Daniel McConnell: Mary Lou bids to navigate Sinn Féin through choppy waters

Daniel McConnell: Mary Lou bids to navigate Sinn Féin through choppy waters
Mary Lou McDonald: ‘I’m not going to be told by Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar that Sinn Féin can’t be in government.’ Picture: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images.

Mary Lou McDonald failed in her first major political test as party leader last May. Now, she has weeks to save her job, writes political editor Daniel McConnell.

She failed in her first major political test as Sinn Féin leader and Mary Lou McDonald has held her hands up and taken the blame.

Last May, her party suffered significant defeats at the local and European elections. What was clear was that many in Sinn Féin, including Ms McDonald, had no idea they were about to have their backsides handed to them.

The party lost more than 100 council seats and two of its three MEPs from the South in Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ní Riada.

“Well, it is absolutely no doubt,” she says. “It was a tough day out. We didn’t see it coming. And frankly, we should have.

“Politically, what we have concluded is that there was a bit of confusion amongst our electoral base. So what I mean by that is when austerity was at its peak, and when people were under massive pressure and the cuts were really vicious, people understood and understand that you can turn to Sinn Féin to stand your ground and stand up for you.

“But as the climate changed and an economic recovery is being talked up and so on, I don’t think we wereeffective enough and saying, look, we also have solutions. We have ideas, it’s not just that we stand up for people,although we do that clearly. But we also have answers to some of the big questions, particularly housing and healthcare,” she says.

How much blame does she take for the defeat,? I ask.

“Well, I think obviously leaders lead, and lead through good times and bad,” she says. “And it’s your job to navigate the choppy waters and you take the rough with the smooth. So obviously as the leader, I’m ultimately responsible.

And, then collectively, we had a job of work just to take stock, and we did. I think we had a really useful conversation right across the party.

Shortly after the election, it was clear there was deep unhappiness within the party as to her leadership with some TDs saying she was “too tolerant” of under-performing spokespersons.

I put that criticism to her to see does she accept it. “Are you too tolerant of under-performing TDs?” I ask.

“I’m not,” she says. “I’m not into being sort of dictatorial and I said that’s just not me. t’s not, I don’t believe that that’s how you make good politicians.

“It’s not how you build a strong and vibrant organisation, so I mean I think we have huge talent and the team.

“Yeah. I think we have very high expectations of ourselves and of each other. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

“And, of course, when you’ve had a hard day you wish people look at everything and reflect on everything.”

Looking ahead, she says she is convinced the general election will be in February and said no one is convinced by a series of spats between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin in recent weeks.

“Their confidence and supply deal meant that they had Government and Opposition to themselves,” she says.

They’re now having this phoney war over when the election will be. I think it’s tedious at this stage. I don’t think anybody is actually convinced by it.

“They have been in Government de facto as a coalition for the past three years, so nobody really buys the finger-pointing and the jousting and the jabbing.

“They have backed each other to the hilt over the past three years, I think it would be farcical if the campaign got reduced down to Leo or Micheál and who it will be,” she says.

The big shift in her party’s position is that, having excluded itself from the 2016 government formation talks, Sinn Féin is now willing to enter government as a junior coalition party.

She is bullish about not being shut out this time around.

“I’m not going to be told by Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar that Sinn Féin can’t be in government,” she says.

“I mean, that’s not because of me, personally. they’re under personal gripe, but I won’t have the people who we represent, whose interests we defend, told that their elected representatives somehow cannot be at the table where decisions are being made,” she says.

“So it’s not at any price or any cost, wishing to jump into an arrangement with either of those parties, because they’re clearly problematic. I mean, clearly our politics are very far apart so as I see it, after the election, the challenge will be this: to establish whether or not there are others who are willing to sign up and deliver a republican programme for government,” she says.

I put it to her that as long as I have been studying and writing on politics, it has always been said that the Sinn Féin leadership is subject to the control of a shadowy higher power, ie the IRA Army Council.

She responds by saying: “That’s just ridiculous. And that’s just daft. The party is structured in a transparent way.”

Ms McDonald, the Dublin-based leader of Sinn Féin, is facing into a make or break election for her party and herself. It is not overstating that she has weeks to save her job as she cannot afford to repeat the heavy defeat suffered by her party last May.

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