Belfast Telegraph

Unionists need a contingency plan in event of united Ireland: Sinn Fein leader

McDonald insists reconciliation is vital in speech referencing murders of QUB lecturer and student

Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald has challenged unionists to find a "Plan B" to define their role in "a new and united Ireland".

Addressing a gathering of civic unionists at Queen's University Belfast last night, she described herself as a peace-builder in the tradition of Martin McGuinness.

She insisted that Sinn Fein's desire for Irish unity did not conflict with the need for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Sectarianism and "lazy stereotypes and baiting of the other" must be challenged and confronted, she added.

The Sinn Fein leader called for a "new conversation" about the past.

She referred to the IRA's murder of unionist law lecturer Edgar Graham and the loyalist killing of Sinn Fein student Sheena Campbell. She said the dead could not "be brought back or the injured made whole" but the present generation of republicans would work to build a society free from violence.

Ms McDonald told the gathering it was not a choice for republicans between reconciliation and unity. "Reconciliation is central. Reconciliation is not a Trojan horse for unity. Reconciliation cannot be made to wait for unity. Reconciliation sits above the constitutional question," she said.

Ms McDonald called for "a process to resolve the past, to live together in the present and to unlock the future".

She said "sectarianism, segregation and separation" had to be addressed. Some wanted to "refight old battles, to demand repentance, victory and surrender" but this was not the basis for reconciliation.

"We must recast our approach to the past. It cannot be about legitimising or delegitimising deeds or groups or outlooks, but about accepting and acknowledging our collective history."

She continued: "My starting point is to be thankful that the conflict is over. That we have an agreement and peace. We need more. We need a new conversation about the past. A focus on finding common ground; a compassionate approach to the past."

UUP leader Robin Swann lays a wreath outside Queen’s University on the 35th anniversary last December of the murder of Edgar Graham
UUP leader Robin Swann lays a wreath outside Queen’s University on the 35th anniversary last December of the murder of Edgar Graham
Edgar Graham
Martin McGuinness
Sheena Campbell

Ms McDonald noted that Queen's had not been immune from the conflict.

"It impacted on staff and students. Edgar Graham, a lecturer, was killed by the IRA. Sinn Fein member and Queen's student Sheena Campbell was killed by loyalists. I cannot undo that damage or that loss."

However, she continued: "I and my generation of republicans will work tirelessly to build a society in which no other parent is left without a child or a child left without a mammy or daddy.

"To work to promote peace and reconciliation, to acknowledge all suffering and provide a space to remember. It is about remembering the dead, not celebrating conflict."

Ms McDonald quoted former Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who had described the glorification of conflict as the antithesis of peace-building. "I am a peace-builder in the tradition of my friend Martin," she said.

"Reconciliation is not only about resolving the past, it is about the present. It is about how we live today."

The Dublin Central TD said it was "neither inevitable nor divined by a god" that division remained today. "It is man made and sustained. It can be ended," she said. "We must challenge sectarianism wherever it arises. To confront the lazy stereotypes and baiting of the other.

"We can end sectarianism, we can end segregation."

Ms McDonald pledged that "the right to British citizenship and all that entails" would be safeguarded in a united Ireland.

She said: "Unionists will not only have a home in Ireland, they will have a place at the table.

"A place at the centre of political life and not left in the margins of Westminster.

"The Protestant, unionist and loyalist citizens are part of the diversity of our nation. You are as much a part of the discussion to shape a new Ireland as republicans and nationalists. We are partners in this enterprise."

Ms McDonald said her party sought to unite Protestant, Catholic and dissenter. "There are no second-class citizens in this land. There will be no second-class citizens in this land. We have much to discuss and much to agree," she said.

"The debate is on and change is all around. The notion of a perpetual unionist majority is gone. The very basis of this state."

The Sinn Fein president said unionism would argue for continued partition. But she added: "It must also look at a contingency, a Plan B, to define your role in a new and united Ireland.

"I want to hear from the unionist community their fears, their needs and their ambitions in a united Ireland. To listen and to understand.

"This debate needs to be respectful and informed. It needs to be inclusive and free from threat."

Ms McDonald said the deal between the DUP and Theresa May's government would end. She hoped it would leave no lasting damage to the peace process.

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