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EDITIONS
Friday, 11 October, 2002, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
Sinn Fein defiant amid crisis
Martin McGuinness at the Sinn Fein rally
Sinn Fein: Rally in Belfast

Power-sharing is again on the brink, but republicans at a Belfast rally are adamant that the other side is to blame.
Belfast's Ulster Hall only used to know one national anthem.

It began as the ruling elite of Ulster unionism stood to demonstrate their loyalty to the Crown and ended with the words 'God Save the Queen'.

Last night Michelle Gildernew, Sinn Fein MP for Fermanagh and south Tyrone, asked the packed hall to stand for the Irish national anthem, played for the benefit of 2,000 republicans, Sinn Fein members and supporters, and probably a fair few veterans of the armed campaign too.

Gerry Kelly and Joe Cahill
Gerry Kelly and Joe Cahill: Key figures
Perhaps the old ghosts in the walls shivered as this once great bastion of unionism briefly became part of the Irish republican dream.

Northern Ireland's peace process is in crisis. But you would not know it from this gathering.

Sinn Fein's supporters were defiant and bullish as they listened to Martin McGuinness, darling of the republican faithful and education minister for at least a few days more.

Behind him on the stage were some of the top names in republicanism: a minister, another MP, MLAs and, the most recent prize, the mayor of Belfast to boot.

And there too were the old guard, men like Joe Cahill who had made their name in an earlier and far more violent phase of republicanism.

Reassuring the faithful

The rally had two purposes - to reassure the faithful and let the world know they believed they were the unwitting victims of the crisis.

There is a confidence and assertiveness among nationalists, we know who we are, we are Irish, we are proud of it

Martin McGuinness
It opened with a stark film of attacks against nationalist homes at Belfast's sectarian flashpoints.

No one doubts that these clashes are taking place and it made pretty grim viewing.

But it was also clear that republicans believed they had done nothing wrong. Unionists may say the crisis has been caused by IRA activity, but republicans were insistent it was not of their making.

What there was, in bucket loads, was confidence.

Devolution may be on the rocks, but to all intents and purposes Sinn Fein acts like a party which had just swept all before it at the polls.

And it was Martin McGuinness who explained why.

Fear of change

"Do you remember this hall?" he asked the audience.

"Do you remember how it used to be packed to capacity [with unionists]."

David Trimble attacked in a Sinn Fein poster
Bogeyman: David Trimble the target
The unionist leadership were afraid of change and what change meant for the future of Northern Ireland, he said.

What he didn't give away was whether or not change would include the disbandment (or depending on your position 'happy retirement') of the IRA.

All he would say was that republicans should be praised for not giving in to provocation from loyalist paramilitaries.

"They would love the IRA to go back to war. I'm delighted that we have not fallen into this trap.

"I'm delighted that we have an organisation which understands the political dynamics [of the peace process]."

Growing mandate

Now, he said, things were different. Time and the birth rate - were on their side.

Martin McGuinness speaking at the Sinn Fein rally
McGuinness: "Keep the faith"
"They will not be able to ignore our mandate. At some stage, [DUP leaders] Peter Robinson, Ian Paisley and Nigel Dodds will speak to Sinn Fein. They have no other choice.

"There is a confidence and assertiveness among nationalists," he continued.

"We know who we are, we are Irish, we are proud of it."

As expected, Martin McGuinness got a rousing round of applause. He had asked the faithful to keep their nerve, and it was clear they were willing.

"Dig deep there, dig deep," laughed the party worker as he rattled his bucket for donations from the departing audience. And in went plenty of coins for the party coffers.

Unsurprisingly, no one had a bad word to say for the leadership as they left the hall.

But as they headed home on this chilly night, neither could they offer answers as to what exactly they should do themselves to deal with this latest crisis in the peace process.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Mike Thompson reports from Belfast
"The meeting had the ring of a victory rally"
Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

Devolution crisis

Analysis

Background

SPECIAL REPORT: IRA

TALKING POINT

AUDIO VIDEO
Links to more N Ireland stories are at the foot of the page.


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