Mary Lou McDonald, President of Sinn Féin, speaks to us about Brexit during her visit to the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies on Thursday October 4th.

Later in the evening, Mary Lou McDonald delivers a speech to an audience in the Eleanor Rathbone Theatre at an event put on by the Institute of Irish studies. Director of the Institute, Professor Peter Shirlow, takes to the stage, speaking on the issue of peace and reconciliation before introducing a guest who, for an audience of the Institute of Irish Studies, needs no introduction.

For this new Sinn Féin leader, truth is not the first casualty of war as “there is a multiplicity of truths”. Rather, our common humanity is the first to fall. It is this that we must seek to rekindle in order to make peace mean more than just an absence of conflict. This sets the tone for Mary Lou McDonald’s talk titled ‘Remembering, Respect and Reconciliation – Building the Future Together’. The importance of this for the island of Ireland has been highlighted by the border question raised by Brexit, evoking painful memories for the residents of an island partitioned in 1921. This resulted in two conservative states, and the six counties in the north-east were left with an inbuilt Protestant majority, with communities becoming bitterly divided along sectarian lines.

McDonald recounts her experience of meeting victims of the conflict and their families, whether the violence was at the hands of the British state, or Republican or Unionist groups. Their grace and respect in their quest for truth and justice is noted. No survivor should be expected to forgive or forget, but we must listen and engage with all in society, no matter how uncomfortable these conversations may be, she continues. Refights of old battles and demands for repentance have no place in peace-building.

Mary Lou McDonald delivers her public lecture on stage in the Eleanor Rathbone Theatre

Mary Lou McDonald delivers her public lecture

These views have been echoed recently by Hillary Clinton, stating, while visiting Queen’s University, Belfast on Wednesday 10th October, that Northern Ireland deserves “peace, not paralysis”. The path to peace is not yet carved into the bedrock of Northern Irish society, with suggestions that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) could be changed to accommodate Brexit coming even from Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which opposed the GFA in 1998.

Great strides have been made, however. McDonald references Queen Elizabeth II’s 2011 visit to Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance. There she laid a wreath during a memorial for those who lost their lives fighting for Irish Freedom. The need to recognise others’ experiences, and the validity and equality of their suffering, whether they be in Dublin, Monaghan or Warrington, is stressed by the party leader.

“It is not a zero-sum game.”

Mary Lou McDonald, as leader of Sinn Féin since February 2018, cannot undo the damage done in the past, but says she can ensure that future generations of Republicans work to build a society where such conflict never happens again.

McDonald raises the issue of remembering the dead, a right enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. She has attended a commemoration to Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers, for which she was criticised, but also a remembrance ceremony held by the Royal British Legion, to which she was pleased to be invited. Appearances at events such as the former have caused negative publicity for Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, but for Mary Lou McDonald, this is about honouring the dead, not celebrating conflict.”

 “they ask me to remember… but they want me to remember their memories… and I keep remembering mine.” – Lucile Clifton

Our societies are changing, says the Sinn Féin leader. The old conservative Republic is gone, “swept aside by the marriage equality and repeal the eighth referendums”, while Pride is the largest political demonstration in Belfast, the perpetual Unionist majority in Northern Ireland is no more, and many are hoping that, in terms of progress made south of the border, ‘the North is next’. We must manage change, McDonald says, so as to avoid a collision between past and future, hence the importance of reconciliation.

For her this does not simply mean attaching the North to the South, but “about building a new and united Ireland.” McDonald has expressed such sentiments before in her attempts to make Unionist feel at home in the new Ireland she hopes is emerging. In April, she controversially referred to Derry as ‘Londonderry’, while also supporting the candidacy of Ian Marshall, a Northern Irish Unionist, for the Senate, the Republic of Ireland’s upper house of parliament.

This new Ireland, McDonald hopes, will be “an Ireland where it is possible to be British, Irish, both or neither.” The concerns of those who value the union with Great Britain must be listened to when it comes time to a unity referendum, she says, and the job of Sinn Féin is to “demonstrate a vision of a united Ireland for all”, based on rights and respect.

In the midst of the uncertainty of Brexit and the division it has exacerbated, McDonald highlights one of the areas in which Brexiteers, the Irish government and the European Union are in agreement: the common travel area between the UK and Ireland must remain, and the citizenship of the Irish in Britain and vice versa must be respected.

“Change is coming.”

The floor is opened up to questions from the crowd, the first of which comes from an audience member who left Dublin for the United Kingdom two decades ago. She asks whether Brexit, like politics in the North of Ireland, has underlying issues that must be dealt with beyond just a matter of Leave or Remain.

Mary Lou McDonald presents her perspective as Eurocritical, but stresses that we are stronger with the European Union, and that we should stay and fight for a social Europe. Brexit is not intended to emancipate working people: there are, after all, more of us common people than there are super rich, she says. The Sinn Féin leader takes a poke at her political rivals both in Ireland and in Britain, saying Theresa May needs to stop sheltering the Democratic Unionist Party, who are hiding in Westminster.

This, presumably, is a reference to a failure of the two parties to break the impasse and form a Government in Northern Ireland. All the while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has the ear, or the arm-behind-the-back, of May’s Conservative government in London.

On that point the second audience member questions whether Sinn Féin and the Unionists are letting people down without a power-sharing agreement. It is a disgrace, says McDonald, that there is still no Assembly or Executive. In early September, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley announced Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) would have their pay cut by £13,000 a year after 20 months of not taking their seats.

Mary Lou McDonald on stage with Professor Peter Shirlow

Mary Lou McDonald on stage with Professor Peter Shirlow

McDonald insists Martin McGuinness, the late former Deputy First Minister, was right to bring the Executive down in light of scandals including that of the Renewable Heat Initiative, a controversial green energy scheme costing taxpayers £490 million, in which DUP leader Arlene Foster herself was implicated. While some criticised McGuinness for his decision, others, according to McDonald, felt he should have left sooner. Now, the leader feels Sinn Féin cannot return to government with the DUP without progress on reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and language rights. People want good government, and the genie is out of the bottle regarding rights amongst the new generation in Northern Ireland, says McDonald, but the DUP would seem to want alignment with Britain on everything but such rights.

A number of other questions come from the audience on the issues of a border poll and the diaspora. It is not too soon, says Mary Lou, to start talking of Irish unity. The history of violence can be overcome by a public reconciliation process, and if there is a border poll, McDonald declares, Sinn Féin will campaign for unification. She wants to win it, and win it well, respectfully and with maximum consent. But is 50 per cent plus one enough? If it was enough for partition, it’s enough for this, she says.

McDonald reminds us of the role the diaspora in countries like the United States played in the peace process, and suggests support for the extension of voting rights to Irish citizens abroad, especially for presidential elections. This would recognise the role they have played in our history while also acknowledging that we can learn from others.

The Institute of Irish Studies will also be hosting former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern who will be delivering the 11th Dr John Kennedy Lecture on Thursday 22nd November.