Tracey Magee: Sinn Féin ard fheis 'statement of intent' for party hungry for government

Anyone taking a walk through the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Athlone at the weekend would quickly realise this is a party that believes its day has come.

Last year It became the largest party in the Assembly elections and if the Stormont Executive ever returns, Michelle O’Neill will be the first nationalist First Minister.

Furthermore, if the polls are to be believed, Sinn Fein is on course to become the largest party in the Dail and, if it succeeds in forming a government, it will be in government on both sides of the border.

The ultimate goal remains a united Ireland but, in the meantime, the prospect of holding power north and south hangs tantalisingly within Sinn Fein’s grasp.

But the party is not having it all its own way.

It may hold the keys to the First Minister’s office, but Michelle O’Neill has been unable to take her seat for over a year and a half because of the DUP’s boycott in protest at the NI Protocol and, more latterly, the Windsor Framework.

Sinn Fein has deliberately given the discussions between the DUP and the government time and space in the hope that its future unionist partner-in-government will form an Executive. But it is clear Sinn Fein’s patience has snapped.

In her speech to the conference, Michelle O’Neill told delegates she is not prepared to let the discussions drift on.

“The British government need to call time on their endless two-way negotiation with the DUP. Public patience has run out. We must move forward. It is now decision time,” she said. The impatience to get into government was echoed by the party President Mary Lou McDonald in her address.

“It is eighteen months since Michelle O’Neill was elected First Minister. She’s ready to lead for all.

"For eighteen months the people of the North have been without government. People’s patience has run out.

"The DUP must end its boycott of government. The British government must stop endlessly indulging this boycott. This can't go on and on. It’s decision time now.”

But with politics in Northern Ireland stuck, Sinn Fein is getting on with the next challenge - taking power in the Republic. The election is expected to take place some time next year, possibly in the autumn when it’s thought the UK Westminster election may also be held.

Speak to any of the delegates and they will tell you they believe the party’s biggest voter getter is its stance on housing.

It's spokesman Eoin O’Broin is impressive, and the party’s promises to address Ireland’s housing crisis by building affordable homes and cut rents has resonated with the electorate.

And yet this weekend the issue that brought the loudest cheers was the crisis in Palestine.

But on this matter Sinn Fein has been less sure-footed.

At first the party criticised the Hamas attack on Israelis on October 7 and called for a ceasefire.

Weeks later, the party changed its stance by saying the position of the Israeli ambassador to Ireland Dana Erlich has become “untenable.”

It has since signalled it will support a Social Democrat motion in the Dail next week calling for her expulsion.

It also says it will bring its own motion calling on the government to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court. The Gaza crisis has caused a quandary for Sinn Fein which has long been associated with the cause of Palestinian liberation.

Without doubt the huge outpouring of emotion when the Palestinian ambassador Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid gave a clear indication of the depth of feeling in the party.

There were repeated standing ovations during her address and chants of ‘Free free Palestine.’

During the emergency motion on the issue, there were many speeches supporting of the Palestinian cause and repeated applause from delegates in the hall.

It has led to speculation that the party leadership - with one eye on becoming a party of government - was out of step with its grassroots.

The crisis in Palestine was a central feature of Mary Lou McDonald’s closing address to the Ard Fheis and in it she accused the Israeli government of war crimes.

“The government says that Israel’s actions cannot be without consequences. I agree. That is why the Irish government should take the lead and refer Israel to the International Criminal Court. And send the Israeli ambassador home.”

There followed a long and enthusiastic standing ovation from delegates and with it any suggestion of a disconnect between the party leadership and the grassroots was put to bed.

During her address the party President made no secret of her ambitions.

The speech was televised on the national broadcaster RTÉ, and Mary Lou McDonald finished with an undisguised appeal to voters. “Ireland is changing and we are ready to lead,” she told the gathering and viewers at home.“Sinn Féin is the largest party in the Assembly and in local government in the north,” she said.

“Our ambition is to lead government in the south. A new government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for the first time in a hundred years. Just imagine that. That would be the very best outcome from the General Election. Of course, the people will make that call. It’s your decision.”

Make no mistake, Mary Lou McDonald’s speech to the 2023 Ard Fheis was a rallying cry to her party faithful, a statement of intent for a party hungry for government and an election broadcast to a nation she hopes one day to lead.

The next time Mary Lou McDonald speaks, she may well be Taoiseach.

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