Back from margin to Mansion House of spacey

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The Independent Online
Gerry Adams used the symbolism of "the road from Tallaght back to the Mansion House" to illustrate Sinn Fein's changing political fortunes at their Ard Fheis at the weekend, writes Stephen Goodwin.

But the contrast between last year's conference, held in a fortified concrete community centre on a council estate west of Dublin, and the return, after four years, to the 18th-century Mansion House in the city centre, went much further.

In Tallaght, Sinn Fein was and looked a party pushed to the margin. It had been barred from the Mansion House by Dublin Corporation since 1991. As the site of the 1919 first Dail Eireann, the building is rich in historical significance for the party, but public disgust at IRA killings forced its eviction.

Past conferences provoked noisy demonstrations. On Saturday there was a small picket by Families Against Intimidation and Terror, protesting against IRA punishment beatings, and an elderly woman handing out Miraculous Medals from the Daughters of Charity.

Gone, too, were the garda Special Branch cars and the frisking by Sinn Fein stewards on entering the conference. The Ard Fheis had taken on a soft-focus image. On the platform, crisply dressed men and women of the executive sat below a dove bearing a tricolour streamer.

Some 1,000 members and supporters filled the hall and its balcony for the Adams speech - easily twice the number at Tallaght. Then, gatherings had a hard edge with poster-size photographs of the latest dead IRA volunteers on the walls. Though Mr Adams paid tribute to the past year's dead and the IRA, the grim photo gallery had gone.

Instead the hall was decked in suffragette colours of purple and green. Boards displayed the photographs and words of Irish nationalist heroes from Wolfe Tone to Bobby Sands.

Keen to portray itself as not just a "Brits Out" party, its two days of debate brought votes against decriminalising cannabis, for divorce in the Republic and, without irony, for a ban on blood sports. The fox, too, will hope the conversion on the road to the Mansion House is not skin deep.