A Conversation With Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald

Monday, March 14, 2022
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Irish Opposition LeaderPresident, Sinn Féin


Staff Writer, New Yorker; CFR Member

Mary Lou McDonald, President of the Irish political party Sinn Féin, discusses resolving the past and continuing repercussions of Brexit, cross-border relations and reconciliation, and the future of the Sinn Féin party, particularly as Ireland approaches the next elections.

SORKIN: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “A Conversation with Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald.” I’m Amy Davidson Sorkin. I’m a staff writer for the New Yorker and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

And welcome, Ms. McDonald. You’ve been the president of Sinn Féin since 2018. Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party in the Republic. Sinn Féin was the biggest single vote-getter in the 2020 elections. And you are now the leader of the official opposition outside of the governing coalition. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, if the polls are correct, is poised for victory in the May elections for the devolved assembly, which could leave your vice president, Michelle O’Neill, who we’re lucky enough to also have present today, as the first minister, pending some power-sharing complications which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little later.

We’ve got a lot to talk about, but I want to open on the subject on everyone’s minds: Ukraine. I’d like to ask your perspective on Ukraine. And if you could zoom in on it in three steps. You know, as a European—Ireland is a member of the EU though not of NATO—as an Irish person with a distinct historical perspective, and as the leader of Sinn Féin, a party that has in the past had some skepticism about alliances and foreign entanglements. Perhaps those are all complementary, but it seems possible that there are some tensions there.

MCDONALD: Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Amy. So I’m really pleased to be here. And Michelle O’Neill is with us. So let me get to your question. And let me say firstly, as a European, that we share the absolute horror at the open, naked aggression displayed by Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation. I think for some time now, as Russia has maneuvered along the borders of Ukraine, many people speculated as to what might happen.

Some believed that there might be a minor incursion. I’m not sure that many predicted the full-scale onslaught that he has unleashed on the Ukrainian people. And he has broken every rule of civilized engagement. He has—he has threatened the sovereignty, the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He has stepped outside the rule of international law. But above all else, and most horrifically, he has brought chaos, destruction, suffering and death on men, women, and children—innocent people—in a very, very aggressive, illegal escapade.

So as Europeans we’re very conscious that we now face war in Europe, on our continent. Something that I don’t think I ever believed I would see in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime. But there it is. And it challenges us therefore to respond in a way that is effective in the short term and effective in the medium and the long term. Which brings me to my next point.

As an Irishwoman, and coming from a country—sometimes we say, you know, Ireland has no colonial baggage, no colonial experience. Actually, we do. (Laughs.) It’s just different colonial baggage in that we are not—have never been and have no aspirations to be empire or to be an imperial force; we were, however, colonized. So we have experience of colonization, of conflict, of partition. Our country is still partitioned. And in latter years, we have an experience of peacemaking. And we still have an incomplete peace, but we have a very robust peace process.

So I think coming at Ukraine from that perspective, Ireland therefore has two obligations. Firstly, to stand for de-escalation, to stand for a ceasefire. There has to be a ceasefire. There has to be an end to this war. We need to do everything we can by way of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population. And Ireland will, I believe, measure up. And I believe Europe and the global community equally will.

SORKIN: Humanitarian, but not military.

MCDONALD: No, but not military. Which brings us to our second obligation, which is to be true to who we are and to actually bring our A game, bring what we have to the international table. So for Ireland, the idea of being part of a military alliance or walking away from our traditional policy of military neutrality and nonalignment, I don’t believe is a runner. I don’t believe that it would enjoy popular support in Ireland. And I don’t believe that it would be the right move for Ireland or for the international community.

I think what the world needs are good-faith actors. I think what the world needs are voices in a multilateral system that argue for democracy, for global justice through peaceful and democratic means. And I think Ireland as a small nation, as a nation that has had the historic experience that we have referred to, and as a member of the European Union, currently as a member of the United Nations Security Council, I think we are well placed to be a nation that affords that kind of diplomatic elbowroom that neutrals, nonaligned, and actors of good faith can bring forth.

We will never be a hard military power. That’s not our ambition. That’s not our intent. But what we can be is a country and a tradition that gives breathing room and release valves where breathing room and release valves are necessary. And the proof of the pudding, as we might say, Amy is this: Irish peacekeeping efforts are—have just been astonishing over the—over the decades. And when Irish troops don the blue helmet or the blue beret of the United Nations, they are universally well received in some of the world’s most troubled regions.

