Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald and Vice President Michelle O’Neill are in the US for the St. Patrick’s season to deliver a message – the Good Friday Agreement is under attack by unionists, and American support continues to be vital with an election looming in May.
O’Neill, during a March 14 interview with the Irish Voice, sister publication to IrishCentral, at her hotel in Manhattan, said unionist politicians are becoming more obstinate as their polling worsens. Sinn Féin is expected to emerge from the May 5 vote as the majority party in the North, thus entitling them to the first minister’s post.
Unionism, though, has vowed not to govern with Sinn Féin at the top of the table.
“It smacks of democracy on their terms only. If it doesn’t work for them they don’t want it,” said O’Neill, who was forced to surrender her post as deputy first minister last month when Paul Givan of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) resigned as first minister in protest over the Brexit Protocol which eliminates a hard border between the North and the Irish Republic.
“So our message here is that we need everybody to support the primacy of politics, the primacy of the Good Friday Agreement. If the electorate decides that Sinn Féin is coming back as the largest party – we know we have to work hard for that and we will – then they need to be listened to,” O’Neill added.
“People are struggling with the cost of living, the price of fuel. They’re crying out for support and the DUP responds by collapsing the Executive. Basic everyday matters are what’s on people’s minds, not the Protocol.”
Unionism, O’Neill says, is in “disarray, leaderless. It goes back to the founding of the Northern state which was based on a unionist majority that is never going to come back.”
The constitutional question of a united Ireland is front and center, O’Neill says, thanks to Brexit and Northern Ireland voters choosing to remain in the EU, though a majority in the U.K. voted to leave which meant the North had to depart.
“Brexit is a catalyst for change. We were pulled out of Europe against our wishes. So the question now for people is, do they want to be part of an inward-looking Brexit Britain or an outward-looking Ireland in the EU?” O’Neill asks.
O’Neill and Sinn Féin are calling for a new citizens’ assembly to plan for a referendum on unity and what a united Ireland might look like. She also says the Irish government “needs to do more” with regards to “what change might look like” if voters choose unity.
O’Neill and McDonald had a full four-day schedule during their trip to New York and Washington, D.C. They visited the Emerald Isle Immigration Center and New York Irish Center in Queens before taking part in a Fordham talk in the evening. On Tuesday they traveled to D.C. for a number of political meetings spread over three days, including stops at the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s St. Patrick’s Day luncheon.
Sinn Féin would welcome the appointment by the Biden administration of a special envoy.
“That’s always been important as we’ve seen from the past. America’s role in securing the peace can never be overstated,” O’Neill said.
*This column first appeared in the March 16 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.