By Joe Dwyer
On 11 February, Sinn Féin MPs hosted a packed public meeting ‘Choices for 2015 and Beyond’ in Portcullis House, Westminster. The meeting heard first-hand Sinn Féin’s political perspectives across the breadth of Ireland. Speakers included Conor Murphy, MP and party negotiator in the recent talks; David Cullinane, Senator and Waterford Candidate for the next Dáil General Election; and Catherine Seeley, Deputy Mayor of Craigavon Council and Upper Bann Candidate for May’s Westminster Election.
The meeting drew a broad audience from the Irish community and wider progressive society, plus wide international media attention and diplomatic representatives. Also present were a group of Sixth Form students, studying the Irish Peace Process as part of their A-Levels. Steve Pound, Labour MP and shadow minister for the north of Ireland, and leading SRIZA member Stathis Kouvelakis, were also present.
The meeting was introduced by party London Office representative Jayne Fisher. Opening up for the speakers, Conor Murphy reported on the recent talks and the outcome of the Stormont House Agreement, and the need for the British and Irish government to actively live up to their responsibilities to drive forward the peace process and ensure the Good Friday and other agreements are fully implemented. He urged the Irish diaspora and wider progressive communities in England, Scotland and Wales to maximise their strength in the run up to the Westminster elections, and to press the political parties on their policies and commitments in relation to the peace process. He said that while there was much to continue to do, the recent Agreement had proved a step forward. He said that a future British government could not take the peace process for granted, in the way the current government had done, and had to positively engage in the spirit and letter of the Agreements made.
David Cullinane said that Sinn Féin stood for a new, progressive way forward. He said the party was already “on an election footing” and did not want to enter government for government’s sake; but was actively seeking to “lead an anti-austerity government”. He said the party recognised the distinct difference between being in government and being in power. He extended Sinn Féin’s solidarity to the new SYRIZA government and the Greek people. He condemned Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan for his recent rejection of a proposed European debt conference and the fact that the Irish Government had not even sought a debt write-down.
Cllr. Catherine Seeley focussed on the challenges of building a new Ireland. She spoke of her own experience of being the focus of a concerted sectarian campaign which forced her out of her job teaching in a local Protestant school. While this had been a difficult experience she spoke of how heartened she had been by the huge support received from her former pupils. She said that while Ireland has progressed significantly in recent times – there is still a distance yet to be travelled and that the next phase had to be driven forward. The reconciliation process could not be confined to the island of Ireland and the British state also “needs to reflect and discuss how to address its responsibilities for the adversity and conflict it perpetuated in Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland.” She summarised quoting Maya Angelou: “History despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
SYRIZA’s Stathis Kouvelakis, speaking from the floor, told the meeting how the new Greek Government had set about reversing the austerity measures of the Troika. He spoke of the “special bond for social and national emancipation” between Greece and Ireland adding that the best help for SYRIZA at the present time would be the victory of Podemos in Spain and of Sinn Féin in Ireland as it would show that “Greece is not an anomaly; that what happened in Greece can happen elsewhere.”
The wide range of discussion and questions from the floor demonstrated a growing interest in developments. Catherine Seeley underlined the need for positive action to ensure greater women’s representation at all levels of politics. The evident enthusiasm and optimism conveyed at the meeting was confirmed the following weekend when a Sunday Independent/Millward Brown opinion poll showed that Sinn Féin currently stands at 26% as the most popular party in the 26 Counties.