By Joe Dwyer, Liverpool University
On Friday and Saturday (06-07 March) Sinn Féin hosted their annual Árd Fheis [Conference] in the City of Derry. This location holds particular significance for Irish Republicans as Derry saw a central role in the northern conflict. In the 1960s the City cradled the non-violent Civil Rights Association, an alliance of moderate Irish Nationalists, Republicans and radical students, who mobilised against the conservative and sectarian Stormont regime. In January 1972, Derry was the site of ‘Bloody Sunday’ – an infamous day which saw the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment of the British Army enter the Irish Nationalist Bogside and proceed to shoot 26 unarmed civilians. Tragically 14 died – 7 of whom were below the age of 21. Many called the Civil Rights Association the 15th casualty of Bloody Sunday as the north swiftly descended into a long protracted conflict. Unsurprisingly, this difficult past was prominently recognised at the Árd Fheis – but so too was the vibrancy and positivity of Derry today. The Army watchtowers are now gone and today the City is seen as exemplary for its management of cross-community relations – a fact manifested by a Loyalist Bands Forum addressing one of the Fringe Meetings. The City tangibly exhibits the progress that has been made under the Peace Process and was accordingly a fitting place to hold Sinn Féin’s national Árd Fheis.
Irish Youth and Student politics was well represented by the large number of young delegates. The weekend’s debates and discussions saw many excellent contributions from the Party’s youth on a wide range of topics. Numerous motions were passed expressing the Party’s continued desire to represent and deliver for the needs of young people. Motion 74 commended the Party’s Youth Guarantee Document ‘Youth Matter’s: Not for Export’ and called for a continued commitment to seriously address the current youth unemployment crisis and the social exclusion that results from it. While Motion 135 criticised the recent threat made by Stephen Farry, Minister for Employment & Learning, to cut University places in the 6 Counties. The Árd Fheis also condemned the consistent cuts to the Third-Level Education Sector in the 26 Counties and re-affirmed Sinn Féin’s commitment to publicly-funded Third-Level Education north and south.
Senator Kathryn Reilly, Sinn Féin’s Spokesperson on Youth Affairs, gave a rousing speech in which she slammed that the current Fine Gael-Labour coalition Government in the south for showing an: “entrenched distain for disadvantaged, marginalised young people.” She said young people in Ireland deserved: “far more than just zero hour contracts and precarious employment. […] What they deserve is paid work, decent work, a living wage and most importantly: they deserve respect.” And concluded that: “We need a future for young people and we in Sinn Féin can – and will – deliver that future for them.” This was met with loud cheers and applause from the floor – demonstrating that Sinn Féin is a party which proudly embraces intergenerational solidarity.
The weekend saw many international guest speakers appeal for co-operation between progressive-left movements. The Greek Foreign Minister Euclid Tsakalotos spoke of SYRIZA’s solidarity with Sinn Féin and its opposition to austerity. While the former South African Minister and member of the National Executive of the ANC, Sue Van Der Merwe praised the high quality of debate from the younger delegates, commenting during her address: “I’d like to say at this point how impressed I have been particularly with the younger people who have taken this platform – they have articulated their arguments with passion and maturity – and it would seem to me that Sinn Fein’s future is in very good hands.”
The spirit of the weekend was perhaps best summarised by Martin McGuinness MLA, who said that: “The youth, the energy and the determination in this Árd Fheis is palpable.”
Anyone looking for more information on the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis can go here where they can find videos of the weekend’s proceedings and read through the motions and procedures.