This can be seen as a landmark on the party’s march down the political road. It was not so long ago — less than a decade — that party spokesmen were banned from RTE and the party had to hold its annual meeting in a stark venue on the working-class fringes of Dublin. That isolation was well and truly ended when the 2,000 or so delegates assembled under RTE’s glare to consider the 300 motions that were slated for their attention. Observers described it as being more like a pep rally than a conference to discuss policy.
As one mark of the transformation that the party has undergone, consider the title of the document presented by Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator and the minister of education in the suspended power-sharing government in Belfast. It was called “Educate that you may be free.” A few decades ago, Sinn Fein was advocating that the only sure way to freedom was through the barrel of a gun. As time went by, the party’s spokesmen changed this to proclaim that freedom would come via the armalite and the ballot box. Now, the ballot box having eclipsed the armalite, McGuinness can proclaim the importance of a good education for a democracy to function as it should.
The case he focused on was that of the Shankill Road, the deprived loyalist ghetto in West Belfast, former bastion of Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair and his Ulster Defense Association henchmen. McGuinness said that just 1 percent of the Shankill’s population go to university — a rate far lower than that found on the neighboring Falls.
“I, as an Irish republican, find that disgusting and am determined to bring it to an end,” he said.
That a Sinn Fein leader wants to free the Protestant people of the Shankill through education rather than political violence is surely a stupendous and welcome change. Let us hope that Sinn Fein will come up with the gestures as well as the words to show that it really does mean business.