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Is Irish Reunification on the Horizon? Sinn Féin Wins Historic Victory in Northern Ireland Election

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In a historic victory, the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party has won the most seats in Northern Ireland’s parliament for the first time ever. Sinn Féin is the former political wing of the IRA — the Irish Republican Army — and favors reunification with the Republic of Ireland. The party won 27 of 90 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, while the Democratic Unionist Party, which wants to remain in the United Kingdom, dropped to second place for the first time in decades with 24 seats. We speak with journalist and political activist Eamonn McCann, who says Northern Ireland was founded over a century ago so that “it could be guaranteed that there would always be a unionist majority.” That arrangement has now been shattered, he says, and the calls for Irish reunification are likely to increase if Sinn Féin wins government in the next election in the south. “The more the tide toward a united Ireland increases, the more alarmed the unionists will become,” says McCann. We also speak with Sinn Féin lawmaker Mairéad Farrell, who represents the Galway West constituency in the Republic of Ireland parliament and who says the party’s victory came after a “positive campaign” focused on people’s everyday needs.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to the historic election in Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, where on Friday the nationalist Sinn Féin party won the most seats in Northern Ireland’s parliament for the first time ever. Sinn Féin is the former political wing of the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, which for decades fought against British rule. Sinn Féin’s Vice President Michelle O’Neill appears poised to become the first Catholic to lead Northern Ireland. O’Neill backs Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom and reuniting with the Republic of Ireland.

MICHELLE O’NEILL: Those of us that are for unification will make that case. I encourage those that actually don’t have that perspective at this moment in time to also enter into the conversation. Let’s have a healthy debate about what our future looks like, something that’s better for each and every one of us, where we all have a valued place in our society.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Derry, Northern Ireland, Eamonn McCann is with us, a journalist, writer, activist and former member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Fifty years ago, he took part in the march on Bloody Sunday in 1972, helped form the Bloody Sunday Trust. He’s the author of the recently republished 1974 book, War and an Irish Town. Also with us, Mairéad Farrell, a Sinn Féin lawmaker in the Irish parliament. She’s joining us from Galway City in the Republic of Ireland. She is the niece of Mairéad Farrell, who was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, shot dead by the British Army in Gibraltar in 1988.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mairéad Farrell, I want to turn to you first. If you can explain to a global audience the significance of what has taken place and the fact, interestingly, that it is women-led?

MAIRÉAD FARRELL: Absolutely. And I think what’s quite interesting and significant, as well, about the Sinn Féin MLAs — so, those are those members of the Assembly — is that 55% of them actually are indeed women. And, of course, we are led by Michelle O’Neill, who is set to become the first minister in the executive and in the Assembly. And I think, look, I suppose — I think it can’t be understated, in fact, the significance of the fact that Michelle O’Neill is set to become the first minister. And I think it’s very reflective of a very positive campaign that Sinn Féin led in this election campaign, indeed, in relation to the key issues of the day. Those key issues of the day, as we know, are issues that are affecting people across the world and, indeed, the rising cost of living.

And I think my own party president put it quite well at the weekend to really show people the significance of the fact that Michelle O’Neill is poised to become first minister, is the fact that Mary Lou McDonald said that the reality is that that state was created in order for a Michelle O’Neill — so, someone like Michelle O’Neill — a woman from a nationalist community, to never become first minister. So I think the fact that we are the largest party and that Michelle O’Neill has received that mandate is hugely, hugely significant. And I think it’s something that just simply cannot be underestimated.

It’s a really big day. She’s in Stormont today. It’s lunchtime here in Ireland. And she’s in — Michelle O’Neill is in Stormont. She’s there with the team.

AMY GOODMAN: The parliament, the Irish parliament.

MAIRÉAD FARRELL: There’s 27 MLAs. This is the Assembly in the North, so Stormont, the Assembly in the North, that she’s there today to lead, to lead the Sinn Féin team of 27 MLAs, so those members of the Assembly, and to create that Assembly and to create that executive.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about Mary Lou McDonald?

MAIRÉAD FARRELL: Absolutely. I could talk about Mary Lou McDonald all day, if you wanted me to. But Mary Lou McDonald is the president of Sinn Féin. So, Michelle O’Neill is the leader in the North, and she’s our vice president. So she leads us in the Assembly. And then Mary Lou McDonald leads us in the Dáil, which is the parliament in which I sit, and she is the Sinn Féin president. So, she is the leader of the opposition at this very moment in time, and she’s been excellent in keeping the government to — holding the government to account on the very key issues of the day.

And again, those key issues are the key issues, as we know, that are affecting working people across the world. And those are the rising costs in living, the fact that we’re seeing huge increases in the cost of living while we’re not seeing the same increases, of course, in the pay that comes in the door, and, indeed, that the supports that are there, that are needed for people, simply aren’t there.

So, Mary Lou McDonald is our president, and she’s leading us from the front, and she’ been absolutely excellent over the last number of days in leading this party. But today, of course, the focus is on Michelle O’Neill, Michelle O’Neill who is going into the Assembly, who’s ready to set up the executive and to have Stormont back up and running. And I’m looking forward to Michelle O’Neill being first minister.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts today, Mairéad Farrell, about how your aunt would feel, who was killed by the the British Army, an IRA member, for whom you’re named?

MAIRÉAD FARRELL: Well, I suppose, for me, I never met my aunt, so I don’t like to speak for people that I don’t know. But, look, I think that — she was killed before I was born, so two years before I was born. But, of course, I mean, for people who have campaigned all their lives — and indeed, she campaigned all her life — indeed, I am now older than she ever got to be, because she was killed by the SAS, but she never had that opportunity. But, look, she had campaigned all her life for Irish freedom and, indeed, for a far more equitable Ireland than what we have at this very moment in time.

