Ireland has reached a defining moment in its history and the next 10 years will be “a decade of opportunity” that will offer people the chance to end the failure of partition, Northern Ireland First Minister designate and Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill has said.
Ms O’Neill told a crowd of about 400 at a commemoration to mark the 102nd anniversary of the Kilmichael Ambush during the War of Independence in West Cork that more and more people are “enthused by the possibility of change and building a new Ireland”.
Recalling how, on November 28th, 1920, the Flying Column of the Cork No 3 Brigade of the IRA defeated a force of Auxiliaries at Kilmichael, Ms O’Neill paid tribute to IRA leader Tom Barry and his 35 men for their courage in taking on a force that had fostered a myth that they were invincible.
While Irish republicans today share the same aim as Barry and his men of pursuing an independent and united Ireland, they now have a peaceful and democratic path to achieve that aim via the Good Friday Agreement, which guarantees the right to self-determination through consent of the people, she said.
“Republicans have travelled a long road in the century since the Kilmichael Ambush,” said Ms O’Neill as she pointed out that talks between John Hume of the SDLP and Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin led to all party talks in the 1990s, an IRA ceasefire, full negotiations and then to the Good Friday Agreement.
“The agreement provided an alternative to political conflict,” she said, adding it guaranteed equality and civil rights denied to nationalists for decades while creating power-sharing arrangements and recognising the equally legitimate allegiances of unionists and nationalists.
“It guarantees self-determination through consent where the people of Ireland will determine the future constitutional status of the North ... the Good Friday Agreement provides a peaceful democratic pathway to Irish unity,” said Ms O’Neill, who was born in Fermoy in north Cork.
She said the Democratic Unionist Party had weakened Northern Ireland’s union with Britain by its support for the Tory-led Brexit, which she described as “an unprecedented folly, creating the biggest constitutional crisis for unionism in a century”.
“The inbuilt political unionist majority is gone forever,” said Ms O’Neill, as she pointed out that last May the electorate voted in huge numbers with Sinn Féin topping polls while the recent census showed the changing nature of society of Northern Ireland.
“Six months later, the DUP has now refused to accept the result of May’s election, using the [Northern Ireland] protocol as a pretence not to serve with a nationalist First Minister. The balance of power has fundamentally shifted, and we are ushering in a new era of change.
“Sinn Féin believes the protocol is necessary. It can work more smoothly and checks on our ports can be substantially reduced to ease business and trade. The British government now need to get into serious negotiations with the EU to find joint solutions sooner rather than later.”
Ms O’Neill said neither the Northern Ireland Assembly nor the Executive has any role in these negotiations and yet by refusing to facilitate their restoration, the DUP was “punishing the public and polarising our politics by continuing to block power sharing”.
Sinn Féin now has the largest number of votes on the island of Ireland and the party wants to serve in government, both North and South, should the people so decide, and the party’s priority was to make politics work through co-operation and partnership with others.
“That means strengthening our health service, giving children a world-class education, building affordable homes, making communities safer, protecting our rural way of life and creating good jobs. It means supporting workers and families struggling through this cost-of-living crisis,” she said.
Ms O’Neill said she was working towards “building a society not of orange and green, but a rainbow of colours” and she saw no contradiction between delivering on Sinn Féin’s commitment to sharing power with unionism and others while making the case for constitutional change on the island.
“I believe we are in a decade of opportunity, and we will not miss this moment. More and more people are enthused by the possibility of change and building a new Ireland and our mission is to bring all the people of this country together,” she said.
“A stark choice is opening up – between the narrow, inward-looking vision of Brexit Britain and the open inclusive vision of a new Ireland. This is a time for big ideas, inclusive conversations, ambitious plans and generosity, but we are further on our journey to the new Ireland than ever before.
“Together we can build a united, sovereign Irish Republic based on equality for all. Let’s not miss this moment. That, friends, is the only outcome that will fittingly pay tribute to the legacy of those who fought here and all those who have given their lives in the cause of Irish freedom.”