McDonald restates Sinn Féin stance on unity poll after U-turn
Vote a key priority, leader says a week after saying Brexit uncertainty required delay
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald (at centre in green top) in procession during the 37th National Hunger Strike Commemoration in Castlewellan, Co Down, on Sunday. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald (left) with Emma Rogan MLA during the 37th National Hunger Strike Commemoration in Castlewellan, Co Down. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams (centre) with Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald during the 37th National Hunger Strike Commemoration in Castlewellan, Co Down. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
It is now only a matter of “when” a Border poll will take place on Irish unity, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said on Sunday, as she brushed aside her U-turn on the issue last week.
Speaking at an event to commemorate the 1981 hunger strikes in Co Down, she spoke of republicanism being “renewed and revitalised” and said “the need for a referendum to end partition is writ large”.
Last week, in an interview, Ms McDonald said the Border poll question should be put to one side until the “dangers” posed by Brexit were mitigated.
But the following day, she declared there would have to be a Border poll if the UK crashed out of the European Union next year without an agreement.
Opponents claimed she had been pressurised within the party to change tack, a claim denied by Sinn Féin, which argued that her comments were consistent.
Addressing the republican crowd on Sunday, Ms McDonald said: “The time for a unity referendum is drawing near . . . It is not a question of if a unity referendum will happen but a question of when.
She added that British identity must be accommodated in a united Ireland and said unionists had the right “to celebrate their history and tradition, to recount their experience and suffering, and to remember and honour their dead must be, and will be respected”.
She also said republicans’ “right to remember, commemorate, to honour our dead must be respected”.
Thousands of republicans gathered in Castlewellan for the 37th “National Hunger Strike Commemoration”, the first time it has been held in Co Down, marking the anniversary of the deaths of 10 republican hunger strikers, including Bobby Sands and Raymond McCreesh, in 1981.
The theme of Sunday’s commemorative parade through the town to a private landowner’s field, where Ms McDonald addressed the crowd, was “the journey”.
In the field, stalls were selling republican-themed merchandise, including badges, books, CDs, jerseys, aprons and portraits of the late former first minster and ex-IRA chief Martin McGuinness. Rebel tunes played as young men played with hurleys and children played on the grass on their bicycles.
When the parade arrived in the field South Down MP Chris Hazzard opened proceedings by thanking the families of the “patriot dead” hunger strikers for attending.
South Down MLA Emma Rogan recited the poem What Compels Young Men to Die? before Cllr John Rice, who was referred to by a party colleague as a “POW”, read “our role of honour” to the hunger strikers.
Young people were then involved in a New Ireland theatre piece called The Jigsaw. Each of the 32 had carried a large jigsaw piece of their county in the parade and then in the field they were added to a giant map of Ireland while information about notable republicans was read out.
Ms McDonald then paid tribute to the hunger strikers, saying: “We will not let them be criminalised ever.”
Ahead of the commemoration, families of victims of IRA violence said the event was “insulting” to their relatives memories and UUP representative Alan Lewis claimed Sinn Féin was “glorifying” terrorism.
Among those to disagree with this claim was Noel Connolly, chair of Sinn Féin’s Grey Abbey Martyrs cumann, Kildare South. “We come here every year just to recognise sacrifice,” he said.
“We recognise that a lot of people died in the conflict but everyone has the right to remember their dead, including loyalists and everyone else.”
When former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams – who was mobbed in the field by republicans young and old for joint-selfies and photographs – was asked by a reporter at Stormont in 2016 when he would like to see a Border poll he replied “Yesterday”, and that was the feeling among many others in Castlewellan.
A 51 per cent win would be “a shame but we would obviously accept it, but we would like to persuade people and that will be done by selling the benefits of unity,” Mr Connolly said.