Sinn Fein faces difficult decisions today at the party’s annual conference as a row over the the party’s attitude to abortion threatens to overshadow the launch of its bid to enter government following the next 26 County general election.
At the opening of the Sinn Fein ard fheis last night, deputy leader Michelle O’Neill backed Mary Lou McDonald to become the first female Taoiseach in Irish history, while Ms McDonald said the party’s ard fheis purple hue colour was in homage to the suffragette movement.
Two votes are to take place later today on plans to back unrestricted access to abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy. One, backed by no less than two dozen branches of the party, would bring Sinn Fein into line with other parties in Ireland and Britain and allow members to oppose liberalising abortion as a matter of conscience. However, the new Sinn Fein leadership is implacably opposed, and that could ultimately see at least two TDs, Peadar Toibin and Carol Nolan, quit the party.
The key votes will take place on the second day of Sinn Fein’s annual ard fheis in Belfast and amid fears that the party leadership could seek to use the abortion controversy to mount a purge of ‘difficult’ members ahead of plans to enter government in Dublin, almost certainly in coalition with a right-wing party.
There is significant opposition from within the party’s northern and rural ranks to backing abortion on request. The move represents a huge somersault for Sinn Fein which just three years was described by the late Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness as a “pro-life party”.
In addition, a popular motion from 24 other cumanns [branches] has called for the party to be “strong enough” to allow differing views on the “painful” issue and to let members vote “according to their conscience”, instead of being told by headquarters what they should do.
Despite the division, the party is making a concerted effort to position itself for the next electoral contests. Deputy leader Pearse Doherty confirmed that Sinn Fein wants to meet with all parties and independents after an election “to see whether we could deliver a programme for government that deals with the big crises”.
“It is time for a woman Taoiseach”, the party’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill told delegates in her opening speech, carried in full below. “And surely you know that woman is Mary Lou McDonald TD,” to cheers.
Plans to “positively consider” putting forward a candidate should any presidential election take place later this year were backed by delegates as well as party officials. And in a further indication that Sinn Fein is ramping up for elections, the party’s finance spokesman said they will introduce a living wage, implement a universal healthcare, and abolish third level fees.
“So whenever Leo and Micheal decide the love-in is over, and an election is called, they will know - Sinn Fein is ready,” Pearse Doherty told delegates.
Mr Doherty said that in government Sinn Fein would “free families from the unrelenting burden of worry and insecurity”.
“We will begin implementing our plan for universal healthcare, free for every citizen as a birthright. We will abolish all student fees, create thousands of apprenticeships, and unleash the potential of our young people,” he said.
Mr Doherty told delegates now was the time to build a new economy for a changing Ireland. He said Sinn Fein offered “economic transformation” and a vision for a society “underpinned by stable and shared prosperity”.
“We offer a programme to create a modern economy across our island, for the first time guaranteeing world-class services as your birthright, from cradle to grave,” he said.
“A new Ireland is coming. It needs new leadership and big ideas, to have your back and to deliver real economic and social transformation. Sinn Fein is that leadership - for all of us,” he added.
Addressing the abortion issue, the party’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill told delegates Sinn Fein “stands for women” and privately said the party will not accept elected members who do not back the party line.
She claimed other political parties in Ireland and Britain, every one of whom allow conscience votes on abortion, were “copping out”.
“We provide legislation for all people, your own personal opinion doesn’t come into it,” she said.