Mary Lou McDonald TD, Vice-President of Sinn Fein


Brexit has created a constitutional earthquake and its aftershocks have exposed the fault lines of partition in Ireland. ‘The border’ is now laid bare as the false construct it has always been and its contradictions must now be dealt with.

95 years on would anyone now propose partition as a means to resolve division and conflict? Does anyone believe that partition has been an economic success or has delivered prosperity for all citizens? The north has failed to deliver the economic growth rates of the south since partition. It has never reached its economic potential or replaced the investment lost with the decline of traditional industries. Partition has failed the test of time. Yet some tell us that the time is not right to talk about unity. Now is the time. To plan for unity, to build support for unity, to challenge division and build an Ireland for all our people.


This is not the Ireland of the 1920s. Ireland has changed. The Orange state is gone, replaced by power sharing and increasing demands for full equality. It is not coming back. I say this not out of a sense of triumph, but as a matter of fact. Those who created partition did so with the intent of an inbuilt everlasting unionist majority. Recent elections have thrown up real challenges for unionism and in particular the DUP. Unionism lost its majority in the Assembly elections. Its mandate has fallen below the 50 per cent in the Westminster elections. This was never meant to happen. Unionism no longer dominates. If it wishes to be in power it will be only on the basis of power-sharing and equality. In the South where once Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could command 80 per cent support, they now represent between 50-55% between them. Don’t miss the sign of that change. Politicians, media, the church, and business leaders – the so called pillars of the state – no longer command the unquestioning support of citizens and I believe we are all the better for that. These changes across Ireland cannot be reversed. Demographic change cannot be reversed. The Genie is out of the bottle. We have a young and progressive population. Change is coming. As political leaders, the question for us is how do we shape this change.


The speed of change has accelerated with the imposition of Brexit. The progress that has been made in the north, across Ireland and between our Islands is at stake. Brexit is incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement. It has the potential to fundamentally undermine rights and safeguards including access to the European Court of Justice; an essential component of the Good Friday Agreement. Brexit will undermine Strand 1 of the agreement. The Executive cannot function unless it complies with EU law. In real terms Brexit will mean the Executive and Assembly must change how it functions. Brexit is a body blow to Strand 2 and to the North-South Ministerial Council, the implementation of common EU policies, programmes and proposals for the island. In short, it is devastating for cross-border and all-Ireland working.

Critically, the negative impacts of Brexit on Strand 3 of the agreement will fundamentally undermine the relationship between the north and south. The GFA affords people living in the north Irish passports and therefore EU acquired rights, including the right to equal treatment and to democratic representation. If we are to safeguard the GFA in all its parts post-Brexit then the way forward is for the north to secure special status within the EU. Brexit has brought the failure of partition into clear view, and like all great challenges it brings with it a real opportunity – to deliver progressive change and prosperity for all our people, north, south, east and west. This is not romantic analysis. This is hard-headed realism. We can sink, or we can swim. There is no place for viewing the north solely through the prism of the past conflict or lazy sectarianism.

We have pressing economic challenges facing the island which require us to chart our own path, for now, with the support of the EU.


Britain is in a heap. Tory cynical politics are the order of the day, and Theresa May, like her predecessor David Cameron has little interest in the north. The Tories care for one thing…. that is the Tories. The DUP have given the Tory party a blank cheque on Brexit with their commitment to support legislation at Westminster; a blank cheque regardless of the impact on the north.

The choice is stark. On the night of the 11th of July effigies of Martin McGuinness were burnt on unionist bonfires. Unionist leaders were silent. Posters of Sinn Féin and SDLP Assembly members were all set alight as were those from the Alliance party. These are representatives elected by unionism’s neighbours and fellow citizens. We need to call out these actions for what they are. This is not colourful pageantry; it is the ugliest side of sectarianism. It is a hate crime, and it sucks the hope of future generations. Unionism tells us they want to share power with nationalists and republicans yet are complicit with this naked sectarianism. We are at a fork in the road. Choices need to be made. This status quo is not my vision for the future. This is not as good as it gets. We can do better.

Relationships need to change within the north and between the north and the south.

We live in a shared society. One that demands respect not only as a demand for one’s own tradition but as importantly to be extended to others. Irish citizens and British citizens in the North must be entitled to the same rights enjoyed in the rest of Ireland and across Britain, including language rights and the right to marriage equality. The DUP should not use the petition of concern to block a vote in the Assembly on the fundamental right of same sex couples to marry. It is wrong. I respect religious practice and beliefs. Religious practice and expression are fundamental to a free and equal Ireland. But no religious ethos or dogma can shape the law of the land.


North and south Ireland is a modern, globalised multicultural society. We are on a journey from conflict to tolerance to respect. For our part, republicans recognise and respect unionism’s British identity. This respect does not conflict with our ambition for Irish unity. Our vision of united Ireland is an inclusive and agreed Ireland. One in which all identities must be respected and all rights shared equally by citizens.

We want to openly and respectfully engage with unionism in the discussion of a united future. We want to discuss ending partition with every section of Irish society.

It’s probably no real surprise that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael support Irish unity but criticise Sinn Féin for calling for a referendum on unity. Both parties sustained the carnival of reaction that James Connolly predicted for partition.

They locked up our women and sold their babies off in foreign lands, brutalised poor children, handed over public education and health services to religious orders, and gave the 1937 Constitution to the Catholic Church for sign off. The outcome of all these failures are still felt today. But be very clear. Home rule is no longer Rome rule. So when the Taoiseach or Micheál Martin or anyone else tells me that now is not the time to progress the call for Irish unity it just doesn’t cut the mustard. The truth is Irish unity is very much on the political agenda, and on the agenda of civic society. Educators, business owners, farmers and communities the length and breadth of Ireland are talking about Irish unity. Why else would both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil be working on Irish unity white papers?

Sometimes a charge of opportunism is laid at our feet. Now in fairness to us, Sinn Féin couldn’t be accused of being coy on the national question. Our desire for a united Ireland is certainly not a secret. We want to realise the Republic.

After so many years of working to secure the peace process Martin McGuinness spent the last ten years of his life demonstrating how alliances could be built and respect secured, where there is the political leadership to grasp it. That is why the profundity of Martin’s resignation on the 9th of January must be recognised. His death has been devastating but he has left behind an incredible legacy and a team primed to take up the mantle, and the challenges. There can be no return to the status quo. We are moving on.


The proposition of this debate is that a new relationship north and south is needed. For all the talk of difference and the real need for respect and to resolve divisions, actually what people want north and south is pretty much the same, a fair shake. Recognition of who they are and reassurances that the positive values that bind their communities will not only be respected but also protected.

Within this must be a reassurance that the Orange too will have its place. That it will be respected and its rights safeguarded. Much progress has been made on the issue of parading, dialogue has taken place and agreements made. There can be no place for sectarianism of any colour in an Irish republic.

Citizens across the island want a transparent and accountable political system. They want a police force they can rely on. They want a home to call their own. Equality of opportunity not just for themselves but for their children. Public services and decent infrastructure.

Businesses need stability, an educated and skilled workforce; and I believe a united Ireland can be the conduit for all of this. We are a small island. United we are stronger. Our diversity is our strength. There is no place for dogma and dominance. Partition was a carnival of reaction. Unity will be celebration of equality, prosperity and social justice.

Brexit is coming, change is coming. All of us who want to see a prosperous, peaceful and united Ireland free from division and inequality need to stand together.



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