Sinn Féin Party Leader Mary Lou McDonald recently held a wide-ranging interview with German publication ‘Der Spiegel’ about why she thinks a reunification referendum could take place within a decade.
Q: Ms. McDonald, Northern Ireland has been without an executive for over a year, while the dispute over the province’s special status after Brexit has triggered significant tension. Is peace in Northern Ireland once more endangered?
Mary Lou McDonald: Absolutely not. It would be a terrible mistake to lose perspective in respect of how much has been achieved over the last 25 years. It has been enormous. The Good Friday Agreement fundamentally transformed Irish society, northern society in particular. Even if unionism continues its boycott of government, make no mistake: The progress that we have made holds.
Q: Unionists are angry, because even the recently revised Brexit deal between London and Brussels separates Northern Ireland economically from the rest of the UK. There remains a customs border in the Irish Sea, which has been read by some as a symbolic step towards Irish unification. Buses have been set on fire, and there have also been death threats.
McDonald: You are right, but we haven’t seen anything like the types of mobilizations that you would’ve had 30, 40 years ago in northern society. Things are remarkably stable, the collective appetite is for good order, democracy and, above all else, peace. Nobody wants to turn the clock back to the past.
Q: Yet the past is visible everywhere in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants send their children to different schools, they bury their dead in different graveyards. The number of so-called peace walls, which separate the communities, has actually increased since the Good Friday Agreement.
McDonald: That’s the negative side of the ledger. The positive is that never before have so many people worked together, socialized together, married each other. Northern society is still in some ways divided; but in other ways, it’s never been more integrated.
Q: You were born when the Troubles began. What are your predominant memories of these decades of violence?
McDonald: I grew up in Dublin, but the conflict in the north was the background noise for everyone’s life. It shaped the news broadcasts that you heard. It shaped the mood of this city, which suffered its own attacks and loss and death. I was always very conscious of the fact, even as a very young child, that there was something fundamentally wrong and scary happening in our country.
Q: The Good Friday Agreement was forged in 1998. At the time, Sinn Féin was just a political lightweight, considered to be the political wing of the IRA. How did the party manage to escape its toxic past?
McDonald: Most Irish political parties, indeed those that have governed here in Dublin for the last century, were born of conflict, of our struggle for independence, and they’ve all had a relationship with the IRA. So Sinn Féin is not an outlier in that regard. But yes, the party has grown and developed in fairly dramatic ways, thanks to activism and effort and belief.
Q: Was it also because of changes at the top? Back in the day, war veterans like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness with direct ties to the IRA were in charge. Now, it’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. New faces, female faces.
McDonald: The Adams-McGuinness leadership axis was outstanding and historic, they fundamentally reshaped republican politics. Obviously, Michelle and I lived different lives, we’re women. Are we different? Of course. But what doesn’t change is the core missions of unity in Ireland and social justice. Those are the guiding stars that don’t change.
Q: Journalist and former politician Shane Ross claims in a new book about you that installing you at the top of Sinn Feín was a long-term plan pursued by party leadership. He calls it “Project MaryLou.”
McDonald: I’m not anybody’s project. I’m me. And I can assure you, I’m very much a person who makes up her own mind and has steered her own course.
Q: Your rise in the republican movement is astonishing though. You’re from Dublin. You’re from a middle-class background. You’re a woman. You don’t speak fluent Irish and you once said: “I hate Guinness.”
McDonald: Drinking Guinness is not a requirement for political leadership in Ireland.
Q: Fair enough. But how did you get to where you are?
McDonald: I laugh sometimes when I hear that I was “plucked from obscurity” or had a “meteoric rise.” Really? How meteoric is a rise that takes 25 years? The truth is: It was hard work and commitment. The Sinn Féin that I joined was a very small party. And I am very proud of the fact that I now lead a political project that is strong, popular and vibrant – and which has the potential of leading a government beyond that of Northern Ireland.
Q: There are two pillars to Sinn Féin’s policy: socialism and nationalism. Which one is more important?
McDonald: I think it’s important for a European audience to be very clear what Irish nationalism means. It is not about supremacy, it’s about self-determination. It actually perhaps has more in common with South American nationalism, and it goes hand in hand with the demand for social equality and social justice. It’s our view that, to have one, you must have the other – that they are inextricably linked.
Q: In the north, among the veterans of armed struggle against the British, nationalism is clearly more important. As a woman from the south did you have to make concessions to win them over? In your acceptance speech in 2018, for instance, you used the words “Tiocfaidh ár lá.” (“Our day will come”) the old rallying cry of the IRA. Was that necessary?
McDonald: People in the north lived through a very, very difficult conflict; that’s why they see things slightly differently. And it’s not so much the desire of not being British, but it is the assertion of being fully Irish. But for people there, the issues of social deprivation, poverty and Tory austerity are directly linked to national self-determination.
Q: As Sinn Féin leader, you have attended quite a few funerals of old IRA fighters and have even helped carry their coffins. Is such cemetery diplomacy necessary to shore up your credibility in the north?
McDonald: I go to a funeral to pay my respects. One of the last funerals I attended was for a young Irish soldier called Sean Rooney, who lost his life in Lebanon. So with respect, it’s kind of crude to imagine that paying your respects to somebody who has died is some form of cemetery diplomacy. When you know people, when you have worked with people, you show your respect. That’s my view on that.
