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Questions over control of Sinn Fein part of 'misogynistic' and 'lazy' narrative, says O'Neill


Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill

Questions over who controls Sinn Fein are "misogynistic" and are part of "a lazy narrative", the party's deputy leader Michelle O'Neill has said.

It was put to the deputy First Minister that Sinn Fein was still operating "like an offshoot of the IRA from 30 years ago" on former BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking podcast.

Last February, Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said that IRA "does not exist" after criticism of the role the organisation plays in her party from Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.

He said the view of the force didn't differ from the PSNI's analysis that the IRA Army Council still oversees both Sinn Fein and the remaining elements of the terror group.

Speaking on Saturday, Ms O'Neill said Sinn Fein operates in a far more open and democratic way than any other party she knows of.

When asked why there were no hustings when she was challenged for the leadership by John O'Dowd, Ms O'Neill said: "We are not there for entertainment for the public. The debate should be internal."

She said it was right that Sinn Fein's membership decides on its leadership every year at an Ard Fheis. "We have an ard chomairle that’s elected by the membership of the party every year and it’s that body that actually decides the rules that govern the party.

"I think it’s a lazy debate, to be honest, and I think also it’s a misogynistic debate. I’m going to add, in terms of my - our - own leadership because I hear this thing about pockets and coming from the IRA and all these things that are constantly thrown up.

She added: "The fact is that Sinn Fein are probably more democratic internally than any other organisation that I would certainly know the workings of.”

When asked if she generally felt that she suffered misogyny, Ms O’Neill said: "Absolutely. All day long.”

She said that one of the first images of her on social media after she was appointed to her post after Martin McGuinness stood down was of her in Gerry Adams’ pocket. "That’s one of the most misogynistic image that anybody could decide to [produce]," she said.

There's been a successful transition of power after Gerry Adams stood down, she said. "Gerry is a huge republican figure in our world and always will be and he'll have a role into the future," she said.

"Sinn Fein are a political party with representation the length and breadth of Ireland. This nonsense of ‘let’s wait for Sinn Fein to transition into a real political party’ is an absolute nonsense”.

In a wide-ranging interview, Ms O'Neill was also asked whether there was anything positive in Northern Ireland that she would bring into a united Ireland if she had the option.

Ms O'Neill chose the health service. "There isn't the same approach to health in the 26 counties and that is something we would want to change in government in a new Ireland," she said.

The Sinn Fein deputy leader restated her ambition for a poll on Irish unity within the decade and spoke about the 'dire' impact of Brexit.

She said she hoped the inauguration of the new American president Joe Biden would have an impact on the British government's approach towards the Good Friday Agreement.

President Biden will be "a good friend" towards Northern Ireland and shared Sinn Fein's views on Brexit, she said.

"[The British government] have demonstrated disregard and disrespect to [the Good Friday Agreement] in recent years, particularly in the case of Brexit, so I think they'll be sitting with their ears pricked up and listening very carefully to what's being said in the United States," she said.

"We always said that Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement weren't compatible and there was nothing good to come from Brexit... all we can see now is chaos and the implications of Brexit, which are dire."

It's after Mr Biden was last year critical of the UK government's Brexit-related legislation and warned that the peace deal "cannot become a casualty of Brexit".

Ms O'Neill said Northern Ireland will have to forge " a new kind of relationship with the United States" due to the challenges of Covid as well as Brexit.

"Joe Biden has always said I'm Irish and you can see all of his public contributions involve some element of presenting his Irishness so I think he'll be a good friend to us," she said.

She said she hoped to meet the new US president if he stops in Ireland en route to the G7 summit in Cornwall in June.

Ms O'Neil reflected on almost a year spent facing the challenges of Covid-19 along with First Minister Arlene Foster.

She said she and Mrs Foster have faced the same personal challenges of trying to care for their families as well as deal with Covid-19 as political leaders.

"[The pandemic] been draining," said Ms O'Neill, citing in particular "horrific" conversations on the priorities of the health service.

"We're all desperate for some hope and the vaccine is our hope. It's going to take another number of months until we have the vast majority of people vaccinated but we're off to a good start," she said.

The Sinn Fein politician said she was nevertheless looking forward to the possibility of a holiday to a warm destination in the summer. "I am very hopeful. I have been looking," she said.

Belfast Telegraph