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Fianna Fail and Fine Gael trying to keep Sinn Fein out of government, claims McDonald at Newry rally

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Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald at the Canal Court Hotel in Newry with Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy on their ‘Government for Change’ public meeting tour

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald at the Canal Court Hotel in Newry with Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy on their ‘Government for Change’ public meeting tour

Stephen Hamilton

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald at the Canal Court Hotel in Newry with Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy on their ‘Government for Change’ public meeting tour

It was standing room only in the Miller Suite of Newry's Canal Court Hotel on Wednesday night as Sinn Fein's post-election public meetings moved north of the border.

Despite some expectation that the party's "appetite for change" message might be lost on some of those living in a different jurisdiction, the opposite was the case.

Around 600 seats had been laid out for the event aimed at drumming up support for Sinn Fein to be in government in Dublin after its best general election in the Republic saw it take more seats than Fine Gael and one less than Fianna Fail.

The room filled up quickly, with many more people standing around the edges of the conference room. The diverse crowd, some of whom had travelled from as far away as Donegal, was not dominated by young voters, as at previous gatherings in Cork and Dublin over recent days.

Alongside selling its "time for change" message, the party was in recruitment mode with flyers on every chair.

Newry and Armagh MLA Liz Kimmins kicked off the event, telling attendees that "people had rejected the status quo and want to see their future in a new and better Ireland of equals for all".

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald received a standing ovation as she told those gathered that "venturing to a place as exotic as Newry would be a step beyond" the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail leaders.

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The audience

The audience

Stephen Hamilton

The audience

She told the crowd: "All is changed and changed utterly.

"Just as the unionist majority here in the north is gone so too the duopoly of the so-called 'big two' is no more.

"This was a very conscious decision on the part of the electorate. This wasn't a protest vote.

"The people have voted for something new. They have voted for change. People are now looking to us to deliver and lead."

There were plenty more jibes at Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin during her speech.

"They don't want change. They have had it all their own way for 100 years and now faced with the realities, they are trying everything they can to keep Sinn Fein and the people that we represent out of government."

Ms McDonald said her party's role in the power-sharing Stormont Executive, re-established six weeks ago after three years of deadlock, shows what "Sinn Fein can do in government".

She was accompanied on stage by Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Finance Minister Conor Murphy.

Much of the event was devoted to an extensive question and answer session, where Sinn Fein's team fielded queries on issues including relations within the Stormont Executive, Brexit, Irish unity, finance, housing and health.

When asked about the prospect of being Taoiseach, the party leader told the crowd Sinn Fein was still in talks with other smaller parties and Independent TDs to "bring about a government of change".

While not ruling out the prospect of another election, she said the best outcome was a government without Fine Gael or Fianna Fail and a return to the status quo "would be disappointing and likely to anger the electorate".

In answer to a question on British identity, deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said: "This is the time to talk about Irish unity and talk to those who need to be convinced. Let's convince them that they have nothing to fear."

A quip directed at Mr Murphy and Ms O'Neill on how relations were going with the DUP leader Arlene Foster in the newly restored Executive prompted the response "so far, so good".

Mr Murphy said lessons could be learned in the Republic from his party's work alongside the four other main Northern Ireland parties in terms of forming a government.

Mr Murphy has been embroiled in controversy after he repeatedly refused to state publicly that IRA murder victim, south Armagh man Paul Quinn, was not a criminal. He has been under pressure to make the public statement after retracting a claim he made 13 years ago that Mr Quinn had been involved in criminality.

One supporter told Mr Murphy: "In relation to what you said a few years ago, you have absolutely nothing to apologise for."

Mr Quinn's mother Breege has repeatedly called for the party's MLA to say publicly that her son was not a criminal, saying the slur on his name has compounded her family's grief.

Mr Murphy did not respond to the comment from the audience member, something that generated a round of applause.

Belfast Telegraph