‘Come home and be part of the new Ireland’ – Mary Lou McDonald’s call to arms delivered to audience of enthralled exiles in Australia
“I mean, Liverpool,” Mary Lou McDonald said. “There is a debate as to whether it is in fact English.” Laughter broke out at the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra and the sole Liverpudlian in the audience gave the Sinn Féin leader a thumbs-up as she spoke of her wish for Britain to become “good neighbours” again with Ireland.
s McDonald had, by this stage, been speaking for over an hour to assembled journalists, press club members, trade unionists, local MPs, business and academic types and ambassadors.
They had been highly engaged and appeared, at times, enthralled, judging by the applause and laughter for the Dublin Central TD who apologised in advance for the “raggedness” of her voice – a consequence, she explained, of leaving sun-kissed Ireland for rain-sodden Western Australia.
Sinn Féin was ‘kind of new kids on the block’
Ms McDonald and a small Sinn Féin delegation, including general secretary Ken O’Connell, are spending nearly a fortnight Down Under for a series of engagements with union leaders, representatives of indigenous organisations and the Irish community.
She is due to speak at a €2,000-a-plate dinner co-hosted by the Irish-Australian Chamber of Commerce and the Sydney Chapter of Trinity Alumni.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar flagged the trip a few weeks ago in the Dáil during a particularly testy set of exchanges with Pearse Doherty. The Fine Gael leader claimed Ms McDonald would be flying business class and “clinking” glasses with Trinity graduates.
Sinn Féin has said it will not be receiving any income from the tour, including the dinner, and the trip is funded by the party. A Sinn Féin source said the delegation has been flying economy.
That message was tinged with typically blunt Sinn Féin rhetoric, in which the inevitability of Irish unity was talked up – “I believe this will happen in this decade, so we must prepare”. Partition, she said, had been “catastrophic” and we are living in its “end days”.
What’s more, the “establishment parties” in the Republic had “clubbed together to deny the people a government for change” as if Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens were subversives.
Process of reunification would be ‘orderly, peaceful and democratic’
Later, Ms McDonald claimed that “those who hold power rarely surrender it”, and while Sinn Féin was “Ireland’s oldest political party, we’re kind of new kids on the block as well”.
Sinn Féin is a relatively new force in the Dáil, whereas the Sinn Féin founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905 split after the Civil War, and the current party took shape post 1970 in the aftermath of another split over abstentionism.
Ms McDonald also declared herself “very proud” to be the “first female leader of the opposition in Ireland” (conveniently ignoring there is no such thing as an official opposition in Ireland – ironically, more the preserve of the political system in Westminster) and the fact that two other Dáil opposition parties, Labour and the Social Democrats, are currently led by women.
This minutiae would have been of little relevance or interest to this international audience. Her speech largely focused on the future of the North, Brexit and a border poll.
Ms McDonald argued that “the Northern state has been left in a permanently weak position because of partition” and prosperity could only be built on an all-Ireland basis as Brexit had meant Britain had forfeited access to the vast EU market.
She said the process of reunification would be “orderly, peaceful and democratic” and made a solemn vow that violence would not be countenanced.
In government, Sinn Féin would ‘make Ireland the home that you deserve’
“I say that as one of the effigies that was hanged and burnt on a bonfire along with some of my colleagues and, indeed, the leader of the Alliance party, also a woman,” she added in reference to the deplorable scenes that emerged from the recent Twelfth celebrations.
Most of those asking questions were journalists who prefaced their queries by noting their own Irish connections.
This was certainly not the most robust Q&A session Ms McDonald will have attended. Her speech was notable too for her appeal to Irish people living in Australia, some of whom, she said, “feel robbed of a life in Ireland” as a result of a “housing system characterised by unaffordable homes and extortionate rents, by living costs that were out of control long before we experienced the inflationary crisis of today”.
She pledged that, in government, her party would “make Ireland the home that you deserve”.
“Work hard, enjoy the sun, enjoy the lifestyle, but come home and be part of the new Ireland that we must build, we need you,” she said.
It was a call to arms of sorts, and one perhaps motivated by her desire to get those many thousands of exiled Irish home to vote her party into government in the coming years.
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