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'People have gotten into a frenzy over it': Michelle O'Neill laughs off criticism of Sinn Féin rallies

O’Neill also spoke of the misogyny she has witnessed as a female politician and her dreams of a United Ireland.

Image: Niall Carson

THE DEPUTY LEADER of Sinn Féin, Michelle O’Neill, has described criticism of the party’s hosting of ‘Government for Change’ rallies across Ireland over the past two weeks as “amusing” and said the party will continue to host more rallies in the future. 

O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister and Sinn Féin’s vice president, said the rallies represented “democracy in action” and brushed off criticism from other political leaders in the Republic of Ireland. 

“I’m smiling because I actually think this is hilarious that it has become a big topic of conversation,” she said in an interview with TheJournal.ie in her office in Stormont. 

“We’re a political party which was elected by the people. We’re a grassroots political party so we actually believe in listening to the people. So I don’t think it’s irregular in any shape or fashion that you would go out and do public meetings where you actually let people come in and hear what you have to say.”

Other politicians including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar took aim at the party last week after it announced plans to host rallies around the country. “I think they are an unwelcome development, generally what happens in a democracy is that people vote, the votes are counted, and then parties try to form a government.

“What is happening here it seems that Sinn Féin, having won less than a quarter of the vote, are behaving as though as they have won a majority.”

O’Neill, however, said she has always engaged with members of the public through “roadshows” and rallies and said she would support more of these events being held in the future. 

Roadshows

“For me these are part and parcel of what you do. I have been a minister of agriculture, I have been a minister of health, and in each of my departments, each time, I went out and did what might have been called ‘roadshows’ they might have been called many different things.

“But they were essentially public meetings where I put myself out there to listen to the public. I think it’s actually really amusing that people have gotten into a frenzy over it, saying ‘oh my goodness, Sinn Féin are talking to the people who elected them’.”

The 43-year-old Tyrone MLA has been managing a balancing act, maintaining her presence in Stormont after the assembly returned in January following a three-year hiatus, while also standing side-by-side with party leader Mary Lou McDonald at public events as the party tries to capitalise on its recent General Election success. 

Sinn Féin secured an unprecedented 37 seats following the 8 February polling day, a result that was preceded by strong support for the party among opinion polls, but which the party itself admits was an unexpected victory.

During a vote among TDs in Leinster House on which party leader should be taoiseach following the election, McDonald secured the most votes with the backing of 45 TDs, albeit not enough to take the title. 

ulster-powersharing Party leader Mary Lou McDonald with Michelle O'Neill in Stormont. Source: PA

But despite the support for what would have been the first female taoiseach in the State’s history, O’Neill described the misogyny she has experienced as a female public representative and pledged to continue to tackle it in the future. 

“A Lot of things are changing, myself and Mary Lou were elected by the party. We’re elected on merit and we happen to be two female leaders, which I am very proud of.

“I think that we continuously show by leadership. You show by what you do, we hope that and perhaps even some of the election results show… people turning to vote for SF for the first time ever because of politics and Mary Lou’s leadership and I’m delighted about that. 

“[But] we still live in a very patriarchal society so we have a lot of work to do to break down the misogyny that exists. I think if you [question] things like who’s in control of the party, and who leads the party, I don’t hear it being asked of a man.

“I never hear that question asked of a man, and I find that very misogynistic, quite frankly. That that question is constantly put to Mary Lou and myself.”

United Ireland

The Sinn Féin deputy leader has on numerous occasions insisted that a United Ireland has never been more likely and cited Sinn Féin’s victory in securing the most first preference votes as evidence of this. 

Asked if she could foresee herself seated in Leinster House in the event of a United Ireland, she said she would be open to keeping the assembly running in Stormont. 

“We’ve published many discussion documents around what does it look like, do you keep the assembly, do you have regional assemblies, what does the centre of political gravity look like.

“I’m very open to that because I think that it’s important that we are because if I decide in a very prescriptive way this is how it’s going to be, that’s going to alienate people. So it’s time for us to actually plan it together and I think we all have to come to the table with an open mind for a conversation about what you can do. 

An opinion poll published last September showed there was a slim majority for Irish Unity among residents in Northern Ireland – the growing support attributed to issues including Brexit and membership of the EU, according to Sinn Féin party members. 

O’Neill also suggested unionists in Northern Ireland who felt they would be isolated or excluded from certain parts of society in the event of Irish unity would also have nothing to worry about. 

“The Good Friday Agreement doesn’t just disappear, it actually follows through so for me that is a selling point around those people with British identity because I see it as my job to convince people who are fearful, fearful because of the state.

“There’s discrimination that was inbuilt in this state at the time of civil rights, that nationalists were discriminated against, couldn’t get access to jobs, housing and everything else that was so bad and I think there’s a bit of a fear in the unionist community, or certainly there’s a whipped up fear by some people.

“There cannot and I want to say to people – and engage with people outside of my normal comfort zone, to those with a British identity – to say you have nothing to fear, there is actually something better for us here.”

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