By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN – The peace agreement was backed by more than 94 percent of Sinn Fein delegates on Sunday at a packed and emotional ard fheis, where high-profile prisoners on temporary release played a crucial role in securing the overwhelming landmark vote.
The way is now cleared for Sinn Fein supporters to vote yes in the May 22 referenda North and South and for the party’s leaders to take their seats in the proposed 108-seat Belfast Assembly that is scheduled to be elected on June 25 if the deal is agreed.
The leadership continued to maintain, however, that such a move did not involve recognition of partition and that the joint votes would not constitute an exercise in national self-determination.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams described the decision as a “watershed.” The party’s abstentionist policy now only applies to the Westminster parliament and no rule change is being planned on it.
“We don’t see it as an issue,” he said. “We haven’t even thought about it.”
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The unexpectedly high endorsement followed an eve-of-meeting statement by dissident republicans saying that a new military wing had been set up which would be the “true” IRA and denouncing the “old leadership” for “betraying” republicanism.
Adams described the statement as a “rather clever P.R. move” and said that everybody knew that the new group had been set up months ago.
The breakaway hard-liners said there had been a “complete betrayal of the claim of Irish national self-determination for which volunteers gave their lives” and would fail because it was not dealing with the “core issue of British occupation”.
The “new” IRA is believed to have the political support of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee.
The statement declared that “a war machine is once again being directed against the British Cabinet.” It said weapons would not be used against other republican organizations.
Gardai are concerned about the strength of the new group amid reports that a number of hardened IRA activists, including expert Provo bomb-makers had defected.
Outside the RDS venue, posters on lamp posts with the name of another splinter group – Republican Sinn Fein, which split in 1986 after the decision to take seats in the Dail – carried the slogan “Vote NO. Defend the nation.”
Within the hall, opposition was muted. Most of the speakers against the deal were Southern delegates and almost all stressed the need for unity and support for whatever decision was taken.
When the first motion was taken against the deal from a cumann in Donegal, it was overwhelmingly defeated on a show of hands. The first rule change motion needing a two-thirds majority resulted in a count of 331 of the 350 voting delegates. Each subsequent motion was nodded through on a show of hands.
The outcome had been clear from earlier in the day, when the so-called Balcombe Street gang from Portlaoise Prison, the officer commanding the Maze prisoners and three colleagues and two leading women prisoners from Maghaberry Prison, were all feted with a lengthy and rapturous reception from delegates.
The most tumultuous applause came for the Balcombe Street gang – all now middle-aged men after spending 23 years in jail. They had only been flown to Ireland from high-security prisons in Britain five days before and were out on a 48-hour furlough.
Adams noted that comparisons had been made between the four – who were convicted for murder, manslaughter and no-warning bombings in Britain – and South African leader Nelson Mandela.
The emotional welcome for the four, who have become icons with the movement and are supporting the peace deal, contained a clear message for delegates: if you oppose the Belfast Agreement, you oppose these icons and what they had gone through.
Sinn Fein knew the effect the entrance of these men on their first day of freedom since 1975 would have on the ard fheis.
Adams confirmed that Sinn Fein had lobbied the Irish and British
governments for the release of six people, the Balcombe Four, Geraldine Ferrity, serving life for the murder of a UDR sergeant major and the Maze OC, Padraig Wilson, serving 24 years for bomb-making. There were understood to be 21 other prisoners on release for the conference.
Adams said he was “very mindful of the sensitivities of victims” and hadn’t planned for the prisoners to come on stage in the emotional way it happened, but they “deserved a bit of craic” on their first day out in 23 years.
Veteran IRA man Joe Cahill, 78, now Sinn Fein treasurer, in a contribution from the podium, emphasized his support for the deal and dismissed suggestions that the deal was not what previous generations of martyred republicans had died for.
He said he nearly joined the republican dead in 1942 when he could have been hanged. He changed the traditional republican catch-cry of “Tiocfadh ar la” (Our day will come) to “Ta ar la anseo” (Our day is here).
The televised scenes of the prisoners’ welcome angered Unionists and will not help swing the huge undecided Unionist vote in favor of the deal.
There were mixed political messages from the ard fheis. Chief negotiator Martin McGuinness told delegates that if they had difficulties with the deal, those facing Unionists were one hundredfold greater.
In his concluding speech, Adams said he was conscious of Unionist difficulties and held out the hand of friendship to them. He assured them that Sinn Fein faced the future “seeking a good faith and a genuine engagement with you.”
“When we call for the end of the British presence in Ireland, we do not mean our Unionist neighbors,” he said. “You have as much right to a full and equal life on this island as any other section of our people.”