And the reason for that is people know, civilian populations know, and administrations know that when Ireland comes onto the pitch that we are not part of NATO, that we are not, if you like, aligned or compromised, in a way that aligned countries are. So, no, I don’t foresee us—and others at home might make the argument that we need to deepen our involvement with the European defense apparatus and with NATO. I think that’s wrong. I think that is—would be the wrong move for Ireland, and the wrong—the wrong way for us to engage the international community.

And then finally, as the leader of Sinn Féin obviously we are an all-Ireland party. So we have representation right across the island in both jurisdictions. But we have a singular policy. And the policy of Irish neutrality goes way back, back to the time of Wolfe Tone. So it is a longstanding position of principle. But it’s also a realistic assessment of what we can do and how we can make our best contribution to the world.

SORKIN: But let me press you a little bit on that, because obviously Ireland is a member of the EU. You were once a member of European Parliament.

MCDONALD: Indeed, yes.

SORKIN: And has the crisis changed your thinking about the EU’s defense posture? I know Sinn Féin has—was opposed to the Lisbon Treaty. But has that changed your thinking at all? And I wonder also, you know, at the same time, if the experience of Brexit has changed your view of the EU and the value of the EU’s collective action and solidarity.

MCDONALD: So we’ve never—we’ve never questioned the value of collective action or solidarity. I mean, Ireland is an ancient European nation. I mean, that’s who we are. And in fact, historically, as you know, Amy, we have always relied on alliances, and very important European alliances, with France, with Spain. So that has never been a question for us. The question for us as Europeans has been, and remains, what direction for Europe? What shape of Europe? And we have never supported the notion that the European system becomes almost like a third force, you know, between what was, you know, in Cold War terms, the old USSR and the United States, or now the Russian Federation and NATO. That somehow Europe adopts a posture to almost rival these two—these two blocs. We don’t believe that it would be in Irish interests or European interests for us to go down that particular road.

And let me just say this, because I never thought that I would be talking to my teenage children about the issue and the menace of nuclear weapons, and the prospect of nuclear war. That, to me, five years ago, one year ago, would have been if not unthinkable, certainly most, most unlikely. But here we are. Here we are. And in my view, and in our view, nobody should have nuclear weapons. Not NATO, not the Russian Federation. And back in 1968, Ireland was the first country to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And back in those times, a very small country, which we are, played a very significant and important role, I believe, in advancing the logic—the moral, ethical, but also the good governance logic—of demilitarization and scaling hostility down. Not adding ever, in any way, to its scaling up.

SORKIN: Now, there’s been some criticism within Ireland that your party was slow to react to Russian abuses. Do you think that’s fair?

MCDONALD: No, I don’t. And I can tell you, the moment that—we have consistently taken the position that every approach must be used to de-escalate conflict. We know—we know from our own direct experience that ultimately the fighting has to stop, and the dialogue and diplomacy has to begin. We know that that’s the reality. And let me tell you, the moment that Russia stepped outside and beyond the boundaries of international law, Sinn Féin called them out immediately—without equivocation and without hesitation.

SORKIN: On the—switching subjects but keeping to the subject of the fighting stopping—you succeeded Gerry Adams, who’s by any measure a complicated figure. Sinn Féin has a complicated past, including its association, you know, in whatever form with the IRA and the armed struggle. And yet, many of your voters don’t care much about the Troubles. They’re drawn to Sinn Féin’s economic message, which is, in American terms, a fairly progressive one, it’s fair to say. What do you see as the continuities and discontinuities in your party’s history?

MCDONALD: Well, I think people care a lot about the conflict and what happened. And I think it’s important that people care about that and know about it, because it’s the only way that we can ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes all over again, and that we don’t find ourselves in the cycle of history repeating itself. And so people care deeply. And Irish history is complicated, and the history of our country is about repression, rebellion, and violence. And in fact, Sinn Féin is not unique in having a relationship with the IRA and all of the political parties at some point in history have had that relationship. But I take your point, where we’re national, so therefore we represent people in the north. Sinn Féin was very much present in the north throughout the conflict, and beyond it.

