Northern Ireland news

Michelle O'Neill: Orange Order has yet to acknowledge request for meeting 10 months on

STORMONT remains stagnant while politics in Britain and the Republic are in a state of flux. Ahead of this weekend's Sinn Féin ard fheis, deputy leader Michelle O'Neill tells Political Correspondent John Manley why change is necessary

Michelle O'Neill is a strong advocate of abortion reform. Picture by Mal McCann

MICHELLE O'Neill was impressed by the "lovely, warm welcome" Leo Varadkar received outside the Orange Order's east Belfast headquarters last week.

It is perhaps not a welcome Sinn Féin's deputy leader can expect at Schomberg House any time soon.

She says a letter sent to the order 10 months ago asking for a meeting has yet to be acknowledged.

And when Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald told The Irish News in March that she was keen to meet senior Orangemen, neither this newspaper or the Dublin TD was afforded a response.

The Orange Order's grand secretary Mervyn Gibson later told the Belfast Telegraph there were "335 reasons" not to engage with Sinn Féin, a reference to loyal order members killed by republicans during the Troubles.

Michelle O'Neill wrote to the Orange Order ten months ago asking for a meeting. Picture by Mal McCann

Ms O'Neill is philosophical about the snub and doesn't intend to give up.

“If we’re going to change society and we’re going to understand where people are coming from, then you have to engage with people," she says.

"I’ll keep trying and I would hope at some stage they will be able to take us up on the invitation."

The Sinn Féin northern leader, who succeeded Martin McGuinness in the role in January last year, insists she's always been involved in outreach work.

She points to meeting Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle alongside Mr McGuinness in 2014. More recently she spoke to around 100 students at Wellington College in Belfast.

"When I was minister for health I didn’t think about people's health on the basis of whether they were nationalist or unionist, I thought about it in terms of them needing our help."

She says such behaviour should be "part and parcel... something you do in practice every day".

Sinn Fein leader in the north Michelle Oâ?? Neill speaks ahead of the partyâ??s Ard Fheis this weekend Picture Mal McCann.

Highlighting last week's scenes in east Belfast, Ms O'Neill argues that the attitude displayed by the "ordinary unionist people" who greeted the taoiseach contrasts with that of some elected politicians, who have been less congenial towards the Fine Gael leader.

"Sometimes I think you have to talk over the heads of the leadership of political unionism and speak directly to the unionist people," she says.

Sinn Féin's approach to abortion 'compassionate'

Many Christian unionists are now expected to show even greater antipathy towards Sinn Féin following the party's support for liberalising abortion laws on both sides of the border.

At this weekend's specially scheduled ard fheis the party's ruling executive will seek to bring its abortion policy into line with that proposed for the Republic, where terminations will be available under any circumstances up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.

The Mid Ulster MLA is a strong advocate of abortion reform and will introduce this Saturday's debate around women's health.

Describing last month's Eighth Amendment referendum result as "momentous and amazing" and an illustration of how "Ireland is changing", she says she supports the ard chomhairle's motion, which comes less than a year after Sinn Féin's abortion policy was extended to include cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape, incest and where the mother's health is at risk.

Ms O'Neill characterises the party's proposed position as "compassionate" and believes the current law both north and south is "failing women".

Despite suggestions, including from colleague Francie Molly, that Sinn Féin will face resistance to change from its supporters, the party's deputy leader insists she has yet to encounter any conflict over the abortion issue with her constituents.

And although she would like to see legislation north of the border mirror that which is expected to come into force in the Republic, she does not regard it as a precondition to re-establishing the devolved institutions, which have been dormant for the past 18 months.

'Toxic' Tory-DUP pact to blame for Stormont impasse

Ms O'Neill isn't overly optimistic that the Stormont institutions will be restored any time soon and blames the "toxic" Tory-DUP pact for holding back progress.

"Unfortunately, with the current situation, the DUP have checked out – they're preoccupied with the Westminster operation," she claims.

Ms O'Neill says she would happily restore devolution on the terms rejected by the DUP in February but believes Arlene Foster's party is content to stall the process until after Brexit.

The responsibility for initiating progress lies with the Irish and British governments, she says, but again accuses the latter of being constrained by its confidence and supply deal with the DUP.

"The two governments have a choice to make – they can protect the Good Friday Agreement or abandon it," she says.

"I like to think they’ll choose protection and that means they must work the agreement, including making the intergovernmental conference meet and looking at the barriers to the restoration of the institutions."

Michelle O'Neill was interviewed by Political Correspondent John Manley. Picture by Mal McCann

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