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Sinn Fein up for forming new ‘credible Executive’, O’Neill tells her ard fheis

Sinn Fein’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill with colleague John O’Dowd
Sinn Fein’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill with colleague John O’Dowd
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill has said her party is working towards a new Assembly next year and is ready to form a "credible Executive" with the DUP.

Addressing the Sinn Fein ard fheis last night, she said Sinn Fein hoped for a new type of politics in 2020.

Delegates will today decide whether Mrs O'Neill is to continue as the party's deputy leader. They will choose between her and Upper Bann MLA John O'Dowd with the result announced just ahead of Mary Lou McDonald's presidential address at 8.30pm in the Millennium Forum in Londonderry.

Mrs O'Neill is widely expected to win and has received extensive support from most of Sinn Fein's senior figures.

She told delegates last night that a border poll must be held.

"Sinn Fein remains fully invested in and committed to the Good Friday Agreement," she said. "The commitment to a referendum on a united Ireland is within this Agreement. It cannot be cherry-picked.

"The Agreement also requires an Assembly that works for everyone. The current political impasse is unsustainable and unacceptable."

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Mrs O'Neill rounded on the DUP and the Conservative Party. "For a full decade now the Tories - with the DUP's support - have stripped our public services of investment," she said.

"If the Executive is to be credible then it must deliver on issues such as public sector pay, safe staffing levels in the health service, economic policies that deliver prosperity for all and that invests in rural communities, and an appropriate welfare mitigation package.

"To be credible all of the outstanding issues must be dealt with, including an Irish Language Act and reform of the petition of concern. It must also deal with the legacy of the past."

Mrs O'Neill claimed that London's refusal to "deal properly" with legacy issues was preventing reconciliation and wider political progress in Northern Ireland.

"Three years after the RHI scandal brought the Assembly down, people deserve and demand a functioning government and genuine power-sharing," she said.

"An agreement was reached in February 2018. However, the DUP regrettably walked off the pitch.

"That is not a sustainable position. The delivery of rights cannot be avoided."

Mrs O'Neill welcomed the ending of the ban on same-sex marriage and the decriminalisation of abortion.

"At the start of the incoming year, after years of campaigning, same-sex couples will be able to marry the one they love," she said.

"The injustice of women being criminalised has ended. There is now a consultation under way, which Sinn Fein will help shape, to provide access to compassionate health care for all women.

"After years of waiting, the historical institutional abuse victims can see some light in their journey for redress.

"We should be legislating for these issues in the Assembly. I stand ready to form a credible Executive."

More than 2,000 delegates have registered to attend the ard fheis. Debates on transport, housing, workers' rights and Brexit will take place today.

Ahead of Ms McDonald's presidential address tonight, there will be an introduction from Elisha McCallion, who is engaged in a knife-edge battle with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood for the Foyle Westminster seat.

Sinn Fein won Foyle from its rival in 2017 but the SDLP performed strongly in May's council elections there and Mr Eastwood is the bookies' favourite to triumph on December 12.

There will be a fringe meeting at the ard fheis this afternoon addressing the economic merits of a united Ireland with Professor of Economic Research at the ESRI, Seamus McGuinness.

Sinn Fein will publish a paper which argues that the annual £9bn subvention from the British Exchequer to Northern Ireland is a myth.

Donegal TD Pearse Doherty said that planning for Irish unity would feature prominently at the ard fheis.

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