Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s president, and her deputy, Michelle O’Neill, visited London for talks with government ministers and Jeremy Corbyn on Monday.
The New Statesman met McDonald in Portcullis House before her meeting with the Labour leader. What follows is a full transcript of our conversation – on Brexit, abstentionism, and Irish unity – with minor edits for clarity and length.
NS: You wouldn’t presume to tell Jeremy Corbyn or any other British politician how to do their job. But have you been slightly disappointed by Labour’s equivocation on the backstop, given his status as a longstanding friend of the republican movement?
MLM: Jeremy is the leader of the British Labour Party, so in the first instance, that’s his first consideration – and that’s completely and utterly legitimate. He is a person who understands Ireland very deeply, and, in fairness to him, at a time when things were difficult in Ireland, and when it certainly wasn’t popular to engage with Irish issues, he did. I think he deserves credit for that. To that extent I would describe him more as a friend of Ireland than as a friend of Sinn Féin as such.
You’re right that I wouldn’t presume to tell him or anyone else how to do their job. But it is my job to ensure that they have full sight and a full understanding of each of the issues from an Irish perspective. The reality is, irrespective of who occupies 10 Downing Street – whether it’s a Theresa May or whether it’s Jeremy – the fact remains that the British state has obligations to Ireland in international law, and we expect them to be honoured.
I know Brexit’s divisive, and I know it’s difficult, and, and, and, and. But there has to be a bit of rationality at the end in terms of navigating to safe shores and understanding that if Britain wants to Brexit, who are we to stop you? But that can’t be at the expense of a precious peace process that we’ve collectively fostered and built.
I know you’ll have had this obligatory question today. You’ve talked about navigating to safe shores. Some people in Britain, seeing how tight votes were last week, are still asking about abstentionism. That’s a position you’ve held for a century, but people still argue you should take your seats. Do you think that argument is getting weaker?
I think it’s a weak argument to begin with. I understand, by the way, superficially, anybody looking at this and thinking: “Why in the name of God aren’t these guys coming over and taking their seats?” But anybody who understands Ireland, Ireland’s past, Irish politics; Britain, Britain’s past and politics will understand that us taking an oath to the monarch and taking seats in Westminster – a parliament that we don’t belong in – isn’t a runner.
It has come to my attention that many British people don’t actually realise that Ireland was a colony. I think there’s nearly a sense in which some think we’re pretending not to be British. Like, we’re not. I say this with the greatest of respect and affection to our British friends. We’re just not. And in fact, only for abstentionism we wouldn’t have a parliament in Ireland.
I respect and accept that Westminster’s raison d’etre is to protect and to pursue British interests. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t challenge that. I think that’s how it should be. But Irish interests are not protected in that parliament. They never were. We have a parliament in Dublin, we have a parliament in Belfast – sin scéal eile! [that’s another story] – and we knew from the very, very beginning of this Brexit process that our interests would be defended by Dublin, and defended at a European level.
Sinn Féin was the first party to bring forward this notion of special status. We brought it to the floor of the Dáil, and our idea was that we needed bespoke protections for the North and for the island of Ireland. At the time the other parties in the Dáil told us no, it couldn’t be done, that it wouldn’t be done.
But it was done. In fact, it became the agreed position of the Irish government, of the Oireachtas collectively, and of Irish politics across the border – with the exception of the DUP. We were also instrumental at a European level, through dint of lobbying and very intensive work in ensuring that the Irish question was front of centre in the European negotiating mandate.
So we’ve had a consistent analysis around where we can best advance and best protect Irish interests. I looked at our friends from Scotland, and on one occasion they walked out of Westminster, such was their frustration. It’s not for me to tell them what to do. They have the integrity of their position. But [taking seats in Westminster] is not an option, it’s not a runner, and no matter how often the question is asked, the answer will remain the same.
Some have argued that these are exceptional circumstances.
But you see, people in the North voted against Brexit. Just remember that. Whatever way this falls, forcing the North out is a bad outcome. We have no mandate to go to Westminster, because we contest on an abstentionist ticket.
In any event, we have no mandate to start trying to mediate between the craziness in that parliament. And on a practical level, I would just put it to you, Sinn Féin’s seven Fenians entering parliament I don’t think would stabilise the situation, or assist Mrs May in getting through her withdrawal agreement. I think it would be open season for the hardline Brexiteers and their penchant for melodramatics.
You’ve been talking about unity a lot on this trip. Michelle O’Neill has said that the unionist majority is over. That read like a statement of demographic inevitability, when really her actual comments were more nuanced than that. But how do you avoid looking like you’re waiting for a Catholic/nationalist plurality in the 2021 census? How, as the leaders of Sinn Féin, do you build an inclusive platform for unity?
That is a challenge for us. But it’s not just a challenge for us. I think the first thing we have to do is make clear that Irish unity isn’t solely or uniquely a Sinn Féin thing. In fact, we’ve asked the government in Dublin to take its hand out of the sand and to start proactively pursuing and shaping and leading the conversation on Irish unity.
We need a space. The issue of Irish unity needs to surface formally within Irish political life, and it needs some formal expression. We’re very clear in our view that the most appropriate steward to lead that inclusive conversation is the Irish government. Of course we have ideas, and we have views. We will always be at the vanguard of advancing the Irish republican cause.
But we’re not the only voice, by no means. Unionism – and I mean those who will passionately advocate for the union, as they are absolutely entitled to do, they are valuable challenging voices in this discussion as well. I actually think – and this might sound like a contradiction – that they might be the ones who will bring the most animation and energy, actually, to a very, very important discussion.