And so people—you know, I think people are multifaceted. I think it’s a mistake to, you know, presume that people care about one dimension of life. Like, human beings have the capacity to care about a whole bunch of things. So people care about the success of the peace process, the ending of the conflict, about Irish reunification. But they also care that they can have a roof over their heads, that their children have food in their belly, that they’re going to have a decent opportunity for education and for a job. And, yes, our message is a progressive message. But it’s also, I would call it, the politics of common sense or getting the basics right.

So in the 2020 election, where Sinn Féin attracted the largest number of votes, we were talking about things like access to health care when you need it, things like rent that you can afford. You know, basic, basic things. We weren’t promising people a pipe dream of, you know, a life of excess and extravagance. Far from it. We were saying, in a modern, you know, affluent society citizens have rights. And citizens need to have expectations that the basics for a good and decent life are met. Not just for you and for your family, but for those around you and the community in which you live.

SORKIN: You sometimes hear the idea that there are shadowy figures that are, you know, part of the structure of your party in some way. How do you—how do you—

MCDONALD: Well, there’s nothing shadowy about any of us. And I have to say, I’ve listened at times to people make this allegation that, you know, somehow shadowy figures—or, actually, I was—by some of our opponents I was accused of being a puppet on a string. And all of which is completely and utter nonsense. And I have to say, and I hate—it’s terrible that I have to say this in the year 2022, but it needs to be said—Sinn Féin is led by women. And there is just the smallest amount of dog whistling, a kind of misogyny or an assumption that women can’t be in charge. So women can be in charge, and women are in charge in Sinn Féin. And there’s—the structures of the party are open, are democratic. We have the same structures pretty much as other political parties and other big national associations, like the GA, which is our national supporting organization.

SORKIN: Pause there. You have Michelle O’Neill here as well. What has it meant to have two women at the—at the top of the party?

MCDONALD: Well, it has—well, firstly, it has meant that for the first time a woman leads the official opposition in Dublin. This is the first time that it has happened. It has also meant that we face into the possibility, and it’s not a foregone conclusion, that after the May election we may have a—for the first time—a Sinn Féin first minister in the north, and that woman would also be a woman. Now, nobody in Sinn Féin is in a job because of gender. You get there by dint of ability and hard work and application.

But I think it is significant that we’ve had this breakthrough in the party. I think it’s very healthy. I think it corrects in Irish political life for an imbalance that has favored, very considerably, men as against women. And we hope that it demonstrates for women and girls, but for men and boys also, that women can achieve to the highest level within Irish political life. And I think that’s a really positive thing.

SORKIN: When you’re talking about your party’s history, you talk about what people think, how people being multifaceted. What about—what about you? Personally, what’s your view of the violence of some of the past?

MCDONALD: My primary thought is that we are never going back to it. That’s my thought. I mean, my family’s association with the IRA goes back to the 1920s. And in fact, this year we’ll mark the centenary of executions by what was called then the free state a hundred years ago. One of those seventy-seven that was executed was my grandmother’s brother. She was only a very young child when it happened. And it left a mark on her for her entire life. And she never really spoke about it.

And people were very damaged by violence in that generation. People have been damaged again and again. And it stops how. And the work of reconciliation and building a republic, a national democracy across the island, that’s where I’m at. I’m very proud to be an Irish Republican. I am proud that Irish people took a stand and that we were prepared to fight for our freedom. As Irish people, we are correctly proud of that. But I would never take a facile view of violence and conflict because there is always a human cost.

SORKIN: One thing that has not ended and may never end is the Brexit process, just to move to that.

MCDONALD: Sadly, yes. (Laughs.)

SORKIN: It’s been an overshadowing question, you know, even after the withdrawal. How’s it going? How’s the Good Friday Agreement held up under the pressure of Brexit, to start with, do you think?

MCDONALD: Well, look, you know, we said from the get-go that Brexit was a bad idea, that Brexit—I think you wrote, actually, if you want to see the—you know, how complex and the difficulties that Brexit is going to cause, sum it up in one world, Ireland. And I think you got that in—you got that in one, Amy. Because when the peace process evolved, Ireland and Britain being members of the European Union simplified things greatly, because you had, of course, the freedom to move, for services, for people and so on. And then along comes Brexit. Ill-conceived, badly thought out. Brexit is Brexit is what we were told when people asked, well, what is this? And there was always going to be a problem in Ireland.

