“When We Needed Heroes, the Heroes Weren’t Corporate Bankers or Millionaires” Mary Lou McDonald at Online Event

Sinn Fein's leader on the COVID Crisis, Feminism and Diversity at "Voices from the periphery", our series of Global dialogues on peace, democracy and diversity

News / 02.2.21

Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s leader, talks at Voices from the Periphery where she addressed the covid crisis and its implications for our societies and international solidarity, the advancing of the feminist cause and the promotion of cultural and linguistic diversity as an instrument for equality and unity.

[Mary Lou McDonald] I think the experience has been the same across the continent and across the globe. This crisis really exposed in a very cruel and a very unforgiving way the neoliberal model’s failures in protecting citizens and protecting life.

Housing was a particular issue in Ireland. And it is, particularly in the south and in the big cities. And what we discovered, going into the COVID crisis, is that the lack of housing, the lack of quality housing, really left us very badly exposed. And in a public health emergency where your home becomes your sanctuary, your shelter where you self-isolate, it has become apparent now, even to those who would not accept the fact that shelter is a human right, that this isn’t just an individual right; that this is a matter of community welfare and public health.

And our public health system in the south is confused and two-tier and so on, the National Health Service that we have in the north has suffered really badly from Tory austerity, all of the fault lines in primary healthcare, in hospital settings, in nursing homes, were very badly exposed.

And equally, those workers that we applauded and cheered as frontline heroes, so many of them are low-paid in precarious employments. Lots of them are women. And it’s people in our healthcare services, but it’s also people working in retail, in shops and stores, … in  the supply chain and… and we have discovered that, when the ships were down, and we needed heroes, the heroes weren’t corporate bankers or millionaires or billionaires; the working-class heroes with no capes were shop workers and nurses and caring assistants.

And I think it will be shameful and unforgiveable if this crisis comes and goes and we do not succeed in shining a light on low-paid, precarious employment. And all of the things we’ve talked about – me and others on the left have talked about so long, you know, about the need for decent work– if this crisis doesn’t spur that, then I don’t know what will.

And one final thought from a global, international perspective: the truth is, we cannot afford to have a reservoir of this virus anywhere in our world. So, that means that social justice needs to guide the distribution of vaccines. We cannot leave the poor south with this virus and imagine that that’s okay. It’s not okay. But equally, capitalism needs to realise that, in order to sustain the world economy, but more importantly, in order to sustain the health and welfare of people, social justice and equality of access to vaccines has to be centre stage.

And I think we’re going to have to  push for that very hard in our own countries, but also collectively across our continent and across our world.

“We need, as women, to walk with pride; I think that we need to understand that there cannot be freedom without our freedom”

Mary Lou McDonald at Voices from the Periphery

[Mary Lou McDonald] I’m very conscious that some people even of my own generation would believe that feminism was something that our mothers championed. And the basic rights, i.e equal pay for work of equal value was secured in the seventies.

And, that’s a very dangerous way to think; that feminism was for someone else, or for another generation. Because, as we all know very well, that decades later after that right theoretically had been secured for equal pay for work of equal value, it’s not a reality.

Irish women earn 14.5% less than our male counterparts. And that trend is reflected internationally.

So, feminism and the struggle for equality is very, very alive.

The second dangerous thought, I think, is to imagine that rights that have been secured in the past are protected now and into the future. I think that we have seen in very dramatic ways –again, across our continent, across the Atlantic – how there can be a kick-back, a backlash and how things that you take for granted, you can wake up one morning and they’re under threat. We need to be vigilant, but not in a defensive or a panicked way. We need, as women, to walk with pride; I think that we need to understand that there cannot be freedom without our freedom.

We have an expression in Irish, and in our language, and it says “Ní Saoirse go Saoirse na mBan” (There is no freedom without women’s freedom). And I think this is something that we need to very consciously champion.

“There is a very strong sense of the centrality of language to identity and all of that richness.

So, for us, the challenge is to foster and support the language, but to use it as an instrument of equality and unity rather than rancour and division.”

Mary Lou McDonald at Voices from the Periphery

[Mary Lou McDonald] The [Irish] language has undergone a really strong revival. In communities, and cities and towns all across the island, large numbers of our children are educated now through Irish.  There is a very strong sense, particularly in the next generation of very strong Gaeiligeoirí [Irish-speakers], who are not alone speakers of Irish but are activists, of the centrality of language to identity and all of that richness.

So, one half of the story is very positive and very encouraging.

The other half of the story is our difficulties in agreeing on an Irish Language Act of Gaeilge in the north of the country. And it’s something that became very contentious as unionism argued against language rights, to them it was in itself discriminatory to seek language rights for Irish-language speakers and it created a whole tension, completely unnecessarily, around the language because, the language, for us, belongs to everybody. The language isn’t republican or unionist, it’s not nationalist or loyalist: those who speak and who love the language are the custodians of the language.

It was a long battle but we have secured agreement in principle for an Irish Language Act. The institutions of government in the north had been down and not functioning for a number of years. We finally got them back up and re-established almost a year ago. And the first priority item was to the Irish language legislation. But, unfortunately, COVID and the crisis was very disruptive to politics all across the island and in the north. So that is still something that we need to deliver. And I’ve spoken to the Irish government, the British government, to colleagues in the north and in unionism, we’ve made very clear this… this legislation needs to be delivered.

The kind of angst and worry that was stoked up by some very irresponsible people in the course of this debate around language rights, around signage or just the use of Gaeilge [Irish] and giving it an official status was really shameful and part and parcel of the pushback against Irish identity, the pushback against any move to reunification and ending partition. It was used in a very cynical way that was deliberately divisive. So, for us, the challenge is to foster and support the language, but to use it as an instrument of equality and unity rather than rancour and division.

. . .

Voices from the periphery is a joint initiative of Fundacion Galiza Sempre and Coppieters Foundation.

This series of conversations is financially supported by the European Parliament. The European Parliament is not liable for the content of the discussions nor the opinions expressed by the experts during these exchanges.

. . .

Header and featured images by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye. Published by Sinn Fein under creative commons license.

. . .

Thank you for following our activities over the past few years. We hope our updates have been useful to you. We would like to keep informing you about upcoming events, new publications, summer schools, and job vacancies. Subscribe to our newsletter to hear from us in your inbox.