Mary Lou McDonald in Derry: On Irish unity, the ‘disgraceful’ Stormont deadlock, her rejection of England’s parliament and welfare reform

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Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald has declared that the ongoing deadlock at Stormont is an ‘absolute disgrace’ .

Speaking to the ‘Journal’ at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Derry on Saturday Ms. McDonald said power-sharing needed to be restored immediately.

“The institutions need to come back. They shouldn’t be down for almost three years,” she declared.

Ms. McDonald said the British Secretary of State Julian Smith’s suggestion that elections could be called in January if Stormont is not back up and running holds no fear for republicans.

“Julian Smith and the British Government can’t have it both ways. It is they who have postponed elections, not us. We will never have a problem with the people having their say,” she said.

However the basis for a revived Stormont is already in place, she said, and Sinn Féin is keen to get back to work.

“The only way I can describe the absence of the Assembly and the Executive is that it is an absolute disgrace. A disgrace. Rather than Julian Smith or anybody challenging the likes of us I think they need to be clear as to how the issues are resolved and we get back to doing business.

“We are not the obstacle. We never have been. You will recall February 2018. I believed, and the Sinn Féin leadership believed, we had landed at a decent accommodation. It wasn’t perfect but it was sufficient and the DUP walked off the pitch,” she said.

The Dublin Central T.D. was speaking before addressing thousands of Sinn Féin delegates who had travelled to the Millennium Forum for the party’s annual conference amid a general election campaign in the North and four by-elections in the South.

Ms. McDonald made it clear that the party has no plans of ending its policy of abstention from the Westminster parliament.

“Abstentionism will end when partition ends,” she insisted.

“Irish people and the people of Derry will be served by a functioning Assembly and Executive as and when we can get them back up and running; by strong government coming from Dublin, and by strong all-Ireland infrastructure. But ultimately we are in a passage of political play where this is going to happen within the framework of a new and united Ireland.

“It’s an easy argument: ‘Sure go to Westminster and sort it out.’ Has anybody watched the chaotic nature of the debate there? And bear this in mind: the truth is, Westminster is an English parliament. That’s the truth and that truth becomes more evident every day. It serves the interests now of a very, very live sense of English nationalism. Anybody who thinks they are going to go to Westminster and straighten this out or change the course of history, I’m afraid, is on the wrong track and will face disappointment.”

Ms. McDonald also addressed those who have criticised Sinn Féin for voting with the Alliance Party and the DUP to give legislative consent to the NI (Welfare Reform) Act in 2015 as part of the Fresh Start Agreement. This led to the introduction of welfare reform in the North, albeit with £500m in mitigation pay-outs negotiated under the FSA.

Ms. McDonald said: “The welfare debate - they call it welfare reform - they are welfare cuts, is a product of Tory policy. You will recall we had a very, very long stand-off with the British Government over the issue of welfare cuts. Do you remember that? We secured a welfare mitigation package. I’m sure you remember that.

“If I had thought, or we as a leadership and the late Martin McGuinness had thought, that there was more money that we could have got we would have held out because we are very conscious of our obligations to protect every citizen but particularly those who have fallen on hard times or are vulnerable.

“We secured the mitigation fund and the deal was, either we opted for mitigation or we’d get full blown welfare cuts visited on the people here. So, in a very, very bad situation we made the best fist of it possible.

“I wonder if our critics had the responsibility in real time, not theoretically but in real time, around protecting people, are our critics honestly saying that they would have just allowed the axe to fall and welfare cuts happen as they might? We had a responsibility to absolutely minimise that damage.

“And let me repeat the point and this is the critical point for Derry, for Foyle, for the North, for Ireland. So long as Westminster, a place far away from here with absolutely no skin in the game in terms of the future of this island, so long as they have a hand and can override the wishes of the people who live here, you are going to find yourself in difficulties like with welfare cuts. It gives me no pleasure but that’s where it’s at.”