Michelle O’Neill tells Sinn Fein ard fheis that ‘entrenched unionist majority is long gone’

Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O'Neill during her keynote speech at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis at the Technological University of Shannon Campus in Athlone, County Westmeath. Credit: PA

Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland has told the party’s annual ard fheis conference that “the old orange state” with a unionist majority is “long gone”. In her keynote speech, Michelle O’Neill said the results of last year’s Assembly elections must be “respected” as she criticised the Democratic Unionist Party and called for the restoration of powersharing in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party in Stormont following that election and Ms O’Neill also praised the party’s performance in May’s local government elections where it won the most council seats.

She said: “The nationalist community in the north, historically marginalised and discriminated against, has achieved what was once thought impossible. “The old orange state with its entrenched unionist majority is now long gone. It is a thing of the past.” Ms O’Neill said if she were to be first minister in a functioning Executive she would aim to represent the “whole community” with a commitment to inclusive governance. She said she would “never treat others the way our communities were treated in the past”. Ms O’Neill said: “I am determined to continue to demonstrate my commitment to representing and showing respect to every section of our society.” Speaking to the hundreds of party members at the Technological University of Shannon campus in Athlone, Co Westmeath, the party’s vice-president said there was a need to “get back on track” following the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The Stormont Assembly remains collapsed amid DUP protest action over post-Brexit trading arrangements. She said: “It’s vital to recognise the urgency of the situation, with the democratic institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in a state of paralysis. “The DUP has had more than enough time to address their concerns regarding the Brexit Protocol. “Public patience has run out. It is now time to see the assembly and executive restored.” She used her speech to raise issues of public sector pay, hospital waiting lists, the building of Casement Park and the A5 route, protection of Lough Neagh and a strategy to end violence against women and girls. Ms O’Neill said: “The boycott of the Assembly by the DUP must end. But regardless, Sinn Fein will keep moving forward.” As the party also aims to lead Government in the Republic of Ireland following the next general election, she told the audience that Sinn Fein was also committed to fostering a new era of Irish-British relations. She said this would be done “with the spectre of a new Westminster government in London, and [Sinn Fein leader] Mary Lou McDonald as the first woman Taoiseach leading government in Dublin”. Ms McDonald was in attendance for the speech alongside other senior party representatives. Sinn Fein said the ard fheis will be about the “future, hope and opportunities”. Sorca Clarke, the party’s TD for the constituency of Longford–Westmeath, delivered the opening speech at the event. Ms Clarke said: “The housing crisis is this Government’s greatest failure and ending the housing crisis is Sinn Fein’s number one priority.” Sinn Fein said the change it wants to deliver “starts at the local and European elections next June”. It said the party is focused on electing the “largest number possible” of Sinn Fein councillors and MEPs. Declan Kearney, an MLA for South Antrim, said party development will need sound induction practices and good communication. He said the party could turn supporters into members and members into activists. He said this would drive momentum to deliver change. He added: “Sinn Fein is on a permanent electoral footing. Our trajectory is no secret.” Mr Kearney said the party aspires to lead government in the Republic of Ireland and powersharing in Northern Ireland. “Let’s be the best that we can be and deliver a national republic we can proud of. A united Ireland for all and a republic for the many,” he added.

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