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Ireland's Sinn Féin leader on Brexit, cross-border relations and party goals


The last time I interviewed our next guest, I introduced her as the new leader of Sinn Fein, the Irish political party. It was 2018. Mary Lou McDonald had just taken over, and it marked a sea change. She was succeeding a giant of Irish politics, Gerry Adams, who had led Sinn Fein, often controversially, for more than three decades. Since McDonald and I spoke those three years ago, Sinn Fein has grown. Elections last year left them the largest party, the most seats in the Dail, the lower house of Ireland's parliament, and poised to make gains in the Northern Irish Assembly, too. Well, this week finds her here in the U.S. for talks, including with us. Mary Lou McDonald, welcome back to the program.

MARY LOU MCDONALD: Thank you so much. It's great to be with you.

KELLY: Well, and may I add, welcome back to the U.S. I know because of pandemic travel restrictions...


KELLY: You haven't been able to come. So welcome back.

MCDONALD: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here. It's been two long years, and we're all so appreciative and grateful that we can travel again. So long may it continue.

KELLY: Since you and I last spoke - again, that was 2018 - a lot has happened - a lifetime of political developments on this side of the Atlantic, and for you, among other things, Brexit.


KELLY: How's it going?

MCDONALD: Well, you know, they say that there's only two certainties in life - don't they? - death and taxes. I think we can now add Brexit to that list. It is, of course, a very significant game changer politically and diplomatically. I mean, Brexit isn't a singular event or a moment in time. It changes forever.

KELLY: It's a process.

MCDONALD: Yeah - in a very significant way.

KELLY: You lead a party that would prefer there were no border as you cross from north to south. But there is a border for now, and the big question in this precise moment is what that looks like with Northern Ireland now exited from the EU. What could you live with just realistically?

MCDONALD: Well, look - the island now has been partitioned for 100 years. We mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland, a catastrophic event in history that led to generations of conflict. But we're also approaching nearly the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. And the truth is, since we arrived at that accord - and the United States had a very significant hand in delivering that - for all practical purposes, there has been no border on the island. Any of your listeners who have visited Ireland will know that you move seamlessly from Dublin to Belfast, from Derry to Cork all across the island and...

KELLY: No checkpoints, right - but is that tenable now that Brexit has changed?

MCDONALD: It's essential. I mean, one of the primary motivators for dealing so comprehensively with Brexit is to ensure that there is no, what they call, hard border on the island of Ireland. Like, we live on a small island. People work and marry and live and die all across the island, you know. And the idea that we would - again, having made so much progress post the Good Friday Agreement, as a society moving out of conflict, confidently wishing to move and create a new island and a new future, the idea that we would take steps backwards and have, again, division and a hard border on the island is completely unacceptable. I mean, that is not tenable. I just want to record how heartened I am to hear so clearly from the current administration, but also from right across - from across the aisle in United States politics, a clear message to the British government that leaving Ireland vulnerable or the Good Friday Agreement vulnerable to damage is not acceptable to the United States.

KELLY: Election's coming up next spring in May in Northern Ireland. Many expect your party Sinn Fein to win. If you do, will you push for a referendum on reunification of the island?

MCDONALD: As you know, I take nothing for granted ever in elections. We know that you have to work hard. But just to make this point, Mary Louise, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind but that within the next five to 10 years, we will be facing into referendums. We will be putting the question in respect of the unification of Ireland to the people north and south. And as I've been saying to colleagues on the Hill on this visit, we really need to start preparation now for an orderly, democratic and peaceful transition from a partitioned Ireland to a united Ireland...

KELLY: Well, I was going to ask...

MCDONALD: ...That it's actually irresponsible, in my view - reckless, actually - not to have a citizens' assembly, not to have a space in which the preparation begins now in a way that involves everybody, all shades of opinion. And I know and the polling data reflects that there is a huge appetite across the island for those preparations to commence, so...

KELLY: So what is your message to unionists, the people - and there are a lot of them - who are determined to keep Northern Ireland inside the U.K., who will be listening to your words with horror?

MCDONALD: Well, no, they won't. I don't believe they'll be listening with horror because - or with any great surprise.

KELLY: You're outlining a goal that runs counter...


KELLY: ...Completely counter to their vision for their future of their country.

MCDONALD: Absolutely. And I am fully aware and I fully respect that unionist colleagues will make the case politically for the union. And I absolutely respect that.

KELLY: And I'm...

MCDONALD: None of us have a veto.

KELLY: So I'm asking less about the politicians. I'm asking just about ordinary people. How do you convince them they shouldn't fear Sinn Fein?

MCDONALD: What I say to everybody that I meet is that each of us has a part and a perspective in this debate. And there's nothing to be feared here. This is a moment of great opportunity for the whole island. And even for those people who would wish to see the status quo maintained, I would like to believe that those folks can still see in a united Ireland and could articulate their needs and their ask (ph) and their view of what that society might look like. And by the way, the fact that Ireland has changed and is changing is well-known to sensible people within the unionist community. They know this is underway, and it's a subject of conversation. And I think we need to listen respectfully, engage respectfully. And I am up for that. And I happen to believe that many, many others are as well.

KELLY: What is not up for debate is that there is more uncertainty over the future of Northern Ireland, more tension in Northern Ireland, over what the future looks like than there have been in decades. What is Sinn Fein doing? What can Sinn Fein do to make sure that with those tensions does not come a return to the violence that defined Northern Ireland for decades, the Troubles?

MCDONALD: Well, we demonstrate that politics works. That's it. I mean, the - conflict and war and violence is the failure of politics. We have to demonstrate every day that politics - that the democratic institutions work. And just to say, although there have been some violence on the streets, that has been very, very limited. Those events should never happen. Please don't get me wrong. But I am very sure in saying to you that there is no appetite anywhere in any part of society in Ireland or in the north of Ireland for a return to conflict. That is over. That day is gone.

KELLY: Mary Lou McDonald is the leader of the Irish political party Sinn Fein, speaking to us today from Washington. Thank you.

MCDONALD: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.