And then you roll on. And of course, the Europeans and the British, however belatedly, accepted that there was a problem. And then we get to the protocol, which is a very, very ungainly arrangement, but a necessary one, just to ensure that we don’t have a border on our Ireland, to ensure that our economy can function correctly, and that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement can thrive. So that’s been a challenge. Political unionism, Boris Johnson—

SORKIN: And the protocol, just to—that establishes, or should establish some border checks in the Irish Sea.

MCDONALD: In the Irish Sea, yeah. But, I mean, not that that is a new thing. I mean, there’s been checks in the Irish Sea for quite some time. But, yes, it would mean no checks on the island. But of course, the Europeans have to protect the single market and so on. So all of that gets negotiated out. And then Boris Johnson, tos and fros and plays a fairly merry dance with these arrangements—arrangements that he had agreed to. And then political unionism grasps this issue of the protocol as kind of a rallying cry, not least because we’re coming into elections.

And where we’re at now is that unionism is—has walked away from the executive in Belfast. So that no longer functions. They had pulled away from the North/South Ministerial arrangements, which is hugely problematic and illegal. And they are also now placing a question mark over whether or not they will in fact share power after the next election, should Sinn Féin emerge as the—as the largest party. All of which simply goes to underscore the need for us to be steady, to be solid, and to be united. Whatever our perspective on the constitutional question, an understanding that the Good Friday Agreement has to hold, that the institutions have to hold. Because what I believe has happened is everything has changed.

The majority—the unionist majority in the north of Ireland is now gone. I mean, the island was partitioned—Ireland was partitioned over a century ago. And the notion was that you would have a permanent unionist majority up in the north. And that’s now not the case. And I think unionism, knowing that the sands are shifting, is looking to kind of hold back the tide of change and progress.

SORKIN: Do you see—do you see a border poll in the next few years? Five years, ten years? What’s your—

MCDONALD: Yes. Yes, is the answer.

SORKIN: Five years?

MCDONALD: Well, what I see and what I think is absolutely necessary now is that we need to make preparation for constitutional change, because there is no doubt that this is on the cards. And what we wish to see and what we are determined to see is constitutional change that is orderly, that is peaceful, and that is democratic. And that means you have to prepare. We talked a lot about a disorderly Brexit, if you remember, when all of that was in play. We do not want to see a disorderly process of constitutional change on the island of Ireland.

SORKIN: What do you think will happen if Michelle O’Neill here is first minister? Do you think that there will be a functional call—

MCDONALD: Yes. I think there has to be. I think if Sinn Féin emerges as the largest party and if Michelle O’Neill takes office as first minister, she will be a first minister for everybody.

SORKIN: And I just say this because the DUP may walk away from—

MCDONALD: Well, they have not made clear that they would be willing to serve in those circumstances. But, you know, at the end of the day democracy has to be respected. The people will decide who is the largest party. And after that then, to be honest with you, it is a case of everybody assessing the result, agreeing a program for government, rolling up their sleeves, and getting back to work and delivering for the people. Back in the day when Martin McGuinness first went into government with Ian Paisley—do you remember that—and people thought this was an incredible thing. I mean, people were looking to see were pigs flying across the Belfast skyline, because it seemed so improbable. And people wondered, could this work? How could this work? It worked because we made it work.

And there has to be that sense of purpose and determination. Unionism wishes to maintain the union with Britain. And that’s fine. They can argue that politics. They can make that case. We argue for a united Ireland because that’s the best opportunity, in our view, for everybody who lives on the island. And that’s fine. But what we both must do is we have to play by the rulebook. And the rulebook is the Good Friday Agreement. And I should say, speaking to an American audience, huge credit is due to the United States. And Richard Haass is in the crowd, a former envoy to—and huge credit to Dr. Haass and to others on a bipartisan basis who have kept faith with Ireland, and who understood ultimately that you respect the rulebook. The agreement is the agreement, and we all operate within those parameters.

SORKIN: You know, in a minute we’re going to turn to questions from members but let me just end with a question about that. You’re here this week, as a lot of Irish politicians are, for St. Patrick’s Day, week, an annual kind of. What’s your vision for Ireland’s relationship with America going forward?

