A historic moment for SF, but substantial change must follow

Perhaps McDonald felt ardfheis not the forum to signal how the future will be different

Deputy political editor of the Irish Times, Fiach Kelly, looks at Mary Lou Mc Donald's first speech as president of Sinn Fein and the challenges that lie ahead for her north and south of the border.

 

The Sinn Féin special ardfheis on Saturday has indeed witnessed historic change, as the party leadership passed from Gerry Adams to Mary Lou McDonald – but any change in substance has yet to come.

In delivering her inaugural address as leader, McDonald perhaps felt this ardfheis was not the forum to signal just how, after 35 years with Adams in command, the future will be different. Her speech was well written and, as always with McDonald, was well delivered, but it marked a moment in time, rather than outlined a philosophy or set of beliefs.

The proceedings in Dublin’s RDS were garlanded with tributes to Adams and the late Martin McGuinness, but not to the extent that the shadow of two former leaders suffocated the change to McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, the new deputy leader.

It was a relatively short affair, with just over two hours of speeches and presentations teeing up McDonald’s formal election.

Repeated references to the desire of the party to be in government in Northern Ireland and the Republic were tailored with an insistence that McDonald and O’Neill will not enter power just for the sake of it.

‘Transform Irish politics’

Pearse Doherty said that Sinn Féin, under the leadership of McDonald and O’Neill, and “with the support of the people”, will “transform Irish politics”.

“We will ensure that the failed two-and-a-half party system in this State will be gone, and will never be coming back,” said Doherty – a brave claim given that Sinn Féin wants to be the junior partner in a coalition government in Dublin. “Mary Lou and Michelle – they will take us into government, North and South, on their terms.”

But any firm indications of what changes McDonald will try to make as she attempts to steer Sinn Féin into power on both sides of the Border were not forthcoming. Her own speech contained no definitive new departures. Long-standing commitments to Irish unity, reconciliation in Northern Ireland and equality were present and correct.

There were signposts, however, of some possible shifts, such as how McDonald will deal with one of her first major challenges: the referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

Sinn Féin policy at present favours abortion in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality and where the health, including the mental health, of the mother is at risk.

Strong opposition

McDonald will have to hold another ardfheis to bring party policy into line with the proposal to allow abortion up to 12 weeks without restriction – a move that will provoke strong opposition from some within Sinn Féin.

McDonald acknowledged the party’s position in the referendum will be difficult for some who will be “republicans, friends and family and Sinn Féin members”.

Against the backdrop of ongoing internal controversies – including resignations and claims of bullying – McDonald again said she will work to modernise the structures of the party, and further details of how this will be done are expected in coming weeks.

Perhaps the only clear distinction from a speech that Adams would have delivered was the relatively warm terms in which she spoke of the European Union. McDonald, a former MEP, said Sinn Féin would not allow the “European project” to be conceded to “free marketeers and corporate interests”.

Thanks to Brexit, the once-Eurosceptic party now has a leader who says her party will fight for an EU that has “social progress at its core”.

“We are up for that fight because Ireland is a proud European nation,” she said. On Brexit itself, McDonald said any border – hard or soft – between Northern Ireland and the Republic must be avoided.

She echoed UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a long time friend of Sinn Féin, when she said he wanted an Ireland where there are “opportunities for all – and not just the few”.

Prosperous economy

There were also passages about how a prosperous economy should benefit all in society, but Sinn Féin’s suitability as a future coalition partner in Dublin depends on the party moving to the centre ground of Irish politics, as much as it does on its past.

A hard left prospectus that Sinn Féin would have pursued in previous elections will give Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael another reason to shut McDonald out of Government Buildings on Merrion Street.

Sinn Féin quite clearly now wants power in Dublin, and in one section of her speech, McDonald may have hinted at the policy approach she is willing to take to get there.

‘Reward hard work’

“Prosperous economies encourage ambition, applaud achievement and reward hard work. Prosperity is supported by fair, progressive taxation and the fair distribution of wealth.”

It could have been said by any party leader, from Labour to Fine Gael. But how McDonald intends to match her party policy with this intent is still not clear.

Sinn Féin is not an organisation that turns on a sixpence. Any change comes slowly, but a major – albeit long-expected and choreographed – movement came in the RDS on Saturday.

McDonald’s own alterations may take more time.

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