Reconciliation is “not a Trojan horse for [Irish] unity” Mary Lou McDonald told a gathering at Queen’s University in Belfast on Monday night.
The Sinn Fein leader also referred to the 1983 IRA murder of Queen’s law lecturer and unionist politician Edgar Graham when she addressed the ‘civic unionism’ event.
Mrs McDonald said it was impossible to “undo that damage or that loss” during her speech at the invitation of the fledgling Civic Space group.
Although billed as a unionist event, a significant number among the 100 or so invited participants were from Sinn Fein or the wider nationalist community, including Michelle O’Neill, Declan Kearney, Tom Hartley, Chris Donnelly and Professor Colin Harvey.
The warmest applause of the night was for Belfast businessman Suneil Sharma who questioned whether the Sinn Fein leader’s reference to “changing demography” leading to a united Ireland was a polite way of talking up a sectarian head count.
“Are you saying that soon there will be more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland? Is this not the sort of crass, identity politics that is not about reconciliation, but reinforcing tribalism?” Mr Sharma said.
Mrs McDonald said that the changing demographics was only one aspect of her belief that a united Ireland is inevitable.
In a lengthy speech, Mrs Donald said all suffering during the conflict should be acknowledged and remembered.
The party president urged a duty of candour and acceptance of difference, and said reconciliation “sits above” the constitutional question surrounding the creation of a united Ireland.
“We have an agreed process to deal with the constitutional question. We now need an agreed process for reconciliation.
“I and my generation of republicans will work tirelessly to build a society in which no other parent is left without a child or a child left without a mammy or daddy.”
Referencing the Carson-era opposition to an independent Ireland with a parliament sitting in Dublin, Mrs McDonald acknowledged that “in the south, Home Rule did indeed become Rome rule”.
However, she said that although some people felt bewildered at the loss of their British identity, “it was mostly women that paid the price in the mothers and babies homes, as slave labour in the laundries”.
Rev Chris Hudson of the Non Subscribing Presbyterian Church asked if she now regretted opposing a small Orange Order parade in Dublin in the summer of 2000.
Rev Hudson also told Mrs McDonald there would be a better chance of getting an Irish Language Act if Sinn Fein been involved in pushing for one.
Responding to the question about the protests that led to the parade being called off, she said her “politics had changed”.
She added: “It was a very fraught situation” with “communities under siege” in Northern Ireland at that time, but parades can be accommodated “where it’s not seen as an encroachment”.
The civic unionism event follows a much larger civic nationalist event at Belfast’s Waterfront last month which took place without unionist involvement.
Among the audience last night were two young Ulster Unionists, Hannah Niblock, who works in Belfast, and Katie Armstrong, a student at Queen’s University.
Hannah said: “No matter what your background you can tell Mary Lou speaks from the heart and she comes across well.”
Katie said: “Despite having two very different backgrounds we have a lot of things in common in how we can move forward.”