Adams urges unity over assembly

Sinn Fein conference supports leadership in vote on peace agreement. Alan Murdoch in Dublin reports
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The Independent Online
SINN FEIN ended its soul-searching over the Good Friday agreement last night when its special ard fheis (conference) voted overwhelmingly in favour of entering a Northern Ireland assembly.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams welcomed the result, saying that the party would "go into the next phase of our struggle armed only with whatever mandate we receive, armed only with our political ideas".

Outside the hall, hardline republican dissidents were pasting up posters proclaiming "Adams and McGuinness - Wanted for treachery", denouncing the party's latest compromise. But within the confines of the Royal Dublin Society's conference halls, the only fundamentalists visible were those attending the Religious Congress of the Holy Spirit next door.

Mr Adams earlier succeeded in urging those with reservations about a Northern Ireland assembly and changes to the Irish Constitution's claim over the North to give the leadership support and maintain unity, while retaining their right to vote "no" on 22 May. "We have advanced our struggle here today. What you do in the polling booth is your own business," he said.

"The vast majority of people in Ireland want peace. Peace demands justice. Nationalists ... want to exhaust every possibility of achieving peace," he said. "They wish to see their representatives concentrating their efforts to bring about a just and lasting settlement."

Executive member Martin McGuinness delivered a pointed address saying Unionists faced bigger problems than Sinn Fein, "because Unionism as a dominant force in Northern Ireland is finished".

Key Sinn Fein strategists argued that no core principle would be surrendered.

Publicity director Rita O'Hehir said: "The strategy is the constant. But new tactics have always to be brought into play. A united Ireland is not an item on a wish-list. It is a real and achievable goal."

The executive was appealing to the hearts as well as minds of delegates, charging them up with a series of emotional welcomes for freed prisoners and others on temporary release.

The hall erupted in thunderous applause as the four members of the Balcombe Street gang, returned to Ireland last week to complete their sentences, arrived. Others included the officer-in-command of IRA inmates in the Maze, Padraig Wilson, and women from Maghaberry prison near Derry.

Wilson said unity and cohesion were the paramount considerations. Former gun-runner and Northern Ireland talks negotiator Martin Ferris urged participation in the Northern Ireland assembly. "We have to seize the initiative and exploit the potential of this document."

Veteran Derry republican Martin Meehan said that the proposed changes in the Irish Constitution should not predominate in longer-term calculations. But Cork delegate Don O'Leary said the issue confronting delegates was a simple matter of democracy. "It is saying a minority who have a majority in two of the 32 counties have a veto on what happens on this Ireland. To say 'no' is not a step backwards. We can go back and renegotiate, but we should stay united."