MCDONALD: The 1916 proclamation, which is like the touchstone document for Irish freedom, makes direct reference to our exiled children in America, and recognizes that actually the march for Irish freedom could not succeed without the influence—that transatlantic influence. Indeed, Americans—the Irish in America and friends of Ireland in America financed and supported politically our rebellion and our cause for freedom. So our vision is of an ever-deepening, respectful, familial relationship. Not just with our exiled children in America, but with their children and great-grandchildren. And with people who believe in democracy everywhere.

And it should not be missed that the Irish peace process is a huge triumph of American diplomacy. And I believe the reunification of Ireland would be a triumph for all of us who believe that democracy can work, that diplomacy can work, that dialogue can work, and that you can finish a journey not simply to stop war and to end conflict, but to build something new—sustainable and new. And I think that’s a very exciting prospect for—not just for Ireland. I mean, primarily for Ireland—and I would say that, wouldn’t I, because it’s our home country—but I think for the international community. I think success matters. I think finishing things matters. I think stamina in diplomatic terms actually matters. And I think that we will see all of that pay off on the Irish question.

SORKIN: Thank you. And now I think we will go to questions from members in the room.

Q: Hello, ma’am. Thank you so much for being with us today. My name is Chloe Demrovsky. I’m the president and CEO of Disaster Recovery Institute International.

I’m curious for your view on the idea of a global minimum corporate tax rate and what that would mean for Ireland’s economy moving forward. Thank you.

SORKIN: And, I’m sorry, I should have reminded everybody that this meeting is on the record. And, yeah.

MCDONALD: So thank you—thank you for that question, Chloe. This is something that has exercised opinion in Ireland quite a lot, the issue of corporate tax, not least because we actually have—because we’re partitioned, we actually have two corporate tax rates on the island. So our first move is that we want to harmonize that and to ensure that we have that uniformity across the island.

We also want corporates to pay their fair share. We have a 12 ½ percent rate, as you know. That’s going to rise now because the global rulebook has changed, and we’re happy that that would be the case.

We have long argued the case that tax raising and varying decisions have to rest with the home country. There’s been, as you’re probably aware, Chloe, quite a debate at a European level around where these decisions are taken. And some would argue that that should be a European competency. We take a different view. We think that because the raising and varying of taxes is so fundamental to democracy that those powers have to reside in the member state and in the home country.

That said, I think there is, of course, scope for the international community to act in a harmonious and in a thoughtful way to ensure that corporates pay their fair share, and to ensure that nobody becomes a haven, if you like, or a dumping ground. And I know Ireland has its critics in the past as regards different practices and different policies. And Sinn Féin is, as you may know, Chloe, has been very much to the fore in arguing for ending loopholes and to ensuring that we have a transparent and a fair system. But on the issue of tax sovereignty, we’re very clear that these decisions need to be vested in the—in the member state.

SORKIN: Let me just ask a follow-up there. Has the whole experience of sanctions and questions around sanctions—how does that intersect with some if the ideas about transparency and tax law in Ireland right now?

MCDONALD: Well, interestingly, in recent days and weeks, as the necessity for sanctions on Russia arose and there were questions asked by the Financial Services Center in Dublin, and Russian money there, and the different vehicles that—and shell companies—that were being used there. And again, my colleagues Mairéad Farrell and Pearse Doherty, who deal with these financial matters, have been engaged with the government quite vigorously to ensure that we have transparency, and also that sanctions were effective and targeted and weren’t done in half measure through the IFSC.

SORKIN: Any questions—yes.

Q: Hello. Camille Massey from the Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice. Nice to have you both here today.

My question is about your wish to build something transformative and new and economic and social rights, your vision for access to health, access to housing. As you look to the international community, are there models from which you draw? And ultimately when you are able to build what you would like to build, how would you like that to be a model to others?

MCDONALD: So we need to have a full debate around how a new Ireland not just emerges, but how it functions. What’s its system of government? What’s it public service provision? And core to all of that is almost a bill of rights, or the things that are set out constitutionally, the rights that people enjoy. We have a written constitution, Camille, as thing stands, since 1937. And many of the rights that we enjoy as citizens of a republic are set out in that document, but not all of them. And one of the omissions in our current constitutional framework is the omission of social and economic rights. They’re kind of implied, but they’re not stated openly and explicitly.

