Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Mary Lou McDonald galvanises faithful for looming battle at the polls

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald ahead of delivering her keynote speech during her party's ard fheis
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald ahead of delivering her keynote speech during her party's ard fheis
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

With Sinn Fein under immense pressure to retain the constituency in which the party's ard fheis was located, the gathering of the faithful was imbued with extra significance.

Predictably, the event was used to showcase the party's election candidates. Unsurprisingly, Elisha McCallion, fighting hard to hold off the challenge in Foyle from the SDLP's Colum Eastwood, won the highest number of platform appearances award. North Belfast's John Finucane wasn't far behind, though.

Given the 'Time For Unity' overarching conference theme beyond electoral stringencies, movement towards a united Ireland loomed large. A border poll and a Green Paper on Irish unity from the Irish Government were continually demanded. The latter is a hardy perennial, a request that successive Fianna Fail and Fine Gael administrations have ignored.

The solution to Brexit was reunification - a New Ireland, not a Brexit Britain of Little Englanders, as vice-president and northern leader Michelle O'Neill put it.

O'Neill was confirmed in post in a damp squib of an election, seeing off the challenge of John O'Dowd in the oddest leadership challenge ever seen, bereft of visible canvassing, contest or count.

The key argument from Sinn Fein was that the unity debate needs to move on to what form a new, 32 county Ireland would take.

There was little clarity in terms of the party's own policies as to what would be the optimum structures.

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Would they comprise a unitary state, given the abandonment of federal structures decades ago?

In fairness Declan Kearney, in an intelligent and measured speech, argued against a lack of pre-determined structures as they would pre-empt the "thoughtful compromises with our unionist neighbours" which would be required.

Kearney pointed to Sinn Fein's Inclusion and Reconciliation in a New Ireland document and a National Citizens Assembly as the ways forward to hold difficult constitutional conversations.

Kearney made a good point, relevant to a border poll, that the Brexit referendum debacle illustrated the utter folly of holding a vote when the consequences of a particular outcome had not been accompanied by any planning.

However, his reference to "Irish unionists" would have deterred, not induced, dialogue given that more than 90% of unionists identify as British. Sinn Fein north of the border would rightly scoff if unionists labelled them as "British republicans".

How unionist identity would, could or should receive cultural, political and institutional recognition in the event of a border poll producing a democratic mandate for Irish unity remains unsolved.

Michelle O'Neill argued that Brexit could reshape identities on a pragmatic basis, as many unionists "want to stay Europeans not become republicans".

One of the liveliest debates came at the start of proceedings.

A motion upholding the Stormont House Agreement received some criticism via an alternative proposal insisting, that "if the conflict is over and the peace process it to have any meaning, former combatants should not be pursued and charged and extradition proceedings against people such as John Downey should be dropped".

The alternative proposal was defeated overwhelmingly after interventions from a trio of former IRA figures - Gerry Kelly, Sean Murray and Robert McClenaghan. They spoke in favour of the 2014 Stormont House deal and against selectivity in dealing with the past.

Whilst declaring solidarity with Downey, the trio acknowledged that the Stormont House deal involved a variety of methods of dealing with legacy issue. These ranged from involvement of the PSNI's Historical Investigations Unit to basic information retrieval.

There were potential implications for republicans but the final intervention, from McClenaghan, acknowledged that families of the victims of the Enniskillen and Kingsmill massacres also deserved fairness and justice. Prior to the leader's speech Sinn Fein's MEP Martina Anderson provided a typically combative offering.

Whilst coming to bury not praise a British Prime Minister, Anderson claimed (not outlandishly) that Boris Johnson's deal was tantamount to special status for "the North".

Given that Sinn Fein's demand, if Brexit could not be stopped altogether, was for such status, the MEP claimed that Sinn Fein's seven abstentionist MPs, via lobbying beyond Westminster, had achieved more than its 643 participatory elected representatives.

To end the ard fheis, the Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald had to deliver an effective oration.

Having sat through numerous rambling and tedious leadership speeches at a myriad of party conferences, it is fair to say she delivered. It was a well-crafted effort which built to an effective crescendo.

"No Irish republican would swear an oath to the Crown. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have very strong views on this but not strong enough to come up here and fight the election" was a particular zinger, hard to refute for either southern party.

McDonald argued for a border poll within five years - in which case those serious constitutional conversations better start soon.

How much all this resonated beyond the well-attended conference hall is hard to tell. There was no live television coverage of the speech in Northern Ireland.

Many of its citizens will have been far more exercised by Steven Davis' penalty miss against the Netherlands than anything articulated in the Millennium Theatre on Saturday evening.

And how much northern questions resonated with the RTE audience is hard to gauge.

But party conferences are also about energising the faithful (and keeping visiting academics away from their families) to go out and campaign hard afterwards.

And in tight election contests - of which there are several across Northern Ireland - getting the members sufficiently enthused to mobilise turnout can make a difference.

If you live in Foyle, Fermanagh-South Tyrone or North Belfast, don't expect much peace and quiet in the next few weeks.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of books on Sinn Fein & the SDLP, the DUP and UUP

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