A reunification referendum in five years, openness to coalition government and a subdued Vice President contest were the main talking points at this year’s Sinn Féin Ard Fheis held in Derry. David Whelan attended.
That Sinn Féin was on election footing was never so obvious than its choice of venue for this year’s two-day Ard Fheis. Sitting MP Elisha McCallion was a prominent figure during the event, both on stage and on numerous walls and lampposts around the city as the party sought to build on the momentum that saw McCallion become the party’s first MP for the city and fend off the challenge posed by the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.
However, while Westminster may have been at the forefront of minds, it was far from the sole focus. Party members were well aware that a general election in the South is likely before they meet again and positioning the party for a role in a new government was discussed heavily both within and outside of the main hall.
That main hall appeared smaller than previous venues in Belfast and Dublin, however, such was the activity outside of the main room, it was difficult to gauge whether attendance was up or down. Unsurprisingly, the room was packed for the keynote speech by President Mary Lou McDonald but other topics, tackling climate breakdown for example, had far fewer attendees than may have been expected.
MLA John O’Dowd’s contest for Michelle O’Neil’s position as Vice President, an unprecedented challenge to the sitting leadership of Sinn Féin, had been highly anticipated when first announced. However, much like the run up to the contest itself, the announcement of the final result was subdued. O’Dowd had his airtime as a spokesperson for the party noticeably reduced and the party opted against any hustings for each candidate to offer their case.
In an address to the Ard Fheis, O’Dowd said: “media reports of my demise have been much exaggerated”. Indeed, it appeared they had been. While many suggested O’Dowd’s contest would see him ostracised by the party, that was far from evident as he moved through the conference venue shaking hands and chatting freely.
With no hype or build up, the outcome was announced to delegates in a benign fashion and well before the room started to fill up for the final sessions. No vote numbers were given. No victory speech. Nothing to see here, or so we’re led to believe. An early motion at the conference calling on the ard chomhairle to review how the leadership team is elected may be a sign that the party’s grassroots require change. Pressure to change, or pressure from the media, eventually led the party to u-turn on the decision not to publish the final result, albeit almost a full week after the event. Michelle O’Neill: 493, John O’Dowd: 241.
In two-days of motions ranging from topics on unity to health, housing, social justice and climate change, the drama was in the detail. Sinn Féin’s place in the future government of Ireland was a particularly contentious issue and a motion calling for the party to only go into government coalition “as the largest party” brought a number of senior figures to the stage to voice their opposition.
MEP Matt Carthy offered a passionate rebuke, stating: “We will decide when to go into government based on our ability to have the power to deliver on Irish unity, on health, and to deliver a better deal for ordinary people. We will only contemplate government on those terms.”
The motion fell, however, a proceeding motion ensuring that any decision relating to entering government will only be made by a special Ard Fheis, did pass.
“I stand ready to form a credible executive,” said Vice President Michelle O’Neill in an address on day one of the conference. Describing the “current political impasse” as “unsustainable and unacceptable”, O’Neill added: “Sinn Féin remains fully invested in and committed to the Good Friday Agreement. 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.”
Much like other Sinn Féin figures who peppered reference to Stormont within their addresses, O’Neill offered little in way of a solution to getting Stormont back up and running. The party would deny it but an Executive in Northern Ireland is on the long finger while Sinn Féin jockeys for position in the South and seeks to progress its unity ambitions in the face of Brexit.
President Mary Lou McDonald set out her case for a redefined Ireland by declaring “the old ways have not worked”. Boldly, she said: “This new decade is the one in which we will finally end partition to achieve a new, united Ireland.”
The Dublin TD set out an envisaged ‘new deal’ from Sinn Féin, spanning workers’ rights, housing healthcare, education and childcare and the environment. Among the headline pledges were pledges to introduce a legal standing for the living wage and to deliver the largest public house building programme “that Ireland has ever seen”, while increasing the supply of affordable homes and reducing rents.
On healthcare, McDonald called for an Irish National Health Service and in education she foresees making childcare a public service, while also pledging to scrap third level fees.
On the environment, McDonald’s detail was scarce but instead talked up proposals for a ‘green new deal’ to be published by the party. “A Green New Deal for Ireland means zero emissions targets; a just transition, sustainable jobs; state investment in infrastructure and skills,” was as much as the TD would say on the ambitions of the party’s new policy.
McDonald quickly returned to unity and unmistakably singled out Brexit as a catalyst in heightened ambition.
“Brexit has changed everything. Many people, for the first time, are now considering their future in a United Ireland. The Irish government and all who say that now is not the time to speak of unity are wrong. A referendum on unity will happen, as set-out in the Good Friday Agreement. It is not a question of if, but a question of when,” she said.
The President went on to call for the convening of an all-island forum to map out the “transition to a united Ireland”, declaring “the referendum must happen in the next five years”.
Much like O’Neill the previous night, McDonald said of Stormont that Sinn Féin negotiators “stand ready”, however, she offered little in way of a solution. “There is no contradiction between working for Irish Unity and seeking the restoration of the northern institutions,” she stated. “There is an immediate challenge to restore government in the North… Sinn Féin has never been the obstacle to power-sharing or good government or doing a deal. I challenge the DUP and both governments to step forward. To resolve the issues and get government back in action.”
McDonald blended North and South policy well and comfortably switched between the two. She addressed the coalition question head on by stating: “There are some who believe we should never talk to other parties about government. Those fears are understandable but I believe the housing crisis will only be solved with Sinn Féin in government… Following the general election, we have a choice to make… After the election, we will talk and we will listen. Our preference is for a left-led government.”
Concluding McDonald said: “The past was for those who seek to divide. The future is for those of us who seek to unite. The old guard can have yesterday. Tomorrow is ours.”
“This is the decade in which we will deliver this new Ireland. In which we will unite our country. This is the decade in which we will win the republic,” she added.