And, of course, this is a significant step. It’s a huge step forward to see Michelle O’Neill, to see Sinn Féin as the largest party, to see Michelle O’Neill ready and willing to form that executive and to deal with the key issues of the day. And I think that’s very important, because what we’re hearing now is, you know, that the DUP have said that they want certain issues with regard to the protocol dealt with before forming an executive, but the reality is that the people who are suffering as a result of the executive not forming are those people that are suffering as a result of the cost-of-living crisis, that are suffering because there’s huge waiting lists in the health system. There’s a budget that’s ready there to go. And indeed, my colleague, Conor Murphy, who was finance minister, had a budget ready to go of a billion over three years for the health service. That’s what needs to be delivered now. That’s what the focus needs to be on this week when Michelle O’Neill takes up the position of first minister. And what we need is everyone to come around the table and to deal with those very key, very relevant issues for people.

AMY GOODMAN: Eamonn McCann, you’re joining us from Derry in Northern Ireland. Speaking of history, you’re a former member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. You took part in the Bloody Sunday march of 1972, helped form the Bloody Sunday Trust. If you can talk about the significance of what we’re seeing today? And again, speak to a global audience who is not that familiar with the politics of Ireland.

EAMONN McCANN: Well, Northern Ireland was founded 101 years ago. And many historians would agree that it was founded in order, insofar as it could be guaranteed, that there would always be a unionist majority — that is to say, a majority of people who wanted to maintain the link with Britain, who wanted Northern Ireland to be British. And the state was founded in order to give that section of the population a permanent majority. Well, permanence has lasted a century, and I suppose that’s not too bad. But it’s gone now. It’s gone now. There can be no guarantee — it can’t be given by the British government or anyone else — that Northern Ireland is going to remain part of the United Kingdom.

And the prospect emerges of — Sinn Féin is already the largest party in the North, as has just been mentioned. It is also almost almost certain to become the largest party in Southern Ireland, in the Republic of Ireland, when the next elections come along there in two years’ time. Now, that would mean that the first minister in Northern Ireland and the taoiseach, first minister, in the Republic of Ireland were both from the Sinn Féin party and both from a party that is committed to Irish unity. And that’s going to create a very interesting situation in the North, because that, if you like, very clearly foreshadows or prefigures a united Ireland, because that alarms unionists in the North to the same extent as it pleases nationalists in the North, which is not to say — and Ireland is complicated place, as you know. The more the tide towards a united Ireland increases, the more alarmed the unionists will become.

And connected to that is the fact that there has emerged in the last election — and this, too, is historic — there has emerged a center ground, if you like, represented by the Alliance Party, which radicals like myself would regard as a conservative, a middle-class party. Nevertheless, it is neither Orange nor Green. It is not unionist or nationalist. And you have got now a significant section of the representatives in Stormont who do not designate themselves Orange or Green, unionist or nationalist. And that’s a new factor. And the reason, if I could just finish on this “and it’s a new factor,” is that the Constitution in Northern Ireland, the arrangements set up under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, doesn’t allow for three separate designations at Stormont. I mean, it is built upon — the Good Friday Agreement is built upon the notion, really, the implicit notion, that everybody in Northern Ireland can be allocated to either the Green party or the Orange party. And then the task is — and this is what the Good Friday Agreement was about — to find a way in which the Green side and the Orange side can live together and share power. The implications of another bloc in the middle, neither Orange nor Green, emerging — and I think that really is in the process of emerging — are uncharted. This was never planned for. And so it’s going to be interesting to watch that, and none of us knows how it’s going to work out.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to go to former President of Sinn Féin Gerry Adams leading a vigil last week in West Belfast marking the 41st year since the death of Bobby Sands, May 5th, 1981, while on hunger strike at the Maze prison.

GERRY ADAMS: Very impressive white line picket to mark the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands 41 years ago. So, those of us who were active in those days will remember with sadness and huge pride Bobby and the other hunger strikers.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams standing with others, leading a vigil, holding Bobby Sands’ picture. How Bobby Sands’ death and the hunger strikes and the IRA link to the victory today for Sinn Féin, Eamonn?

EAMONN McCANN: Well, it’s a long time since Bobby Sands died, of course. And Bobby Sands died in pursuit of a united Ireland. He gave his life, literally, I mean, to bring about a united Ireland. And there can be a discussion today, in 2022 — and indeed there is a discussion — as to whether the settlement which has been reached under the Good Friday Agreement, whether that represents an adequate return on the pain invested, if you like, by republicans, and by the nationalist community generally, in Northern Ireland. Is the settlement, which is now being put in place and which is operating, is that a fair enough return? And that’s a question, of course, which you can’t answer yes or no, or certainly we can’t answer it yes or no as yet. So, again, sort of there’s — when we talk about — it’s a very fluid situation in Ireland, and particularly in Northern Ireland. And it would be foolish to analyze it in terms of static positions for and against unification or for and against retaining Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, in a cliché, in a clichéd way.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds, Eamonn.

EAMONN McCANN: OK, a cliché, still all to be played for, whether we identify the settlement, and was very dubious. Northern Ireland defies logic. And so, nobody knows, literally. I don’t know. Nobody else knows how this thing is going to work out.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there, Eamonn McCann, journalist, 1974 book, just republished, War and an Irish Town; Mairéad Farrell, Sinn Féin lawmaker in the Irish parliament. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

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