Sinn Féin appeals for unity agenda at Ard Fheis

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Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has urged the Dublin government to convene a forum on Irish unity ahead of a border poll within the next five years.

Setting out her party’s priorities for the next decade, the Sinn Féin leader said “now is the time to prepare” as she predicted an end to partition.

Speaking to hundreds of delegates at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis [annual conference] in Derry, Ms McDonald said there was “no contradiction” between supporting Irish unity and working to restore the Stormont institutions.

She said it was “unsustainable” to have no Assembly and Executive in the North, and that Sinn Féin “stand ready” to negotiate the restoration of devolution to form a government of respect and equality.

“I challenge the DUP and both governments to step forward – to resolve the issues and get government back in action,” she said. “We don’t need a drawn-out talks process. The issues have been well-rehearsed. We need a good faith, purposeful engagement by political unionism.”

The Sinn Féin leader (pictured, arm raised) described next month’s Westminster poll as a defining election and said her party would be standing on an anti-Brexit platform.

She described the DUP as the “architects and champions” of Britain’s effort to leave the EU, which is set to take the north of Ireland with it by January 31.

She also defended her party’s policy of abstaining from Westminster, which has become a more prominent issue following the DUP’s use of their balance of power in the last parliament.

“No Irish elected representative can stop Brexit – that’s the fact,” she said. “Rather than indulging in the politics of delusion and blind alleys, Irish elected representatives must act to protect Irish interests where it matters.”

Ms McDonald said Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had “abstained from the north for almost a hundred years”.

“We take no lectures from those parties who looked the other way, who opted out and who abandoned this part of Ireland.”

But she told delegates that Sinn Féin was nevertheless prepared to enter coalition in the South -- and promised a referendum on a united Ireland within five years should her party enter power.

Ms McDonald also called for a “new deal” to increase pay, tackle the housing crisis, improve childcare, health and education options, address the challenge of climate change and plan for Irish unity.

In her address Ms McDonald also advocated an “Irish National Health Service”, cheaper childcare provision and the scrapping of third level education fees; and that Sinn Féin would create a “green new deal” that included “zero emissions targets” and “sustainable jobs”. The address is published in full below.

O’DOWD DEFEATED

In a separate development, the Ard Fheis also saw the party’s historic first election to the post of deputy leader. In an announcement made to delegates on Saturday, it was revealed that incumbent Michelle O’Neill (pictured, right) had been returned ahead of her challenger, former Stormont Education Minister John O’Dowd.

Commentators and journalists raised questions about the contest, which took place without a debate or a traditional hustings process. At a press conference on Thursday, Ms McDonald said it was not the party’s practice to publish figures. “The result is known”, she said. “The process was an internal one and it’s now concluded.”

But on Friday, backroom figure Danny Morrison revealed figures for the vote, indicating 493 votes for Ms O’Neill to 241 for Mr O’Dowd -- suggesting that a large number of those present had not voted.

A Sinn Féin ‘kitchen cabinet’ has long exerted tight control over the party through a system of proprietorship and patronage, but Ms O’Neill insisted the organisation is more democratic than many other parties. She denied her party had been embarrassed into releasing the figures.

“I was selected by the grassroots,” she said. “John and I were both part of the ard chomhairle [high council] who decided the rules around the contest.”

Ms O’Neill said the contest was “very much an internal one” for Sinn Féin.

“The membership had the opportunity to engage with both myself and with John [O’Dowd] right throughout the contest. I spoke to people across the length and breadth of the country, as did John,” she said.

“I often think it’s fascinating to watch the media interest in all of this but this was an internal contest in Sinn Féin for deputy president of Sinn Féin. We brought our message to the members of Sinn Féin, who have primacy in the debate, who ultimately had a vote in the debate,” she said.

“In a large movement like ourselves people are going to have different views. I want to work with John O’Dowd and we have big politics ahead of us.”

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