United Ireland within ‘touching distance’ says Sinn Fein president

Mary Lou McDonald - Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images
Mary Lou McDonald - Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

A united Ireland is within “touching distance”, Sinn Fein’s president said in a lecture on Friday to commemorate Bloody Sunday.

Mary Lou McDonald also accused Britain of trying to “whitewash” its dirty war with “disgraceful” amnesty laws to protect UK soldiers from prosecution for wrongs committed during the Troubles.

“Tonight, we remember those we lost on Bloody Sunday. Tonight, we look to the future, we think about all that we have to gain. The ending of division. The uniting of all our people,” she said in Londonderry.

“A new Ireland is now in touching distance,” she added. “We must reach with confidence and hope for tomorrow.”

Brexit and the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol have given impetus to calls for Irish reunification.

Most voters in Northern Ireland, who have been denied devolved government by the Democratic Unionist Party’s boycott of Stormont over the Protocol, voted for Remain in the Brexit referendum.

The Protocol, which created the Irish Sea border, was agreed by the UK and EU to prevent a hard border on the island itself, which could jeopardise the peace process.

But it is hated by Unionists, who are refusing to restore power-sharing until the Protocol is removed or replaced in an ongoing negotiation between London and Brussels.

Sinn Fein became the largest political party in Northern Ireland for the first time in the country’s 100 year history in May’s Stormont elections. After the vote, Sinn Fein predicted unity referendums in Ireland and Northern Ireland by 2030.

A census also showed Catholics outnumbering Protestants for the first time in Northern Ireland last year but twice as many Northern Irish voters would stay in the UK rather than choose a united Ireland, a poll in December found.

The same poll also revealed voters in the Republic of Ireland would support unification by a majority of four to one.

The Good Friday Agreement recognised the right of people on the island of Ireland to reunify if border polls in Ireland and Northern Ireland support it.

UK law says the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should order a vote if it “appears likely” that a majority of voters want a united Ireland, but is unclear on how that should be decided. The Irish government must also agree.

Ms McDonald also said the Government’s Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill would be used to cover up the British government’s crimes during the Troubles.

If passed, the Bill will offer immunity for Troubles offences in exchange for cooperation with a new truth recovery body and halt future civil cases and inquests linked to killings in the conflict.

The Bill is opposed by almost all victims’ groups in Northern Ireland and all of the main political parties in the country. Critics say it will rob bereaved families of justice by giving an amnesty to perpetrators in return for information about terrorist murders.

‘Disgraceful legacy’

“The British Government’s attempt to substitute the truth for a so-called official narrative, to whitewash Britain’s dirty war, and to evade justice has no support in Ireland,” Ms McDonald said.

“The powerful try to steal experiences, and steal memory from those who have suffered. That’s what successive British governments tried to do for decades. That’s what the current Tory Government intends with its disgraceful legacy and amnesty legislation.”

She added: “Prime Minister [Rishi] Sunak should remember that the powerful have never stopped the Bloody Sunday families remembering the truth.”

A total of 13 unarmed demonstrators, all Northern Irish Catholics, were shot dead by British paratroopers in Londonderry, on January 30, 1972.

The soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowd and injured another 17 people taking part in the banned march against the internment of Irish nationalists.

The Government plans to make further amendments to its planned Northern Ireland legacy legislation.

Chris Heaton-Harris, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said, “We want to make sure that if you do not cooperate and then you are found to have done something heinous in the Troubles and then you go through the judicial system as it is now, so there is a penalty.”