What we achieved in the Stormont House Agreement should not be underestimated. The two years leading up to the negotiation were the worst I have known since taking up the post of deputy First Minister.
We faced a disengaged British Government, an openly hostile Dublin Government and a DUP leadership that was being increasingly driven by the wreckers, inside and outside its own ranks.
Add to that the austerity agenda of the Tory administration, their unrelenting attack on the welfare state and the Executive’s block grant and we faced – just a few weeks ago – the imminent prospect of the institutions collapsing under the weight of this perfect storm of political and economic crisis.
Our opponents – and many within the media – felt sure that Sinn Fein would buckle in the face of this perfect storm.
But we didn’t. Against all the odds and against all the forces reined against us, we stood firm.
We stood firm on the need to protect the most vulnerable.
We stood firm on the rights of victims.
We stood firm on our opposition to austerity and the raiding of the block grant.
We stood firm on the primacy of the Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreements.
And the force of our arguments won out. We succeeded in forcing the negotiation in the first place and then uniting the Executive parties around the need to challenge the British Government.
We succeeded in doing so and we achieved a deal which provides the protections for the most vulnerable that we consistently demanded when, for months, we were told no more was possible.
We secured a significantly enhanced financial settlement when, for months, we were told not a penny more was on the table.
We secured the future of the Coroners Courts – a key requirement for victims of the State. We secured a new way forward on North South arrangements, which provides the potential to significantly increase cross-border cooperation.
We secured all this – and much more – from a defensive negotiation within a process that was all about hammering Sinn Fein.
Well they didn’t hammer Sinn Fein. We emerged from the negotiation in a stronger position. Our approach, our defence of the most vulnerable and our opposition to austerity – whether it is spawned in London or Dublin – was vindicated.
Of course there are many failings in the Stormont House agreement. The Irish Government shamefully acquiesced to the British on unfulfilled commitments, including Acht na Gaelige and an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane.
But we expected nothing better from them.
Others may wish to forget their commitments. But for us, all outstanding commitments remain as jobs of work to be done, and that work will continue.
This week I had a positive meeting with British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.
In the course of the meeting we expressed our sense that the Stormont House Agreement has created the potential for a fresh start for politics.
Obviously the delivery and implementation of that agreement and previous agreements are crucial to ensuring that fresh start.
Whoever becomes the next British prime minister must also adopt a fresh approach to the North and live up to their responsibilities and duties as co-guarantors of the agreements made over the last 15 years.
Stormont House was the best possible outcome in the circumstances that we faced. But like all agreements, it is the implementation, which will tell the story.
History was made too with the election of my friend and colleague Mitchel McLaughlin as the first Republican Speaker of the Assembly, the first Republican Speaker since the formation of the state.
Mitchell and I have been friends for 40 years. I know his ability, dedication and thoughtfulness of his approach to political life.
Mitchel has a long record in politics going back to the Civil Rights era and he will bring all his experience to his new role.
I also welcome the fact the DUP has now honoured its agreement on the election of the speaker. I hope this will be a new beginning in the relationships between the parties in going forward.
We have made a good start and I want to recognise the positive leadership of Peter Robinson in making and adhering to the agreement.
The coming weeks and months will be crucial. We have already seen some parties begin to indulge in party politicking and we can expect more in the time ahead.
The best thing that we as republicans can do to counteract that is to build our own political strength.
Over the coming period, we have the opportunity to do just that in three crucial elections at Westminster, the Assembly and the Dail.
Those elections come as millions of people around the world prepare to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Sinn Fein will of course play a leading role in many of those events and we have our own programme planned to ensure a fitting tribute is paid to our patriot dead.
But the most fitting tribute we can pay is to realise the Republic envisaged in 1916. We are the only party with the ability and the desire to do that.
It is who we are and it is why we do what we do.
And our goal is within our grasp.
These elections give us the opportunity to take more huge strides towards it, to put our struggle onto a new trajectory where the unity of our country and the establishment of the 1916 Republic becomes inevitable.
It is you, the people in this room, who will make that happen. The referendum in Scotland showed what can happen when committed activists bring dynamism, energy and a heartfelt belief in a better future to the political process. They can inspire a people. They can create a nation.
The decision to extend the vote to 16 year-olds in the referendum injected a fresh impetus into the debate. We strongly believe and advocate that 16 year-olds should be given the opportunity to vote and participate in the political process.
And I have absolutely no doubt that Scotland is now on that inevitable trajectory to freedom.
The challenge to us is to put our own struggle onto the same trajectory.
To that end I have appealed for an alliance of progressive parties in the coming Westminster and Assembly elections to maximize the representation of pro-Agreement parties.
I believe that the SDLP’s rejection of my call is a serious political mistake and represents a lost opportunity.
It demonstrates a lack of strategic vision on the part of the SDLP leadership and is further evidence that they are out of step with the voters and with the grassroots.
I am calling on them once again to seize the opportunity to send out a clear message of support for progressive politics, the Good Friday Agreement and genuine power sharing and partnership government.
In my view the conditions have never been better for the republican ideal to take root in Ireland. Every day more and more people across the island are endorsing our vision of a better future and a new nation founded on genuine fairness and equality.
We have the means to achieve that. We have the opportunity. And we have – in all of you – the people to make it a reality.
Now we have to go out and achieve it