party’s president, Gerry Adams, said he believed there was only a small window of opportunity available to break the impasse between now and the beginning of the European election campaigns and the loyalist marching season — probably only 15 or 16 days.
He acknowledged the widespread anger at the grassroots in his leader’s speech, but appealed for delegates to take a long, hard look at the long-term strategic objectives of the republican movement, and resist being "mesmerized" by unionist delaying tactics.
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He also raised the prospect of this British government failing to break the logjam.
"Maybe this British government, despite a good start when it came into power, is not up to the historic task facing it at this time" he said.
Adams pointedly paid tribute to "today’s IRA Volunteers" and repeatedly said he was aware of the anger and frustration in republican ranks over the stalled implementation of the agreement.
He reminded the party that this anger must be tempered by a clear head.
"Let me remind you all that the democratic and republican position will only be advanced by clear strategic thinking and by intelligent, disciplined and forward thinking activists," he said.
Adams told delegates that he had been "challenged and confronted by justifiable anger many times since the last ard fheis but particularly since the negotiations at Hillsborough.
"I know our party well enough to know that these doubts will not necessarily be voiced at an ard fheis," he said. "In private meetings and in one-to-one conversations activists have made it very clear where they stand and how they view the British and Irish governments’ handling of the situation and the approach of sections of the SDLP and the unionists."
He named Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun as the party’s two nominees to the proposed power-sharing Executive and announced that veteran Joe Cahill will be standing down as party treasurer, taking up the role of lifetime vice president instead.
Adams said once again that he was "prepared to stretch our constituency" and admitted some republicans understandably did not know what that meant. "It means us being far sighted," he said.
In several angry speeches at the ard fheis, delegates voiced their opposition to decommissioning. Gerry McGeough, who spent years in a Pennsylvania jail for attempting to import surface-to-air missiles, set the hall alight with his speech.
McGeough said republicans had not died and people like him had not spent years on the run or incarcerated to hand over weapons to the republican movement’s enemies.
Francie Molloy, also from Tyrone, said the two governments should not take Sinn Fein’s patience and discipline for granted.
"They should not see that as a sign of weakness, they should see it as a sign of our commitment," he said. "But if they fail to recognize the change in mood, and there’s no doubt the growing mood of frustration, impatience and of downright disbelief that the British government and the unionists are failing to grasp the opportunity, then they must bear the consequences.
"We will try to make this agreement work, we have done that in the past and will continue to do so. But if the SDLP, the Dublin government and the unionists think they can go without us, then we will make the six-county statelet ungovernable."