Mary Lou McDonald’s first Ard Fheis as Sinn Féin leader will present her and delegates with a number of issues.
Sinn Féin actively campaigned to repeal the Eighth Amendment. This weekend, it will formally clarify its position on the Government’s plans to legislate for abortion up to 12 weeks.
So, for around two hours on Saturday afternoon, delegates will debate two key motions. The first recognises the decision of the people in the recent referendum and states that members should legislate "in line with the view of the Ard Comhairle". Given that the party’s hierarchy is among those proposing the motion, its passage is a foregone conclusion.
The other motion calls for a conscience vote. It’s expected to be defeated as was the case previously. However, it has been proposed by 24 cumann, north and south of the border, so the debate and vote will give a good indication of the level of division within the party.
The outcome will have repercussions for two TDs - Peadar Tóibín and Carol Nolan – both of whom campaigned to retain the Eighth Amendment. They face suspension if they vote against the party’s position on the legislation in the Dáil.
However, this may only apply to Peadar Tóibín. Carol Nolan, who lost the party whip for three months after voting against holding the referendum, has said she is considering whether she will rejoin the party. She is not attending this weekend’s Ard Fheis.
Mary Lou McDonald is clearly very fond of motions of no confidence – or rather the threat of tabling one. So far during her four-month tenure as leader, Sinn Féin has favoured such motions in the former head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien, and ministers Denis Naughten and Eoghan Murphy.
The party postponed tabling the last two motions to avoid destabilising the government during the referendum campaign. However, post referendum it has taken the no confidence motion in Mr Murphy out of cold storage and is dangling the prospect of tabling it at a future date.
As the party "actively considers" the matter, it garners lots of publicity and places the Government and Fianna Fáil on alert. Although, Eoghan Murphy is the official target, this is also geared at Fianna Fáil.
If the main opposition party supports the motion, it breaches the confidence and supply deal and triggers an election.
If it rejects such a motion, Fianna Fáil, as the Taoiseach told his party, "gets a kicking". But bar the headlines and the political fallout, such a motion would achieve little for those who are homeless in the short or medium term.
Mary Lou McDonald wants to serve in government and she’s been saying it for a while. As deputy leader, she first indicated a shift in the party’s position on the matter in early 2017.
This represented a major u-turn for Sinn Féin, which had previously backed motions ruling out coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. During the 2016 general election, the party stressed it would not go into government as a junior partner.
But politicians are pragmatic – the Sinn Féin vote has plateaued just below 15%. Electorally, it’s advantageous to be part of the conversation about government formation. The passage of motions calling for a special conference to be held on any coalition plans have become an annual event.
More significant is the Ard Comhairle’s adept move in proposing changes to another motion that states the party’s "only objective will be to form a broad left-wing government". The Ard Comhairle’s intervention has softened the position and keeps the party’s options open. The amendment states Sinn Féin "should attempt" to form such a government.
As for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rejecting the possibility of doing a deal with Sinn Féin, that will ultimately be decided when the ballot papers are counted. Remember back in 1989 Fianna Fáil went into government with the Progressive Democrats. Politicians are pragmatic.
As a matter of principle, Mary Lou McDonald believes the position of President should be contested. She is not alone. A motion tabled this weekend states that "the office of Uachtarán na hÉireann is too important to be uncontested".
But the party is hedging its bets. It won’t be making any announcements on its intentions at the Ard Fheis. Instead, it will hold-off making a decision until a later date – most likely after President Michael D Higgins indicates his intentions in the coming weeks.
If he does run again, Sinn Féin has to make up its mind. Some in the party believe they should concentrate their attention and resources on another election – the next general election.
Brexit and power-sharing
Delegates will hear a lot about Brexit as the negotiations enter a crucial stage without an agreed solution on the border. It is no surprise there are motions seeking a referendum on Irish unity to be brought forward, albeit in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement.
There are also calls for Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland to vote and stand in European elections in the south. The votes are hardly edge of the seat events. They will, most likely, be emphatically passed.
The collapse of power-sharing, though, has left Northern Ireland without a strong voice for almost a year and half and at one of the most critical periods in its history. There are a plethora of motions to address what the party sees as a key issue – an Irish language act.
But, with Theresa May consumed by internal divisions and dependent on the DUP at Westminster, her attentions will focus on survival and the Brexit negotiations. For Sinn Féin, its opponents in the south are sure to use its absence from government in the north as a criticism at the next general election.
Bullying and internal disputes
It is no surprise these issues are not on the official agenda. There is a motion though, calling for "stronger protections against bullying and intimidation for workers and trade union representatives" along with "stronger sanctions against employers".
Another motion calls for all party members "to be treated fairly" but this is in relation to diversity and inclusion. But, there is no direct reference to the allegations of bullying and the internal disputes that have resulted in Sinn Féin losing more than a dozen public representatives who have resigned or were expelled.
The most high profile was the former Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh who quit the party over what he described as inaction in dealing with disciplinary issues in Galway West. The party responded saying his resignation was motivated by the fear he would not win his selection convention and he had not made any allegation of bullying.
However, others have, suggesting an apparent culture of bullying within the party. This certainly doesn’t sit well with the image of the new party leader. Mary Lou McDonald has said she will do everything "to build a respectful, friendly, comfortable, professional relationship within the party".
Her promise is to "lead from the front". But as she has pointed out on so many occasions in relation to the conduct of others – "the buck stops at the top".
Eye on the ball
The Ard Fheis is taking place as the World Cup kicks off this weekend. The timing is not good but the delegates in the Waterfront in Belfast will exclusively focus on the first party leaders address not to be delivered by Gerry Adams in 34 years.