‘Our democratic day out’: Sinn Féin ardfheis sees plenty of smiles on display
‘Issue of Irish unity is never going back in the box’, says North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan
Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion: ‘Boris Johnson’s not content with ruining the country, he’s also trying to ruin my Christmas.’ Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
In Derry, it is election season. In the city centre, election posters are displayed from the same lampposts as the Christmas lights; inside the Millennium Forum, the atmosphere was less festive.
“Boris Johnson’s not content with ruining the country, he’s also trying to ruin my Christmas,” remarked the local MP, Elisha McCallion.
As Sinn Féin gathered in Derry this weekend for its ardfheis, McCallion has been much in evidence. She is in a tight fight against the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, to retain her seat in the general election on December 12th; as she stepped up to the podium to speak, the audience raised their “I’m voting Elisha” posters aloft.
“It’s a wee bit Donald Trump-like for me, but thank you,” she responded. “Welcome back to Derry, the friendliest city we have.”
There were certainly plenty of smiles on display, both in the auditorium and in the halls and lobbies around the ardfheis as party members renewed old acquaintances and met new ones. As one elected representative put it, “this is our democratic day out.”
There was much to discuss.
Three ballot boxes
As well as the general election in the North, the party is also facing into four by-elections in the South. In three ballot boxes positioned on a landing, the delegates are also casting their own votes; as always, they are selecting the party officers and the Ard Comhairle membership and, unusually, the party’s vice president.
John O’Dowd, the Upper Bann MLA, announced in August that he would challenge Michelle O’Neill, who is both vice president and Northern leader, for the deputy leadership; as he emerged on stage – to speak on a bill of rights – he was greeted with a cheer. “Media reports of my demise have been much exaggerated,” he said.
He was followed by Michelle O’Neill, and a bigger cheer; when the result was announced, just before 6pm, it came with little ceremony. The chair gave the result; there was a polite clap, and business resumed. “This is the election of a generation,” O’Neill had told delegates earlier, “and for many it is the election of a lifetime.”
Members are “buoyed up,” said North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan. “This is a very important time in our history. The issue of Irish unity is never going back in the box.
“People now want to see actual planning and preparation,” he said. “For an Irish republican, it’s a good time to be involved in politics.”
Irene Tury from Co Sligo agreed. She admits to “a few doubts” after the local election results in the Republic – “we got such a hanging” – yet feels re-energised by the conversations she has had at the ardfheis.
Activist and former councillor Gerry MacLochlainn “found it very upbeat. People are looking forward. They’re up for what’s ahead.”
He was far from the only delegate to notice the number of young people at the ardfheis. “It fills me with absolute confidence,” he said.
So too had Danny Morrison, Sinn Féin’s former national director of publicity. No longer, he said, was it about “us old boys pontificating in a corner.”
These young people “are the lifeblood of a party. There is an energy they have about them.”
Among these younger delegates is Fearghal Donnelly from Rathgar/Rathmines in Dublin. He agreed with Michelle O’Neill that a united Ireland is no longer a question of if, but when; Brexit has “changed the conversation” he said, and he is excited about what it will look like.
From the party leader, there was a promise. There will be, Mary Lou McDonald said, a unity referendum within the next five years.
“I’m voting Elisha”, read the slogan on Martina Anderson’s t-shirt. Whatever the votes ahead, she has only one answer. “It’s unity, stupid.”