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New female face of republicanism is intent on return to negotiating table


Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill has urged sustainable compromise in Northern Ireland. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill has urged sustainable compromise in Northern Ireland. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill has urged sustainable compromise in Northern Ireland. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

For years, the image of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness was synonymous with Sinn Fein.

But the posters looking down on delegates arriving at the party's ard fheis in Belfast's Waterfront Hall last night proudly portrayed the female partnership that is the new face of Sinn Fein.

'Fáilte go dtí Béal Feirste' declared the slogan beneath a smiling Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill.

There can be no doubting the genuine political chemistry between the two women.

They have been photographed walking arms linked down the street, more like two close friends than work colleagues.

"Michelle is my wingwoman," Ms McDonald told the BBC after she was elected Sinn Fein president four months ago.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph this week, Ms O'Neill stressed how much she enjoyed working with the new party leader.

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She was perhaps too polite to say so but the impression gained was that she has considerably more room to express herself now than she did under Gerry Adams.

The two women will of course never survive three decades at the helm like their predecessors, but that's a welcome sign Sinn Fein is moving - however gradually - to become more like other political parties.

With Ms McDonald not speaking until 8.30pm tonight, the keynote addresses at the opening of the ard fheis yesterday were from Ms O'Neill and the party's Dail deputy leader Pearse Doherty.

Considerable effort went into Ms O'Neill's speech - the copy received by the Belfast Telegraph was marked 'Draft 7'.

There were no earth-shattering new lines but there was a strong defence of her and Ms McDonald meeting Prince Charles "in the rebel county, Cork" on Thursday where the conversation focused on reconciliation.

"We must choose to live together. We must continue to build on the reconciliation work of Martin McGuinness over many years and we will do so because it is the right thing to do," Ms O'Neill said.

Sinn Fein tete-a-tetes with members of the royal family are increasingly common nowadays.

But the social media response to the latest one shows they remain controversial for a section of the nationalist community with a significant number of republicans, including ex-IRA prisoners, voicing their discomfort or outright opposition.

Ms O'Neill said Sinn Fein was "a party on the move" and ready to be "in government north and south".

With the prospect of a future coalition with Fine Gael increasingly on the cards, the party appears genuinely keen for new talks to begin with the DUP to restore power-sharing.

"All roads will lead back to the negotiating table," Ms O'Neill said.

The DUP currently may not be as enthusiastic but Sinn Fein seems set to ignore that and to continue its outreach to the wider unionist community. Ms O'Neill's language was notably conciliatory.

"Instead of refighting the battles of the past we all - unionists and nationalists - need to have the humility to accept that we have conflicting narratives, conflicting histories and conflicting allegiances," she said.

Like Ms McDonald the day before, she stressed that people had a right to be "Irish, British, both or neither".

Mr Doherty's fiery speech focused on economic issues south of the border.

"I say to you if I am Minister for Finance I will have your back.

"Sinn Fein will have your back," he told delegates.

"We don't just want change, we need transformation. From the persecution of whistleblowers, to rampant white-collar crime.

"From the back-slapping, to the gold-plated pensions, cosy contracts and revolving door boys-clubs. Sinn Fein sees it all.

"So let it ring in the ears of those pacing the gilded halls of power across this state - in government, Sinn Fein will Stamp. It. Out."

Yet Sinn Fein's track record in government in Northern Ireland is not one of significant reforming zeal, let alone revolutionary change.

In its 10-year rule at Stormont, there were no marked improvements for the working-class communities with which the party so publicly identifies.

And those in the "gilded halls of power" in Northern Ireland certainly aren't quaking in their boots at the prospect of Sinn Fein's return to a power-sharing administration. Quite the opposite - they want the show back on the road as soon as possible.

So no matter what delegates are told this weekend, the experience of Sinn Fein in government on this side of the border proves that radical rhetoric is soon discarded for realpolitik.

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