I’m quite sure that the Unionist leaders who built Stormont in the 1930’s and thought they were putting in place a Unionist Parliament for the Unionist people of this part of our island never for a second thought that the day would come when Sinn Féin would a party of government with MLAs walking those corridors as equals. They certainly would never have imagined in their worst nightmares that they would see the Long Gallery taken over by scores of enthusiastic Sinn Féin elected representatives from across the island of Ireland applauding the appointment of a new Sinn Féin leader for the North – and a woman at that!
After the turmoil and frustration of the most recent crisis in the political institutions the introduction of Michelle O’Neill at Parliament buildings as Martin’s successor as party leader in the North was like a deep breath of fresh air. It was a good day.
Mary Lou travelled up from Dublin. Rose Conway Walsh our leader in the Seanad started out early that morning in North Mayo. Peadar Tóibín was there from Meath, Carol Nolan was there from Offaly and Martin Kenny from Roscommon. And there were others. There were MEPs and MPs and MLAs representing all parts of this island. That’s the strength of Sinn Féin. No partitionism in our ranks.
A united party – an all-island party –committed and working for all the people and determined to end partition on this island.
Notwithstanding the election and the huge amount of work that everyone knew will be entailed there was a real sense of change, of passion, of vitality. Everyone present was in great form. There was sadness that Martin’s illness meant he was not standing for Foyle but as he said himself to great applause, ‘I haven’t gone away you know.’ And he hasn’t.
Early last year the two of us and others in our leadership took time to quietly talk about the next steps in the development of the Sinn Féin party, including the need for generational change. Martin told me of his intention to resign as Deputy First Minister in May. That would have marked his tenth year as DFM. He had intended remaining as an MLA for the duration of the Assembly term. However, his illness and the RHI scandal forced a change to his plans. But the rest of the plan is intact.
Over our many years of working together Martin and I have both learned that advances in struggle require creativity and imagination and the occasional introduction of new initiatives. It’s the planned application of classic political strategies to build support and develop new policies for a changing world. It’s also necessary in our unique, innovative power sharing arrangements, about being willing to work with others on the basis of equality and parity of esteem, of respect and generosity. Martin and his colleagues did that every day. It was rarely reciprocated.
Our conversation was necessary because in the last couple of years Sinn Féin has seen our membership expand from three thousand to over twelve thousand. New members bring new ideas, new energy, increased enthusiasm, and create a new dynamic. While remaining true to our republican objectives space must be created for new members to take on responsibilities and help build the party further. We must empower our members to use their initiative, to engage with others, to provide leadership.
As part of this process of last summer the party held a conference in Ballyfermot in Dublin. The purpose was to begin mapping out a ten-year strategy for further growth for Sinn Féin. At the time I said that Sinn Féin is a party in transition. That includes our leadership. I believe that transition must be visible in the gender and age profile as well as the energy and dynamism of our leaders. It must also be evident in a genuinely collective leadership. To achieve that we have to refresh, reimagine and regenerate our party and our leaderships at every level.
Michelle O’Neill is part of this process of generational change within the party. Over her years of activism Michelle has proven herself to be an articulate, committed Sinn Féin leader. Like many republicans her family has had a long connection with republican politics. Her father, Brendan was a former political prisoner and local Councillor, and her Uncle Paul is President of NORAID in the USA.
In her speech to the packed room of the Long Gallery Michelle struck the right note. She set out her stall. She said: “Over the course of the last number of weeks, while others shouted from the sidelines it was Sinn Féin that stood up and confronted corruption. It was Sinn Féin that called a halt to the arrogance and the intolerance of the DUP…These are challenging times and we have set ourselves big objectives but republicans have never been afraid of challenge. I've never been afraid of challenge and never been afraid to act….”
Michelle also said: “Agreements made must be honoured. Commitments given must be delivered. Partnership government must mean exactly that. It must mean that regardless of where you come from, what language you speak, what your sexuality is, what gender you are – that you are treated with respect. We are standing up for ourselves, for our neighbours and for our communities.”
That is a commitment to action; a promise to deliver for every citizen. I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to appoint Michelle. She comes from a historic tradition of women republican leaders from the North. Some paid the ultimate price for their commitment to freedom, equality and solidarity. They include Máire Drumm who led Sinn Féin in the most difficult times. Michelle is the first of her generation – the post conflict generation – to take up such a primary leadership post. We wish her well. Adh mór Michelle. See you on the campaign trial!