Irish unity in ‘touching distance’ after DUP vote, says McDonald

Recall of the Assembly to elect Speaker could take place as early as Saturday

Irish unity is within “touching distance” as a nationalist First Minister at Stormont is poised to come into office for the first time, according to Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald.

Reacting to the DUP’s endorsement of a deal with the UK government that will end its two-year boycott of the powersharing Executive, Ms McDonald said the elevation of party vice-president Michelle O’Neill to the head of the North’s devolved government will be a moment of “very great significance”.

The recall of the Assembly to elect a Speaker could take place as early as Saturday and DUP party leader Jeffrey Donaldson signalled on Tuesday his optimism that there are enough concessions to show that the “naysayers are wrong”.

The deal is due to be published on Wednesday and Ms O’Neill said the next number of days are crucial to get the powersharing institutions up and running.


Addressing media at Stormont, Ms McDonald alluded to previous political arrangements in Northern Ireland, saying: “I think a Sinn Féin First Minister, and Michelle coming into office as First Minister, for all really is the most striking evidence that that era is now gone; it is now consigned to the pages of the history books.

“And more importantly it signals now the new Ireland emerging and the conversation around a new constitutional dispensation, ending partition, Irish unity, all of the opportunity that presents is in many ways embodied in this moment of Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister here.”

Ms McDonald added “I think that the turn of events, the historical turning of the wheel, and the electoral place that we’re at, I think signifies that what we talk about now is possible.

“As a matter of fact, in historic terms, it’s within touching distance. And I think that’s a very exciting thing.”

The DUP collapsed Stormont in February 2022 when its former first minister Paul Givan quit the executive in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Mr Donaldson admitted on Tuesday that they had not secured “everything” they had sought from London in relation to changes to the Windsor Framework deal struck between UK and EU last year.

However, he said he had achieved a “good outcome for Northern Ireland” and pledged “zero” checks on goods and paperwork works destined for the North - through the “green lane” element of the Windsor Framework – from Britain.

“On checks, on goods, moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and staying within the UK there will no longer be physical checks, identity checks, save where, as is normal in any part of the UK there is a suspicion of smuggling, of criminal activity; that is the same for every part of the United Kingdom,” he told reporters outside Stormont.

Asked about a timeline for Stormont’s return, he said it was conditional upon the UK government “delivering on their side” but that he hoped it will happen quickly.

DUP party discipline remained tight on Tuesday after Monday evening’s DUP executive meeting led to an internal party inquiry when details of Mr Donaldson’s briefing to 130 members were leaked by loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson. Mr Bryson live tweeted details in what he claimed was a “blow by blow account” of the five-hour meeting.

Despite Mr Donaldson’s claims on Tuesday that there will be legal changes to the post-Brexit deal, Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris played down the prospect of fresh negotiations with the EU and said that “all conditions are now in place” for a return of the Executive.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie was adamant that the Windsor Framework deal will not be changed “one sentence” and that the so-called Irish Sea Border will “still be there”.

Mr Beattie expressed concern that the situation could “unravel” in coming days if the Assembly is not restored by Monday.

Alliance Party Leader Naomi Long told reporters it was a “bittersweet” day in that there was nothing in the DUP deal with the UK that “wasn’t available in 2018 under Theresa May”.

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Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times