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Unionism must confirm it would serve with a Sinn Fein first minister, says Mary Lou McDonald

However, a DUP MLA warned that a Sinn Fein first minister could lead to a ‘decade of instability’.

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Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald during an interview in her office at Leinster House in Dublin. McDonald has said she will not call on Gerry Adams to apologise for his controversial comedy sketch video, saying it was done “for a good cause and with a good heart.” Picture date: Thursday December 16, 2021.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald during an interview in her office at Leinster House in Dublin. McDonald has said she will not call on Gerry Adams to apologise for his controversial comedy sketch video, saying it was done “for a good cause and with a good heart.” Picture date: Thursday December 16, 2021.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald during an interview in her office at Leinster House in Dublin. McDonald has said she will not call on Gerry Adams to apologise for his controversial comedy sketch video, saying it was done “for a good cause and with a good heart.” Picture date: Thursday December 16, 2021.

Political unionism must make clear whether it would govern alongside a Sinn Fein first minister, Mary Lou McDonald has said.

The Sinn Fein President made the comments after a weekend poll indicated her party was on course to emerge from Northern Ireland’s next Assembly election as the largest party.

On 25%, the republican party is eight points ahead of its main unionist rivals the DUP, the LucidTalk poll commissioned by the Belfast Telegraph shows.

The gap has widened since the last LucidTalk poll in November, with Sinn Fein up one point and the DUP down one.

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Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (Brian Lawless/PA)

Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (Brian Lawless/PA)

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Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (Brian Lawless/PA)

Of the other main Stormont parties, the poll puts Alliance and the Ulster Unionists in joint third place on 14% (Alliance down one point on November and no change for the UUP), the TUV on 12% (up one) and the SDLP on 11% (down one). The NI Green Party is up one point to 3%. People Before Profit is on 1% support.

While Sinn Fein’s current deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill looks well-placed to become first minister after May’s scheduled election, uncertainty remains over whether she would have a unionist partner to govern with.

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The DUP and UUP both continue to refuse to confirm whether they would participate in a coalition with a Sinn Fein first minister.

In those circumstances, a functioning Executive could not be formed without the largest unionist party taking up the position of deputy first minister.

The two roles at the head of the powersharing structures are co-equal, with both having the same authority.

Many therefore portray the debate around what party is in the office of first minister as a largely symbolic one.

Ms McDonald said her party approached the election with “humility” and was taking nothing for granted.

“The first issue that will arise in the event that Sinn Fein emerges as the largest party and Michelle O’Neill is nominated for first minister, the first question actually is whether or not unionism will nominate to the position of deputy first minister and we’ve heard very worrying responses from unionism on that score,” she told RTE Radio One.

Ms McDonald listed the various DUP first ministers her party had governed alongside from the office of deputy first minister.

“That parity of esteem and willingness to serve and respect each other has to be echoed by unionism,” she said.

“Michelle will work as first minister, if she is so appointed, for every single citizen, irrespective of where they come from, irrespective of their political views.

“She will carry out her function without fear, without favour and I believe with incredible ability.”

DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley expressed scepticism about the outcome of the LucidTalk poll.

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DUP MLA for upper Bann Jonathan Buckley (Liam McBurney/PA)

DUP MLA for upper Bann Jonathan Buckley (Liam McBurney/PA)

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DUP MLA for upper Bann Jonathan Buckley (Liam McBurney/PA)

However, the Upper Bann representative warned that a Sinn Fein first minister would lead to a “decade of instability” with intensified calls for a poll on Irish unity.

“If we do look at the poll that was produced and we take it at face value, I have no doubt that the people of Northern Ireland, particularly those 60% that support the Union, would know the great threat that there is from a Sinn Fein lead party in Northern Ireland,” he told BBC NI’s Sunday Politics show.

“We could see a decade of instability with regards a border poll.”

He accused Sinn Fein of “belligerence” towards unionism in respect of issues such as commemorating the recent centenary of Northern Ireland, the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the treatment of Troubles victims.

“So unionism knows what’s at stake, they are an intelligent electorate and despite what many within the media or indeed political opponents try to portray, unionism will come out strong at this election, they will get in behind the DUP and they will ensure that we have a party in place that can protect the interests of Northern Ireland, not a party that doesn’t even wish to see its existence,” Mr Buckley said.


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