Cianan Brennan: First big event for SF since electoral success followed same approach as campaign trail

Cianan Brennan: First big event for SF since electoral success followed same approach as campaign trail
Sinn Fein Leader, Mary Lou McDonald speaks to the media as the newest members of the Sinn Fein Parliamentary Party meet for the first time at Leinster House in Dublin. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

Sinn Féin’s first big and (sort of) public event following its earthquake electoral success followed the same well-worn approach seen on the campaign trail.

For three weeks the party’s public utterances were well choreographed, with policy launches practically non-existent, in contrast with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who fired so many promises into the ether it was easy to become confused between them.

Yesterday’s big introduction followed the same choreography - Mary Lou McDonald was to give a five-minute victory speech rehashing most of what we already know, with a couple of applause-generators added in for spice, albeit of a less controversial bent than some of her experienced TDs had recently come out with in the heat of the moment.

No questions were to be allowed. That is anathema to the media, which doesn’t like being summoned to cover an inauguration without being allowed to probe the crown-wearers in waiting.

The problem with such an approach is that the human element will always be present when 19 new TDs are added into what would have been an already crowded room. Perhaps the room had been booked before the first polls started to emerge across the campaign, as one journalist wryly noted.

Then the PA system in the hotel suite had a fit, and for 30 seconds it sounded like the Garda helicopter was running at full tilt one floor up.

Everywhere, the newly elected representatives, many of whom had failed at last year’s local elections, wandered around blinking and keeping their mouths shut at all costs.

Many of them had never met each other before, and set about making introductions, akin to delegates at a tech conference in some unfamiliar city.

By contrast, the party’s established TDs were in fine form. David Cullinane, the Waterford TD who had managed to sour his party’s surge by getting filmed shouting “up the Ra” at a post-count celebration, was happy to discuss the size of his victory - with more than 20,000 first preferences received.

"Even people who voted Fine Gael all their lives were voting for us,” he said, adding that as far as he was concerned Ra-gate amounted to “a storm in a teacup”.

Meanwhile Wicklow’s John Brady, fresh from sprinting home in his own race after pre-election speculation that he might struggle, said he didn’t know how things were going to go. He denied another election is the logical conclusion though. “No one wants that,” he said.

Ms McDonald’s speech ended up being the precursor to the main event - a contretemps between herself and John Lee, the political editor of the Irish Daily Mail, who had made no secret of his unhappiness at there being no Q&A.

“The press are gathered here, ready to ask questions Mary Lou, why won’t you take questions?” Mr Lee asked, suggesting that the refusal amounted to “bullying of the press”.

“You’re the bullies,” shouted one of the assembled in response. “Who’s that?” asked another. “Your man from the Mail.”

“You’re being childish John, this is a Sinn Fein event,” Ms McDonald responded. Mr Lee responded that organising an event with the media in attendance and then kicking them out before they’d a chance to ask anything amounted to “regal behaviour”, which led to a collective intake of breath across the room, it qualifying as possibly the biggest insult you can lay on a Shinner.

Meanwhile, the party’s housing spokesman Eoin O Broin filmed the whole exchange on his phone with a happy smile on his face.

But the point stood. If Sinn Fein wants to negotiate for the formation of a Government and leave behind accusations that it isn’t a “normal” political party, then affording hacks the chance to have their say is a must.

It must have hit home too, because a press opportunity was hastily convened on the plinth in the aftermath of a photo opportunity for the newly expanded parliamentary party.

There Ms McDonald reiterated that the country had “voted for change, for a totally new Government”. She admitted however, that the numbers would make it “very tricky” indeed to come up with a coalition without either of Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

You could understand their reluctance to keep things to their own agenda mind you, with the party leader having to bat aside questions regarding the murder of Paul Quinn, her own representatives’ tendency to invoke the IRA when they think no-one’s looking, and whether or not Sinn Féin has an anti-vaccination wing after it emerged new deputy for Co Clare Violet Anne Wynne had been more than vocal on the subject in the recent past.

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