And our view is that a constitutional framework for a new Ireland needs to explicitly acknowledge and make judiciable rights to, for example, housing, the right to shelter. We’re still debating that now in the south as to whether or not there would be a referendum to the right to housing, or the right to shelter. You see, for us the journey now towards a new Ireland and a reunified Ireland opens up the possibility and the potential to put right many of the things that we have gotten wrong, and to address many of the shortcomings that we have identified. So that would be one of them.

And you asked what kind of models do we borrow from? I’ll be honest with you, we will beg, borrow, and steal, in the best possible sense, all around. We know that everybody’s story, in a sense, is unique. And Ireland—the Irish experience is unique to Ireland. However, there are models elsewhere. I mean, obviously in South Africa, for example, in terms of nation building, coalition building. But there are others. And we’re very anxious to borrow and to learn from those experiences. But we’re also realists. We’re know that we will have to apply that learning in a new scenario.

From a European perspective, possibly the most cited reunification process is that of Germany. You know, and people say, well, learn from Germany. And of course, we need to learn from that experience. But Ireland’s a very different prospect than Germany in scale and in the political dynamic.

SORKIN: How about the financial aspect of it as well? Or, not just financial but social welfare aspect of unification? Germany had a solidarity tax after unification. Do you see—what are—do you see something like that?

MCDONALD: So, in the German case, East and West, I mean, it was a massive cleavage—I mean, massive. One of the interesting things around Brexit, for example, it has driven a spike in north-south, south-north trade in a way that perhaps many didn’t expect, and which everybody has celebrated except the Tories, for reasons best known to themselves. So there isn’t that huge divergence north to south in terms of people’s living conditions and income levels. There are differences, but it would not be anything on the scale of East-West.

That said, the reunification process will have to be financed. That’s for sure. We have significant shortfalls in terms of infrastructure, and we need to invest in our people. And of course, the British government, as and when we agree a process—a transitional process of reunification, obviously we would foresee the British state making a contribution to Ireland. And I would be very hopeful that European solidarity, in the same what Germany enjoyed that, I would hope and expect that Ireland equally would enjoy that too.

The economic opportunity for our economy in reunification is immense—is immense. Every day, every week, every month, every year that Ireland is partitioned, we pay huge economic opportunity costs. And Irish business knows that, north and south. And I think increasingly now people have started to focus on the real economic wins and the prosperity that we can drive in a reunified Ireland. And then the magic of this will be to drive the prosperity and then to have the wisdom and the social framework to invest that in a way that is equitable and fair, and that builds a real republic on the basis of equality of opportunity and outcomes—and outcomes also.

SORKIN: You know, while we’re queuing up another virtual question, let me follow up on that with just a question about north and south, and COVID. You know, here in the U.S. the response to COVID has been very politicized. Is that the experience in the Republic? Is that the experience in Northern Ireland? Is there a difference there? How have you seen it?

MCDONALD: If Brexit demonstrated the jeopardy of partition. And I think COVID came along and did that again, and then some. You know, because the only—the only full response to COVID that you could make would be on an all-Ireland basis. COVID, viruses don’t care about borders. They don’t recognize that you’re in, you know, Ballymena and not in Dundalk, you know? So we had—we had hoped for, we had worked for a unified, all-Ireland response to COVID from the get-go. But in truth—or, in reality that did not emerge.

And I think the best explanation as to why that didn’t happen was that our colleagues from unionism looked very much to London, looked to the Johnson administration, to the Tory government. And the way in which they initially seemed to be content for herd immunity to be the response. They changed that, of course, when the full ravages of the virus came to light, but initially that’s where unionism was looking. And that was extremely difficult. And Michelle and colleagues on the executive, I mean, it was—it was hard going to get a proactive, thoughtful response to the crisis in the early phases.

I think—as the story moved on, I think reality bit in London. And I think that had an effect with unionist colleagues in Belfast. But it was difficult, because the island is partitioned, to try and fashion a coherent, all of society, all-island response. That said, where the politics kind of let us down, potentially, I think people, Irish people, were incredible. I mean, I think people globally have been just remarkable in the way that they have stepped up and accepted in many cases the most incredible infringements and limitations on, you know, your freedom of movement even or, you know, things that you could or could not do. I think people—in many respects, the people outpaced the politicians at different moments. But our colleagues on the executive did a good job in very difficult—very, very difficult circumstances.

