20 February 2006

SF delegates set terms for taking part in coalition

Irish Times

By Mark Hennessy and Gerry Moriarty

Sinn Féin Ardfheis delegates have insisted that the Offences against the State Act must be repealed before the party will enter a coalition government, despite the strong wishes of the party's leadership, write Mark Hennessy and Gerry Moriarty

During a difficult weekend for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, delegates were persuaded not to vote for a blanket ban on entering power in the Republic, but rather to leave the issue aside until a post-election special conference, if a coalition option was available.

The 1939 legislation has been the main legislation used by the State in its fight against the IRA and includes powers to set up the non-jury Special Criminal Court and to jail people for five years for IRA membership on the word of a Garda superintendent.

Calls for the party to rule out supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Northern Policing Board were finally defeated following the intervention of key leadership figures, such as West Tyrone MP Pat Doherty and policing spokesman Gerry Kelly, who persuaded delegates to retain the existing policy where Sinn Féin would hold a special conference before making any change.

The most controversial of the weekend debates was on coalition, during which a number of speakers warned colleagues not to enter power with Fine Gael, Labour and, particularly, Fianna Fáil, while Dublin Ógra Sinn Féin wanted coalition vetoed until a united Ireland was achieved.

Alarmed, senior figures such as Mr McGuinness, Mr Kelly and Arthur Morgan TD swung into the debate to urge delegates to hold to the position of calling, if necessary, a special ardfheis after the election to discuss coalition.

In the end, all anti-coalition motions collapsed without a vote as a superseding motion supporting the existing policy was passed.

Delegates, however, quickly delivered a snub to the leadership by adopting the Offences Against the State Act motion - even though Mr McGuinness, twice jailed under the Act, opposed it.

In his keynote speech, Mr Adams said Sinn Féin was serious about entering power in the Republic "if we have the mandate and if we can secure an inter-party government and a programme for government consistent with republican objectives".

He also stressed his opposition to a phased return of the Northern Assembly, which British prime minister Tony Blair is considering and which is generally favoured by the DUP. "There can be no dilution of the Good Friday agreement to allow for a two-tier or two-stages approach or British-appointed commissioners to run the North."

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said yesterday "no decisions" had been made. "A lot of things are being considered, no decision has been made. Anything we are looking at is speculative."

Sinn Féin delegates backed the release of all IRA prisoners, including the killers of Det Garda Jerry McCabe. Delegate Oilibhéar Ó Brolacháin from Armagh said he was "ashamed" that so few Sinn Féin leaders were on the platform for the prisoners' debate.

The so-called "Colombia Three", James Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley, attended without any fanfare or major comment, while Evelyn Glenholmes, who once faced extradition from the Republic but who is now living openly in the North, was elected to the Sinn Féin ardchomhairle, along with assembly member Francie Molloy, who was briefly suspended from Sinn Féin last year for opposing party policy on local government.

Lands owned by "British aristocratic landlords" in the State should be seized by compulsory purchase orders, delegates also agreed, while fishing rights enjoyed by the Duke of Devonshire and others should be abolished.

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