Just bear in mind: the demographic issue is a factor. It’s not my favourite. I don’t favour this notion that you out-breed your opposition. I think it’s crude. I don’t like it. But I would also say to you that partition is maintained on the basis of a demographic reality, too, but more importantly, but a political, and a polling reality.
The exciting piece, for me as a political activist and a leader, is that real, palpable sense in Ireland of an appetite for change. You saw it in repeal of the 8th Amendment, marriage equality – those were all-Ireland conversations. People in the North were just as animated, maybe more animated, than people in the South.
I’m also conscious that the European Council has in many respects added an additional dimension to the Irish unity question when back in October 2017 they said that a reunified Ireland would be part of the European Union in its totality.
You see, for lots of people who were either indifferent, or not very animated on the national question or partition, that issue of remaining within the European Union is core. That issue of being a European citizen, and enjoying those rights of citizenship where you live, is very, very important. And it’s important not just for nationalists and republicans, it’s important for a lot of people who are British: who are British now, who would be British in a united Ireland. But they’re weighing up now, saying: ‘Where is all of this going?’ So it’s all in the mix.
I think we have a two-fold duty: a duty of care to every single citizen, irrespective of your view, your race, your creed, or your constitutional disposition. But also a duty of candour.
I don’t like paternalistic politics that treats people as though they’re kids. People can actually have grown-up conversations, and there’s no reason for people to take fright with this question. There’s no need for people to take fright when republicans say things that are republican, and unionists say things that are unionists. That’s the grown-up world.
And there’s no need for people in Britain to be frightened of this conversation. I actually think it’s so important that public opinion here is informed. Like: why is there a border in Ireland? Where is the border in Ireland? What are the issues? What’s the history? But more importantly, what’s the future piece? Because Brexit has thrown all of the cards up in the air, and they’re going to land eventually. And when they do, we have a collective responsibility to make sure we make sense, and order, and good politics.
Is anything off the table in terms of making unionists feel comfortable in a united Ireland? Would you draw a line at changing the flag, changing the anthem, joining the Commonwealth? Would you ever entertain those things to reassure the unionist community?
I don’t favour Commonwealth membership, you won’t be surprised to hear, and the Tricolour is our flag. It’s green, white and orange: for me, it’s the most perfect expression of unity and peace, and so on. But the truth is that we have asked for a fully inclusive debate. And you can’t ask for an inclusive debate and say to other people: ‘Well, I won’t hear your view!’
So I don’t think we should do that. I’m not going to argue for those things. I don’t see any good reason for the Commonwealth. I don’t see any good reason for changing the flag. But I appreciate that there are others who have that view, so they need to bring that view to the table. That’s the whole purpose of debate and discussion.
There’s a lot of focus on these symbolic identity things, naturally. We all know those are biggies. But there’s big things as well, around economic opportunities. There’s big things around social opportunities. There’s big things to be done around human rights standards and norms that really, really matter to people. Generationally, if you were to talk to people under the age of 25, or certainly under the age of 20 – the climate strikers – they will tell you that our globe is in trouble.
They want to focus on what they regard, correctly, as the big, big generational challenge for them, which is about minding our environment. It’s not that they don’t care about the identity politics, but there are other things as well.
So you envisage a much broader prospectus for changing Ireland?
Huge. The important thing that I always say when we’re talking to people generally, but I suppose most particularly to unionists or loyalists, is to make clear that we’re not looking to bolt the North onto the South and make it a mirror image of the Free State. When the country got partitioned, we got two reactionary regimes – both of which were deeply problematic, not just the North’s.
This a unique opportunity – not every nation gets this opportunity – to go back to the drawing board, back to first principles, and actually fashion something new. That’s the great opportunity.
You were pictured at a St Patrick’s Day march in New York, behind a banner that bore the legend: “England Get Out of Ireland”. Jimmy Carter once wore a badge that said the same. The sentiment is that English people have no right to presume to tell the Irish what to do.
There is a difference between the Irish state and the Irish nation. But why, as the referendum on extending the franchise for presidential elections to overseas citizens approaches in autumn, should English-born Irish passport holders who have never lived in Ireland in their lives, third-generation migrants who have claimed their citizenship post-Brexit, have the right to vote?
I thought you were going to ask me about the banner! It was carried down Fifth Avenue. It’s very blunt, a very American message. It’s anti-partition. It’s certainly not directed at English people. I wouldn’t stand behind a banner that said: “English People Get Out of Ireland”. I have blood relatives who are English. They’re in my house! Some of that was seized on by political people to make political scores against me.
But you can understand why the unionist community might have been discomfited?
For those that took it to mean something harsh and unwelcome to English people, of course. But I’ve clarified, I hope, that point – that that was not its intention. But for those who seize on every expression of any nationalist or republican sentiment or become offended by it, I would say we need to get past that place.
You can’t constantly be offended because republicans espouse republican politics, or because republicans sing their songs, and neither can we be in a state of perpetual disgruntlement or shock when unionists say unionist things, or so on.
But you asked about the presidential election. You see, if you’re entitled to an Irish passport and Irish citizenship, then by definition you have a part to play in election the first citizen. We’re an emigrant nation. We have a huge global family. That’s a real strength for us, not a weakness, and I don’t think we have ever properly tapped that as a nation. I don’t think we have availed of all the opportunities that affords to us, and I’m not just talking about economics. I mean socially and culturally. It matters.
I have a brother who lives here in England. I have another brother in Australia. It really matters to us at home that my nieces and nephews are all born outside of Ireland, and it’s very important for us as families that those children are as Irish, and have an entitlement to be part of the Irish family too. And I imagine your family feel the same.