Sinn Féin grassroots warm to McDonald despite talks collapse
Meeting of party members exudes softer tone on DUP, unionism and even Leo Varadkar
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald: “There is no option ultimately but for us and the DUP to be talking to each other.” Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty
Rather like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that didn’t bark, what was curious about the meeting of the Sinn Féin faithful in the Canal Court Hotel in Newry on Tuesday night was the absence of any significant recrimination and anger.
If republicans from staunch areas such as Newry and south Armagh felt annoyed with the Sinn Féin leadership for failing to conclude a deal to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly, or furious with the DUP for refusing to run with what many neutrals have argued was a reasonable compromise, they kept that sense of frustration largely to themselves.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald and senior negotiator Conor Murphy fielded the questions while the meeting was chaired by local Assembly member Megan Fearon who set an interesting tone.
Society had become “increasingly polarised” following the collapse of the talks, she said, which was “not good for anybody”. Republicans must try to understand the unionist mindset – “we need to put ourselves in their shoes”.
But that’s not to say that harsh views were not expressed at the meeting, which was held on a bitterly cold night, one of a series scheduled throughout Northern Ireland this week.
Some of the 300 who came drove through snow to get there, including McDonald, travelling up from Dublin. Extra seating had to be found, and a partition removed.
In her 20-minute opening, McDonald acknowledged that the aborted deal was not perfect, but it had been “an honourable accommodation” – one that some said was “impossible”.
But it did contain an Acht na Gaeilge. And so will its eventual replacement. “Gaeilgeoiri are not going away, you know,” she told the crowd.
Trying to figure why Arlene Foster “folded” on the deal, she indicated she has been listening to BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan show – “Joe Duffy with attitude” to quote one observer. “Jesus, that is some gig, isn’t it,” she remarked, marvelling at the “lady in Bangor” or the “fellow on the Shankill” ringing the show to say unionists were going to be forced to speak Irish.
“I think it is very, very worrying that unionism so broadly has taken fright on an issue like linguistic diversity,” she said.
On same-sex marriage, Ms McDonald worried about the “visceral reaction from biblical unionism, from evangelical unionism, from intolerant unionism about people deciding who they will marry”.
Sinn Féin is not seeking to exploit Brexit to achieve a united Ireland. Nonetheless, the “road leads inevitably to a referendum on Irish unity and the removal of partition”, she said.
An hour of questions followed. Pat, a young man who seems destined to go far within Sinn Féin, spoke about how McDonald has “energised the struggle” since she took over from Gerry Adams. The encomium prompted loud applause.
Parity of esteem
Besides that, there no mention at all of Mr Adams.
The young man wondered when Sinn Féin had met the DUP “more than half way, what hope was there for parity of esteem?”
Cormac, a student, asked if same-sex marriage legislation could not be introduced through the Assembly, could it happen through Westminster (where Sinn Féin MPs refuse to sit, although Cormac did not mention that)?
Newry has a large Polish population and one member of that community, Donna, worried about what would happen after Brexit. Could Polish people be forced to sell their homes and leave? “Will you fight for our rights?” she asked.
McDonald assured Donna that neither she nor other EU immigrants would be forced to sell their homes. To applause, she added, “So far as we are concerned you are most welcome, this is as much your home as it is ours.”
Welcoming this week’s letter from civic unionism, a new group promoting more liberal unionist policies, McDonald hoped those behind it would meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to discuss their views and concerns.
Interestingly, she was polite about the Government and Varadkar, accepting that he now saw that his “duty of care passes the Border”. “To be fair to them, so far they have heard that message and so far we have managed to keep them on that path; we have to sustain that into the future,” she said.
On same-sex marriage, Conor Murphy said Sinn Féin was “reluctant to open it up to Westminster because it should be a local matter”. But if it could not be achieved through the Assembly then, with Labour supportive and half the Tories also in agreement, it might be for Westminster to introduce such legislation. No one in the audience suggested that Sinn Féin pushing the issue in the House of Commons might assist in that enterprise.
In his contribution, Murphy said he and fellow Sinn Féin negotiators had authority to negotiate but this didn’t appear to be the case with the DUP. “I want to know are the people I am talking to across a table able to deliver a deal? . . . We need to know who actually runs the party.”
Greg from the Upper Bann constituency had a pithy answer: “Conor thought he was sitting with people who make decisions. The final decision was made by the Orange Order, and they played their Orange card the other day.”
That was probably the sharpest comment at the meeting. Overall, the temper of the night was one of confidence and patience, if rather despairing about the ability of the DUP to cut a deal.
Before the audience went back out into the bitter night, McDonald said Sinn Féin’s ambition of eventually achieving a united Ireland was not incompatible with also wanting Northern Ireland “to work”.
Sinn Féin is still seeking a deal: “There is no option ultimately but for us and the DUP to be talking to each other. Anybody who thinks differently does not live in the real world,” she said.