Belfast Telegraph

We all have right to remember our dead - I won't stop doing so, says Sinn Fein's O'Neill

By Suzanne Breen

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill says she does not foresee a day when she will stop attending IRA commemorations.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph as her party prepares for its ard fheis in Belfast this weekend, Mrs O'Neill said she was committed to reaching out to the unionist community.

She revealed that she and party president Mary Lou McDonald will meet Prince Charles during his visit to Cork tomorrow.

Mrs O'Neill and other Sinn Fein politicians have been widely criticised by unionists for attending IRA commemorations.

She said she had no plans to stop doing so.

"We all have a right to remember our dead. I will never fail to stand beside a mother who has lost her child in the conflict," she stated.

"I am a republican. I didn't cease being a republican when I became leader of this party.

"We are a republican party.

"This is about real people, about standing with families who lost people in the conflict."

In a wide-ranging interview yesterday, Mrs O'Neill insisted she could work with DUP leader Arlene Foster, and it was a matter of "when, not if" a deal is done to restore power-sharing.

She said Sinn Fein wasn't at all worried about the prospect of Fianna Fail standing in Northern Ireland as her party would be more than capable of meeting any electoral challenge.

She praised Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for reaching out to everybody during his visit to Belfast last week.

"He started off with the Orange Order, he was in west Belfast for Feile an Phobail, he ended up in a gay bar in Belfast. So he had orange, green and rainbow colours in the middle," she said.

She didn't rule out Sinn Fein entering a coalition government with Fine Gael or any other Southern party after a Dail election if there was a "strong republican programme for government".

Around 3,000 delegates are expected to attend the ard fheis in the Waterfront Hall.

Sinn Fein's ard chomhairle is proposing that abortion up to 12 weeks be available in Northern Ireland, as it is set to be in the Republic following the recent referendum there.

"We want to see harmonisation across the island," Mrs O'Neill said.

"Ireland is changing. The referendum was won because of compassion. It was won because people could actually understand and hear people's real-life experiences and how badly they felt treated by the health services because of the current law."

She said she had always been pro-choice but had accepted Sinn Fein policy when it was less liberal.

"The party, like the country, has been on a journey to get us to the position where we are today. There has been a gradual change in party policy which is every bit in line with society's views changing," she added.

She said she knew personally of cases of fatal foetal abnormality where women had to "leave their families behind them to go away to England to get healthcare they should have got" at home.

The Sinn Fein vice-president said her party hadn't lost any members since it significantly liberalised its policy on abortion last November. She dismissed DUP claims that some republicans would now switch to support Mrs Foster's party because of its strong pro-life stance.

"I think it's nonsense. Republicans aren't going to turn into unionists overnight over a social issue," she insisted.

Mrs O'Neill believed that even those Sinn Fein members and voters who "have difficulty" with her party's pro-choice position would remain with the party because they agreed with its general political direction.

In response to speculation that the SDLP will soon leave the political stage to make way for Fianna Fail contesting elections here, Mrs O'Neill said her party was "not at all" worried about the possibility of greater competition for the nationalist vote.

"Fianna Fail have been mooting that they're coming North for some time," she responded.

"We've yet to see it. But we'll fight any election on our own platform, our own manifesto and ask the public to support us.

"If you look at the position in the South, if you look at the establishment parties and the nature of how, down through the decades, there has been this conservative Ireland, Ireland's changing. The referendum result shows it. We're not worried."

She blamed the DUP for the failure to restore power-sharing at Stormont, but insisted she could work with Mrs Foster.

"I can get on with everybody. I'd work with any leader who wants to work with me. Myself and Arlene got on grand in terms of being able to negotiate. We got to the point where we actually had a deal.

"We had that deal in February and then the DUP leadership chose not to close that deal. So ultimately we can work together and I will work with any unionist leader that comes forward. I need a unionist leader. I just don't have one at this moment in time."

Mrs Foster has said she is considering attending the GAA's Ulster Championship final. Mrs O'Neill commented: "I will certainly be there and, if Arlene's there, that will be great."

The Sinn Fein vice-president acknowledged her party's relationship with the DUP had "broken down" and "there's a job of work to do to build (it) up again".

There must be "real proper discussions about trying to bring about a new style of government" here, she said.

"It can't be going back to the same antics... the DUP has been mired in scandal from Nama right through to RHI. That all has to change," she commented.

In terms of outreach to the unionist community, she said she had met the Queen along with Martin McGuinness and had recently visited the Ulster-Scots museum and a Presbyterian church.

She will be meeting Prince Charles tomorrow. But although the "grand gestures" were symbolically important, "real everyday engagement" across the political divide was even more fundamental for political leaders, she stressed.

Mrs O'Neill said Ms McDonald had brought "her own dynamism" to the role of Sinn Fein president.

"Both Gerry and herself bring different skills but I am more than delighted to be in the leadership of this party alongside (Mary Lou) who is just a formidable leader. She is first-class."

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