Sinn Féin will be ready to “talk and listen” to other parties about forming a Government after the next General Election, President Mary Lou McDonald has said.
She also promised a referendum on a united Ireland within five years, should her party enter power.
In her keynote televised address at her party's Ard Fheis in Derry on Saturday night, Ms McDonald made clear Sinn Féin is seeking to be in office, even if it is as a minority party.
In her most explicit comments about being willing to enter Government, Ms McDonald said that she understood there are some who believe we should never talk to other parties about government.
“Those fears are understandable. But the housing crisis will only be solved with Sinn Féin in government,” she said.
“Following the general election, we have a choice to make. Not about being in government for the sake of it. But about how we best implement our policies – our solutions. In arriving at this decision, we should be guided, not by our distrust of other parties, but by our confidence in republicans,” she said.
“Then that is the only basis on which Sinn Féin would enter government,” Ms McDonald said.
About the ongoing stalemate in the North, she said there is no contradiction between working for Irish Unity and seeking the restoration of the northern institutions.
“Three years on, we have no assembly and executive. This is unsustainable. We are ready to do business. I challenge the DUP and both governments to step forward. To resolve the issues and get government back in action,” she said.
She took aim at Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who she said have “abstained” from the North for almost a hundred years.
“We take no lectures from those parties who looked the other way, who opted out and who abandoned this part of Ireland,” she added.
On the unity referendum, Ms McDonald said: “The days of partition are numbered. Change is in the air. Brexit has changed everything. Many people, for the first time, are now considering their future in a United Ireland.”
She said the Irish government and all who say that now is not the time to speak of unity are wrong.
“A referendum on unity will happen, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. It is not a question of if, but a question of when,” she asserted to cheers from delegates.
“Now is the time to prepare. The Irish government must convene an All-Ireland Forum; to map the transition to a United Ireland, to involve all the people, to plan for our economy and our public services. And then the referendum must happen in the next five years. Let the people have their say,” she said.
“And let the message go loud and clear, to Government Buildings in Dublin and to No.10 Downing Street that this new decade is the one in which we will finally end partition to achieve a new, united Ireland,” she said.
In one of the few specific commitments made by Ms McDonald, she promised to reduce rents and commit to a 36-month rent freeze.
“Renters need a break and security. We will cut rents. We will reduce rents by up to €1,500 a year through a tax relief and a three-year rent freeze,” she told delegates.
She also said Sinn Féin will make the living wage the law.
“We want secure work, workers’ rights and trade union rights protected in law. We want our taxation system to be fair and progressive. That means ending tax holidays for the banks. And just as you have the right to decent work, you also have the right to retire on a state pension at the age of sixty-five. Sixty-five-year-olds should not be sent to stand in the dole queue,” she said.
Ms McDonald, a TD for Dublin-Central also highlighted the housing crisis and promised a major social housing programme.
“In previous generations a family with one income could buy their own home – today families with two incomes can only dream of home ownership. And young people feel they have no chance. My commitment to you is that Sinn Féin will deliver the largest public house building programme that Ireland has ever seen,” she said.
She said the children of Ireland have the right to an education – a free education.
Sinn Féin, she argued, has shown how school budgets can be increased, books and school meals provided for and "voluntary" contribution fees eliminated.
“This decade must see the delivery of truly free education. From the first day of school to graduation. This means scrapping third-level fees,” she said.
One controversial element of her speech was the tribute paid to John Downey, who was extradited to the North in connection with the murder of two British soldiers in 1972.
Downey, aged 67, was put on trial for the Hyde Park bombings but it collapsed after it emerged he had a “letter of comfort” from then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, which stated he was not going to be prosecuted.
Despite that, Downey was arrested last month and extradited to the North.
His imprisonment in contrast to the treatment of 'Soldier F' was a recurring issue of anger at the Ard Fheis all weekend.
In her address, Ms McDonald said: “We also send our solidarity to John Downey. We thank John’s wife, Jill for being with us this evening. John is a supporter of the peace process. He shouldn't be in jail. He should be at home with his family in Donegal.”
Several senior party figures this weekend described Mr Downey's arrest as a “vindictive act” by the British authorities.