WHAT stood out most for neutral observers at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (annual convention) in Dublin was the absence of Garda (police) Special Branch cars outside the RDS venue, a traditional feature of past gatherings when detectives seized the opportunity to update Intelligence files.The end of hostilities in the North and Sinn Fein's commitment to the peace progress has clearly persuaded state agencies in the Republic that security is no longer an issue. Sinn Fein itself seemed to share that view, downgrading its own special precautionary measures which once routinely included electronic sweeps with metal detectors.The agenda was packed with motions and debates on such issues as tax policies, education, health, planning and rural regeneration, instead of old reliables like British ill-treatment of Long Kesh prisoners and the pursuit of justice with a gun in one hand and a ballot paper in the other.So like the annual convention of any other political party was the occasion, that the reporter from The Irish Times was driven to declare that the old stalwart of Republican statements claiming responsibility for IRA operations, P. O'Neill, would have been bewildered. "No, P. O'Neill couldn't have hacked it at all," wrote Irish Times Northern Editor Gerry Moriarty.The whiff of gunpowder may well have been missing, the mention of Green issues may have had more to do with environmental concerns than with shades of republicanism, but there were still reminders that Sinn Fein is all about getting the Brits Out and re-uniting Ireland.Delegates voted down a call from one branch to abandon the phrase "Brits Out" in campaigns and publications.Also, party President Gerry Adams claimed that a united Ireland was closer than ever. "Despite ingrained partitionism within the Irish establishment, there is growing support for Irish unity and there is a growing awareness of the importance of the all-Ireland economy to this nation's future prosperity and growth," Adams said.Adams announced that he would shortly be setting-up "a high-powered taskforce" comprising leading Republican figures Martin Ferris; junior minister in the Northern Executive Gerry Kelly; President of Friends of Sinn Fein in the U.S. Larry Downes; European Parliament Member Bairbre de Brn and Sinn Fein general secretary Rita O'Hare.Adams said the purpose of the taskforce would be "to drive forward the roadmap to Irish unity." He called on "the Irish diaspora" to give full support to the campaign in the lead-up to the centenary in eight years' time of the 1916 Rising.On the North, Adams referred to the power-sharing assembly which started work since the party's last Ard Fheis."The unimaginable - some would say the unbelievable - has happened," Adams said.He paid tribute to the role played by leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the peace process, and he regretted that some unionists were trying to force out DUP leader and First Minister Ian Paisley, who sensationally resigned his posts on Tuesday afternoon.But he also warned that elements within the parties with which they shared power in the northern Assembly remained opposed to progress. Some were actively seeking to bring it to an end, he claimed.Adams added in a direct reference to the responsibility of the main power sharers, "The future of the DUP, the future of unionism, and of the power sharing arrangements will be decided, to a very large extent, by the way the DUP leaders deal with these matters."Clearly mindful of the need to keep the Irish government on side in dealings with the British administration and the Unionist leadership, Adams was careful not to mention Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern by name when criticizing recent revelations at the tribunal investigating allegations of corrupt links between politicians and the construction industry.Yet, Adams did say pointedly, "Public office should never be used for private gain or personal advantage. Public representatives should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to anyone who might influence them in the carrying out of their duties."He also accused the government of creating an unequal society where schools and health services suffered while Cabinet members awarded themselves massive pay increases. "Why should one privileged sector of politicians and higher civil servants be rewarded so greatly while the majority of people who work just as hard for less money are asked to show restraint?" Adams asked.
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