SORKIN: And now let’s take a virtual question from one of our members.

OPERATOR: We’ll take a virtual question from Mikki Canton.

Q: Yes. Hello and thank you so, so much to the CFR for doing this amazing conference. I applaud you and I can’t say enough about how much we love—personally how much I love Ireland, because as a young nine-year-old exile from Havana I wound up in New York City and was surrounded by the kindness, the love, and the empathy of the Irish in New York City back in 1961. Monsignor McCaffrey at a Holy Cross school, the dreaded Irish nuns that made sure we learned, as well as all the young folks. Never experienced a bit of prejudice. The Irish could not have been kinder. So for me it’s nostalgic as well as an experience that I will never forget. And Ireland will always be in my heart.

That having been said, I’d like to know we can be of greater help to assist you in this new transformative process, where you’re going to the new Ireland—which is the Ireland I always imagined. You know, the violence to me that came later, I—just was alien, because the only thing I had known about the Irish was the kindness and the beauty, and my old—you know, My Wild Irish Rose and When Irish Eyes are Smiling. So how do we together help you address the shortcomings which you mentioned which exist, and which you have to overcome, and get the message to the world of this new Ireland? Because now more than ever we need the world to see that there are countries being transformed and unified in peace and can weigh on helping other countries.

So it’s a simple question: How do we educate people in the world about Ireland, because very few really, people, understand what is happening. And your type—and your role, in particular, in making it happen? Thank you so much.

MCDONALD: Thank you. You’re making me feel homesick. I mean, I only got into town yesterday. And I know what you mean about those Irish nuns. They certainly kept all of us kind of—kept our feet to the fire. I think that’s a really—that’s a really interesting question, and thank you for it. I think it’s important for people to realize that whereas the Good Friday Agreement was an incredible achievement and a moment of incredible optimism and, on some level, resolution of things, it was not and is not the end. I think that’s the kind of tension here—and I mean tension in a positive way—on the one hand to celebrate and protect that which we have achieved. That’s essential. That’s item number one, Mikki, if you’re asking what can we do. The Good Friday Agreement must be defended. Nobody gets to put it through the shredder because it doesn’t suit them anymore. This is our arrangements, and they need to be protected.

But then the second piece is to forge towards the future, to use those same mechanisms to create that new opportunity and that new Ireland. And how we can all be of help, and how we can be assisted in this is simply for people of good faith to follow the Irish story and to keep faith with us. And we are very, very conscious that there are so many trouble spots in the world. We talked about Ukraine earlier. We could talk about Yemen. You know, we could talk about the Middle East. We could—and we are so conscious that so many people in so many places face, you know, existential threat, and violence, and famine. And so the Irish question does not have that immediacy because the violence has stopped and the conflict has stopped. So what we ask therefore is that people don’t miss the bigger prize on the farther horizon.

SORKIN: You know, in a more practical way, it seemed always during the—in the Brexit process that perhaps the pro-Brexit—the British government never quite got the nature and depth of American feeling about Ireland. Their presumptions about a free trade agreement—did you—that always seemed so puzzling to me. Did it seem that they—do you think that the British government did misapprehend where America was regarding Good Friday Agreements, regarding Ireland itself, regarding even just how well Americans understood what was going on?

MCDONALD: Yes, is the short answer. I think there was a lack of appreciation of just the level of investment that the United States has made in the Good Friday process and in building peace in Ireland. A complete underestimation. And I think perhaps misunderstandings as to how well-informed and how committed American opinion generally—in its broadest sense—is to peace in Ireland and, indeed, unity in Ireland. Because in many cases, you know, if you go back to the very beginning of the peace process, that happened not least because people in America, people specifically actually in New York, got together, and had a plan, and pushed and pressed, and got the Clinton then candidacy and then presidency to engage and to take very significant gambles.

They took a chance. It was an informed, a calculated, and a very wise initiative, but it was a gamble at the time. And it paid off in spades. And I think that demonstrated a very, very deep understanding of Ireland, not a shallow at all but in fact, on the contrary, a very deep understanding of Ireland, which I think—I think, it’s my observation, London totally misunderstood and still misunderstands.

