A changing Ireland

Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill talks to Owen McQuade about Brexit and the changes in Ireland, North and South, that she believes will bring about a united Ireland in her lifetime.

We meet in the wake of the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment referendum in the South: “The whole of Ireland is changing” contends Sinn Féin’s leader in the now suspended Assembly. “With the referendum, marriage equality and Brexit in the content of the Tory-DUP deal the whole of Ireland is changing.”

O’Neill believes that this change is apparent in the North: “With Brexit people aren’t accepting that their own rights and entitlements and their ability to assert what they want for the place where they live and work can be ignored. People aren’t going to tolerate being dragged out of the EU against their wishes.”

On the consequences of Brexit, she is unambiguous: “Brexit is catastrophic for the island of Ireland… but the Good Friday Agreement gave us the opportunity to decide on our own future. The fact is that 56 per cent of people here voted on a cross-community basis to stay within the EU and that can’t be totally disregarded and disrespected by the British government – that’s not just our assessment but a wider assessment within the business and community sectors.”

O’Neill sees the biggest impact on trade and economic opportunities. She highlights the fact that the business sector requires certainty to plan for the future. “There are implications for the movement of goods, services and people and we have to avoid economic apartheid on the island of Ireland,” she adds.

The former agriculture minister stresses the potential impact of Brexit on the agri-food sector giving examples of the cross-border nature of agriculture in 2018. In the dairy sector, 30 per cent of the North’s milk is processed in the South. Pigs reared in Monaghan are slaughtered in Cookstown and 40 per cent of live lamb exports are to the South. “All those trade patterns are in jeopardy and that’s why we have been making the case for special status – we don’t care what’s it’s called.”

In May this year Sinn Féin shared a platform with the SDLP, Alliance and the Green Party in calling for Northern Ireland to be made a special case. “Four political parties stood together and called for the North to remain inside the customs union and the single market. We all represent the majority of people; representing 49 of the 90 MLAs. We need to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, including the relationships both across the island and between these islands, because trade between Britain and here is also important.”

O’Neill welcomes the backstop in the Brexit process and sees it as “crucial” as the negotiations move towards a conclusion later this year. “It is a time for our voice to be heard and to bring all of our influence to bear. As an all-island party we hold the Irish government to account on this. Our MEP team has been strong in Europe, highlighting the Good Friday Agreement and what it means for the island of Ireland. We have also taken our message directly to Theresa May.”

Prospects for devolution

When asked if there is now a general malaise within nationalism and a sense that devolution has run its course. She asserts: “Within nationalism, people are no longer willing to have their rights denied or to have decisions made where they do not have a say and Brexit is a good example of that. There is an awakening within nationalism and that’s a very positive thing.”

O’Neill sees the shift within nationalism as part of a wider change within society. She is also keen to challenge the view that Sinn Féin isn’t strong on the economy. “Many see it as a choice between ‘rights versus economy’. The two go hand-in-hand. If you have a society that protects workers’ rights and looks after its people, that will in turn lead to a more prosperous society.” Although O’Neill acknowledges that things have become more polarised she comes back to the wider shift in society.

“My goal is a united Ireland. I don’t see any contradiction in articulating a new Ireland, that is not just for nationalists but for all our people. This is the year of big anniversaries such as the start of the Civil Rights movement and 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement. We have to show the same leadership that was shown 20 years ago. We have to get a deal that gives confidence in any Executive that is established. The Good Friday Agreement was based on equality and parity of esteem. It is about mutual respect and a government that only looks after one section of society is something people will not tolerate.”

“We have to get it right. I do believe it is possible to restore the institutions but it has to be on the right basis. Unfortunately, the DUP has checked out because of Brexit and the RHI public inquiry but at some stage they will have to come back to the negotiating table. Negotiation is the only way forward.”

“There is an awakening within nationalism and that’s a very positive thing.”

When quizzed about what some nationalist commentators have called the ‘Arlene factor’, whereby DUP leader Arlene Foster manages to routinely alienate nationalists, O’Neill echoes Peter Robinson’s recent comments about the need for leadership. “Everyone involved in politics needs to show leadership. We live in a divided society that is coming out of conflict and there has been massive hurt and pain on all sides. Your job as a political leader is to bridge the divide and to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone. As a republican leader I have engaged unionists. Although we need to look to the future, dealing with the past is important. Political leadership is about genuine reconciliation and creating a new future for both nationalists and unionists.”

The discussion moves on to look at how Sinn Féin can unlock a dialogue with unionists. “When I was health minister, I didn’t look at an issue as being good for either unionists or nationalists. I believe in practicing equality. It is important to go and engage with others. It’s about the quiet conversations that don’t make the media. That’s something I do on a regular basis.”

Although this interview took place before Arlene Foster’s attendance at this year’s Ulster Gaelic football final, O’Neill acknowledges the importance of such high-profile events and highlights Martin McGuinness’s meeting with the Queen. “People have nothing to fear in a new Ireland and we can find ways to have their Irishness and Britishness protected.”

Role of women in 2018

The Sinn Féin Vice President believes that the representation of women has come a long way in the last 100 years, referring to this year’s centenary of giving some women the vote. “A lot of glass ceilings have been smashed, with women in Áras an Uachtaráin and there are now a number of political parties led by women not just in Ireland but also across the world. I’m very proud of our own party with two women at the helm.”

O’Neill points to the fact that women are still massively underrepresented in politics and in business. “It sometimes depresses me to walk into a business event that is all male.” When asked how to change this, O’Neill outlines a number of aspects in solving this problem.

“Quotas are one way. You have also to proactively attract women. Women are still underpaid for doing the same jobs and that needs legislated for. In politics, there is still a hostile culture towards women. Disagreements between women can be seen as two women who can’t get on, whereas if it was two men it would be seen quite differently. It is not good enough that women are still seen as a novelty in public life.”

Continuing she says: “A lot of people put it down to child care. That is one element but it can also be the work environment. When I was a minister, particularly in agriculture and rural development, the lists for public appointments were predominantly male. I asked about how we were reaching women. We were able to change how we advertised to actively target women.”

Future

Looking to the future the Sinn Féin Vice President returns to the theme of change: “The whole island is changing and people are becoming more assertive. Partition changed the island. It created a unionist majority in the North and a Catholic conservative majority in the South – that’s now gone and will not come back. People are not taking it anymore – that’s what was behind the Repeal referendum. It was about the way women were treated, the Magdalene laundries and so on. Republicanism has a big role to play in this changing Ireland. Our ultimate goal is a united Ireland and in the interim we want to be in government North and South practicing core republican politics. When people can have that, they will see the old style established party system has broken down. People will then be more confident in asserting their republicanism.”

O’Neill concludes by observing that this period is a pivotal time in Ireland’s and Britain’s history. “We will look back on this time and say that’s when everything changed.” She is optimistic about the future: “I do believe that there will be a new Ireland in my life time and if there is a unity referendum, people will get engaged in that debate and it doesn’t need to be divisive or rancorous but something we can all genuinely engage on.”

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