The calling of a Stormont election in January can be averted if there is political will to restore a powersharing agreement, Mary Lou McDonald has said.
Westminster has imposed interim measures in order to ensure Northern Ireland’s public services can continue since Stormont collapsed more than 1,000 days ago, however the legislation is due to run out in the new year, and the Secretary of State is bound by duty to call an Assembly election.
Speaking at the British Irish Council in Dublin on Friday, at which no Northern Ireland representatives were present, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said a Stormont election weeks after the General Election would leave Belfast without political direction.
“January 13 is the deadline, after that Northern Ireland will be without political direction,” Mr Smith said.
“This situation cannot continue, the people of Northern Ireland need political decision-making.”
It's my strong view that if there is a political will, from political unionism, from the DUP and the British Government to make a deal then we can actually do that very, very quickly
If the deadline passes, Mr Smith would have to call an election within a reasonable time frame. If the Secretary of State moved immediately to call a poll, NI voters would expect an election in early spring.
The Sinn Fein President told RTE’s The Week In Politics programme she does not agree with Mr Smith’s assessment and believes Stormont will return before the deadline.
“I don’t accept for a second, that it won’t come back but it has to come back in a form that is about accountable, clean government. That’s about all of us operating and stepping up to the plate with powersharing,” she said.
“The Northern Secretary should be reminded that it is the British system that has denied elections consistently. I heard his comments and I think his commentary begs the question as to what he is prepared to do now in the very short term, to conclude on all of the outstanding issues,” she said.
“It’s my strong view that if there is a political will, from political unionism, from the DUP and the British Government to make a deal then we can actually do that very, very quickly.”
A number of attempts to find a negotiated deal to restore the institutions have ended in failure.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as deputy first minister amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.
The fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, the region’s ban on same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
A commitment to seeking that a border poll would be held within five years will be one of Sinn Fein’s central demands if it is to enter coalition after the next General Election, Ms McDonald said.
“Brexit was transformational… it was like a constitutional earthquake, and it has raised questions and a challenge for us in the short term, to protect the Good Friday Agreement and all of the progress that we have made.
“It now very directly begs questions around partition – not just for all of us who live on this island, but now for the entire Europe,” she said.
On Saturday night during her leader’s speech at the conclusion of the party’s two-day Ard Fheis in Londonderry, Ms McDonald repeated the stance that Sinn Fein would be willing to form a government with either of the Irish majority parties, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, if they could deliver a republican programme for government in Dublin.
Ms McDonald added that the referendum on a united Ireland was simply a question of when.
“My call for the forum, and for preparations to start now, is not contingent or dependent upon us being in government – irrespective of who is in government, these preparations need to start.”
Ms McDonald said she did not think five years is too short a timeframe to hold a referendum on a united Ireland.
“I think if you look to Scotland, in the proper preparations that they made for their referendum. They invested about two years to figure out the nuts and bolts of how to build a new society and how the new arrangement might work,” she said.
“I think by establishing such a forum now, we could have substantial work done in two years, two-and-a-half years. I accept that the spade work has to be done and this needs to be an inclusive conversation.”