SORKIN: It’s often said it’s the one area where Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy are—(inaudible)—

MCDONALD: (Inaudible)—yeah, absolutely.

SORKIN: But how about—how about Trump and Biden, though, in that respect? There’s—I mean, the engagement that you and Mikki talked about certainly endured congressionally, but is there a difference thinking about—in your engagement when Trump was president, now that Biden is president?

MCDONALD: I think one of the great successes, from and Irish perspective and also from the perspective of the U.S., is that whoever has come, whoever has gone, we have managed to maintain this sense of purpose when it comes to the Irish question. Now, events happen, and there can be, you know, a greater focus or a lesser focus. But in the round, I think we have managed to keep things fairly steady. And for us, I mean, I’m very clear we are guests of your nation. We come here as visitors. It’s not for us to say who should or should not be in the White House. The American people are more than capable of electing and selecting their leaders. What we do then, our job then, is to engage.

And I have to—I have to give full credit to, as I say, on a bipartisan basis, the way in which leaders of Congress, leaders on the Hill have consistently kept on top of and in touch with the Irish question. I mean, President Biden is from Mayo. So obviously that doesn’t do any harm, even though they haven’t won the all-Ireland football final yet, which possibly would not be the opening topic with him. But of course, that helps. The more immediate the connection with Ireland, I suppose, does absolutely no harm. But this is a matter of political will and political engagement.

And for our part, because we were asked the question earlier on, you know, how do you envision this relationship between a new Ireland and the United States—well, part of that relationship has to be that irrespective of who is the president or, for that matter, the Taoiseach, that we meet, that the bowl of shamrock is handed over as an act of good faith and friendship. And those bonds, contemporary and historic, that we continue always to work on that. So I think that’s the good-faith nature of our relationship. And I think that endures, and I hope will ever endure.

SORKIN: If there is not an immediate question, then I will just double back a little bit to just how all these things fit together. Like, the Ukraine crisis, has that helped with the Brexit negotiations? Or has it hindered because it’s—does it help to be a little out of sight? Does it help to be thinking about the EU in different ways, to be thinking about working with Britain on responding in different ways?

MCDONALD: Well, I suppose the war in Ukraine gives everybody pause to stop and to reconsider, you know, pretty much everything. You know, things that perhaps people had taken for granted, you know? You learn that you can’t take things for granted. You cannot take peace and stability for granted. You have to work on them. You also can’t take for granted the whole, you know, apparatus, that whole multilateral system that we all rely on, you know? We rely on good order. We rely on people observing the rules and, you know, accepting that there are limits to the actions of any state, however—irrespective of how powerful, how wealthy, how militarized they are.

So, yes, I think that is an important moment. And it’s important that that lesson is learned and understood correctly by the international community not as a green light for further military adventures, imperial adventures, but as a real moment to stop and to assess exactly where we are at, and to reassert again the primacy of politics and the primacy of diplomacy. Those are very, very important lessons. And I think as Europeans, as I said earlier, I think it has given us scope to, you know, just evaluate and reevaluate how we interact, how we—and the relationships that we build.

Whether or not this contributes in a positive way to Brexit and the Brexit negotiations, the short answer to that is I don’t know. But I do know this, we’ll meet with Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission vice president, next week. And I have to say that the European institutions have been extremely busy and extremely attentive in finding solutions and ways forward in a very constructive way around the protocol. And they deserve credit for that.

SORKIN: And just—we’re almost out of time—but a quick word on the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen. How are you—how are you finding that? What’s your view of how she’s doing?

MCDONALD: I think she has—my own observation is I think she has acquitted herself very, very well, not least at moments where there would have been a slight, real or perceived, to her leadership as a senior figure, as a woman in that senior position. I think she has very much led from the—led from the front. And I think, you know, there is a contested space around how the European project now should advance, and the kind of—how we articulate and how we advance the European values that are core to the whole project. And I think it’s healthy that that debate happens, but I think whatever side of the fence you are on, I think you should always acknowledge and appreciate good and strong leadership.

SORKIN: Thank you so much. I think we’re at the hour now, and we’re very strict here about ending on time. Let me just wish you good St. Patrick’s Day travels here in the U.S. And thank everybody here for taking part in this meeting. Thank you so much.

MCDONALD: Thank you, Amy. (Applause.)


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