John Manley: Shinner sisters to the fore as the party journeys from agitation to making legislation
This year’s Sinn Féin ard fheis took place less than eight months after 2017’s. It was brought forward to ensure the party had modified its abortion policy ahead of fresh legislation passing through the Dáil in the aftermath of last month’s Eighth Amendment referendum. The 'Yes' campaign’s victory has set in motion a process of substantial reform of the Republic’s abortion laws and following Saturday’s vote, Sinn Féin is now positioned to support the Dublin government’s new measures.
To hear the vocal support inside Belfast’s Waterfront Hall for delegates speaking in favour of liberalising the party’s stance on abortion you were left wondering why it has taken so long. The ard fheis heard from those who have campaigned for decades for a policy that is more reflective of Sinn Féin’s left leanings rather than the long-held Catholic conservative view more in tune with the pro-life picket outside the venue.
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Republicans like to cast themselves as progressive but arguably on this issue they have followed the crowd rather than led it. That said, the party looks set to be at the vanguard of the abortion debate north of the border, where the rapid transformation in attitudes witnessed in the south may well be replicated.
As well as enabling the abortion policy shift, the weekend ard fheis also allowed new leader Mary Lou McDonald and her deputy Michelle O’Neill to stamp their identity on the party. Out went last year’s patriarchal image of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, replaced by the fresher, feminine faces of the ‘Shinner sisters’. Likewise, the traditional green livery made way for softer shades of pink and purple.
There appeared to be an acceptance among delegates that Stormont will remain on ice for the foreseeable future so mentions of ‘six counties’ sounded for the most part like lip service. The party has its eye firmly fixed on a potential coalition in the south, with Fine Gael emerging as its favoured partner. Leo Varadkar’s visit to west Belfast to launch Féile an Phobail earlier this month is regarded by some as part of the courtship, while the decision not to debate an ard fheis no confidence motion in southern Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy kept the two parties’ fledgling relationship on track.
Beyond abortion, the ard fheis didn’t see any major policy shifts but be in little doubt that Sinn Féin is a party undergoing change, as it endeavours to journey under Mary Lou McDonald from agitation to making legislation.
Last November’s corresponding conference was Gerry Adams’s farewell party, where images of the former Sinn Féin president dominated the proceedings. A matter of months on, the former leader was an inconspicuous presence at the weekend gathering. Mr Adams may not have gone away but he appears happy to stay out of the limelight.