Q: Michelle O’Neill said last year that there was no alternative to the armed struggle of the IRA. Do you agree with her?
McDonald: I think what Michelle meant – and I can’t put words in her mouth – is that, if you are born into a society that is so unequal, where you don’t have a house, you don’t have a job, where British troops come out and shoot people dead for protesting for civil rights, there was always going to be a response to that. Was there an alternative? Yes, the alternative was a government in the north that didn’t discriminate. The alternative was a British government that would step in and stop this discrimination. The alternative was a government in Dublin that didn’t look the other way. But unfortunately, none of those things happened. And so, we tragically experienced a very hard and predictable conflict.
Q: The current British government is pushing ahead with a bill that would essentially be an amnesty for all murders and atrocities during the Troubles, including crimes committed by British soldiers. What’s your take on that?
McDonald: It is a piece of legislation worthy of any tinpot dictator. It doesn’t just provide for amnesty. It will put a stop any criminal or civil litigation inquests. There are a whole range of families who have waited decades for an inquest. If the British persist with this legislation, I believe the Irish state needs to take an interstate action against them under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
Q: Surveys indicate that you are on course to become head of government in Ireland after the next elections. That would make Sinn Féin the strongest political power in the north and in the south for the first time. What then?
McDonald: Irish reunification is, of course, the central change dynamic across the island. And it has to be done in an orderly, planned, democratic and peaceful manner.
Q: According to the Good Friday Agreement, London must agree to a referendum if it is likely that a majority in Northern Ireland will vote for reunification. Are we there yet?
McDonald: We’re not far off. I believe such a referendum will come within this decade.
Q: Last autumn, the census confirmed for the first time that there are more Catholics now in Northern Ireland than Protestants. But a majority for unification is still not guaranteed, because there is also a growing number of non-religious people, and the non-aligned Alliance Party is gaining ground. Does that represent a threat to your cause?
McDonald: This is not a religious question, it’s an issue of democracy, of good government. A person’s theological view of the world is of absolutely no interest to me. And you can’t simply assume that someone who doesn’t vote for Sinn Féin is not interested in reunification. It’s much more complicated than that. The north is a mixed community, and increasingly, we are seeing advocates for the conversation around reunification coming from some of the most unlikely places. A united Ireland is not simply a Sinn Féin project. This is a project for all of Ireland.
Q: It’s also not a given that the people in the south would vote for unification, because not everybody is willing to vote to become poorer. The German unification cost €2 trillion euros.
McDonald: Irish reunification will cost a fraction of that. We live on a small, little island. Our border is virtually invisible anyhow. If Brexit had a silver lining – and you have to search for it, believe me – it has had the effect of boosting trade between the north and the south and quickening the integration of the Irish economy. I believe reunification will make us richer, not poorer.
Q: What assurances can you provide to unionists who fear retaliation in a united Ireland under Sinn Féin leadership?
McDonald: There are no circumstances under which we would stand for the type of discrimination that Catholics and nationalists suffered in the north. What we can guarantee, as the basis of a new reunified Ireland, is a society built on full and equal citizenship for everyone. And in the case of our unionist friends, they are now British living in a partitioned Ireland. In the future, they would be British in a united Ireland. We have no right to steal people’s identity.
Q: Yet for many, Sinn Féin remains the party that rectified IRA violence.
McDonald: Of course, there’s healing to be done. We need to talk to each other about what unionism will look like in a unified, sovereign Irish state. We’ve asked Dublin to move ahead to establish a citizens’ assembly. That’s the way forward rather than me guessing at what a unionist might be worried or concerned about, or what they might need or want.
Q: Which might be completely different from what republicans want.
McDonald: I am not so sure about that. I am always struck when I am asked by journalists or others what the big issues for people in a reunified Ireland are. They go for the anthem, the flag, all of the symbolic things, which of course are important. But when you actually go out and listen, the issue people are raising in the north and elsewhere is: What about healthcare? When the average man or woman on Shankill Road – which, as you know, is unionist – tells me that they don’t want to pay 70 or 80 euros just to see a general practitioner like people do in the South, I say: You’re quite correct. We need a free national health service for the whole of Ireland.
Q: You and Michelle O’Neill have met now-King Charles a few times. You expressed your deepest sympathy when the queen died, which is hard to swallow for diehard nationalists in the north. Do you see that as a gesture to show unionists some respect?
McDonald: Absolutely. It’s really important that we do that. And I have to say, the meetings have been very respectful, very interesting actually. I have corresponded with the King on many occasions. He very kindly wrote to me when I came down with COVID in 2021. It matters because we have to meet each other as human beings. And the past is done, I can’t change it. King Charles can’t change it. Leaders of unionism can’t change it. We all have our experiences, our narrative about what happened, why it happened, who was right, who was wrong. And that’s all right. But we now have the opportunity to build ahead together in a way that’s transformational for all of us.
Q: If Ireland unites, and if Scotland becomes independent, the United Kingdom would practically cease to exist. Is that a prospect you cherish?
McDonald: Although my name comes from the Scottish Highlands, and although I take an interest in Scottish Affairs, I think the Scottish people will be able to make their own decision. I want full independence and freedom for my country. I am certain our international allies, our European friends, will help us navigate this path so that a reunified Ireland would re-enter the European Union in totality. And you might have noticed how I skilfully dodged your last question.
Q: Ms. McDonald, thank you very much for this interview.