Northern Ireland

Sinn Fein's party conference was filled with firsts

Sin Fein ard fheis at the Waterfront Hall
Image caption Sinn Fein's party conference was filled with firsts

A gathering in the Waterfront Hall involving a Presbyterian minister and the Prince's Trust does not sound like a Sinn Fein ard fheis.

But an ard fheis it was - an ard fheis of firsts.

The first time the party's annual conference was held in Belfast, the first time a charity founded by Prince Charles set up a stand to lobby and the first time a Presbyterian minister addressed delegates.

The Reverend David Latimer stole the show when the conference opened on Friday night.

The charismatic minister from the Presbyterian tradition danced about the stage spreading his gospel - that the peace must not be allowed to die.

His friend, the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness embraced him, introduced him and prepared applauding delegates to be challenged.

'Great leader'

But the Reverend Latimer seemed to surprise his friend when he immediately declared: "Goodness, how can I follow Martin McGuinness... Frankly, I don't think I can because I see him... Martin I see you as one of the true great leaders of modern times."

This statement over-shadowed some of his other ideas.

What did he mean by a day of hope and transformation? Who should be involved?

Afterwards he told the press he saw the British army, the police and former loyalist and republican "terrorists" taking part in the event but was not sure if it should be confined to "the six counties of Northern Ireland".

Sinn Fein delegates were impressed with his speech. But David Thompson had a different take.

He was one of the unionists who heard the address first hand as he was there to lobby for the Integrated Education Fund.

"For me he generated no difficulties at all," he said.

"The disappointment was I don't think he issued a challenge to the audience here which I think they were hoping to have and which they could respond to."

Still it made for a memorable Belfast ard fheis. No-one seemed to miss the RDS arena, where you have to fight your way through the smokers and the crammed kitchen to get into the main hall.

On the downside, the futuristic glass fronted multi-layed maze that is the Waterfront Hall seemed to spread delegates awfully thin.


Gerry Kelly gave a fiery speech on the Police Ombudsman, but most of the speeches post-Latimer were fairly bland.

At times everyone seemed to be waiting around for Gerry Adams' keynote address on Saturday night.

There was the odd distraction - lots of chuckles about the sign leading to (Long) creche.

And of course speculation about whether Sinn Fein would seek the presidency and who the party might put up.

Michelle Gildernew was walking tall - but then she was wearing five inch blue platformed stilettos.

She suggested she could walk in them but it was harder to stand. She had no problem standing for the presidency but hadn't been asked.

The former agriculture minister has however been mentioned as a possibility among others, including the party's TD for Cavan Monaghan, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.

The Irish Times political correspondent Deaglán de Bréadún credited Ms Gildernew with having an affable personality but said she was not known in the Republic.

"If you walked down the street and asked someone who she was, they might say she was an international tennis player," he said.


In that context he mentioned former Stormont minister Caítriona Ruane, or the "safe choice", Mr Ó Caoláin.

Gerry Adams, in his address, finally ended the speculation about whether the party would brave a Presidential election, but failed to name a candidate. That decision is about a week away.

After a conference dominated by talk of the future, Gerry Adams' speech began by looking back.

Not just to September 11 but to the old era, of the B Specials, the RUC, the prisons and prisoners.

He reminded those fresh faced young delegates from the Republic just what "a big deal" it was to be in Belfast - the city of Maire Drumm, Marie Moore and Mairead Farrell, not to mention Bobby Sands and others.

On a lighter note, the former west Belfast MP, turned TD for Louth, recycled one of his better known lines: "I haven't gone away you know."

To me, Mr Adams sounded less like a leader who had just won an election and more like one worried about the next one.

"He's always like that," a more seasoned reporter observed.

'Liberated unionists'

While the Reverend Latimer sounded more New Testament, Gerry Adam's gospel tended, at times, towards the Old Testament.

He declared "the Orange state is no more" and suggested this had "liberated unionists" as well as nationalists.

The speech soon widened however to the present, and the cost of the global economic crisis.

But by the end of his speech and this ground-breaking ard fheis, Mr Adams reminded everyone what still lay behind the peaceful new strategy, and spoke of the dream that had not gone away either.

"The best thing a British government can do... is to leave. Leave us to manage our own affairs," he said.

"In the words of the blanket men and the women of Armagh, and when they said this, they were talking about all our people, Catholic Protestant and dissenter...Tiocfaidh ár lá (our day will come)."

In the meantime, the next big day is October 27 when Sinn Fein tests its strength for the first time in an Irish presidential election.

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