New Sinn Fein direction as McDonald defies critics

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Sinn Fein wants to be part of an administration in Dublin after the next general election, party leader Mary Lou McDonald has confirmed, as she set out a change of strategy for her party.

Those who want to keep Sinn Fein out of coalition should “wake up and smell the coffee” and realise the party is “here to stay”, Ms McDonald told a party conference.

“Our democratic mandate - and more importantly the people who vote for Sinn Fein will be respected. It is not [for] Leo Varadkar or Micheal Martin to decide whether or not we are in government,” she said.

More than a thousand people attended the event at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, which was decorated in a striking pink-and-purple colour scheme. It was the first annual Ard Fheis [party conference] for Mary Lou McDonald since taking over from Gerry Adams, and she she presided over the introduction of a raft of centre-left, pro-choice and youth-oriented policies.

Sinn Fein, she said, will talk to all parties and Independents after the next election. But its political competitors in the 26 Counties still vied with one another to come up with the best reason to keep the party out of government, she said.

She declared: “Let me set a few things straight. We are already a party of government. We are living through a time of great change. The old certainties are gone. The two-and-a-half party system in the South has been consigned to history. Leadership is shifting to a new generation.”

In her keynote leader’s speech, Ms McDonald also said the party’s policy on abortion was “settled” after delegates voted by a large majority to introduce abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, with a ban on dissent by the party’s elected representatives. The party leadership firmly told delegates that allowing conscience votes would be a “cop out” on the issue.

That hardline stance has already led to the resignation of Sinn Fein TD Carol Nolan on Tuesday, with the status of the party’s most prominent ‘pro-life dissident’, Peadar Toibin, still in doubt. A new splinter group, ‘Cherish All the Children Equally’, is organising what it described as a “national meeting” in a Dublin hotel this weekend.

Ms McDonald insisted Sinn Fein is “united in our determination to see the necessary legislation passed without delay”, adding: “and let me say this loud and clear - the North is next,” referring to the party’s goal to introduce abortion in the Six Counties also.

In her half-hour address, McDonald expanded on a new coalition-ready financial policy.

“Our agenda is a shared prosperity fuelled by ambition and driven by opportunity,” she said. “

Sinn Fein will deliver for those who struggle to make ends meet, despite getting up and working hard every day.

“For those who do everything possible to better their lives, and the lives of their families, yet the wolf remains all too close to the door.

“A visit to the doctor, the car breaking down, or back to school costs should not be a financial disaster. No parent should have to pay the equivalent of a second mortgage for childcare.

“Shared prosperity is also good for business, for enterprise, for innovation and for productivity.”

The areas of health, housing and rural broadband were also identified as key policy areas, as well as the building of a “new Ireland”.

“Our core objective is the reunification of Ireland,” added Ms McDonald.

In a core new policy agenda, she said there needs to be a “step change in how society views and treats women”.

“No half measures of concessions; I am talking about full equality. A new Ireland where women are safe, a new Ireland where women are trusted, a new Ireland where women are equally paid.

“Ireland is changing. A new and better Ireland is emerging. To those who are impatient for equality and progress, I say, this is your time. This is your home. This is your Ireland. Sinn Fein is your party.”

There was criticism from opponents, both old and new. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin accused Sinn Fein of engaging in a shallow rebranding exercise, and warned against a plan by Sinn Fein to manufacture a snap election in order to enter into a coalition with Fine Gael.

He said he disliked the “absence of true democracy” in Sinn Fein, its control by “shadowy figures” and other issues related to the legacy of the conflict. “Just because you change the podium, you don’t change the party,” he said.

A former Sinn Fein Assembly member who quit the party recently accused Sinn Fein of behaving like a “gang” at its Ard Fheis. Francie Brolly fiercely criticised his old party for its abortion stance, saying it strikes against republican values.

“A person is not free if his conscience isn’t free,” Mr Brolly said. “And if there’s no freedom, there’s no point in Sinn Fein talking about a republic.”

Sinn Fein’s strategy for entering into a coalition with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael was also condemned by People before Profit, the party of Ireland’s radical left.

It said a genuine left wing strategy would seek to force the right wing parties into one block and to mobilise against them. “The right wing parties will never allow any threat to the rich and so resources will never be provided for change. This explains why every minority party that joins them are crushed.”

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