Athlone played host to party members noticeably buoyed by the prospect of leading government in the Republic in the next year. Joshua Murray attended Sinn Féin’s ard fheis held in County Westmeath in November 2023.
With am don athrú/time for change branded next to the party logo throughout the Technological University of the Shannon campus, it was profoundly clear that, in the eyes of many members of Sinn Féin, it is the party’s destiny to lead the next government in Dublin, whereby the party would be tasked with the gargantuan undertakings of solving Ireland’s housing and health crises, as well as accelerating the process of Irish reunification.
For matters north of the border, outwardly at least, the party continues to assert its outrage at the refusal of the DUP to form an Executive, with party vice president and Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill MLA stating: “The boycott of the Assembly by the DUP must end.”
However, the political capital generated for Sinn Féin by the DUP boycott cannot be understated, with the party’s refusal to enable the nomination of Northern Ireland’s first nationalist First Minister creating a sense of injustice among nationalists of which Sinn Féin is keen to channel.
Profound change north of the border
In her keynote address on day one of the 2023 ard fheis, the Sinn Féin vice president reiterated her now ubiquitous catchphrase that she intends to be a “First Minister for all”. O’Neill, who became the first nationalist to lead their party to achieving the most seats in the Assembly in May 2022, said: “As a First Minister for all, I will never treat others the way our communities were treated in the past.”
O’Neill was keen to reflect on the scale of change within Northern Ireland: “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,” O’Neill said to enthusiastic acclaim from Sinn Féin delegates.
Whilst O’Neill demonstrated the ascendency of nationalism, returning to her ‘First Minister for all’ mantra, she said that the biggest challenge she will have as First Minister in any new Executive is “to keep moving our society forward”.
In a move reminiscent of those made by her late predecessor, Martin McGuinness, she spoke of her attendance at a remembrance event that morning. “I believe that all political leaders must stretch themselves to seek common ground, and that is what I am committed to do,” O’Neill said.
Preparing for government
While all Sinn Féin senior leadership figures were unequivocal in their support for the establishment of an Executive in Northern Ireland, it was clear that the main intrigue for the party is to enter government in the Republic and bring about the end to the duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s century-long hold on power.
With Sinn Féin’s course to victory south of the border dependent on its vision for solving the Republic’s housing crisis, party president Mary Lou McDonald TD opened her keynote address with a poetic vision of the importance of an allegorical house, referring to “love of home” as being “what defines us”.
“From those who fled famine and persecution, to the generations who left in search of work, to our young people today who seek opportunity across the globe, our special affinity with home binds us together,” McDonald said.
While strongly critical of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, McDonald stopped short of explicitly ruling out a future coalition with either party, stating that Sinn Féin is “ready to lead” a new government in the south, and that her preference was “a new government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for the first time in a hundred years”.
On Irish reunification, the Sinn Féin president repeated the by now clichéd line emphasising the need to “plan”, further outlining her objective of establishing a citizens’ assembly on Irish unity. Whilst McDonald did not go into more detail on this, she was keen to reassure Sinn Féin delegates that “momentum is building” and urged: “The day is coming when everyone on this island will have their say in referendums.”
In relation to a unity referendum, and in an apparent rebuff of recent comments by Northern Ireland Junior Minister Steve Baker MP, the Sinn Féin president also said that each vote must “count equally” with “no vetoes” and “no shifting of the goal posts”.
The path forward
Sinn Féin entered this ard fheis with what might have been interpreted as a disconnect between party leadership and party membership on the latest developments in the Middle East. Whilst there is no suggestion that McDonald has ever drifted in her support for Palestine, it can be understood that Sinn Féin is a party which is riding high in the polls and is determined to avoid any political own goals.
While initially refusing to do so, following several weeks of pressure from the left and from her party grassroots, the Sinn Féin president used her keynote speech to unequivocally call for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ireland, much to the approval of delegates.
The republican party is sometimes maligned by members of the media and political opponents as being “undemocratic”, but the stream of young and grassroots members afforded their opportunity to publicly deliver their message to the leadership showed a party which is, at least, highly participatory.
The party members will have been further reassured that McDonald will not stray far from internationalist principles by the presence of Sinn Féin’s traditional allies from the Palestinian Authority, Catalonia, the Basque Country, and the African National Congress.
Currently, the fanfare which surrounds McDonald and O’Neill is unparalleled in any other party, with enthusiastic Sinn Féin members of all ages swarming the two leaders for photographs in a manner which was not analogous at other party gatherings. Sinn Féin members believe that, in these two women, they have their dream ticket to government north and south, and ultimately the path to Irish unification.