Sinn Féin ard fheis: Mary Lou McDonald calls for Citizens’ Assembly on Irish unity

The Irish government must plan for “democratic constitutional change” by creating a Citizens’ Assembly on Irish unity, Sinn Féin’s leader has said.

Mary Lou McDonald was addressing her party’s annual ard fheis (conference) in Athlone.

She said she wanted to see “orange and green reconciled” in a new Ireland.

Sinn Féin is the biggest party in Northern Ireland but has been frozen out of power at Stormont due to the collapse of the executive.

But its popularity has grown in the Republic of Ireland where it aims for a place in government for the first time.

Ms McDonald also said housing was “Sinn Féin’s number one priority” and said her party would introduce a three-year rent freeze in the Republic of Ireland.

Mary Lou McDonald with vice-president Michelle O'Neill
Image caption,Mary Lou McDonald with Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill

Speaking about Irish unity she said “the day is coming when everyone on this island will have their say in referendums”.

“Each vote counting equally, no vetoes, no shifting of the goal posts.”

“We’re on our marks for a general election, local and European elections in June,” said Ms McDonald.

‘Ireland’s chapter of peace’

In addition, if they got into government in the Republic of Ireland, she pledged they would give “a month’s rent back to every renter” and “deliver the biggest housing programme in the history of the state”.

In relation to Northern Ireland, Ms McDonald said the generation of politicians who worked on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement “wrote Ireland’s chapter of peace”.

She added that this generation “must write the chapter of unity”.

She told delegates that Irish unity provided the “very best opportunity for the future” and that a united Ireland “lies ahead”.

“Each vote counting equally, no vetoes, no shifting of the goal posts.”

Sinn Féin continue to be buoyed in polls north and south, and their leader makes clear they see the next twelve months as critical.

Senior party figures have said they are “on the countdown” to the country’s next general election, which is expected to take place late next year or early in 2025.

Before that, they are targeting success at local and European elections that are due to be held in the Republic of Ireland next summer.

But Sinn Féin will also be aiming for a return to government in Northern Ireland, which has been without political leaders since February 2022.

That crisis began when the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) withdrew from the power-sharing government in a row about post-Brexit trade rules.

It was the perfect location for Mary Lou McDonald to fire the starter gun on her party’s election campaign.

Standing in the middle of a race track in a synthetic velodrome flanked by her top team.

She made a pitch to voters promising big change, prioritising housing, health and the cost of living crisis.

On the Stormont standoff her message to the government was blunt, call time on the endless talks with the DUP.

But if the government doesn’t act then there is little Sinn Féin can do.

The stand out moment came when the Sinn Féin President called for the Israeli ambassador to be sent home.

It was a moment of release for delegates clearly frustrated by the party’s muddled message.

The next time we see Mary Lou McDonald on an ard fheis stage she could be Taoiseach standing alongside Michelle O’ Neill as First Minister.

But that is likely to depend on the party finding a political partner in Dublin and Belfast.

A process which will only start when the finishing line has been crossed.

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Michelle O'Neill, Palestinian ambassador to Ireland Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid and Mary Lou McDonald
Image caption,Michelle O’Neill, Palestinian ambassador to Ireland Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid and Mary Lou McDonald

Ms McDonald also called on the Irish government to expel the Israeli ambassador.

“Israel must stop its slaughter in Gaza. Hamas must release all hostages. Ceasefires must be called,” she said.

‘Needs-based model’

On Saturday afternoon, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said the Northern Ireland “of today is not that of yesterday”.

Her comment was a reference to decades of unionist dominance at Stormont.

“Together we must unite and fight the corner of every citizen, to ensure public services are financed with a needs-based funding model,” she added.

In May, the party secured a second historic election win in 12 months when it made big gains to take the most seats in Northern Ireland’s local elections.

That came after its dominance in the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly election, in which it became the biggest party at Stormont for the first time.

Michelle O'Neill speaking at the Sinn Féin conference in Athlone
Image caption,Michelle O’Neill wants the DUP to end its boycott of the Stormont assembly

Ms O’Neill is in a position to become the first nationalist first minister of Northern Ireland should power-sharing return.

But she can only take up the post if the DUP agrees to ends its boycott of the Stormont institutions.

The DUP has been in negotiations with the UK government for changes to the post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland but has said there “are still gaps to be closed”.

In another speech which opened the party’s conference on Friday, Ms O’Neill said the DUP “has had more than enough time to address their concerns” regarding the Brexit Protocol.

“Public patience has run out. The boycott of the assembly by the DUP must end.”

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