A Nation Once Again

(from The Newspaper, November 12, 2009)

Toronto got a little closer to the Emerald Isle on November 7, when the Canadian chapter of the Friends of Sinn Féin welcomed Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams to their conference on creating a united Ireland . Crowds convened in U of T’s OISE auditorium to attend the public forum entitled “A United Ireland: How Do We Get There?”

Drawing on the sizable Irish diaspora in Canada , the event focussed on raising awareness to advance Irish unity. “Our main goal was to spark discussion in the Irish community about how we can move forward,” said Alan McConnell, Friends of Sinn Féin President.

While Adams only served as the forum’s introductory speaker, he was the undisputed centre of attention. As leader of Sinn Féin, the nationalist party in Northern Ireland , Adams has represented their voice of peace and reconciliation in ending the conflict since 1983. He has become an international peace activist in other troubled areas, such as the West Bank and South Africa .

Adams’s speech emphasized both his desire to see Northern Ireland join the Republic and the initiation of a conversation in Canada about Irish people's right to self-determination. Adams channeled Barack Obama, impressing the importance of action in achieving dreams upon the audience.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for your efforts,” he said. “We’re not just about changing flags, we’re about creating a real republic. To succeed, we have to be active. Activism isn’t about the big things, it’s the little things coming together.”

Adams was quick to point out the role of young people as a vital component. “I think it’s up to people to find their own space in which they can do whatever type of work their own conditions allow them to do,” he said to the newspaper. “I couldn’t be prescriptive in terms of what form that work should take, but at this stage, it has to be about building public consciousness. It has to be about raising the issue within student movements, academia, and politics.”

The event attracted few students, but attendees did engage with the topic. “I went in not knowing what to expect,” said Cameron (who did not wish us to use his surname), a fourth-year Celtic Studies student. “I am neutral on matters surrounding the North, and attended with an interest in seeing what range of opinion exists here in Toronto . To anyone who has a connection to the North, like many friends of mine, it is clear that that level of optimism may well be premature. The British army may be gone, but on a community level, both sides remain bitterly divided and mutually suspicious. What efforts there have been to bring the two communities together are too few and far between.”

Adams acknowledged that while great strides have been made, unity cannot be accomplished without more effort. “We should not take it for granted,” he said. “We should work to bed down the process to move it forward.”

Despite the fatal shootings in Belfast in March, Adams remained confident that any subsequent attacks would not derail the peace process.

“I don’t think there’s any possibility at all that we’re going to go back to the type of war we had for decades,” he told the newspaper, “but I do think these groups have the potential to inflict death and injury. They have to be challenged. Now there’s an alternative to violence: a peaceful, democratic way to move forward. These groups have no active or popular support from the vast bulk of opinion in Ireland . They really just aid the rejectionists and the reactionaries.”

Adams said his hope was “to shape an Ireland in which there can be equality and justice, and in which people can live with a sense of prosperity and in peaceful coexistence with their neighbours.”

The event also featured Warren Allmand, former Solicitor General of Canada, NDP M.P. Charlie Angus, Chris Axworthy, former Attorney General and Minister of Justice of Saskatchewan, and Manon Perron, Secretary/Treasurer of the Montreal executive of the Confederation of National Trade Unions. The speakers offered a Canadian perspective on Irish unity. Allmand, Axworthy, and Manon shared personal experiences from observer delegations in Belfast . Manon and Angus spoke about solidarity.

“Conferences really can inspire people,” said McConnell. “I know that is the case. The feedback I’m getting is strong. Gerry is an inspiring leader. He’s maintained a tremendous humanity and an ability to inspire men and women who want freedom all over the world.”