Belfast Telegraph

All eyes on Mary Lou McDonald as she steers Sinn Fein to centre ground

By Suzanne Breen

Cynics who predicted Sinn Fein's new president would be constantly looking over her shoulder at a loitering Gerry Adams were proved wrong as the party held its ard fheis in Belfast over the weekend.

Mary Lou McDonald was centre-stage at the Waterfront Hall, while Mr Adams took his seat in the stalls beside party veteran Tom Hartley.

He momentarily turned a head or two on the occasions when he left the auditorium.

But, for the most part, all eyes were on the woman whom Sinn Fein delegates believe will lead them into a historic coalition government in Dublin.

The party didn't quite secure the same numbers for its annual conference that it usually does in its more regular home of Dublin's RDS. There were rows of empty seats in the upper tiers.

But the fact that this is Sinn Fein's third ard fheis in a handful of months, the start of the World Cup, and the reality that Belfast is less central than the Republic's capital for some delegates, all likely played a part.

Still, the energy, enthusiasm and age range on display at the event were far beyond what any other political party on this side of the border could muster.

As well as the serious political business on the agenda, there was a relaxed, friendly feel to proceedings, with many delegates bringing their children.

Little girls cartwheeled along the Waterfront's vast riverside foyers. When Ms McMcDonald was winding up proceedings at 9pm on Saturday, many exhausted children's heads nestled in their parents' laps.

The backdrop to the ard fheis was purple and green, the colours of the suffragettes. They celebrated the 100th anniversary of women winning the vote, and were in keeping for a party with a female leadership team which is now taking a strong pro-choice position on abortion.

Indeed, the protesters gathered outside weren't IRA victims but pro-life activists appalled at the party's new direction.

The landslide pro-choice victory in the Irish referendum was reflected inside the ard fheis with only polite, tokenistic applause for anti-abortion speakers whose conscience motion was unanimously defeated.

A queue of 50 speakers to take part in the 90-minute debate showed the passion in Sinn Fein on the abortion issue.

Ms McDonald began her presidential address to a rapturous reception. Her predecessor received a brief glowing mention. The Sinn Fein president said she was delighted to be in Belfast "home to the great Mary Ann McCracken, to Winifred Carney, to Bobby Sands, to Gerry Adams".

She touched on Northern Ireland, but her focus was very much on issues south of the border.

Ms McDonald is moving her party even further into the centre ground to make it more appealing to middle Ireland in the next Dail election. Her sentiments that the new Ireland should be one of opportunity, ambition, decency and compassion are the sort expressed by every political leader on these islands. She hoped we could "live in harmony under the one free sky in the place we call home".

Her reference to the "rainbow of identities and cultures" in Ireland was positively Varadkaresque.

Her speech ended with "Up the Republic!" Mindful perhaps of unionist feelings, 'Tiocfaidh ar la' was omitted this time.

The ard fheis stood for Amhran na bhFiann, which was followed by a rousing rendition of Oro se do bheatha 'bhaile. As Michelle O'Neill hugged Ms McDonald and congratulated her on her speech, the music changed - Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves filled the Waterfront.

Belfast Telegraph

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