Senator Rose Conway-Walsh, the leader of Sinn Féin in the Irish Senate, was in Montreal on Thursday to commemorate the Easter 1916 Rising that led to independence for the 26 counties of the south.
Almost at the exact hour a leading Irish politician brought a message of peace, unity and pluralism to Montreal, journalist Lyra McKee was slain in the streets of a Northern Irish city.
But Senator Rose Conway-Walsh, the leader of Sinn Féin in the Irish Senate, insisted the reporter’s tragic death cannot undermine new efforts that could lead to a united Ireland.
Conway-Walsh had stinging criticism for those who killed McKee, 29, during rioting and a firefight with police in an area of Derry last week.
“Lyra’s murder was a vicious, futile act to destroy the progress made over the last 20 years, which has the overwhelming support of people here in Canada, in Ireland and throughout the world,” Conway-Walsh said after news of the journalist’s late-night killing broke.
“I unreservedly condemn those responsible for this atrocity (that) is an attack on the whole community of Derry, the Peace Process and on the Good Friday Agreement,” she added.
While she echoed anger and condolences expressed across party lines in Northern Ireland and the Republic, they had special poignance because her words came just as she explained Sinn Féin’s push for a referendum — or border poll — on Irish reunification.
The push comes against the catastrophe of Britain’s bungled withdrawal from the European Union, which has raised the dark spectre of re-institution of a so-called “hard border” separating Northern Ireland from the Republic.
In an interview, and in remarks to the Friends of Sinn Féin Canada at a Montreal Irish pub on Thursday evening, Conway-Walsh said there is no desire to return to the murderous divide that prevailed during “The Troubles” from 1969 until the Good Friday peace accord in 1998.
The senator from County Mayo in the Republic’s northwest was in Montreal to commemorate the Easter 1916 Rising that led to independence for the 26 counties of the south. The British government forced partition on Ireland during negotiations to end the Anglo-Irish war almost a century ago.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement turned partition into a “soft border” allowing free flow of goods and people between the south and the north, though the latter remains part of the U.K.
Conway-Walsh, who also visited the Irish Studies department at Concordia during her stay in Montreal, said the mess of Brexit has only made transparent the absurdity of Irish people being divided from each other.
“We will not, and cannot, contemplate a hard border on our island ever again. I am a politician because it’s never made sense to me, even as a child, to have an island the size of Ireland divided,” she said.
Sinn Féin renewed calls in late 2018 for the North and the Republic to prepare for a reunification referendum whatever happens with Brexit. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar dismisses referendum talk as “trouble making” by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.
But Conway-Walsh insisted the left-wing party’s referendum push is serious — and essential. Its reading of the political situation shows a strong appetite in the North to end partition, she said. Business leaders, agricultural producers, and working people alike recognize from the travesty of Brexit just how vulnerable a divided Ireland is in a globalized economy.
What’s crucial, the senator stressed, is that reunification take place according to democratic principles, but also in a spirit of deep pluralism that recognizes differences and welcomes all sectors of Irish society into the conversation.
It would be unthinkable, she said, for working class northerners who remain loyal to the U.K. to somehow feel “less Irish” than upwardly mobile Republicans from the south. Major steps have been taken to diminish ancient sectarian bitterness fuelled by memories of decades-old violence, she said, and reunification must take advantage of that progress to propel Ireland into a united future.
“There is space for everyone in the new Ireland we are trying to achieve,” Conway-Walsh said.
Almost as she spoke, Lyra McKee was gunned down in Derry doing her job as a journalist. But Conway-Walsh was adamant the sound of the guns, and the toll of violence, cannot deter the course of Ireland reuniting.
“We have to demonstrate our unified opposition to these kinds of horrible, pointless actions. The people (of Ireland) do not want this. Those responsible should listen to the people.”
Peter Stockland is the publisher of Convivium.ca and a former editor in chief of The Gazette.