Alison O’Connor: There’s reason to admire Mary Lou and to mistrust Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has found her mojo. But even she, in private, must be surprised at how well her party appears to be doing in this general election campaign.

After Sinn Féin’s poor local election results last year, Mary Lou was in a spot of bother. Under her leadership, Sinn Féin had dropped to 81 council seats, from 159, and had lost two MEPs. (One of those former MEPs, Liadh Ní Ríada, had polled only 6% in the presidential election of 2018.) There was a lot of bad mood music around Sinn Fein and Brexit and empty seats in Westminster, as well as a non-functioning Stormont.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald: Voter suspicions about the party will keep it out of government. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald: Voter suspicions about the party will keep it out of government. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Mary Lou had shone so brightly as deputy leader. But taking over from Gerry Adams, who had legendary status, was never going to be easy.

I’ve written before of how much there is to admire in Mary Lou as a politician; she is often an excellent example of what a talented and determined female can bring to politics. She had to have grit to rise to the top in an organisation so full of machismo.

But she was also comfortable in the company of people to whom the sacrifice of human life, for the cause, was acceptable. When she joined the party, the culture of secrecy and control was more prevalent.

So, I hugely admired her for a variety of reasons, yet had significant reservations.

It is not that long ago that Mary Lou stood four square behind Adams in the midst of a major party controversy about the handling of sexual abuse allegations.

One could only conclude that for her to retain her position within the party, she had no choice but to back Adams.

In recent weeks, Máiría Cahill, who has spoken so eloquently about how she suffered at the hands of the IRA and Sinn Féin in the wake of her sexual abuse, must be looking on with some bemusement at the party’s surge in the polls.

Then, there are the well-aired allegations of bullying in the party. Attempting to understand, you use the type of logic that applies to “normal” political parties. The behaviour and reactions can be so puzzling.

Are there other forces at work? Or as Micheàl Martin put it on the RTÉ leaders debate on Monday night: is the party still answering to “old provos”?

Mary Lou said, during the debate, that it was “incredibly arrogant and obnoxious” for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to disregard her party from a coalition government. But the logic of Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin is sound.

Post-election, if the numbers prove too tempting, and they change their mind, there would be uproar. A decision like that, no matter how much the numbers appear to demand it, would spell pain. Sinn Féin and Mary Lou will end up in government one day, but, as of now, it is too soon. The party has too much baggage.

This is a pity, given Mary Lou’s political talents and the talents of a number on her front bench, including Pearse Doherty, Eoin Ó Bróin, Louise O’Reilly, and David Cullinane.

But it’s like having a child over on a play date who is so scarily well-behaved and polite that you find yourself wondering what goes on behind their front door. You wonder, similarly, about the discipline among the Sinn Féin ranks.

It has relaxed ever so slightly in recent times, but have we really moved that far from the “cult-like” terms in which the party was spoken about, not that long ago?

TDs and senators, purely by dint of putting themselves forward for election, show they have fairly healthy egos. If they are elected, this often enhances that strong self-belief.

This makes even more intriguing the seemingly slavish adherence of elected members to any party line.

The Sinn Féin spokespeople are never shy in promoting the party policy, yet we are to believe there are never contentious issues, nor even the usual bickering that goes on in political parties, sometimes personality-based, and which can make its way into the public arena.

It’s not a tolerance for the likes of the very outspoken Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness, for instance, that’s being sought here. He wouldn’t survive a wet week in the Sinn Féin ranks.

But it is a little eerie how nothing leaks out from Sinn Féin party ranks. Who, or what, maintains this level of control, this force of will, where everyone keeps schtum, always?

You can’t see, for instance, “the old Provos” needing to get too involved in Ó Broin’s proposals for solving the housing crisis. But logic and suspicion certainly apply for something like a border unity poll.

In August 2018, Mary Lou said this question should be put to one side, until the “dangers” posed by Brexit were sorted.

However, a day later, in what was seen as a dizzying U-turn, she said that if there were to be a hard Brexit the following year, there would have to be a border poll.

Then, there are questions about the role of the party’s ard chomhairle, to which Mary Lou and all Sinn Féin candidates sign a pledge to be guided by its instructions.

These queries follow on from the revelations that arose from the North’s cash-for-ash inquiry, where SF minister for finance, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, via email, sought clearance from an unelected party member to sign off on a particular element of the heating scheme.

Clearly, Peader Tòibìn, the leader of Aontù, has his own beef with Sinn Féin, his former party, not least in that he has set up his own organisation in opposition.

It is also true that backbench TDs of all political parties complain that they are only “lobby fodder”. They grumble that they have no power, are told what to do, and told how to vote by unelected officials in the inner circle of their political leader.

But if those backbenchers were in Sinn Féin, I suspect these deputies would truly know the meaning of toeing the line.

Tóibín paints a convincing picture of a lack of proper discussion in Sinn Féin on policies, and of decisions being made by a tight group of unelected officials, with the decisions then “handed down”.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been failing to convince people that they can tackle the issues facing the country, particularly on health and housing.

Voters are seriously looking elsewhere. The lure of Sinn Féin is understandable.

But as things stand, the “buyer beware” principle should be to the forefront of their considerations, when they go to cast their votes on Saturday week.

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