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'Blueshirts' and borders: Sinn Féin tells Newry voters that a united Ireland has never been closer

Sinn Féin held a public meeting in Newry tonight.

Image: TheJournal.ie

Updated Feb 26th 2020, 11:59 PM

MARY LOU MCDONALD promised Northern voters that they would no longer be forgotten, as she attacked Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for a “shameful” tendency to weaponise Northern Ireland’s past. 

The only Sinn Féin post-election rally to take place across the border, tonight in Newry the party told voters in the North that a united Ireland was closer than ever before.

“There can be a dangerous tendency to reach for here and reach for the past and I think it’s wrong and I think it’s shameful,” she said. 

“Some political figures south of the border reach consistently for the past in a way that is frankly shameful,” she said. 

Ireland needs to accept and understand the experience of people in the North during the Troubles, according to McDonald.

“Accept what communities went through,” she said. “To recognise the hurt across the board. I’m not being selective here.”

The meeting tonight saw over 700 people pack into Newry’s Canal Court Hotel, following on from rallies in Cork and Dublin. 

More than 800 people attended the party’s first public meeting in Cork, while in Dublin last night, McDonald, Michelle O’Neill, Eoin Ó Broin, and Pearse Doherty addressed a packed Liberty Hall, where the Sinn Féin leader enjoyed a rapturous reception

At least one woman travelled all the way from Cork to attend the event after missing the rally on Monday, while others came from Donegal and Tyrone. 

Tonight, McDonald and O’Neill were joined by Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy and local MLA Liz Kimmins, with Doherty and Ó Broin arriving late due to traffic delays caused by a collision on the M1. 

But despite the differing line-up, McDonald and her party colleagues received the same warm welcome. 

“Just as the unionist majority is gone, the duopoly of the so-called big two is now gone,” Mary Lou McDonald told the Newry crowd as she began her speech with an attack on Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. 

“In all of our discussions with the other parties, the demand and the desire for unity is a priority,” she said. 

What would Fianna Fáil giants like Eamon De Valera, Frank Aiken or Dan Breen say, McDonald said this evening, to Micheál Martin not pushing for Irish unity. 

As talk turned to government formation, McDonald told the crowd that a Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil government was “increasingly a possibility”.

“There is a possibility that might happen. That would be an enormous disappointment to the electorate,” she said. 

As questions turned to government formation, one questioner asked whether the the Green Party were just “Fine Gael on bicycles”.

“For the Green Party to prop up a FF and FG government would amount to no change at all,” McDonald said. 

But, she quipped, in any new Ireland “we have to make room for others, even if they do cycle bicycles on behalf of blueshirts”. 

02 Sinn Fein Rally Mary Lou McDonald addresses the rally in Liberty Hall last night. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

 Rise of Sinn Féin

The rise of Sinn Féin came as a surprise, even to people in the North familiar with watching the party’s rise to become the dominant nationalist party. The party’s last major electoral outing in the North took place in December, in the UK general election, and saw it lose votes across the North – with support dropping 8% in the Newry-Armagh constituency.

Tonight, there was little sense of a party in decline. Buoyed by the electoral surge of a few weeks ago, the crowd – older than last night in Dublin – cheered McDonald as she walked onto the stage.

For most of the attendees who spoke to TheJournal.ie, this wasn’t their first time at a Sinn Féin rally and many were long-time Sinn Féin voters.

Last night in Dublin, Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil needed reminding that her party had been in government in the North for years.

Here, there were few in the room unused to Sinn Féin either topping the poll or in government. 

“It’s kind of pointless voting for them in Newry and Armagh,” one attendee told TheJournal.ie. “They’re always winning anyway.”

Last night, when McDonald shouted “Up the Dubs”, she began with a joke. Tonight, McDonald did the same. “Am I in Down or am in Armagh? The real issue of the border is here,” she told the crowd. 

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United Ireland

Unlike last night, where questions focused on domestic issues like housing and healthcare, the first question this evening immediately asked the panel their views on the Emma De Souza case – and should the audience denounce their British citizenship. 

“You shouldn’t have to denounce something that isn’t real. I’m not a British citizen but, my friend, neither are you,” McDonald told the audience member. 

From there, a united Ireland – both the aspiration and the practical realities – formed a backdrop to the discussion as audience members repeatedly referenced the Troubles and the reality of life in Northern Ireland over the last several decades. 

“We’re a democratic party and we’re going to get what we want in the end,” one man told the crowd.

Another told Murphy, to applause from the audience, “you have nothing to apologise for” – while he didn’t reference the murder of Paul Quinn, Murphy’s apology for comments he made about Paul Quinn in 2007 dominated the final days of the election campaign. 

No one from Sinn Féin responded to the comment. 

McDonald, to whom people addressed most of their questions, addressed the pragmatic concerns about a united Ireland as conversations returned time and time again to what unity might look like. 

She understood, she said, that the health system was a “core question as we discuss Irish unity. We have to get health right”.

McDonald also made an appeal to unionists, telling the audience that they have an important part to play in the discussion of a united Ireland.

“A process,” she said, “we drive best when we drive together”. 

“Unionism is not a monolith,” Murphy said. “People from the DUP are talking to us in a way they never spoke to us before.”

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